"Spirit" (season 1, episode 10; originally aired 12/16/2001)
“Spirit” was the fall finale for Alias back in 2001, leaving audiences a few weeks to ponder its climatic cliffhanger. And while the show gives its usual exciting final moments, the rest of the episode is largely inert, save for some usual kick-assery from Sloane and Spy Daddy. For a show that as recently was as overly stuffed as “Time Will Tell,” its final offering before Christmas feels like a lot like revisiting old territory. Taking another look back from a new angle is always appreciated (and the show has some of this, to be sure), but much of the hour serves as a summation of what has happened to date without offering much in the way of how it could change.
Part of this may stem from the fact that Syd escaped the seemingly insurmountable odds stacked against her last week in roughly one act. Moreover, she doesn’t even actually free herself. Getting captured by SD-6 and subsequently imprisoned was a big step in the show’s overall story. Or, at least, it SHOULD have been. But while Alias has already shown a tendency to quickly resolve cliffhangers and move on to the next part of the story, I’m not sure keeping with that technique served the show well. On the one hand, had it been executed poorly, an hour devoted to the CIA and Jack Bristow saving Sydney could have felt dragged out if improperly executed. On the other hand, we barely had time to really worry about Syd’s fate when it unfolded over roughly 10 on-screen minutes.
Now, in either case, is anyone really worried about Syd’s death? Of course not. But such scenarios revolve less around a “will she or won’t she die?” question so much as how people such as her, Jack, Vaughn, Sloane, and others such as Marshall might react to such a scenario. Just because there’s no worry that Alias could pull a Game of Thrones here doesn’t mean there’s no tension of worthwhile exploration that can be milked. “Spirit” does deal with the fallout of Jack’s impromptu framing of high-ranking SD-6 official Anthony Russek but missed a chance to see just how far certain characters could have gone to save Syd’s life.
In any case, after her acquittal, it’s back to work for Syd, this time on the trail once again of Hassan. To find him, she goes to a private island near Kenya where a master forger has created new passports for SD-6’s once-prized contact. It’s mostly an excuse to put Jennifer Garner in as little clothing as possible. Which, honestly, is not the worst reason for a particular mission. But whereas former endeavors have seen her in slinky outfits, they are usually carried out in slicker, savvier scenarios. Here, she easily gets the mark’s room number, easily breaks in, and barely breaks a sweat fighting off his bodyguard to reveal that Hassan’s passport is not the only thing that is new. His face is as well, courtesy of the stand-in plastic surgery facility in the forger’s hotel room.
If there’s evidence of evolution, character-wise, it lies in the relationship between Vaughn and Jack. Until this point, Spy Daddy has essentially beaten down Vaughn verbally and tactically at every step. While Jack is briefed on a countermission to find Hassan (now Nebseni Saad) in Havana, Vaughn confronts Jack about altering Syd’s transmission from Geneva to frame Russek. In a fit of rage and arrogance, Jack does all but scream, “YOU’RE GODDAMNED RIGHT I DID!” to Vaughn’s “Code Red”-esque accusations. Turns out Vaughn had about as little proof as Tom Cruise’s lawyer did in A Few Good Men, which prompts Jack to eat a little humble pie but also makes him much more receptive to Vaughn’s position as handler. It’s a deft scene and one needed to turn Vaughn from simply “Sydney’s handler” to a person central and vital to the fight ahead.
Unfortunately, “Spirit” undoes a lot of the good work in that scene by having Vaughn confide to Syd that Jack got captured almost immediately upon arrival in Havana. That sets up one of the classic scenarios that angers me in television: the “everything would have been fine had Person X simply stayed put.” Lost used to pull this stunt all the freakin’ time, usually by having Kate Austen get captured by The Others at a critical point at which the Oceanic 815’ers might have gotten an upper hand. That Syd gets captured certainly creates a compelling, John Woo-esque scenario in which Spy Daddy has to shoot Syd to save his own life. But given how quickly this week’s cliffhanger got resolved, how much did Alias really expect us to worry about their fate in this situation?
Over in “Will Versus The Conspiracy,” he gets a slight break thanks to his tech friend filtering the microcassette to hear what appears to be Dixon (!) shooting Eloise Kurt after asking, “Did you tell him about SD-6?” Pre-Google, Will didn’t have an easy time looking up information on the group, save for one legal case involving a computer programmer. Seems SD-6 wanted to buy Davis McNeil’s software enough to kill his wife and put his child in the custody of a crooked lawyer, which convinced him to take a 16-year jail sentence rather than fight them anymore. McNeil (played by favorite Alias director Ken Olin) convinces Will more than ever that SD-6 is something to fear. Which, naturally, will totally stop Will from ever investigating them. Yeah, that’s about as likely as him never hooking up with poor Jenny again.
The most memorable moment of the episode has to go to Sloane’s insane monologue halfway through the hour. Jack seeks to console Sloane on his bad week (Russek’s apparent betrayal, Hassan’s double-crossing). This sparks a lengthy response in which Sloane justifies his current mood as one of constant preparation for a “darkness” on the edge of his horizon, even present from his start as a part of the actual government. He vaguely hints at a “perfect moment” early on before, in his eyes, the world started to betray him. First, his CIA colleagues apparently betrayed him, but more tellingly, his wife’s body started to betray her, leaving her with the lymphoma she now has. In Russek’s first appearance, the two talked briefly about each others’ wives. Sloane notes that his was “a bit under the weather,” which we now realize was his defense mechanism. This monologue both humanizes and complicates Sloane in wonderful ways. If this last stretch of the 2001 run did anything 100 percent right, it did so with taking Sloane from a generic baddie into a specific nemesis for the ages.
Were this 2001, we’d have to wait a few weeks to talk about the show’s return. But with TV Club Classic, we can do so right away! Let’s see how 2002 started for the show.
"The Confession" (season 1, episode 11; originally aired 1/16/2002)
See? Told ya! Everything’s fine. Nothing to worry about. What was several weeks for original viewers is just a few clicks of the DVD player for today’s observers. “The Confession” picks up right where we left off, with Spy Daddy pointing a gun at Sydney. Jack then has what looks likes like an episode but is actually Morse code giving his daughter instructions on a quick way to escape the situation. It’s a too-quick escape, really, but Alias is trying to use the start of its 2002 run to officially introduce a big piece of its emotional landscape in this hour. So getting out of Cuba ASAP is something with which we all have to live.
Often in these early reviews of Alias, I’ve talked about the concept of Earth-J.J., a world that contains the majority, if not all, of his fictional works. It’s a world based on our own but with slightly heightened aspects that suggest an interconnectedness between them. For instance, Vaughn at one point mentioned the Patriot Act in this hour to Hassan, which means we can assume the Twin Towers fell in this world, even if the show has never directly addressed it. But if the world of Alias contains the Twin Towers, then that means our world also contains Milo Rambaldi. Earth-J.J. isn’t one removed from our own; it’s the same world seen from a slightly different perspective. It’s a perspective that reveals infinitely more interesting aspects than we can normally see.
But Earth J.J. goes beyond related bits of mythology (Rambaldi, Dharma Initiative, Massive Dynamic) and beverages (Slusho). It also speaks to a world in which younger generations are often called upon to fix the mistakes made by those in the past. Much in the way that Sloane uses Rambaldi artifacts of the past as a codex to understand vast mysteries of his overall plan, it’s tempting to look at Alias as a way to decipher the recurring themes present in all of Abrams’ work. Plenty of shows mine drama from generational conflict. But Abrams’ speciality seems to be in designing scenarios in which children are called upon to 1) finish/fulfill obligations that their parents could not accomplish themselves, or 2) make up for the sins those parents committed.
Lost and Fringe are both rife with this generational strife. Broken down this way, there’s not a lot of difference between seemingly opposite figures as Jacob and Peter Bishop. It’s not that these children have knowledge intuitively and easily obtained to fix the mistakes of their elders. It’s that the previous generation either lacks the will, skill, or insight necessary in order to fix it themselves. Much of “The Confession” centers around the hour’s climatic twist, but the entire episode is based around clearing the table in order to establish two timeframes on which this show is occurring. In one, Alias takes place at the end of a 500-year historical cycle started by a philosopher/inventor/seer. That gives the show some sexy sci-fi mojo. In the other, Alias takes place at the end of 20+ year cycle in which the parents of both Syd and Vaughn are intricately enmeshed. That gives the show its beating heart.
“The Confession” brings both William Vaughn and Laura Bristow fully into the mix, which means that both Syd and Vaughn have a personal as well as professional stake in the proceedings from now on. Linking Vaughn into the family drama was a smart move on the show’s part, since they needed to move him from bland handler into a more integral, complicated part of the mix. In some ways, “Spirit” started this complication, with him actually outwitting Jack for the first time. But linking his father’s death to the takedown of SD-6 gives him a further edge as well. It makes him do things like secretly tape conversations with Sydney. Yes, he never releases the tape, but the act gives insight into a side of him that doesn’t exactly play by the rules when it comes to family.
While this episode nails the emotional stuff, it leaves something to be desired on the spy front. Maybe I’m just ready to dive headlong into the Rambaldi stuff again after getting such a satisfying hit of it back in “Time Will Tell,” but I am all Hassan-ed out at this point. SD-6’s attempts to follow his second-in-command (Minos Sakulos) after his apparent murder leads Syd and Dixon to a club in Greece, where girls in tight dresses dance on glass ceilings long before TMZ took crotch shots of celebs. Syd’s outfit is smokin’ hot, to be sure, but she and Dixon are almost too good at their jobs by this point. They slip in and out, and the worst thing that happens is Syd being licked by Hassan’s would-be heir.
Almost as if realizing this wasn’t enough spy stuff to fill an hour, Syd goes almost immediately back to Greece in order to obtain new tech designed by Hassan. The silo in question is a trap, which locks Syd inside with a roomful of gasoline and a spark just waiting to be lit. Hassan uses this trap to force Vaughn to obtain asylum for Hassan’s family. This is amusing for Weiss’ inability to type pardon letters under pressure. Also, the fireball that consumes Sakulos after a gasoline-soaked tussle with Syd is awfully pretty. But hopfully this is the swan song for what is an overused character at this point. I’m ready for bigger and better things. Luckily, the show’s about to deliver them in a two-part episode (“The Box”) that I will cover in full next week.
- Hard to believe Russek rose so high in SD-6 with such an obvious “tell” for his lying. I’m guessing Sloane kept him around to clean up in office poker tournaments.
- SD-6 Agent Steven Gordon gets introduced here as Director of Exposition. It’s my vague memory that he serves a similar purpose going forward, but I could be wrong about that.
- More and more, Alias is getting into non-linear storytelling in order to either keep things moving or simply misdirect the audience. To wit: nearly all of Marshall’s tech demos are shown as Syd uses them in the field. Also, we got at least two scenes involving Jack in which the action stops for us, only to allow the audience to see the rest later on. In the first case, it’s done to fool us. In the second, it’s done to fool Syd.
- Sloane reaching out his arms warmly to hug Syd is the absolute definition of creepy.
- If veterans have been waiting for Syd to start defending her parents in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, then “The Confession” was the episode for you.
- Love Sloane casually lying to his team about the nature of Hassan’s death. He’s such a cold mofo.
- 2002 brought the return of Marshall’s Awkward Monologues During Briefing Sessions. This is not progress.
- No Francie in “The Confession” and only a scant scene involving Will. No progress on his investigation, but plenty of progress in being the guy that Syd turns to when she’s emotionally destroyed, only to abandon for long stretches of time. In no way will this mess with his mind. Because guys LOVE it when girls do this to us. For realsies.
- I know that Alias constantly had to battle to get newbies into the fold, but man, this show lays on the exposition in the oddest places. Syd’s VO while handing Jack a note to create a countermission to get her into Crete was ridiculous. We already heard the plan with her and Vaughn. Handing over the note would have served the purpose in and of itself.
- “Yes. I think that she will respond.”
- “I’ve seen you in the office. I always wondered what you did. I guess this is what you do.”
- “Sydney, I never believed that you would betray us. When I found out it was Russek, I felt vindicated.”
- “If you don’t like it, well, don’t tell me.”
- “If you knew what I dealt with every day, you might even thank me for doing it so well.”
- “You are the man from Suite 47?”
- “It occurred to me as I walked down the White House steps that I was living in a perfect moment. Everything was filled with promise. My role in the CIA, my relationship with a wife that I had not yet met, still… I could feel the darkness coming... It wasn’t that my friends in the CIA had betrayed me. It wasn’t that my wife had been diagnosed with lymphoma. None of that had happened yet.”
- “I remind myself that I could see it coming all along.”
- “And now you can judge what I’ve done. I don’t give a damn what you do.”
- “She looked nice in your shirt.” “It’s a nice shirt!”
- “I was like, ‘Hard on your light?’ I was never good at Morse Code.”
- “Do you know how much this suit cost me?”
- “The extent to which I am willing to service you extends to offering you a soda.”
- “You’ll have to get closer.” “How much closer?” “In this lighting? How’s two inches?” “Greeeeaaaaat.”
- “He licked my face!”
- “I know this is a personal thing for you… but it’s a personal thing for me too, Sydney.”
- “Start typing!” “Me???”
- “You misspelled Ineni.” “Shut up.”
- Semi-spoilers for veterans: Syd at one point mentions “Suite 47,” which is certainly a curious number for her to conjure as part of her cover. Also, while we learned about Laura Bristow’s involvement this week, we still really haven’t learned a damn thing about her yet.