"So It Begins" (season 1, episode 2; originally aired 10/7/2001)
The title “So It Begins” hints at the way in which this second installment of the show is almost another pilot of the show. While the actual pilot, “Truth Be Told,” was designed to keep both audience and Sydney Bristow off balance throughout the duration, “Begins” sets out to lay the groundwork of what a typical episode of Alias would actually look like. There’s a lot of handholding in these early episodes, but that’s not necessarily a fault: what seems like old hat to veteran viewers will still require some training for those still trying to figure out how the various pieces of this sprawling show.
How sprawling? Glad you asked! Luckily, Michael Vaughn has a handy visual to show you during the early proceedings in this hour. His initial meeting with Syd inside the blood drive van establishes the scope of Syd’s impending work without the need for over-exposition. “This is not about cutting off an arm of the monster. This is about killing the monster,” he tells her. Simple, succinct, effective. But it’s not just the speed and clarity that’s clever here: there’s also a quick upending of Syd in this scene that manages to not undercut her character but rather deepen it.
We’ve seen already, through her grief over Danny’s death and warm relationship with people her “normal” life, that she’s not some robot without emotion. But we also see in this scene with Vaughn how her temperature rises when she feels she’s not being taken seriously as a female agent. (Next episode sheds some light on how a more “typical” male superior officer has treated her in the past.) Vaughn, just like the show itself, obviously takes Sydney quite seriously as every bit as capable as a male spy. But both Vaughn and the show simultaneously refuse to put her on a pedestal. Syd isn’t past making mistakes, either in her personal or professional life.
It’s an important note to strike in these early proceedings, because it lends an air of unpredictability and tension to nearly every single scene that she’s in. If she were a one-woman wrecking ball, able to effortlessly fool friend and foe before unleashing a can of whup-ass without breaking a sweat…well, Alias would be an insanely boring show. But it’s in the small moments of struggle–either in overcoming a foe or overcoming the desire to break into tears upon hearing about Danny’s ticket to Singapore–that make Syd such a compelling protagonist.
In terms of plot: as mentioned earlier, “So It Begins” sets the template that so many episodes later follow. Sloane tasks Sydney to perform a mission, the CIA institutes a countermission, and Sydney tries to not die in the process. This episode’s task centers around the procurement of supposedly outdated Cold War intelligence that in fact contains the location of a nuclear weapon on American soil. As is the show’s wont, it’s a complicated, mutli-step process. The mission leads Syd (with Dixon) to Moscow to obtain the data (while wearing the tightest rubber dress ever devised by Man, naturally), to an incredibly tense double-drop in LAX with the CIA in order to copy said data, to an irradiated cemetery plot in Virginia to obtain the bomb ID’ed in that data, and then to Cairo to retrieve it after she’s forced to call Marshall to help her defuse the suddenly active device.
That’s a lot of plot, but the show also has enough time to slow down enough to give Syd good moments with both Jack and Will. While it’s still a long while until she can trust him fully, learning that her father tried to help Danny escape goes a long way towards melting the ice between the pair. As for Will: his desire to find Danny’s killer is partially motivated by his journalistic impulses, partially motivated by his desire to solve his friend’s murder, and partially motivated by his desire to make eleven babies with Syd. What’s great, if sometimes infuriating, about Will is that all of those motivations can be competing in the same scene. Still, his desire to stop hurting Syd by constantly updating her on his investigation certainly seems genuine, which gives his character much more leeway to veer off-course occasionally. And Lord, will that frosted-tipped dude VEER in this coming season.
As far as the CIA stuff goes: we only got five minutes worth of screen time with Vaughn in the first episode, and I’m not sure Erik Weiss even got a line in the pilot. So clearly the show needed to get some time with them in order to flesh out this aspect of the show. Vaughn’s overoptimistic attitude toward the agency’s newest double agent in this episode still rings a bit off, as it feels like he’s speaking lines written for his character as opposed to words that character would actually say. The show’s clearly laying pipe here for a “more than friends” situation between the two (as evidence by Weiss’ casual-yet-pointed mention of Vaughn’s girlfriend), and those latent feelings are already making Vaughn defend her more than he should. Still, despite how much fun it is to see the show take off like a narrative rocket, this might have been one aspect that could have used more patience.
The episode ends on a cliffhanger. An actual cliffhanger. Lately, a lot of shows are flooded with final scenes that we mistakenly call “cliffhangers” but really are simply the show finally moving after an hour of stasis. Far too many shows keep their narrative in neutral until the final act, decide to kick into gear just before credits, and call THAT a cliffhanger. That’s not what Alias does, at least in the early proceedings. This is a genuine “holy shit, how is she going to get out of THAT?” moment that has people begging to see the next episode. And luckily, we don’t have to wait one week to see what happens. We just need to get to the second half of this week’s review.
TECHNOLOGY! ‘Tis a good thing.
"Parity" (season 1, episode 3; originally aired 10/14/2001)
One of the personal pleasures of rewatching this series in the decade after it initially aired is the continual stream of “oh right, THIS is when THAT first gets revealed!” moments that are constantly unfolding. This one has some heavy hitters I forgot got introduced so early. Milo Rambaldi! K-Directorate! Anna Espinosa! “Parity” perhaps doesn’t have the top-to-bottom awesomeness of the first two episodes for newbies, but for veterans this felt like a 47th reunion party.
Action-wise, the episode picks up right after the previous cliffhanger. Syd manages a little Cirque du Soleil ninja action via throwing up a plutonium core to distract Hassan long enough to depose of him. Her escape with the core is doubled with her sweet-talking a professor upon her return, which allows for nice doublespeak (“You’re dropping the ball!”) as well as a reminder of the graduate school aspect of Syd’s life. It’s still early in the series, so each episode early on essentially repeats the premise of her life to varying degrees of success. (More on this later.)
It’s when she returns to Los Angeles that the show returns to the pilot, revealing that the Mueller device is a misnomer: it actually was designed by a 15th-century man named Milo Rambaldi. I remember first hearing Sloane’s monologue about this cell-phone designing prophet and grinning like a mad man back in 2001. It was like the show was already an amazing barbeque, full of delicious meats, and THEN I realized there was a craft beer tent there as well. Rambaldi will be a key figure going forth, both in terms of his relationship to the narrative of the show but also to the way in which Alias itself wrestled with his involvement in the overall story.
For now, let’s focus on his relationship to this week’s plot: Sloane has a Rambaldi sketch, on the back of which is one-half of what looks like machine code. He wants Syd and Dixon to retrieve the other half from a man in Spain, but there’s a problem: K-Directorate, a Russian-based group antagonistic to both SD-6 and the CIA. K- Directorate isn’t part of the Alliance of 12. It’s possible they are in the Evil League of Evil, but Bad Horse’s PR people would neither confirm nor deny that upon my inquiries for this review. In any case, pitting SD-6 versus K- Directorate also pits Syd against one of her great nemeses, Anna.
Anna, played by nerd-goddess and all-around goddess Gina Torres, is Syd + 1 in many respects. She’s just a little bit smarter, a little savvier, and a little more lethal. In just a few broad strokes, the show indicates the cat-and-mouse game that will go down in Spain, and Lord, it’s a freakin’ doozy. It’s the type of action sequence that goes on…and on…and yet never bores. Watching the action move from a cocktail party into the airducts into a vast warehouse into the alley outside of the building is to see as masterful an action sequence as you’ll ever seen. It’s crisply delineated, contains its own self-contained story, and has a fantastic payoff with Syd shooting Anna’s bag just before she reaches the rooftop.
That action leads to a problem: SD-6 has the box; K- Directorate has the key to it. Jack, the in-house game theory expert (meaning he’ll beat yo’ ass in Yahtzee, or simply beat yo’ ass with the cylinder used to roll dice in Yahtzee) suggests a “symmetric solution” in which Anna and Syd meet under the cover of two dozen snipers in a Berlin soccer stadium to open the box together. Anna tries to goad Syd into snapping, using Danny’s death as ammo. It’s great to see Jennifer Garner’s eyebrows once again convey the depth of emotions that her voice simply can’t. Last episode they conveyed the sudden understanding that accompanied news of Danny’s scheduled flight to Singapore. Here, it’s more of an “I’mma gonna cut you one day, bitch.” Still, an Emmy for Garner’s eyebrows, anyone? The two open the box, and…well, we’ll just have to find out whatever scares the hell out of both of them until next week.
With all this going on in the field, there’s plenty of turmoil on the homefront as well. Syd continues to push her father about mysteries to her past, especially surrounding her mother. Jack is still largely a wild card at this point for newbies, but undoubtedly his actions surrounding Danny’s ticket earned him points for both the audience and Syd. So it makes his apparent lie about Syd’s mother all the more alarming. Is he lying to Syd? To Sloane? To himself? It’s impossible for newbies to figure it out now, but I welcome veterans to discuss good ol’ Mom in marked spoiler threads below.
With Will, there’s equal, if more melodramatic, drama/trauma going on as well. He may have told Syd last time out that he won’t bring up Danny’s murder again, but that doesn’t mean he’s given up the investigation. He might have a poker face when it comes to playing cards, but he shows a surprising amount of skill in covering up his investigation surrounding the traffic cameras that mysteriously turned off for a mile radius around Danny’s house on the night of the murder. Still, Syd probably had too little time to investigate Will’s p-p-p-poker face, thanks to some tequila, some spilled ice cream, and an ill-advised smooch that 1) indicates how lost Syd is in her personal life, and 2) how much Will’s investigation is about his feelings for her more than an innate search for justice. But hey, Ryan Adams + alcohol = make-outs. That’s like, a rule or something.
After all, you can’t fight fate. Especially if it’s written in machine code on the back of a 500-year old sketch. Or can you? Whoops, getting ahead of myself.
- If ABC aired “So It Begins” in this day and age, every notation of Vaughn’s map would have been wiki-fied by the following morning.
- Marshall’s sweet condolences to Syd over Danny’s death and Dixon’s lament that the “bad guys” keep coming back really put her moral quandary into the forefront of this week. And if you think it’s bad now, well, just wait.
- Slusho (or, in this case, according the sign, Slush-O) makes its first appearance this week. It’s one of many elements that unites what I call “Earth-J.J.,” the universe of shows/films that he’s created over the years that share a remarkable number of similarities and overlaps. Among other places Slusho has appeared: Cloverfield, Star Trek, and even in the late, not-always/often great Heroes. That’s not a J.J. Abrams production, obviously, but does feature Greg Grunberg. So, close enough?
- Another first this week: the fly through of the names of locations. I thought about keeping track of each letter as these reviews continue, but even my OCD has limits.
- Sarah Shahi Alert! Yup, that’s her as Will’s 20-year old coworker, Jenny. Yup, she’ll be back.
- Milovich Ivanov was 47 years old when he died. Just noting.
- In terms of iconic undercover outfits, that blue rubber dress is up there. I mean, I’m trying to be professional and all, but dang.
- Thoughts upon rewatching Sloane talk about Rambaldi’s cell-phone design: me wondering if Milo and Pope Alexander VI had arguments about whether to sign The Vatican up for AT&T or Verizon.
- Notice how I didn’t mention Lambert in the review? Intentional! What a dick. He’s the prototype for possibly my least favorite Fringe character ever, Sanford Harris. Or, as I called him during his time in Season 1, “Agent Sexual Harassment.”
- As I mentioned in the review, Alias often repeated the premise in each early episode so newcomers could catch on. But Jesus, the way in which Syd literally repeats Sloane’s briefing into simple, declarative sentences during her note/voiceover is handholding at its worst. Just insulting, really. It’s exposition of exposition, and it happens in back-to-back scenes. Ugh.
- The one thing that truly makes Anna so awesome/badass in “Parity”: she barely speaks. She’s just a silent assassin of awesome. Less is often more, a lesson that almost no subsequent show of this ilk has learned.
- The poker scene between Syd, Will, Francie, and Charlie is a little anvilicious for my tastes, but does do a good job in showing how four friends are all able to keep juuuust a little bit away from each other. This may or may not become important later on. (Hint: it’s important.)
- I honestly can’t remember the payoff to this Charlie storyline, but since it’s boring me to death even now, I can’t imagine it’s going to end satisfactorily.
- As cool as most of Marshall’s gadgets are, his giddiness over a “remote modem” does date the show in ways that most of his stuff does not.
- While J.J. Abrams wrote the first two episodes of the series, “Parity” was written by Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci, the duo that later went on to help Abrams create Fringe and wrote the Star Trek film he directed.
- More fun production notes: Ken Olin, known best by many from his role on Thirtysomething, directed “So It Begins.” He went on to direct quite a few more episodes of the series.
- Next week: I’ll look at “A Broken Heart” and “Doppelgänger,” the fourth and fifth episodes in the first season of the show.
- “Yea, can you show me what a bag looks like again?”
- “Forgive me for being forthright, or…female. But this is how it’s gonna be.”
- “We kill ourselves to do the right thing, and meanwhile, the bad folks keep coming back.”
- “I lost my mind a little. I started imagining things.”
- “It wouldn’t hurt if you looked surprised when you left the office.”
- “You don’t take me seriously, do you?” “No, I don’t.”
- “Da Vinci meets Nostradamus. Personally, I don’t buy it.”
- “May I say something? Not just as a fellow officer, but a very smart man.”
- “I’ve got a query. Are you insane?”
- “I…love your spirit.” “That’s heartening.”
- “Don’t make me regret working for people in their fifties. Forties!”
- “Why would you be here in service of the men who killed your true love?”