"The Box, Part 1 and Part 2" (season 1, episodes 12 and 13; originally aired 1/20/2002 and 2/10/2002)
“Want to see what’s inside? I know you do. I’ll open it. You want me to?”
McKenas Cole (memorably played by Quentin Tarantino) speaks these lines to Arvin Sloane around the midpoint of the two-parter “The Box.” “The Box” is generally considered a high point of Alias, and for good reason: its title speaks to one of the central storytelling concepts in J.J. Abrams’ arsenal. While Abrams did not specifically write these two hours (credit here goes to Jesse Alexander and John Eisendrath), his fingerprints are nevertheless all over the place in these episodes. Just look at the above quote. It’s as succinct as summary to how he works as anything ever written. His work is an invitation, but it’s also a dare. It’s a welcome and a warning. It lets you know something is present, yet out of sight. But it also advises that leaving it that way might ultimately be best. To see those fingerprints are to see the way in which both Abrams and Alias work as a whole.
For those looking for a traditional recap of the action: well, there's not much "there" there this time around. A former SD-6 freelancer (Cole) infiltrates the facility with a crew in order to obtain a Rambaldi artifact from the vault. After unsuccessfully trying to obtain the vault code from Sloane via torture, Cole manages to obtain the device through brute electronic force. However, Syd, Jack, and a sprung-into-action-against-CIA-rules Vaughn manage to both stop SD-6 from exploding (Sloane's failsafe meant 500 pounds of C4 hidden throughout SD-6 would detonae if anyone accessed the vault) and Cole from making out with the artifact. That doesn't sound like much for a two-part episode. But I've only told you what happened. Now onto what it all means.
To look at that meaning, we have to jump ahead 5 years after “The Box” initially aired, and watch a talk that Abrams gave at TED concerning Tannen’s Mystery Magic Box. It’s a box that he bought with his grandfather as a child, and yet has never opened. To him, it’s not only a piece of nostalgia, but also something that represents, in his own words, “infinite possibility.” It’s something I thought a lot about while watching this week’s double-dose of Alias not just because both deal with a box that is rife with mystery. But I also thought about it a lot in terms of the ways that serialized narratives constantly seek to find new space within seemingly contained narrative parameters.
In “The Box,” this approach takes on two forms. Firstly, what seems like a “Die Hard”-inspired bottle episode is anything but. Explaining what a bottle episode is here at TV Club Classic may seem redundant. But explaining how it breaks the mold is not. Ostensibly, the show takes place by and large within previously defined, confined spaces. With the exception of Will’s storyline, nearly all the action takes place inside the CIA or SD-6. We’ve been to both of these places before. But “The Box” actually shows us a whole new side of SD-6. Literally. Cole’s crew infiltrates through the HVAC system, and what unfolds is an entirely new perspective on the edifice. Whereas we’ve only seen the bullpen, Sloane’s tastefully minimalist office, and a few other choice locales previously, “The Box” opens up the space as a labyrinth to match something designed by Daedalus. What was ostensibly a small series of boxed rooms turns out to be a little like the TARDIS: bigger on the inside than seemingly possible.
If “The Box” did just that, it would still be a great episode. It’s a taut, streamlined duet of episodes that has a singular focus that seems rather self-contained. But here’s where the true genius of these two hour lies: it’s a stealth mythology episode, introducing new elements both on the sly and yet directly in front of our faces. Abrams’ TED talk speaks to how the sleight of hand involved in magic translated into his techniques for storytelling. It’s fun to look at John McTiernan’s name written on the side of a repair van and marvel at one’s ability to connect that and other sly references to the aforementioned Die Hard franchise. But those Easter eggs sit in plain sight to distract from other elements introduced right under our noses.
If you’re a newbie to the series, skip the next paragraph. Normally I save this stuff for the bullets at the end of the hour, but it’s crucial in this case to point out what the show is doing for those that have seen it all the way through originally. Seriously, skip it if you don’t want to be spoiled.
The episodes’ biggest ace in the hole, ironically, is the addition of Steven Haladki. He’s an annoying douche of a character, introduced seemingly just to have someone bust Vaughn’s balls. And newbie eyes watching this hour probably wish they were blind each time he pops up to be a fly in the overall ointment. But as “The Man” gets first mention inside the show, and Will’s investigation takes ever darker turns, it’s worth it to note that Alias chose this point in the story to introduce him. It’s a proper time to deploy him because the focus is so heavily based on the stunt casting of Tarantino, the introduction of a new group even more dangerous than K-Directorate, and a storyline that focuses entirely on the backstory of SD-6 as a whole. What seems like a character designed to be a human narrative obstacle actually has very good reason to do every single thing he does. That it seems to be consistent based on later events proves just how smart a move it was for Alias to introduce him at this time.
Aaaand we're back.
As for the titular box itself, well, that demonstrates just how powerful the unopened Tannen’s Mystery Magic Box truly is. It’s not to say that the “Needles of Fire” used to torture Sloane are a bust. But they represent what’s often the death-knell to mystery/mythology shows: a specific answer that negates audience interaction the moment it exists. Now, the questions I’m talking about here have a finite range, to be certain. But that doesn’t mean that range is small. It’s fitting that Jack Bender helmed these two episodes, since he later went on to film the similarly dark, dank, yet wonderfully unfolding Swan hatch in Season 2 of Lost. (Hell, Bender’s own artwork hung in its hallways, for crying out loud.) Seeing what was down the dynamited hole satisfied audience curiosity, to be sure. But it also meant that a range of previously plausible theories were boiled down to one, immutable piece of fact. It’s not trivial, but in some ways it does turn the fantastical into mere trivia.
Now, not every answer need limit audience imagination, nor color in edges of the unknowable narrative box past the point of interest. Cole’s overall mission for The Man involves the recovery of a Rambaldi device inside SD-6’s vault. So, Alias trades one box full of needles for a smaller box containing what looks like perfume. (Eau de Rambaldi gets ALL the ladies in the club.) Similarly, Vaughn learning the true identity of his father’s killer provides an answer but doesn’t provide closure. And each piece that Will learns about David McNeil’s situation only leads to more questions. When Alias, and Abrams, work flawlessly, they create as many questions as they solve. When there’s an imbalance in that equation, well, people tend to want to throw things at their own box: their TV sets.
Perhaps the ultimate box of these two hours is the one each primary character finds him- or herself unable to escape. That, of course, takes a literal form as Cole’s Crew subdues everyone inside SD-6 and holds them hostage. But Syd is as much a hostage inside her double life. So too is Vaughn, caught between his patriotic duty and his feelings for Syd. So too is Will, realizing the danger he is in but unable to not follow the story down a rabbit hole that will probably end in pain. So too is Spy Daddy, whose unresolved feelings towards his ex-wife have far from ended with Syd realizing the truth about her true nature. Having those boxes fully intact and omnipresent ensure that the show’s central tension stays in place. That the show couldn’t always do so is a discussion for another time. But that they did so for so long is something to presently celebrate.
- Signs I’m Old, Vol. 47: So I started to do my research on when Tarantino’s appearance fell in with his overall career, realized that this episode aired 8 years after “Pulp Fiction,” realized this episode itself is over 9 years old, and promptly changed my adult diaper. My God.
- As far as Tarantino’s performance goes: aside from when he’s running (which is unintentionally the funniest moment of television of 2002), he does a perfectly fine job reciting lines that are clearly meant to sound like something he would write himself. It rarely reaches that high level, although his speech about regretting having been born sounds like a Tarantino rewrite to these ears.
- The slight smile both Jennifer Garner and Michael Vartan give each other regarding the possibility of going out on a date together betrays their real-life chemistry at this point in time more than any other moment in the show to date.
- That Cole didn’t know about the C4 failsafe isn’t that surprising. That Sloane wouldn’t tip them off is, until you realize that he’d rather die than have anyone else solve the Rambaldi puzzle.
- Also interesting about Cole’s lack of knowledge: it took being tortured by Russians to realize that he was freelancing for someone other than SD-6. Boy, imagine what might happen if certain beloved characters find out they are working for the bad guys?
- Speaking of those beloved characters, poor Dixon and Marshall. They are part of the reason why Syd and Jack just don’t let the whole organization burn to the ground. But they go through a lot of pain under a whole lot of pretense in this hour. (That’s what they get for being better at interpreting Morse code than Syd did in Cuba.) Marshall buying time for Syd to extract the scrambler was his bravest moment to date, plus he recognized a nearby explosive on the ground just before Cole’s men filled S-6’s employees with bullets. His actions earned him his pun-filled line about Sloane’s finger at the end.
- Speaking of Sloane and his missing digit: I get sick of constantly praising Ron Rifkin, but Lord he does so much with so little. Largely strapped to a chair the entire time, he betrays how much pain he experiences without ever screaming. EVEN WHEN JACK CUTS HIS GODDAMN FINGER OFF. All of his pain notwithstanding, he still manages to get inside Cole’s head repeatedly. At this stage of the game, Sloane is Lex Luthor levels of all-time baddies.
- Fun Connections to Other Shows: Vaughn’s CIA shrink Judy Barnett is played by Patricia Wettig, TV wife to Alias director/actor Ken Olin on Thirtysomething.
- This Week in Bender Goodness: Not only does he get an in-episode name check as a duty officer, he devised that insanely sweet Hour 1-ending shot of Syd hanging just below the air duct’s fan. That’s some good shootin’ there, Bender.
- Vaughn goes from behind-the-scenes guy to kick-ass field agent this hour in a big way. Not only does Vaughn take out Cole’s watch guard, he also deduces how to disarm the C4 rigged to explode if the vault is cracked. Plus, he almost punches Haladki, and I’m a sucker for anyone who threatens violence upon that weasel.
- The twist involving the undercover S.I.S. agent doesn’t amount to much, except to give context to a larger search for The Man so it doesn’t seem like Alias is completely pulling this new big bad out of their ass.
- If those dates atop this review seem odd, they certainly are. But they are correct. In the start of 2002, Alias aired "The Confession" on January 6th, "The Box, Part 1" on the 20th, "The Box Part II" on February 10th, and the next episode "The Coup" two weeks after that on the 24th. That must have been super awesome to experience in real time.
- Next week: "The Coup" and "Page 47." One word: Sark.
- For all the tension involved, this is one of the funnier sections in the show’s history. The following list of quotes should attest to that.
- “I need someone in my life to be real.”
- “Sloane answers to people. People who don’t know or care about you.”
- “I like thick crust, in case you wanted me to come.”
- “The advantages of high-level clearance. Let’s go.”
- “You will learn about The Man. What The Man wants is a little sumthin’ sumthin’ you got in the SD-6 vault.”
- “I can’t believe, of all things, we’re saving SD-6.”
- “Trust me when I tell you, you don’t not want me to open this box.”
- “Like you would know anything about being emotionally attached to a woman.”
- “I can’t be the first person having difficulty taking you seriously, can I?”
- “Have you ever regretted being born? That’s a pretty heavy thing to experience. Regret having emerged from your mother’s womb? I mean, I’ve had some dark days but nothing close to regretting the day I was born. Until I met ‘Needles of Fire.’”
- “You OK?” “Except for my head injury, yeah.”
- “You led them to slaughter.”
- “If I’m not back in a couple of hours, I’m probably dead.” “Good to know.”
- “Extraction Teams R Us!”
- “I’m disappointed!”
- “I feel like a mom at the mall.”
- “Does anyone ever learn things in seminars?”
- “Dear person beating up my men…I am currently standing in Sloane’s tastefully minimalist office.”
- “I don’t know I…I just thought you’d be an ugly guy.”
- “I thought I looked like Gabe Kaplan.” “Who’s that?” “Doesn’t matter.”
- “I can see not wanting to kiss you.”
- “They broke you, didn’t they? They made you beg. You wept like a baby!”
- “You could take my fingerprint.”
- “Hey, Sloane gave me the finger.”