Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Alias: “Cipher”/“Dead Drop”

Illustration for article titled Alias: “Cipher”/“Dead Drop”

“Cipher” (season 2, episode 3; originally aired 10/13/2002)

In which Syd invents the new Olympic sport of flaming duct luging…

The title of this episode refers not only to a literal cipher that will unlock a newly discovered Rambaldi artifact. It also refers to the ways in which people talk around each other in this hour, weaving in and out of the minds of those listening to them. It’s one thing to hear something, whether it be a spoken word, the hissing of a telephone, or a note from a music box. It’s another thing entirely to derive the precise meaning of these sounds. Players on both sides of the field don’t truly intuit what they hear, but they feel unease all the same about its true import.

At the CIA, Alias establishes the rhythms that dominate the early proceedings of season two: The government finds out about something SD-6 is up to, Kendall asks Syd to speak to Irina, Syd balks, Vaughn backs her up, Syd eventually goes anyways, Irina says something that seems plausible but also insanely dangerous, and Jack purses his lips so hard that his mouth threatens to implode. Had the show turned Irina into a season-long sexified Hannibal Lecter, it would have gotten pretty old, pretty quick. Again, I’m rusty on this season, but my impression is that if you’re already sick of this pattern, you don’t have to wait terrifically long for the show to switch things up in a meaningful way.

What kicks off this week’s global excursion is a music box, designed by Rambaldi, which contains within its notes mathematical equations for something called “zero-point energy.” Clearly, this technology works, as Syndrome perfected it by the time that The Incredibles hit cinemas in 2004. Our good friend Sark is looking for it via the camera thought destroyed in the last episode. It turns out that camera was only a prototype, with the real-deal device being sent into space by Asiatic Space Agency. (Ostensibly because Richard Branson wasn’t in the private-space-shuttle business just yet.)

Syd and Dixon head to Sri Lanka to plant a monitoring device on the shuttle, so SD-6 can tap into the camera’s feed. Naturally, Syd plants a CIA device instead, which gives both agencies access to the feed. How does Syd get onto the shuttle undetected? Well, via Dixon’s sweet hacking skills and Marshall’s hydraulic luge, capable of speeds over 100 mph to navigate the ducts that lead to the ship. Duh. Sark realizes something’s wrong almost instantly once the camera feed goes dark, and orders the ASA to speed up the launch. This means Syd has to return via the 2-mile ducts while avoiding a wall of flame threatening to engulf her. The luge sequence was probably very silly in 2002, and it’s even sillier now, but it’s silly in that “can you believe we’re making an episode in which Syd can luge her way from certain flaming death in semi-believable fashion” way. So like Christian Slater’s character in Breaking In, I’ll allow it!

In between this phase of the mission and the next, the show takes a breather to build in some small character skull-fuckery. Throughout the episode, Sloane seems haunted by the ghost of Emily: Her recently barren garden has sprung back to life, and he’s getting static-filled phone calls from the B&B that the two were supposed to visit before she died. In CIA lockdown, Irina asked her daughter what part she played in the Thanksgiving play during the fall she “died.” Syd tells her she can’t remember, which isn’t a way of denying Irina an anecdote: She really doesn’t remember that, or many things, around her childhood in the wake of Irina’s absence. Irina seems to know something about this, and insinuates that Jack knows as well during their first, awesomely tense conversation. Speaking of tense conversations, Will and Vaughn meet for the first time as well in this episode, in which both men essentially compare penis size in an elevator as the former comes face to face with the man Syd perpetually left him for during season one.


Will’s not just there for soapy goodness. He’s there because his time spent on the plane to Taipei may hold a key to the music box, which is located in an area of Siberia that contains a subglacial series of caverns in the shape of Rambaldi’s symbol. All together now: So freakin’ cool. Will undergoes hypnotherapy to glean four names from Sark’s laptop aboard the plan: all names of Russian novelists that form the titular cipher. Irina manages to unlock the code buried within (3-1-1-2-5-4), and so it’s off to what’s essentially Rambaldi’s Fortress of Solitude. I kept waiting for Tom Welling to show up and blankly stare at Syd during most of these scenes. Luckily, Sark shows up instead, having gone underneath the ice in his Bond Villan Sub-o-Matic in order to avoid detection from Dixon above. He holds Syd at gunpoint, but gets an ice pick to the thigh for his trouble. His gun goes off, missing Sydney but opening up a hole in the ice. Syd falls through, and watches helplessly from the water below as ice reforms over the surface, trapping her underground. OH NOES, HOW WILL SHE EVER ESCAPE?

“Dead Drop” (season 2, episode 4; originally aired 10/20/2002)

In which Jack makes a bible go boom…

It’s easy to remember Alias as a fairly kick-ass show that featured worldwide missions set to thumping techno with objects created by a 14-century scientist/scholar/madman at the heart of those excursions. But what makes the show worth revisiting isn’t that, but rather the fractured family at the heart of all this madness. “Dead Drop” is a fantastic example of the complicated inner workings of The Family Bristow, with the tension within the trio reaching a breaking point only four episodes into the season. What makes all this work is universal theme of trust within a family: how easily it can be broken, how much we want to mend it, and the regurgitation of past pains that can resurface during that healing process.


Speaking of resurfacing, Syd resurfaces fairly quickly from her watery prison at the outset of this episode, using the assault rifle from one of Sark’s downed men to shoot herself to freedom. Once back in Los Angeles, Sloane returns to his season-one, “boy, Syd, it’s extremely curious how you seem to mess up every Rambaldi mission I send you on” mode. But tracking Sark to the Falklands reveals that Syd’s story about the music box’s degradation was correct. Plus, Sloane has other things on his plate this week to push him past his temporary distrust of Sydney: On one front, he sends in an SD-6 agent to Will’s NA meeting to ascertain if he’s still a threat; on another, he employs Jack to find out who made the call from the Sonoma bed and breakfast. Dixon returns without a room from which the phone call was made, but with Emily’s signature on the log book the night of the call. But I’m sure there’s a totally logical explanation for that.

But again, this episode was pretty much all about people scratching at the scabs that cover the wounds Irina Derevko initially caused, unable to stop even though they know it’s bad for them. At one point during his mission prep with Sydney, Marshall accidentally pricks himself with faux medals that she needs to wear on a mission. “Owww,” he says. “Actually, that felt kinda good.” And that’s a crude, yet accurate, way of describing the way Syd, Jack, and Vaughn all find ways to keep circling around Irina. She’s a quiet, still, cunning black hole at the center of both their professional and personal worlds, and all she has to do is sit still and let people come to her. And each time they do, they are changed.


The Falklands mission not only located the destroyed music box, but also yielded Claus Ritcher, a man to whom Irina entrusted the operations bible before turning herself in during the season premiere. He’s been infected with a mysterious pathogen that doesn’t turn up on medical scans, but leads one to bleed from the fingertips. (Everybody got that? This might be important later.) Jack extracts information from him not by torture, but via morphine for the ailing, clearly dying man. Claus’ information sends Syd to the FAPSI headquarters in Moscow, where a map to the bible has been placed inside a first edition of War And Peace. Marshall’s aforementioned medals help Syd break into the HQ, but of course, Sark is there as well, gun in hand. He’s ready to offer Syd a job, if for no other reason that she seemingly arrives at the same place he does, only 18 seconds earlier.

As much fun as Syd & Sark: PIs would have been as a 1970s ABC procedural, it’s not to be in the 21st century. Syd pulls the alarm, which gives her a chance to escape from Sark but not building security. Vaughn uses Irina’s intel mid-mission to help Syd elude capture, which yields one of the great Irina lines ever: “How do you say ‘thank you’ to the woman that killed your father?” Vaughn says he can’t… and yet nearly half of tonight’s scenes find him suggesting to leverage her knowledge. He’s not falling for her machinations in the same way that Syd is. Nor is he as apoplectic at her very existence as Jack is. But he doesn’t have to be. Irina moves in mysterious ways, but she’s almost quantum in composition: Everyone that interacts with her sees something different, and her great power is to use that particular vantage point to her best advantage. Syd sees the mom she always wanted. Vaughn sees the face of his dead father. Jack sees the devil incarnate. Claus sees a “great woman.” All of them are right. Yet all of them are wrong.


And that contradiction flows into the final act, in which Claus’ map leads to a house in the woods where the bible apparently lives. Jack decides that he’s sick of an entire agency bowing down to a woman that singlehandedly terrorized them for decades. So he hires a contact to plant approximately 8 trillion tons of explosives under the house in order to “expose” Irina’s true plans. His heart is in the right place, but it’s a horrific decision, one that will almost undoubtedly come back to bite him in the ass. He’s right that Sydney is increasingly emotionally involved with Irina (she’s smiling despite herself during their chats, and even arranges to have Irina’s earrings returned to her), but he’s creating false realities in order to support his suppositions. He would argue that he’s working toward the greater good, but that’s not his decision to make. Sure, she crumbles into his arms post-mission, daddy’s little girl once again returning to him. But this is a temporary thing. Just as Dr. Barnett warned him, his interference designed to keep Syd and Irina apart may be just the thing that fuses them closer together. Irina may be in solitary lockdown by episode’s end, but she won’t be alone for long.

Stray observations:

  • I’ve left out some specifics of what’s really being established in these episodes, for newbies coming along for the first time. But feel free to discuss Syd’s memory lapses and Sloane’s “haunting” in the comments below, albeit with “SPOILER” tags.
  • Irina practices “autocircadian meditation,” which gives one all the benefits of sleep in a fraction of the time. We’ve gone from “autocircadian meditation” to “five-hour energy drinks” in the decade since this episode aired. I’m not sure this is progress.
  • When Irina asks for pencil and paper to break the code, Syd smartly breaks off half of the pencil to reduce the ways in which Irina could MacGyver her way out of the CIA.
  • Will talks in his NA meeting about finally being able to open up to one of his friends in a new way. File this under “things that make you go ‘hmm.’”
  • The German title for “Cipher” translates as “Ice Water,” which makes it sound like an episode about Björk.
  • The SD-6 agent sent to investigate Will is played by Marisol Nichols, who later appeared on The Gates and 24, and will soon be seen on ABC’s midseason show G.C.B.
  • Seeing Jack Bristow quietly stew then explode never, ever gets old. Which is good, since he’s going to do it another 40 times this season.
  • The camera almost always catches Irina’s reflection in the foreground while pointing over her shoulder, which allows us to see her face and how it adapts to the person in front of her. It’s a great way to impart much more information than a simple two-shot would achieve. If you have Lena Olin at your disposal, employ her as often as possible.
  • Jack’s description of Syd’s role in the Thanksgiving play also serves as a way to describe her entire part in the Rambaldi Mystery: “You were the only turkey that was spared to celebrate the harvest.”
  • Jack: “She spent most of her live believing you were dead. She’ll get used to it again.”
  • Will: “I just thought you’d be… older.”
  • Jack: “I’m afraid of losing my daughter.”