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

Alias: “Phase One”/“Double Agent”

Illustration for article titled Alias: “Phase One”/“Double Agent”

“Phase One” (season 2, episode 13; originally aired 1/26/2003)

Nostalgia is a dangerous thing. In some ways, that danger has been hanging over my entire coverage of Alias. It’s been constantly fraught with peril, as I kept waiting for this endeavor to turn into “The Alliance’s New Clothes.” In other words, I’ve constantly worried that eventually I’d realize that my rose-colored view of the show would be shattered in the cold, hard light of actual analysis. And no single episode has terrified me more in this respect than “Phase One.”

“Phase One,” in many ways, defines my love of television, its narrative possibilities, and the belief that it’s worth loving more than is probably healthy. Long before shows like Lost, Battlestar Galactica, and Arrested Development were blowing my mind, Alias served as the show that defined what the medium could do when the participants actually gave a damn about doing more with the medium. That’s not to dismiss any television that came before it; biographically speaking, Alias was the show that came along at the right time to really make an impression on me.

“Phase One” aired after Super Bowl XXXVII, priming it to be the episode that launched the show into the stratosphere in terms of exposure and ratings. Unfortunately, the episode only kept 19 percent of its lead-in audience, pushing it to historical lows in terms of overall audience and the increasingly key 18-49 demographic. Some might argue that the length of the Super Bowl (which pushed Alias back to an 11 p.m. starting time) affected the overall ratings. I wasn’t aware of any of these facts in the aftermath of its initial airing. All I know is that I sat staring at the screen long after seeing Francie’s deceased body in her kitchen wondering what in the living fuck I’d just witnessed.

As I mentioned in last week’s reviews, the episodes leading up to “Phase One” are in a way their own form of long con. Just as Sloane plays Sydney in order to achieve maximum effectiveness, so too does the show play audience expectations against them in order to provide the one-two punch of extreme catharsis followed immediately by extreme chaos. Even if Alias had a concept that seemingly couldn’t last forever (Sydney as a double-agent for both SD-6 and the CIA), there was no reason to think the show wouldn’t wring every last drop from that narrative stone. By that point, no one would care if Sydney ultimately took down SD-6, because the original reasons for doing so would have been permanently clouded under a series of increasingly clumsy ways to explain how in the world Sloane never put two and two together. It’s hard to fear a mastermind who would lose on Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader?

Watching “Phase One” this time around changes the perspective, and thus the pleasures, of the viewing experience. Initially, I sat around preparing for the show to shy away from the solution in front of its nose. The idea that not only SD-6, but every single SD cell, could be taken down simultaneously due to a secret server only introduced in this episode seemed ludicrous. So much like the almost kiss between Syd and Vaughn last time around, this would be an almost takedown, one narrowly stopped by either an unfortunately loyal Dixon or a suddenly treacherous Irina Derevko. This time around, I watched as a master plan unfolded step by step, the byproduct of a man who is only onscreen in the final moment—but whose shadow hangs over the entire proceedings.


I have talked this long without breaking down the plot, because, honestly? There isn’t that much plot. But this fucker is speeding narrative locomotive all the same, accumulating speed, urgency, and awesomeness like some supernatural spy version of the ball in those Katamari video games. Even the Will/Francie scenes cook, because they ultimately serve the über-story rather than derail it. “Phase One” wasn’t originally designed to be the Super Bowl episode, but the purpose of the episode is nonetheless defined by that decision: Introduce the concept of the show, and then blow it up in order to allow any and all first-time Super Bowl viewers to feel they could start watching this show’s unique mixture of spy story, love story, and Jennifer Garner’s abs.

Those abs! Sweet Jesus. I can’t remember if I was dating anyone at the time of this episode (“probably not” is a safe bet), but I do remember thinking that the AC/DC-infused opening of this hour was both pure calculation on the part of the show and a wonderful method of demonstrating the ways in which Sydney Bristow is cut from the same mold as Buffy Summers. Both are strong women in traditionally “male” roles whose sexuality makes others underestimate them. Garner is careful to modulate how much Syd tries to act alluring without for a single second hiding how disgusted she is that Gils Nacor makes her change from one obscenely revealing outfit into another. If people thought the show was a T&A fest, they soon learned how capable a spy Syd was through various acts of hackery and… kick-assery.


From there, things step back 24 hours, a storytelling technique Alias would eventually beat into the ground, dig back up, and then beat again. But here, it works, mostly because we get back to the “present” as constituted in the beginning fairly quickly. Also, getting the information on the server isn’t the primary goal of the episode, but just one step along the way. Syd learns about Server 47 via Sark, who claims that new SD-6 head Anthony Geiger bragged about hacking into it to learn Sloane’s secret. It’s a bald-faced lie, but as with the best lies, has enough truth to let Syd and others see what they want upon learning of the server’s existence.

The information on the server is incalculably valuable. To this point, as we learn through Kendall’s briefing of some CIA noobs that serve as the in-show proxy for Super Bowl viewers, the CIA only knew the location of seven SD cells, with five locations still unknown. (In other words: The SD cells were Cylons.) Server 47 not only pinpoints the locations of the remaining five, but in a nice callback to season one’s two-parter “The Box,” it also offers up codes to disarm the massive amounts of C4 rigged to blow should any cell get attacked. Jack volunteers to verify that the codes are correct, but Geiger has discovered recorded keystrokes on Sloane’s computer that implicate Jack and Syd as double agents.


The rest of the episode thus turns into a frantic, time-sensitive struggle to destroy The Alliance and simultaneously save Jack from certain death via torture. What plays as familial loyalty the first time through plays now as brilliant calculation: Sloane left those keystrokes in place in order to activate Sydney’s desire to see through the destruction of The Alliance. Had Jack not been captured, it’s possible the CIA would have sat on the information rather than raid each cell in a way that would have guaranteed Sloane’s ultimate safety. With Jack captured, Syd turns to the one person she can: Dixon. In a scene that is absolutely brutal to watch no matter your familiarity with Alias, Syd finally comes clean with Dixon, each word landing like a thunderous punch. Dixon eventually agrees to help Sydney, but it’s clear by episode’s end that the man we knew simply isn’t there anymore. Dixon calls his wife before sending the CIA an email confirming the codes inside Server 47, and it’s heartbreaking to see a man about to do the right thing but potentially lose everything in the process—including himself.

The takedown of SD-6 is swift, and mirrors simultaneous sweeps all around the world. There are casualties in each office, but overall the mission is a stunning success, effectively ending The Alliance halfway through the show’s second freaking season. I can’t stress enough how bizarrely this all plays out. Much like the game-changing third season finale of Lost, Alias gets to the point that it seemingly promised, only to reveal there was a much bigger game at hand. After all, Syd gets half of her wish outlined in the pilot: She takes down SD-6 in order to avenge Danny’s death. But she sure as hell doesn’t get Sloane. “There’s rarely an end to the story,” Jack tells her early in the episode. And that often sums up television: There aren’t usually endings so much as new beginnings.


So, about those beginnings. In some ways, swapping “Phase One” and “Double Agent”’s places in season two’s running order means that there was literally no way to predict the doppelgänger-tastic finale. So you get the double whammy of, “Wait, Francie is a double agent? That’s the dumbest fucking thing I’ve ever oh wait blood oh wait Francie oh wait now I need to listen to the Pixies’ ‘Where Is My Mind’ while rocking back and forth in the corner for an hour.” If Syd mirrors Buffy in terms of being a prototypical turn-of-the-century female genre protagonist, then J.J. Abrams completely mirrors Joss Whedon here in the vein of making a pair of people happy only to rip their damn hearts out immediately after. In the Whedonverse, this pain is drawn almost instantly. Here? We’re gonna have to wait a while. But in the same episode in which Francie and Will finally get a shot at some happiness, Sloane and Sark have Francie killed and replaced by a “new asset” in this new world order.

Whew. I need a cigarette. Or another episode of Alias.

“Double Agent” (season 2, episode 14; originally aired 2/2/2003)

I’m not going to spend a lot of time on “Double Agent,” having just blown through a normal week’s worth of words about “Phase One.” As mentioned earlier, these episodes were aired out of order, which gives an odd dissonance to the proceedings. That’s not really the show’s fault: There are a myriad of times in which even heavily serialized shows sometimes have episodes air out of order. Fringe once aired an episode held over from a previous season, which meant people were really, really confused when a certain deceased character popped up without anyone in-show thinking it was really fucking weird. So to slight “Double Agent” really isn’t fair. It’s a perfectly fine episode that unfortunately doesn’t hold up due to the intense scrutiny shows of this ilk now receive.


“Double Agent” was written without the context of The Alliance having already fallen. As such, there are a few hastily inserted scenes in which Syd and Vaughn deal with the aftermath—and the newly dopplegänger-ed Francie—to account for the events in “Phase One.” “Double Agent” was designed as a way to introduce just how two Francies could exist at the end of the Super Bowl episode, but turned out to give a retroactive answer to the WTF cliffhanger that we witnessed a week earlier by letting us know the device used to duplicate Lennox was also used to duplicate another. As I said earlier: I kind of like having the two Francies onscreen without any foreshadowing of the events. So in that respect, the reversal of the episode order works. But in almost every other way, “Double Agent” serves up a confusing hour of television.

The process by which our as-yet unknown Faux Francie came to be is the result of “Project: Helix,” founded by Renko Markovic. Two CIA agents, Emma Wallace and James Lennox, went undercover in order to determine what type of new invention this man had designed that had gained the attention of various terrorist groups around the world. We learn that Markovic designed a method of using DNA manipulation to change the look, sound, and shape of human beings with a specific genetic profile. Thus, instead of having a single Ethan Hawke running around this episode as Agent Lennox, we have two: the real McCoy, and one who’s Markovic in disguise.


The process by which Syd, Vaughn, and Jack discover this technology is typical Alias, but devoid of any of the context established in “Phase One.” Normally, it would not be this obvious that episodes were shuffled around. Had this episode been designed as the eighth episode but aired as the seventh instead, it wouldn’t have been noticeable. But after literally changing the world of the show in “Phase One,” there are absolutely no signs in anything related to the mission at hand that anything changed. It’s not an unforgivable sin by any stretch. But it’s really odd to have Vaughn act one way in seeing Syd’s apartment for the first time and another way while handling her in the field. (Not in that way. Sheesh. Pick your mind up out of the gutter and let’s move on.)

Lennox’s situation is meant to mirror Syd’s in several key ways, but none feel fully fleshed-out. Wallace was Lennox’s fiancée, before the Markovic model strapped a bomb to her upon Sloane’s order to make her a public example. A public example of what? Hard to tell. Having Markovic essentially send up a flare gun announcing the success of his research seems like an odd move. Having Lennox eventually go to the site where the Markovic-Lennox person is housing the prototype also seems head-scratching, since it inevitably leads to a situation where Syd can’t tell which one is real and which one is fake. How she deduces the correct answer is smart (she threatens to blow up the only device which could return Markovic back to normal), but the methods by which Alias reaches this conundrum is sloppy in ways the show has largely avoided this season.


The Lennox/Wallace relationship is also meant to mirror the potential Bristow/Vaughn romance. The former pair was due to fly to Fiji on their honeymoon after the Markovic mission was over. (Wallace uses this knowledge to eventually realize her Lennox was no longer staying with her in their Berlin hotel room.) Lennox spent most of his life with the woman he loved with her living under an alias, to the point where seeing the real her was difficult for both. There’s a solid idea here about the ways in which spending a life recreating scenes from Fast Times At Ridgemont High for the benefit of horny security chiefs might lead one to have a hard time staying grounded in one’s own personality. But “Double Agent” only pays lip service to this conundrum.

Oh well. This episode is just a hiccup on the road to a truly kick-ass set of episodes coming down the line. When next we meet, we’ll be back in continuity, with the repercussions of “Phase One” finally kicking into high gear. Strap in: These next eight episodes are awesome.


Stray observations:

  • There was nothing wrong with the black one, Syd. Nothing at all.
  • Rutger Hauer plays Anthony Geiger in “Phase One.” He’s… fine. His character probably suffers the most from Sloane’s manipulations, since in some ways he should be much smarter than he acts in this hour.
  • In “Phase One,” Kendall serves to tell the new audience about the narrative parameters of the show, while Geiger serves to lay out the emotional stakes through his inquiries about Danny.
  • What is it with J.J. Abrams and sending guys into jet engines that explode on contact?
  • Before “Phase One” brings the pain for Francie and Will, I enjoyed the short time in which, for once, the couple is keeping a secret from Syd.
  • Loved Syd running to save Jack from Geiger. Garner runs with purpose, people. We haven’t seen a good Syd sprint in a while.
  • I will admit I forgot completely about Christine Phillips, introduced in “Double Agent” as a new graduate from Clandestine Services. According to IMDB, she’s a one-off character, potentially designed for the Super Bowl audience to get a quick introduction to the major players of the show.
  • The “Pop Goes The Weasel” song that Wallace sings while wired with C4 is capital “c” Creepy. My Lord. The way in which she shudders each time she says the word “pop” is incredible, and the snot running from her nose is disgusting but sells the terror in an effective manner.
  • I’m guessing Lennox’s near-blind shooting of a guard attacking Syd is a homage to Han Solo shooting the Sarlacc in Return Of The Jedi.
  • The Numbers This Week: In addition to Server 47, Lennox is held in Room 47 in the sub-level of Markovic’s laboratory.
  • Coldplay makes Syd and Vaughn horny, I guess. Also? Faux Francie likes to watch. Eww.
  • Weiss: “No man naturally smells as good as you do right now.”
  • Dixon: “I was just calling you to tell you how much I love you.”
  • Sark: “I just wanted to let you know that phase one is complete.” Sloane: “Good. Move on to phase two.”
  • Lennox: “I could have sworn you were a blonde.”
  • Christine: “I have a boyfriend.” Weiss: “Yeah, me too.”