“Endgame” (season 2, episode 21; originally aired 5/4/2003)
In which Will regrets ever meeting Sydney Bristow…
It seems like just the other day we were starting along this Alias journey. And yet here we are, at the end of the second season already. Given how fast this show moves, however, it does feel as if we’ve covered more narrative ground than another show might cover in six. Just think back to the first episode of this season, and where things stood. Now, look at all the players on the same stage. It’s incredible to think about all that’s transpired in this season, and it’s an achievement not even this show could ever replicate. If there’s a modern-day equivalent of this time of twist-filled narrative density, it’s The Vampire Diaries. But that’s the exception that proves this rule: Few shows could ever pack in as much per installment as Alias in its prime.
As is befitting the penultimate episode of a television season, a lot of things start going very wrong very fast for Alias’ major players in “Second Double.” Primarily, things go absolutely horribly for Will Tippin, who once again finds himself in dire straits during Spring sweeps period. Last year, he got kidnapped and subjected to some unwanted dental surgery in Taipei. Here? He’s put through some intense hypnotherapy, A Clockwork Orange-style, in order to place blame on the CIA leak fully on himself. It’s creepy enough that Faux Francie has been coercing him to do her bidding since “Phase One.” But ensuring that he can’t remember personal details about his life? That’s some diabolical stuff right there. She also uses a laser to create proteins on his pupils. The combined result? He seems like a double, thanks to the CIA ocular scan, and he can’t verify any personal details that only he would know.
What makes this work isn’t just the smart spy plotting involved in framing Will in an effective manner. Rather, it’s the personal stakes for Syd, Will, and Dixon that really make the first half of this episode pop. Will’s frustration at not being able to remember how he and Syd first kissed is as palpable as Syd’s sinking feeling that her friend is actually dead. But it’s Dixon that really drives things home, interrogating the man he deems responsible for the death of his wife. After all, not only did Faux Francie mindfuck Will, she also put his prints on Dixon’s car the night she planted the bomb. She also tossed some gene-therapy medication in his car to sweeten the frame job. She’s mighty thorough.
Syd correctly notes such overkill screams out “setup”, but once you realize this episode takes place 18 months after 9/11, some of the urgency inside the CIA starts to make sense. The show rarely alludes to that event, but it contextualizes a lot of the witch hunt aspects that ensue once Will has been identified as a possible double. The idea that the person with whom you work isn’t who you think he/she is is a staple of the spy genre. Alias went and literalized that conceit through the use of the doubling technology. It’s not just that there could be a mole with a hidden agenda: There could be a mole with a hidden biology. Again: Alias didn’t directly draw a parallel between real-world events and those on the show, but it’s impossible to dismiss the cultural energy at work in this episode between the two.
In order to clear Will’s name, Syd and Vaughn go to a fetish club in Berlin to find the inventor of the computer used in Project Helix. Sure, it’s an excuse to put Jennifer Garner in rubber. But it also allows for some much needed humor in the hour. Garner and Michael Vartan have great fun in blackmailing Hans Jürgens, who gives up knowledge of a server farm that Renko Markovic needed to use while converting the Patient One’s gene profile. While Syd looks for this farm, Faux Francie feeds information back to Sark. Realizing that any “unrestricted” interrogation of Will could lead directly back to them, Sark orders an his extraction en route to Camp Harris. The plan goes awry when Will takes matters into his own hands during the firefight, eventually fleeing into the woods with a shotgun in hand. He eventually calls Syd, and delivers a devastating assessment of their relationship: “Syd, I love you. But I can’t trust you. Not anymore. Meeting you destroyed my life. You want to help me? Prove I’m innocent.”
Proving his innocence means going to a data farm in Marseilles, which Will discovered during his time as an analyst. Unfortunately, Faux Francie overhears Syd’s discussion with Sark, which means Irina beats everyone to the facility. She tasers Syd inside the main control room and uses the facility’s kill switch to erase any proof of Will’s innocence. But there’s a catch: She’s offloaded the proof to a remote facility. If Syd helps Irina obtain the di Regno, currently under new lock-and-key protocols, then she’ll get the proof she needs. But hey, he’s safely hidden now, so it doesn’t matter. Oh wait, no, he calls Faux Francie, the only person in the world he trusts right now. Ruh row.
Since approximately 47 huge things happen in the season finale, let’s just dig into it, shall we? We shall.
“The Telling” (season 2, episode 22; originally aired 5/4/2003)
In which coffee ice cream reveals the truth of things…
There have been episodes along this journey that have felt, quite frankly, like they would never end. They weren’t bad, per se, but I could feel the length of the episode at all times as the weekly installment went through its paces. With “The Telling,” I had the same feeling I did back in “Phase One”. It was a feeling of floating effortlessly along the most entertaining breeze possible. One can argue the relative merits (and even involvement) of J.J. Abrams’ television output after the second season of Alias. But just as The Who’s legacy was cemented just by penning “My Generation,” so to is Abrams’ with this season-long journey.
In some ways, “The Telling” plays a lot like Abrams’ Star Trek. The entire hour consists of our heroes being one step behind the antagonists, following them in vain as they struggle to keep up with new information, new betrayals, and a new Rambaldi world order. Leading the confusing charge is Irina Derevko, who supplies Sydney with DNA evidence to clear Will in exchange for a promise to raid Sloane’s warehouse and the 46 Rambaldi devices within. After pinning Syd down on the very ice where she and Vaughn were just having a date, Irina unveils her season-long arc to infiltrate the CIA and obtain the 23 devices in their possession. That leaves only the 47th piece in play: the di Regno heart. As Syd raids the warehouse, Jack leads a team to transport the heart. Unfortunately, it’s all a trap, giving Sloane both the heart and Spy Daddy in the process.
As The CIA tries to pick up the pieces, a newly freed Will helps Weiss uncover the name of the DNA profile supplied by Derevko. The name on that file? A.G. Doren, a name familiar to Will thanks to his research into Project Christmas earlier in the season. She’s the double behind Faux Francie, a former sweetie of Sark’s, and desperate for extraction. But, since this is Alias, there are complications. For one thing, extracting her immediately after Will’s clearance would pin the blame squarely on her. For another thing, she’s suffering fevers something fierce from the procedure, and needs Provacilium on a frequent basis. For yet another thing, she may be trapped in Francie’s form forever. And finally? She might actually have a crush on Will, because it’s literally impossible to go undercover in the world of Alias without someone getting emotionally fucked up in the process.
Irina calls Syd to apologize for the earlier clusterfuck, asserting that a newly zen Sloane must have figured out her plan. Another loaded mother/daughter discussion sends Syd and Vaughn to Sweden, where they continue making plans for a long-overdue vacation in between rounds of beating the snot out of Sark. Sark is a mastermind, but sort of a huge wuss as well. He instantly gives himself up, as well as giving up the location of Sloane and Jack down in Mexico City. As Syd and Vaughn walk through the building in their best Matrix fashions, Sark guides them through the security system inside The Only Holding Cell That The CIA Apparently Maintains. They rescue Jack, but not before Sloane and his compatriots activate a fully assembled Rambaldi device known as “The Telling.” And what did The Telling tell Sloane? Well, that would be telling. And this episode isn’t interested in giving up that information. It merely has Irina set up the main thrust of events to come: Sloane believes that he has been chosen by Rambaldi to reveal his works to the world, but Irina believes that Syd has been chosen by Rambaldi to stop him. Game on, y’all.
With that out of the way, the episode deploys a final 15 minutes during which it’s easy to forget to breathe. Scene after scene are brutal payoffs on both a physical and emotional level to some season- and series-long arcs. Will discovers Allison’s true identity, but nearly too late: She overpowers him and seemingly kills him, promptly sobbing after the apparent homicide. But before his death, Will left a voicemail for Syd which helps her give a key test to Allison: A spoonful of coffee ice cream. Still scarred from her fight with Will, Allison temporarily forgets that Francie hated coffee ice cream. Uh oh. It’s on like Donkey Kong, Kim Jong-il, and to Wong Foo…thanks for everything! What follows is a fantastically choreographed fight that isn’t just the best throwdown involving two females in television history, but straight up one of the best fights between any two characters in television history. Every move matters, every single beat plays out logically from the last one, and ends in a way where Syd’s victory is the very definition of Pyrrhic. Not only does she realize that her best friend has been dead for a long time, but she drifts into a deep sleep… and wakes up not in her apartment, or in a hospital, but in Hong Kong.
If you don’t know what’s coming, it’s easy enough to be as scared and confused as Sydney. If you do know what’s coming, it plays out like a fucking horror show. Every moment between Syd and Vaughn over the past two years led them to booking a three-day vacation in Santa Barbara. “That was the best phone call I ever made,” Vaughn told her, just before her fight with Allison. The way in which both Kendall, the owner of the local safehouse, and Vaughn all withhold information from Syd builds to an almost unbearable climax. Finally, Vaughn (with a mysterious ring on his finger) drops the bomb: Between the time Syd killed Allison and now, nearly two years have passed. What was a blink of an eye to her has been nearly 24 months for those that long believed her dead. Incredible.
- And thus, we conclude the second season of Alias, and perhaps conclude the coverage of the show here at The A.V. Club. Perhaps, if there’s significant interest, and if the show ever lands on Netflix or an equally easy-to-access medium, we’ll continue these in the future. In many ways, we’ve done the easy part. Where things go from here doesn’t exactly live up to the standards of the first two (nearly perfect) years. But figuring out ways in which shows can fail is often as illuminating (if not more) as when they succeed. I’d love to give you a definitive answer either way… but that would be telling. In any case, I’ve mightily enjoyed reliving these episodes with you all, and I hope you have enjoyed the trip through the first two years of one of the seminal shows of the modern television era.