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

Alias: "The Coup"/"Page 47"

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"The Coup" (season 1, episode 14; originally aired 2/24/2002)

It’s funny how the mind can play tricks on you. Part of the joy in going through a journey like the one we’re all on here in this particular iteration of the TV Club Classic series with Alias is the rediscovery of certain jewels that lay dormant in the mind. Did I remember than Quentin Tarantino appeared in the two-parter I detailed last week? Absolutely not. I didn’t push the knowledge into my subconscious: it just sat in a dusty, unused part of brain for the better part of a decade. So seeing “The Box” again was a joy. Seeing “The Coup” should have been a similar experience. And yet…not so much.

I knew that this was the week we got Sark. Other than that, I remembered absolutely nothing about this episode before popping in my disc to rewatch it for the first time since it initially aired. And while seeing one of the show’s all-time great characters gun down the head of FTL at the outset of the hour was certainly thrilling, “The Coup” as a whole has a lot of pretty terrible stuff weighing down the episode in which he makes his first appearance. As such, the bookends are great, and everything in the middle leaves a lot to be desired. It’s like an entire season of Smallville, only compressed into 45 minutes.

The opening establishes that while Cole attacked SD-6 in Los Angeles, Sark was taking down the FTL headquarters in Hong Kong. “The Man” sent the pair in to systematically take down two enemies while also obtaining key Rambaldi artifacts in the process. Cole pretty much failed on every level, but Sark kicks ass, takes names, and then dates their daughters. For those that first met David Anders on Heroes, trust me: this guy’s the real deal on Alias. I fully expect the comments this week to be filled with the “men want to be him, women want to be on him, and hell, most guys wouldn’t mind that either if they were honest with themselves” variety.

With Sloane’s finger still in a splint, he tasks Dixon and Syd to go to Las Vegas to bug a go-between for K-Directorate, who have been contacted by “The Man” for a face-to-face. While normally Syd runs point with Dixon on communications, this time the roles get reversed. Syd still dresses up like a slinky casino cocktail waitress, but Dixon gets to dress up like one of the Baha Men. It’s absolutely hysterical to watch him strut around as Jamaican parliamentary member Darian Buchanan, mocking the gullibility of Americans and generally being awesome. Between this, and him leading the applause earlier for Syd’s efforts to save them in “The Box,” you realize why Syd thought nothing of protecting SD-6 as a whole last week. He wants to save those under Sloane as much, if not more, as she wants to destroy the man that killed Danny.

Unfortunately, while Dixon’s being awesome, Francie and Charlie wander into the same Vegas casino and start ruining everything. Not only did no one care about this couple at this point (it had been months, literally, since audience members at the time had seen him), but introducing them into the spy plotline helped cement what would be a staple in later shows such as Chuck: the annoying tendency to let personal matters interfere with life-and-death spy missions. That Syd has to balance various aspects of her life is fine. But to leave Dixon without any backup in the private casino room to accost Charlie for his lecherous ways made my eyes roll. Showing heroes in shows like this having a “normal” life humanizes them. Having them deal with this “normal” life mid-mission damages them. Plain and simple.


Syd gives Charlie an ultimatum: tell Francie about your affair, or she will. But by the time everyone’s back in LA, Charlie still hasn’t told her. Probably because he’s off in rehearsal, butchering another tune in the Great American Songbook. So Syd breaks the news to Francie, which prompts much hand-wringing and callbacks to the missed wedding dress trip back in “Mea Culpa”. This scene gets Syd and Francie some much-needed facetime, and does us all the great service of getting Charlie off the show. But given how much of the initial episodes dealt with the “is Charlie cheating” storyline as a misdirect, it feels cheap and unclever to have him actually cheating the whole time anyways. Oh well. Good riddance.

Over in Will-Ville, he’s still Tippin that Jenny booty. (See what I did there?) But he’s also got a new lead on SD-6. With Kelly McNeil out of the picture, her father David is more willing to talk. He leads Will on a spy mission of his own: Will infiltrates the technology company for which McNeil used to work in order to obtain a file called “Dolphin.” “Dolphin” essentially works as a digital guest book, according to McNeil, and tracks everyone that uses the software SD-6 was so anxious to purchase. Will gets the software, but doesn’t get any further in his investigation in this hour. But don’t worry. All in good time. Like say in an episode or so.


At least the hour ends on a strong note: we hear Sark introduce himself to the head of K-Directorate, Ilych Ivankov, with an offer of $100 million for the Rambaldi manuscript Anna stole from Syd in “Time Will Tell.” (He even helpfully already knows their account number in the Caymans. Because Sark is awesome.) Ivankov doesn’t think it’s a good deal, so he gets a bullet to the chest for his troubles. If you’re keeping score, that’s now two major criminal organizations that Sark has destabilized within a week. The new K-Directorate head (installed by Sark himself, conveniently enough) agrees to the deal. Syd watches and records this all from a window outside the Moscow building in which the meeting is held, but stepping on a loose brick gives away her position. Will the guard outside shoot her? Will an Imperial Stormtrooper actually shoot Han Solo? Exactly. Let’s get to “Page 47”, shall we? Because THAT shit is bananas. B-A-N-A-N-A-S.

"Page 47" (season 1, episode 15; originally aired 3/3/2002)

For those that love certain television shows, there’s usually a clear episode they can pinpoint in which casual admiration turned into total love. “Page 47” is that particular episode for me in “Alias.” It’s not that the show hadn’t already produced some classic hours. “Truth Be Told,” “Time Will Tell,” and both parts of “The Box” are seminal episodes of television, nevermind Alias. But for my particular sensibilities, “Page 47” is the one that takes the show’s potentiality and turns it into reality. The final image blew my damn mind when I saw it, and I’m not sure it’s fully recovered since. But more on that later.


J.J. Abrams co-wrote this episode alongside future Fringe showrunner Jeff Pinkner, and there’s a confidence, clarity, and propulsion to the proceedings that “The Coup” simply didn’t have. While the latter seemed to be biding its time, the former takes off like a rocket, building set piece after set piece of tension, emotion, and mythology-building. “Page 47” literally starts with Syd breaking through a window to escape gunfire, and her escape from Moscow is only the first of many close calls in this hour.

From there, she heads to intercept the Rambaldi manuscript from Sark’s henchman. She does this through the careful application of knock-out spray, ninja skills, and boobs. It’s a devastating trio, to say the least. Whereas several of the Syd spy missions had already become rote by this point, infiltrating and then STEALING a freakin’ yacht plays as anything but rote. Sark fan may be disappointed that he gets only a brief, non-speaking role in this outing. But don’t worry. He’ll be back soon enough.


In many ways, the yacht mission is the easiest one of the hour. From there, both Syd and Will have to navigate treacherous waters in order to meet their objectives. While Syd is successful in photographing the entire manuscript (unlike last time), there’s a blank page in the mix: the titular Page 47. Veterans know why I’ve been highlighting this number all along during these recaps, and now it can be revealed for all. Three is a magic number for many of us, but for Rambaldi? It was 47. It’s a key page in all of his works, and Syd has to steal it. From Arvin Sloane’s house. As Kirsten Dunst (or was it Descartes?) once so eloquently put it: Bring it ON.

But before she can arrive there, her eventual dinner guest Will has to go through a journey of his own. In some ways, his life couldn’t be better at the start of the hour: he’s just won a Kaplan Award for a human interest piece that he wrote, and he gets to see Sarah Shahi naked on a regular basis. Good times, people. Good times. But the guy is still kind of a dick, blowing off plans with Jenny so he can take Syd to the movies. But hey, why not, as far as he’s concerned: both his public writing and private writing is going well. Investigating leads found on the “Dolphin” program lead to forty-two users of McNeil’s software, including six companies run by one Alain Christophe. McNeil’s happy. Will’s happy. Everyone’s happy. Well, except Sloane, who wants Jack once again to kill the Frosted Tipped Wonder.


In disguise (and knowing his actions would be tracked by Sloane), Jack goes into bad-ass mode, capturing Will and presenting both an audio recording of his conversations with McNeil but also names, photographs, and addresses of his family and Syd. Naturally, seeing Syd breaks Will, who wakes up the next morning with a black eye and a suddenly heavy heart. Bradley Cooper does a great job of selling the transformation, and indeed, like for so many characters, “Page 47” is a turning point for him. He’s no longer simply on the sidelines, running a parallel but ultimately unrelated investigation. He’s also no longer as naïve as he had been until this point. Sure, he’s sensed danger after his encounters with Eloise Kurtz, but getting kidnapping transforms him fundamentally. He’s a man who can no longer entertain a relationship with Jenny. She belongs in his previous, relatively unscathed life. There’s simply no room for her in the new, more dangerous iteration.

And so Syd and Will arrive at Sloane’s house, where we finally meet his wife Emily (Amy Irving). What follows is one of the great awkward dinners in the history of history, with everyone at the table but Emily having a set agenda they are seeking to hide from at least one other person at the table. Emily waxes poetically about Will’s Kaplan Award-winning piece, which is itself a metaphor for Syd’s relationship with Sloane. It’s a little on-the-nose (OK, it’s insanely on the nose), but it works because we’re not simply witnessing a spy situation. We’re watching layers of interpersonal relationships, decades of emotional baggage, and stakes personal more than professional on display in a seemingly calm dining room. Alias was always good at creating tension, but this is almost Breaking Bad levels of insanity here.


And yet, there’s more. Syd does manage to switch Page 47 from Sloane’s vault halfway through dinner. Though it’s unclear if Sloane suspects that she’s done anything at this point to place her back on his radar, it’s clear that Wills is foremost on his mind the following morning. He assigns an agent to follow Will back to the prison, where he has scheduled yet another meet with McNeil. As the agent casually assembles a gun in the car outside, McNeil pleads with Will to stay on the case. Jack, listening in, breathes a sigh of relief on behalf of the audience when Will tells McNeil he’s out. This sequence would have been enough to make this a great episode. This PLUS the dinner party makes it near classic.

But what’s on Page 47 truly seals the deal and sends this sucker into the pantheon.


I mentioned at the top of this review that “Page 47” tweaked my brain in a specific and perhaps lasting way. I don’t mean to state that somehow this hour did something no hour of television before it had not. You can make plenty of intellectual cases for hundreds of episodes that came before this that pushed the medium of television into newer, more daring, and more experimental ways. So let me assure you that I’m not making a claim about “Page 47” past my own grey matter here. I can just tell you that when I first saw Sydney Bristow’s face on a 500-year old document, I lost my mind in the best way possible.

The most important thing any piece of fiction has to do is justify the story it’s telling. The storyteller has to make the story matter in some way. Perhaps it’s expressing a universal truth. Perhaps it’s making a statement about a particular place, time, sentiment, or other broad-reaching topic. But some stories have to also clearly delineate why they are choosing to tell THIS particular story at THIS particular time in the characters’ lives. Lost took six seasons to explain why it started its saga with a plane crash. (Yes, a plane crash is exciting, but it’s not exactly a legitimate reason in and of itself as a starting place as a story.) Alias chugged along for its first few months as a perfectly cool if dismissible piece of pop-culture mash-up. But very little of it has context. Having Danny’s murder fuel Syd’s life as a double agent worked for a while, but Alias had long past the point where that reason felt like a driving force. Something else had to define why J.J. Abrams and Company picked this particular moment in the show’s history to broadcast on a weekly basis.


And then, along comes a page in an old manuscript that seems to suggest that Sydney Bristow is not only the protagonist of Alias because she’s trying to bring down an evil organization based on profiting on terror. She’s the protagonist of Alias because she’s at the heart of a story that started centuries ago and is just now getting to the really good stuff. It’s like Star Wars having its first movie be Episode 4 in the overall saga. It started at the good part! Smart move, George. (Later on, Star Wars apparently created prequels that prove my point, but let’s not dwell on that here.) The Page 47 reveal Alias gives its overall story much more immediacy by placing it within a swirling context that spans not only across the globe, but time itself.

“But,” sayeth the many people who come on each week, “Alias didn’t own up to the promise inherent in episodes like this! They totally botched it down the line!” We’ll get to all that in good time as we worked through the various seasons here in the TV Club Classics series. But it’s a hallmark of Earth-J.J. that at some point in the narrative, the figurative camera zooms out to reveal its players as small pieces on a much larger stage than previously conceived. The best examples of this technique use this shift in perspective to show its heroes and villains working on marvelously human scale, making life-or-death decisions that feel much more acute. The worst examples of this technique treat its players like pawns in someone else’s game, afforded little in the way of agency and instead forced into what Emily might call “slave labor.”


Where do these characters, all pieces of much larger puzzles, go from here? Veterans know. Newbies don’t. But I think both sides will be surprised going forth, irrespective of their current knowledge about the show. Those that are taking the journey for the first time have a lot of fun stuff to uncover. And those repeating their steps might find the road slightly different than they remember.

Random observations:

While Syd spends a lot of her personal time dealing with Francie in “The Coup,” she gets some small but nice moments with Jack and Vaughn as well. The former helps her to stay in school, after she doubts her educational ambitions in light of her mother’s true identity. The latter confesses that he would like to see Syd in a romantic context, after worrying she might have mistook his ambivalence in “The Box.”
Anytime Sloane smiles brightly, I feel a little bit of myself die inside. He’s like a freaking Dementor that way.
Fun with Numbers: The passcode to McNeil’s server room is 4747. Vaughn instructs Syd to deposit information gained on her Moscow trip on Seat 15-C on the plane home. There are 42 companies running McNeil’s software. I plan on explaining the use of numbers in Earth-J.J. in a later review. But this week was so packed I decided to save it for slightly less mind-blowing weeks.
A fun running gag concerns everyone’s hatred of the nickname “The Man.” Sloane, Ivankov, and Syd all express equal distaste for the moniker. And I only keep putting “The Man” in quotes because that’s how it’s spelled out in the subtitles of the DVD. But as dumb as the nickname is, at least the show owns up to its stupidity.
If I never hear any of Syd’s friends complain about her bank job again, it will be too soon.
As annoying as the Syd/Francie stuff is in “The Coup,” watching the two of them simultaneously take off their engagement rings in “Page 47” was a nice character moment for them both.
Has a show this badass ever had incidental music this wimpy? John Mayer as far as you can hear in “Page 47.” Yeesh. You could put all the non-Michael Giacchino music from Alias on a CD and call it, “Now That’s What I Call Not Getting Laid!”
What’s the Kaplan Award equivalent for “showing massive cleavage in an episode of television”? Because Sarah Shahi should have won for “Page 47.”
Alain Christophe: remember that name. There will be a quiz later. OK, not really. But keep it tucked away for later use.
Fringe fans know that Jeff Pinkner loves him some “drawings of female protagonists in ancient texts.”
Sloane tells Jack the Rambaldi manuscript is going to Germany, but tells Syd it’s going to London. It’s such a small lie that it’s easy to overlook it. But damn, the guy is slippery.
Next week: we’re covering THREE episodes, not two. We’ll be looking at “The Prophecy,” “Q&A,” and “Masquerade.” Why three? Because “Q&A” is essentially a clip show. Don’t worry. Lost fans will see a familiar face showing up in that episode. It’ll be fine.
“Did the Clinton Administration teach you nothing?”
“I don’t think I need to lecture you about people’s capacity for keeping secrets.”
“The one thing nobody else has but you is me. And I have this.”
“Americans. Them really gullible.”
“If it’s worth something to you, it’s worth something to me.”
“I’m out of practice when it comes to personal matters.”
“You know I’m on your side, right?”
“How’s it hangin’, Syd?” “Very funny!”
“What concerns me is that this doesn’t seem to concern you.”
“There are some truths that Sydney must never learn.”
“We have to get a name for this guy already.”
“They say it’s bitchin’, so I assume it’s bitchin’.”
“Men would die for this book. Men have died.”
“If you could go back, if you could change…you wouldn’t hesitate, would you?”