“The Counteragent” (season 2, episode 7; originally aired 11/17/2002)
In which Sark and Syd embark on their first mission together…
Now we’re getting into the truly great stuff here in the second season of Alias. Again, so much of my memory of this season is clouded, as if I’m looking back on it with my glasses off instead of on. I can make out fuzzy pockets of awesome all over the place, but I can’t contextualize much of it. So I really didn’t remember anything about “The Counteragent” other than “Syd finds a cure for Vaughn.” That’s the through line, and it’s an easy hook upon which to hang an episode of television. But there’s also a lot more going on under the hood, pushing various plots and more importantly characters into new territories. No other show could put its heroine into a hazmat suit and a geisha outfit in the same episode. But even fewer can make those things melt away in favor of emotional beats that push past its genre trappings into all-encompassing emotional moments.
So much of this episode hinges on the ways in which our heroes are both spies but also humans with connections that undermine vague concepts such as “protocol.” The hour is bookmarked by two scenes between Vaughn and Irina. Irina is now back in her Hannibal Lecter 3000 Cell thanks to Vaughn’s work with Sydney to help reveal Jack’s plan to frame his ex-wife. Sydney isn’t present in either scene between the pair, and yet she stands between them as much as the bulletproof glass that provides the actual physical barrier in that cell. Both utter the phrase, “I didn’t do it for you,” to each other, both referring to Sydney as the motivations of their actions. For Irina, at least at this point, Sydney is emotional leverage. But for Vaughn, Syd represents emotional weakness, an Achilles heel that compromises both of them.
Syd’s desire to find a cure for Vaughn’s Rambaldi-based illness proves this weakness. Thanks to her mother’s intel, she learns of a Sark-run facility in Paldiski, site of a former Soviet nuclear power plant. The antidote, concocted by Alexander Khasinau before his death, sits inside that facility. But once Syd infiltrates the facility, the CIA realizes that activating the device will trigger the central alarms. Kendall orders Syd to abort the mission, but she’s so focused on saving Vaughn (who, according to CIA doctors, has three days to live) that she goes ahead anyway. This triggers the alarm, which then triggers a kick-ass hazmat fight between Syd and a few goons, which then triggers Sark to turn on suit- and skin-melting liquids to rain down upon a trapped Syd. Sark's conditions? Work with him to kill Sloane, and Syd can keep the antidote.
It’s a brilliant, and brilliantly simple, way to construct a caper. The stakes and the objectives could not be clearer. It’s all well and good to build missions around obtaining zero-point energy in Rambaldi’s Fortress of Solitude. But it’s another to leverage personal stakes in order to heighten the nominally escapist escapades. It’s not just that Syd is going to do whatever is necessary to save Vaughn. That would be enough (if not more than enough) for most shows such as this. But what really complicates, and thus elevates, this hour is the way in which Syd almost wants to help Sark achieve his goals. She recognizes the moral hazards, but in some ways, both are after the same thing. Throw in the near-sexual thrill Sark gets in watching Sydney in action, and you have a veritable moral minefield. It’s something that Jack warns Sydney about before heading to Tokyo to intercept Sloane: While she’s killed in self-defense, she’s never participated in a premeditated ending of a human life.
So what happens? Sloane, who is under the gun from the Alliance thanks to Sydney essentially bogarting every mission he’s attempted since becoming partner, is in Tokyo in order to meet Christophe. Sloane is worried that his recent performance will be grounds for dismissal. And “dismissal” inside the Alliance isn’t exactly akin to a severance package from Lehman Brothers. It’s more a severing of your head from the rest of your body. In one of the more alarming scenes ever, Syd knocks out Arvin mid-massage inside a Kyoto spa. It’s alarming because ewww, wrinkly Sloane skin. Syd delivers him to Sark, only to be shocked when the following week the pair appear inside SD-6, announcing a new partnership that involves a combined effort to solve the Rambaldi puzzle and a piece of paper that… well, we don’t know what it says. Yet. I’ll wager within a few episodes we’ll know, however.
Nearly everything in this episode stemmed from one source, however: the feelings between Syd and Vaughn. Without that, Vaughn’s illness might have been seen as collateral damage, a way to examine the virus via autopsy. Both Syd’s initial desire to find the cure through her temporary partnership with Sark and Sloane’s sudden ascendance within the Alliance stem from that simple, central, emotional source. Vaughn’s ex-girlfriend Alice appears to temporarily throw a monkey wrench into their happiness, but given the way that he chases after Syd in the episode’s final seconds, it’s clear these two crazy kids are destined for some happy times ahead. Then? A hurricane of pain. But we’ll get to that in due time.
“Passage, Part 1” (season 2, episode 8; originally aired 12/1/2002)
In which Irina gets out of her cell and into Jack's head…
Huh. Remember how I started this off saying how fuzzy my memory was about this season? Somehow I remember “Passage, Part 1” as a hell of a lot better than it actually is. Which isn’t to say that it’s bad. But it’s certainly incomplete. Had the season broken down more conveniently, we could have tackled both parts of this single story in one entry. But know what? Now we have a cliffhanger of our own, with the Bristows in the field together heading toward a stronghold containing six nuclear warheads. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. So let’s go back in time, as the show will soon do in a narrative trick it pulls more and more often as the series progresses.
Sark’s insertion into SD-6 has the fun effect of reminding the existing audience, as well as any newcomers that might have popped in during the show’s second season, of the con Sloane is pulling on the majority of his employees. Dixon and Marshall are both against working with Sark, because they feel the CIA shouldn’t be in business with terrorists. And they would be right, if they were actually working for the CIA. Both of Syd’s close friends in SD-6 will learn the truth at some point in this run, which makes scenes such as the ones that open “Passage, Part 1” so painful upon rewatch. Also interesting? How much Sloane defends his underlings from Sark’s snark. Sloane’s a megalomaniac, but he also believes fervently in his purpose, and sees his unknowing employees as aides in a noble endeavor.
Of course, said endeavor also means brokering deals for the aforementioned nuclear warheads. Using Sark’s intel, Sloane sends Syd and Dixon into the field to obtain what they believe to be communication codes for the local military. Irina smells a rat, and rather than help upon hearing the mission, offers to go herself in order to thwart it. This leads to an amusing scene in which Syd and Vaughn try to convince Kendall to offer her a furlough, along with Jack using reverse psychology to ensure his ex-wife never leaves solitary.
All of that changes once all parties realize that the CIA has essentially given codes to a fringe group known as the People’s Revolutionary Front. As far as names in Alias go, the “People’s Revolutionary Front” doesn’t have the zing that groups such as The Alliance, The Syndicate, and The Triad have. But what they lack in catchy names they more than make up for in terms of a half-dozen active nuclear warheads held inside a base in Uzbekistan. Simply bombing the facility won’t work, since an airstrike might actually detonate one of the weapons So it’s up to a small commando force to infiltrate the border via luxury train and stop the group from launching the weapons. How small? Let’s try a family of three.
All of the joy in this episode stems from watching Irina worm her way into the field, and subsequently fuck with Jack’s mind from minute one. In order to keep tabs on her, Jack gives her a necklace laced with both a tracker and a whole lotta C4. Should she attempt to take the necklace off, BOOM GOES THE DYNAMITE. Should Jack think she’s up to anything shady, he’s got a remote trigger than will affect the same outcome. He puts it on her, only realizing mid-motion how much this resembles all the times he bought her jewelry during their marriage. It’s only the first of many moments which damage poor Jack’s calm during the op.
The op itself barely gets underway in this hour, as most of the episode is heavy lifting to get to (what I hazily recall as) the good stuff next week. There is the amazing scene in which we see the three Bristows in full, costumed glory, posing as a family to enter the train. Jack’s mustache alone should have won an Emmy (go ahead, scroll up to the top again and admire its magnificence), and Irina taking the time to plant her lips on Jack’s in front of the security guard is just fantastic. Throw in a scene later in which she casually undresses in front of him in order to get into mission gear, and you can already seen the wheels turning that will end with some serious hate sex between Jack and a certain someone in season three.
The People’s Revolutionary Front captures the trio almost immediately. But some non-verbal communication between Jack and Irina lead to her safely taking off the tracking necklace in order to cause a fiery distraction that lets all three unleash hell together for the first time. It’s not exactly as much fun as gathering around the fire making S’mores, but then again, that’s why they are the Bristows and we are not. In any case, the three soldier on to their destination, without transportation and without a chance that the three will be trusting each other during the rest of the mission. As they walk into the distance, we realize that while a lot has happened, the story has in many ways just begun. It’s a good taste of what’s to come, but it’s not terribly substantial. This was the Alias equivalent of tapas. A more substantial meal is on the way.
- Both episodes also laid in some new facts concerning Project: Christmas. It seems every standardized test given to first graders in 1982 has been wiped from existence, save one held by the creator of that test. Will eventually realizes that questions to help identify future spies were given to over 5 million children that year, and even identifies 40 specific kids who scored perfectly on that test. He does all this without FBI resources, which astounds Vaughn. The future’s so bright for Will, he’s gotta wear shades. For now.
- Will’s old-coworker Abby shows up in “The Counteragent” to help Will with his research into the standardized tests. No Sarah Shahi though, y’all. Sorry.
- Every time Lena Olin dances her fingers along the edge of her mouth, I feel all funny inside. This can’t be healthy.
- Not enough credit is given to the way Jennifer Garner grounds the crazy-go-nuts events in Syd’s life with her performance. The way in which she conveys pages of emotional exposition with just a single stare is consistently amazing.
- Also amazing: The scene in which Syd is stripped down and decontaminated could have been played as exploitative. Instead, we see a Syd who is both physically and emotionally naked. She’s incredibly vulnerable and humiliated at the same time, all while trying to keep those emotions in check.
- I don’t know what show would be more fun to watch: A sitcom in which Syd and Sark are forced to share an apartment due to economic constrictions, or one in which Jack and Irina have to stay together for the sake of their children.
- Nothing about the obtaining of the nuclear codes was particularly inspired, except the makeup job to make Syd look like a corpse to help her infiltrate a morgue. I’ll take the rubber blue dress over that any day, however.
- Irina’s movements have been so soft, and so precise, and so controlled, that it’s a total shock when she slams her hand violently against the glass in order to convince Syd to help her obtain a furlough.
- Emily’s ring finger arrives on Sloane’s desk in “Passage, Part 1,” which keeps that plot neck-and-neck with the standardized test plot in terms of “slowest burning stories ever.”
- Sydney acting like the parent to her childlike parents on the plane to New Delhi never ceases to amuse.
- This week in The Numbers: The code to break into the genome-based antidote machine is 2664729.
- Sark: “You and I. We’re destined to work together. I truly believe that.”
- Kendall: “There are just so many problems with this.”
- Syd: “I don’t need you to wish me luck, you son of a bitch.”
- Syd: “You’re just a dog looking for a new master.”
- Marshall: “Hi. Welcome. Don’t kill me.”
- Jack: “Your motherhood is a biological fact with no substantive value.”
Next week: Irina’s master plan starts to come into focus, and Francie starts getting some actual screentime.