"The Prophecy" (season 1, episode 16; originally aired 3/10/2002)
Ah, the perils of power, bureaucracy, and “The Prophecy.” The intersection of the political, personal, and paranormal lies at the heart of Alias, and all three are on all fine display in this particular outing. Whereas Rambaldi had been a fun MacGuffin until “Page 47,” he now gives the entire proceedings much more urgency. This urgency translates into an incredibly tense hour that paints Sydney into a deeper corner than ever before.
This episode introduces the Department of Special Research (DSR) and its head researcher, Carson Evans. Evans is played by Lindsay Crouse, who two years either played Professor Maggie Walsh in the fourth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Crouse is apparently THE go-to actress when you need an expert on out-of-the-ordinary science. Or should I say “fringe” science. Oh wait, Vaughn did! Talk about a bizarre moment to hear Vaughn actually describe DSR’s mission as investigating “fringe science.” I half expect Marshall to reference work done in the 1970’s by William Bell any episode now.
Well, the results of Page 47 have taken their casual interest in Rambaldi and ramped it up to 11. In another nod to episodes written post-9/11, their concern over Syd’s possible connection to a mysterious prophecy is framed in terms of “national security.” Vaughn and Devlin seek both to protect Syd as both as asset and ally, but the DSR’s directives, stemming from a post-WWII presidential mandate, essentially allow them to override all protocol in favor of their own discretion. They run Syd through a series of tests, both physical and psychological, in order to determine if she’s indeed the woman in the drawing.
Why all the tests? Well, that’s the central mystery of the episode, as the “need-to-know” basis of the manuscript’s translation keeps most of the major players in the dark. We learn from that weasel Haladki that Syd’s encounter with Donato in “Time Will Tell” was actually precisely predicted in the manuscript. But neither Syd nor Vaughn think the DSR is working off the proper code key. So they go and steal the origin. FROM THE VATICAN. Sure, it’s silly how easily they break into the Vatican’s secret archives, but on the other hand, it’s still a ton of fun to see them wander through priceless artifacts in order to find the correct key.
Before we get to what that code reveals, let’s talk about the other main storyline in “The Prophecy.” At the outset of the hour, Syd photographs an individual SD-6 is convinced is “The Man”: Alexander Khasinau. He’s former KGB with ties to the Russian Mob, but neither Jack nor Sloane are convinced they are dealing with the mafia here. There’s an impending vote amongst the Alliance blocs to deal with Khasinau, but five of the 12 are loyalists to the old Soviet Bloc. Still stinging from the attack in “The Box” (and still wearing the finger splint to remind him of those oh so happy times), Sloane reaches out to the head of SD-9, Edward Poole, to help gauge the chances of a war declaration on Khasinau. Poole is played by Roger Moore, a bit of stunt casting that made me squeal then as much as it made me squeal this time around. And I’m not much of a squealer. Honest.
Poole provides apparent proof that one of Sloane’s most trusted Alliance friends, Jean Briault, is working for Khasinau. Sloane doesn’t believe it, but the combination of Cole’s attack on SD-6 and the discovery that his version of Page 47 is a hoax sets Sloane severely on edge. Against his better judgment, he flies to Montreal and murders Briault. Not even learning about Briault’s newborn grandson prevents Sloane from ensuring the Alliance vote will go his way. Naturally, of course, he learns at the vote in London just how badly he’s been played, with Poole himself on Khasinau’s payroll. Oh, Poole. You don’t want to get Sloane angry. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry.
Neither will Syd, but she’s got bigger fish to fry. Because even though she’s obtained the source code key that unlocks Rambaldi’s true meaning, it’s the same one that the CIA has been using all along. After being detained by the government for questioning, we finally learn the meaning of the tests throughout the hour. Rambaldi spoke of three specific physical markers relating to the woman on Page 47: DNA sequencing, platelet levels, and the size of her heart. Syd matches all three. And what does the prophecy itself say? Glad you asked!
“This woman here depicted will possess unseen marks, signs that she will be the one to bring forth my works. Bind them with fury. A burning anger, unless prevented. At vulgar cost, this woman will render the greatest power unto utter desolation.”
Yea, in NO WAY can that have multiple interpretations. But it’s scared the shit out of the American government enough to hold their best asset in destroying SD-6 for an indefinite amount of time. Not only will her cover be blown, but Jack’s cover will be blown as well. But I guess things like “covers” are small potatoes versus a prophecy that indicates that our protagonist may be the key to unleashing Armageddon.
Confused by everything? I feel for ya. If only there was a clip show right about now to help clarify everything that’s gone on this season so far. Oh wait: there IS a clip show right about now. That’s terribly convenient.
"Q&A" (season 1, episode 17; originally aired 3/17/2002)
I don’t know for sure that this happened, but I can imagine the following scene go down after Abrams and Company handed in the script for “The Prophecy”…
J.J. Abrams: Hey guys, thanks for having me in. You wanted to talk.
ABC Executive: Yea, thanks for coming in! Loving the show, J.J. Just…loving it.
J.J. Abrams: Oh great, thanks. We’re really excited about what we’ve been coming up with in the writer’s room.
ABC Executive: Oh really? You returning to a more simple, "Felicity goes on missions" thing? Because we just thought that was great early on.
J.J. Abrams: Oh, no way. We’ve got bigger plans. “The Man”? We haven’t even started on that. We’ve knocked out 15 sonnets that indirectly point to more prophecies. We’ll learn Rambaldi trained marmosets to be ninjas, and they are going to be Sark’s henchmen, and…
ABC Executive: Whoa, whoa, all sounds great. We just had one quick question after reading your latest script.
J.J. Abrams: Oh, oh sure. Fire away.
ABC Executive: OK, here is it: exactly what the fuck is happening on Alias now? Because frankly, we’re hopelessly lost. Start from the beginning. Like I’m a 5th grader. Actually, that sounds like a great idea for a game show. Quick, someone write that down…
“Q&A” largely feels like the ensuing conversation between J.J. Abrams and the ABC brass. After that, he divided half of his exposition and gave it to Sydney and the other half to Terry O’Quinn’s new character, FBI Special Agent Kendall. Throw in a single chase sequence that leads to a none-too-surprising revelation even for the uninitiated, and you’ve got yourself a cost-cutting hour smack dab in the middle of the show’s first season.
“Q&A” could have easily been called “FAQ,” although I’m not exactly sure that was a well-known term at the time. But an Alias fan site seeking to give a quick overview of the show to date would be hard pressed to hit the high level notes better than this episode does. The conceit is that while Kendall has Sydney’s complete file, he wants to hear her version from her own lips. Part of this serves to conveniently have Syd narrate old clips, but also serves for Kendall to evaluate how Syd responds to certain pressure points. As such, it’s a perfectly fine structure upon which to hang a clip show.
Not all the clips are repeats, however. Shots of how Syd first started working inside Credit Dauphine are new, and it’s fun to see how wide-eyed she used to be upon first starting. Seeing her meet Sloane for the first time is a kick, as seeing her brush by Dixon without either knowing each other is a treat as well. But by and large, these are clips designed to tell the show’s story in linear fashion, with the occasional action or Marshall-centric montage breaking up the repeated airing of show footage.
While all this is going on, there’s a small segment of the hour dedicated to Vaughn and Jack seeking to break Sydney out, clear her name, and get her back to SD-6 before a planned Tuesday meeting with Sloane. Weiss inadvertently gives Vaughn an idea after the latter reads aloud another part of The Prophecy: “This woman without pretense will have had her effect, never having seen the beauty of my sky behind Mt. Subasio. Perhaps a single glance will have quelled her fire.” Vaughn suggests that if they take Syd to Ramabaldi’s birthplace near Subasio, the FBI will realize she’s not the woman on Page 47.
How do they find out where Syd is? Through Jack putting a gun to Haladki’s neck, of course. Seeing Spy Daddy turn the screws on Special Agent Douchebag is delicious to say the least, and yields some of Jack’s finest lines on the show to date. Jack, Vaughn, and Weiss don masks and interrupt Syd’s transfer to a safe house in order to get her on a plane to Italy. But Haladki ends up sending all law enforcement after them, leaving Syd trapped on the docks in a stolen car with nowhere to run. Naturally, she drives her car into the freaking ocean, calmly watches the water envelop the car, slowly undoes her seatbelt once she hits the bottom, and sucks air out of the tires until the police leave the scene. Like one always does in situations such as this.
But the calm she achieved via her training also allowed for a blinding ray of insight to penetrate her keen mind. She meets up with Jack before leaving for Italy to share her revelation: that if she survived a car crash like that, so too could her mother. And since Rambaldi’s prophecy concern elements such as DNA sequencing, then 1) not only is it possible that Syd’s mother is the one Rambaldi meant, but 2) Syd’s mother must still be alive. Somehow, Victor Garber makes his mouth EVEN SMALLER upon hearing that news.
"Masquerade" (season 1, episode 18; originally aired 4/7/2002)
“Masquerade” finds the all the Rambaldi momentum put on pause for a week, instead focusing on the various masks (literal and figurative) worn by the various players in the Alias universe. It’s the type of episode television series love to throw around the 75% completion mark of a season, as it takes an emotional temperature of its core constituents before bringing back narrative momentum for the final stretch.
We start out with a slight recreation of the opening sequence from Mission: Impossible 2, with Syd climbing Mt. Subasio in order to clear her name within the rank and file of the FBI, DSR, OPP, so on and so forth. After two episodes in which the show pressed in on all sides around Sydney, it’s weird to get a quick, “Well, that settles that,” scene afterwards back in L.A. between her and Jack, but it’s not like Alias could turn into The Fugitive. Syd moving around from town to town, kicking ass and then moving on? That would be…actually, that would be awesome. But that’s not what happened here. Moving along.
If Rambaldi was at the center of both “Prophecy” and “Q&A”, than Laura Bristow looms largest in “Masquerade.” With Sydney cleared as the person depicted in Page 47, the FBI turns its attention to finding Laura. Jack confirmed that she was indeed alive by breaking into restricted CIA files that show that not only was a commission formed that determined she didn’t die in the car accident, but that Sloane himself was on the committee.
What follows is the start of a war for Syd’s soul between Sloane and Jack. One could argue this has raged for years (and, indeed, future episodes will shed more light on this), but it’s fantastic to see Sloane manipulate Syd’s overwhelming desire for information about her mother coupled with the heretofore unflappable Jack losing his ever-loving shit every time Laura’s name comes up. Sloane uses Syd’s naiveté to position her to be in his debt at a later juncture. Jack uses Syd’s naiveté to position an entire case of Jim Beam into his belly.
Sloane’s manipulation leads her to Vienna, in order to obtain a microchip that details Alexander Khasinau’s finances. What does this have to do with Laura? Turns out Khasinau was once Laura’s boss in the KGB. With that carrot dangled in front of her, Syd travels with Dixon to the titular masquerade in order to meet two deep-cover SD-6 agents. The primary contact is dead upon their arrival, but the second one turns out to be none other than Peter Berg. The man who later directed such films as Hancock, The Kingdom, and both directed the cinematic version of Friday Night Lights as well as developed it for the small screen shows up here as former flame Agent Noah Hicks.
Syd and Dixon end up extracting Hicks, which enrages Sloane upon their arrival. But the microchip does yield intelligence on a central computing system that excels in theoretical engineering. Not only does the machine potentially build Rambaldi devices in its sleep, but also potentially contains information on Khasinau’s entire network. Syd follows the second carrot to Arkhangelsk (gesundheit!) to pull the core from a sub-zero containment unit. While it’s cold in that room, it’s plenty hot for these two former flames, who end up in Hicks’ old safe house doing some potentially unsafe activities. (Sex. I’m talking about sex.)
It’s a slightly odd hour, in that it’s difficult to say what anyone truly wants in this hour. Besides Syd’s tunnel vision about Laura, everyone’s hiding a secret agenda. Sloane clearly wants to manipulate Syd, but it’s unclear to what end he wants to do so. Jack keeps his lips as pursed as ever, but CIA counselor Judy Barnett sees right through his act. As for Hicks…well, it’s tempting to look at anyone but Vaughn as a potential love interest at this point (Will threw in the towel back in “Q&A” in a quick comment to Francie), so he’s either 1) not long for this world, or 2) another double agent. In either case, it’s difficult to build up much sympathy for either him or Syd, despite both Berg and Garner having some pretty fun chemistry in this hour.
But like I said, all this is an essential inhale of an hour. When next we meet here again, things will have picked up something fierce.
I love me some Alias action sequences, but Lordy, that CGI in Syd’s leap off the Brazilian mountain was baaaad. And is it legally required that Christ the Redeemer be shown anytime anything ever happens in Brazil?
Signs This Show Was Filmed A Decade Ago, Vol. 47: Syd’s far too excited about translating the photos of Khasinau into JPEGs. She treats it like she just split an atom.
It’s funny to watch the DSR pop up at the precise time that Captain America: The First Avenger arrives in theatres. There’s a lot of people interested in Nazi occultism in my pop culture these days.
Once again, Haladki’s a complete dick, but he’s a dick with a possible agenda.
Syd standing up to the DSR during their psych evaluation makes me fist pump every time. Jennifer Garner sold these moments fantastically well, and it’s a mystery to me that no one else but J.J. Abrams has been able (or has had the desire) to bring this out of her as an actress.
If Lindsay Crouse was there as a Buffy shoutout, was her cigarette-smoking associate a shout-out to The X-Files? I’m going to say yes and keep my nerd heart happy.
Syd visits Emily at one point in “The Prophecy,” and it sure as hell seems like she knows what her husband is up to, doesn’t she?
As fun as the Vatican mission is, I have to deduct point for Alias once again introducing non-mission stuff that no sane agent would ever engage in. Last time out, it was Syd leaving Dixon alone in order to chastise Charlie. This week, Vaughn keeps pestering Syd to hit up his favorite restaurant in Rome as they work their way into the archives. Ugh.
Fun With Numbers: Emily waited 4 months before learning about her condition. The Numbers 16 and 42 appear in Rambaldi’s code key, and the box in which his painting of Pope Alexander VI rests is 14547. The FBI have decoded 47 confirmed prophecies from Rambaldi’s manuscripts.
Fun With Music: I damn near fell out of my chair upon hearing The Hives’ “Hate To Say I Told You So” erupt during the Vatican mission. This show specializes in light-FM incidental music, but The Hives are anything but light. Bravo, show.
So much of a big plot point in Season 2 is planted in “The Prophecy.” We know through anecdotal evidence how much Sloane felt burned by the supposed betrayals in the CIA. So imagine what he’ll do to Poole and Company for burning him here.
“Q&A” introduced what would later become a staple, and then a handicap, for the show: the “start off the show with an exciting action sequence and then go back a few days time just as it looks like our hero will die” technique. Trust me, this is gonna start happening a LOT.
So freakin’ great to see Terry O’Quinn pop up, though I kept wondering if he was going to bust out a backgammon set mid-inquiry.
We learn in “Q&A” what “SD” stands for: “Section Disparu” or “the section that doesn’t exist.” It was coined by Alliance founding member Alain Christophe.
I don’t think we’ve ever seen an actual on-screen shot of what Rambaldi looked like until “Q&A.” And quite frankly, I’m not sure we NEEDED to see it. Then again, that shot may or may not prove important down the line. Just noting.
“Q&A” also kicks off a lot of discussion in the Alias universe to a key theme in Earth-J.J.: fate versus free will. Is Syd simply executing a pre-determined plan concocted 500 years ago, or does she have agency over her own life? We’ll start seeing this theme play out more explicitly as the show moves along.
I’m not ashamed I busted out my best Phil Collins during the start of “Masquerade,” belting to no one in particular, “Just say the word, ooooooooh….Su-su-basio.”
Back when I started this Alias rewatch, I noted a lot of firsts in the show’s history. In “Masquerade,” we get the first true “Jack loses his damn fool mind upon even thinking about his late wife.” He’s gotten tense before, but never quite this loony.
What the hell is up with Vaughn’s red leather jacket during his underground meet with Syd? Was he just returning from an audition for the Daredevil movie?
If SD-6 can manufacture contact lens that pick up infrared, I want them to develop eyeglasses that can spot assholes in a crowd. This will help my daily commute to work on public transportation.
Cutting into Wexler’s dead body=super grody. Yeesh. That was Fringe levels of nasty.
Syd is a smart girl. A junk mail filter is a smart thing. Nice try, Hicks. Why not just flash your message on a Jumbotron like every other good ol’ fashioned American male?
I enjoyed McCullough’s small smile when he realized Hicks was putting him on during the lie detector test.
Forgot all about Francie and Will finding Syd’s ticket to Italy in her coat pocket. That’s one sloppy, sloppy plot point in a show that had very few at this point. Oh well. Nobody’s perfect.
That said, Will spitting up his drink at the thought of Syd and Sloane sleeping together was FANTASTIC.
Next week, we’re back to two episodes: “Snowman” and “The Solution.” And after THAT? We wrap up Season 1.
“The girl doesn’t like it. She wants to go out and play.”
“You move out of my way, or I will make you move out of my way.”
“It must be especially hard, doing what you do.”
“Yeah. I’ll break into the Vatican with you.”
“He’s the perfect guy for me. Plays ball and is named after food.”
“I work better under pressure.”
“Don’t you already have a file on me?” “We would like this in your words.”
“I felt wildly patriotic.” Ha, first meet.
“The problem is he’s not talking.” “He’ll talk to me.”
“I have no desire to blow your head off, or ruin your paint job, but I will do both unless you tell me where the hell Sydney Bristow is.”
“You report this conversation, and you’ll never wear a hat again.”
“Dad?” “Hey, honey.”
“Did you think I’d throw just anyone in my trunk?”
“It is time that SD-6 took a risk for me.”
“A daughter has a right to know her mother. I’ll help you find her.”
“Sorry that I’m late. And sorry that I have hives.”
“It’s always been my pleasure to fill in for you while you were indisposed.”
“Well, you were right about one thing. I’m not having fun anymore.”
“Someone so skilled at deception is in danger of deceiving himself.”
“You were the last person I ever wanted to see again. And you were the only person I ever wanted to see again.”