“The Indicator” (season 2, episode 5; originally aired 11/3/2002)
In which Syd visits an unusual classroom…
I’ve been trying to come terms with how much I value long-term storytelling in television series over character-based moments in individual episodes. It’s not that it’s one over the other in terms of enjoying television. But there’s such a push in TV now—a push that started in many ways with Alias—to craft shows that have an extended narrative that lasts over seasons, if not entire series. That’s not a bad impulse, but it is well beyond the grasps of most writers at most times. That’s something about this show we’ll explore more fully if and when we get past this season. But for now, let’s celebrate an instance in which neither I nor any of you have to choose sides. “The Indicator” drops a major narrative bomb, one set long before events in Madagascar, and does so in a way that creates some truly emotional moments for Syd and Spy Daddy.
This is the first episode all season in which Irina Derevko does not appear, but much like in so many season-one episodes, her absence casts a huge shadow over the proceedings. Syd starts the episode inside of Irina’s now-empty cell, admitting to Jack that he was right all along about her. But while Syd’s now more firmly on his side than ever, Vaughn isn’t so sure. In his debrief of the mission, he realizes Jack tasked a special satellite with infrared for the mission. The problem? Said satellite wasn’t anywhere near Madagascar, which is a thing C+C Music Factory would classify as something that makes you go “hmmm.” While hardly Team Irina himself, Vaughn firmly believes there’s a good chance Jack set up the explosives to put Irina out of play. Syd isn’t having any of it, and storms out with her lips so tightly pursed that Victor Garber no doubt got royalties.
Amidst all this, Sloane sends Syd and Dixon to Budapest after the murder of Niels Hater, an Austrian member of a criminal conglomerate known as The Triad. The Triad killed Hater, himself a member of their organization, after finding out he leaked information about “16 next-generation weapons” currently in production in Budapest. Syd and Dixon do their little song-and-spy dance, with Dixon on support and Sydney using a lip gloss applicator/air compression camera shooter to work their way into the mainframe to download the specs and take photographs of the weapons. Syd performs her usual countermission to give the CIA the actual specs, but she, the show, and the audience stop dead in their tracks when she sees the weapons. Because, you see, the weapons are young children, in a makeshift classroom, blindfolded, and assembling handguns from memory.
It’s a shocking image, one that loses none of its potency all these years later. It works not simply because it’s a terrible thing to see children trained as spies and then brainwashed to forget their participation in the program. It works because it feeds into the show’s keen interest in the way that issues of national security often take their toll on family units. Alias takes a more direct approach then, say, Homeland, where Carrie and Brody are byproducts of a war on terror that has left so many terrified. Rather, Alias takes a world in which the fears of parents directly or indirectly pass on to the next generation. Why is such dissemination so easy to accomplish? Because it takes trusted institutions both personal (parents) and political (governments) as tools of exploitation. The 16 children Syd watches in horror are the result of The Triad inserting specific questions into a standardized European educational test. The parents of these children don’t know what their offspring are up to, but they put implicit faith in a government that’s built upon a foundation of pre-emptive offense rather than reactionary defense.
That goes for countries on both sides of the global war on display in Alias. Where things really start to get dark and disturbing is when Syd goes to capture the man behind The Triad’s experiment, Valerie Kholokov, former head of the KGB’s psy-ops division. The CIA tracks him to Buenos Aires thanks to Syd’s Budapest mission, but she finds something else besides Kholokov there. She finds a puzzle, a puzzle she can’t help but instantly solve. It’s a creepy image, and one that unnerves Sydney to the point where she asks to go under hypnotherapy in order to discern its meaning. Under hypnosis, she goes back in time to confirm that Irina used this technique on her as a child, but sees to her shock that Jack was the one behind it. Here, we get the final answer to the cryptic words “Project: Christmas” back in season one’s “Snowman.” It’s a project, worked on by Jack himself, in order to train spies from an age in which their ability to absorb skills is exponentially greater than in later years
Calling it “Christmas” is a cruel irony, one that succinctly summarizes the ways in which seemingly wonderful things for children can in fact be doing them unspeakable harm. This knowledge essentially undoes the last season and a quarter of Syd and Jack reassembling the pieces of their estranged relationship. And thus, not for the first time and certainly not the last, the spy world and the personal world collide in messy, yet satisfying ways. Syd starts off looking for next-generation weapons, but ends up going back nearly a generation to see the genesis of that event, locating it within the walls of her childhood home.
So many shows that try to aim for long-form storytelling often graft that story atop the characters, rather than letting those stories flow from their protagonists. But in “The Indicator,” we have a perfect marriage of a deep secret that impacts things in ways we couldn’t have imagined, yet seem perfectly in tune with the characters as we know them at this moment. J.J. Abrams shows tend to go to this well a lot: Olivia Dunham’s exposure to Walter Bishop’s experiments on Fringe robbed her of a certain agency, and most of the survivors of Lost’s Oceanic 815 would say their free will would have been compromised once or thrice during their lives. These interferences occupy the space between benign benevolence and dark malevolence, but all feature characters that discover at some point that their lives are fundamentally not their own.
One need not have been exposed to cortexiphan or Project: Christmas in order to feel as if choices have been made on their behalf, which helps explain why these stories work on such a fundamental level. But what truly makes a good J.J. Abrams show (whether one he’s worked on directly or one he simply inspired) comes at this point in the narrative. We’ve established that Sydney Bristow is the product of certain events in her childhood. But does that represent the sum total of who she is? And what agency does she have to change herself once armed with that knowledge? The reclamation of agency on the path toward heroism is a hallmark of Abrams’ heroes, and Syd’s journey is in many ways only beginning.
“Salvation” (season 2, episode 6; originally aired 11/10/2002)
In which Vaughn has a nailbiting experience…
We all have things that make us unnaturally queasy. Some people are afraid of heights, fire, Snookie, etc. Me? I completely lose my mind when dealing with contagious diseases. So “Salvation” had me extraordinarily tense throughout the hour due to its return to something alluded to at the season’s start: The fallout from being exposed to the massive Rambaldi device in Taipei during the season-one finale. But what really makes this episode work isn’t the threat of diseases, as potent as that threat is. Rather, what works are the ways in which Syd interacts with Jack and Vaughn, and how those interactions form the next arcs that Alias is about to unleash.
The virus in question comes about through SD-6 following Sark’s trail to a hospital in Geneva. It seems that it’s a front for some of his nefarious workings, and contains samples of the strain that could eventually turn into a bioweapon. Sloane tasks Jack and Syd to act as a loving father/daughter duo looking for a kidney transplant at the worst possible time. Syd’s still bitter from the revelations about Project: Christmas, and is icy cold towards Jack on the private plane heading towards Switzerland. Jack tries to justify his actions once again, but Syd counters not with anger but profound regret. She tells her father that he must view her as the embodiment of all his past mistakes. “If Mom hadn’t fooled you, if you hadn’t been so gullible, I never would have been born,” Syd tells him, in one of Jennifer Garner’s more effective moments this season so far.
In-mission, Jack and Syd work well together, which is both expected and yet unnerving. After all, the crux of their current schism lies in the fact that it seems as if he’s trained her for her entire life for moments such as these. He sells his efforts as one of empowerment, to allow her to think strategically and thus be stronger as a human being. But she feels like a robot, even if she’s able to ninja chop eight secret service-level guards after building a makeshift bomb inside an evil laboratory. She and Jack can exchange ammo clips mid-gunfights more smoothly than Starbucks baristas can hand back change to their customers. But even if the mission reveals that Irina ordered Sark to intentionally expose her agents to the virus in order to study it, there’s a part of her that still feels hollowed out after her revelation in “The Indicator.”
With Sydney’s relationship with Jack in jeopardy, her relationship with Vaughn grows closer, especially after CIA scientists finally connect the dots between the virus and the Rambaldi Red Ball of Diseases. It seems that the first sign of infection is hemorrhaging under the fingernails, which explains the bloody handshake that Patient Zero (seen next to Vaughn in the season première) tried to give Syd in the Geneva hospital. The two are quarantined in a room overnight, in separate beds, but the scene in which they both wake up feels like a scene after the two had finally made love for the first time. It’s not sexual, but quite chaste, an echo of a scene at the outset of the episode in which both stand in close proximity to each other in order to derive comfort. There’s plenty of room for the Holy Ghost between them, but there’s a growing sense that these two crazy kids just might make it after all. I can’t say I’m a big Michael Vartan fan in general, but I do remember siding with Team Vaughn back in the day. Not that I called it that, of course. Know what? This paragraph’s getting awkward. Moving on to the next one.
Lost in all the shuffle of the Bristow Family Feud (and, to a lesser extent, Sloane’s ongoing issues after Emily’s funeral) has been the development between the central romantic pair of the show. It’s not something I deal a lot with here, since there’s a fine line between analysis and fanfic at times. But it’s clear that Vaughn represents a third, separate, relatively safe place for Syd to inhabit away from her family drama and her work drama. Vaughn’s suspicions about Jack last week wound Syd not simply because of the accusation itself, but the source of the accusation. I wouldn’t go so far as to call Will the Ducky to Syd’s Andie, but there’s simply too many platonic feelings that Syd has to make that a viable option. But don’t worry about Will. I think he’ll be okay. Until he’s not.
Speaking of Sloane, things get stranger, and sweatier, for him in this hour. In “The Indicator,” we learned that Emily Sloane may still be alive due to the presence of VTX in a wine glass mysteriously left in Sloane’s house. VTX counters the effect of the drug Sloane slipped in her wine the night she died. He sees someone that looks like her in this hour, eventually following that figure into a church. Well, not so much “following” as “half-running,” which made Ron Rifkin temporarily look like a short, stubbled duck. (Not the most bad-assed of trots, is all I’m saying.) All of Sloane’s paranoia leads Jack to suggest the ultimate test of Emily’s corporeal status: digging up her grave. Alias goes gothic in Sloane’s final moments, as the rain-soaked graveyard reveals an empty coffin. If you’re sick of this plotline already… well, I’m sorry. We’ve got a long way to go here. I honestly can’t remember if they stick this landing. My vague memory says the answer is “sorta,” but there are so many other amazing things along the way that it tends not to truly matter.
In the end, Jack ultimately tells the CIA about setting Irina up, which means jail time for him. But Senator Roberts, who is evil because he’s a senator and that’s just how things work in shows like this, decides to also go ahead with Irina’s execution anyways. I mean, they had the needle all ready to go and everything. Naturally, Syd handles this in a calm, professional manner via chauffeuring the senator’s limo and taking him into a stockyard in order to change his mind. Her earnest pleas don’t work, so she comes up with a doozy of a lie: She tells Douglas that Jack, Irina, and she were all working on a super double dog-dare secret mission to uncover a United States senator working for The Alliance. It’s a bit of a cheat, but it does keep Jack out of jail and brings Irian back into CIA custody. So whew, everything’s great.
And then Vaughn’s fingernails start bleeding during his morning shave. Some people have the worst luck, I tell ya.
- I honestly don’t remember there being this little Francie so early on. In these two episodes, she opened her bar and hired a dude in a hamburger outfit to sell her edible wares. That’s it.
- Will, however, gets slightly more to do, as he gets hired by Vaughn to investigate the testing of American school children for possible sleeper cell recruitment by the CIA.
- The one benefit to Sloane’s Emily problem: It frees the show from creating weekly elaborate covers for Syd to be going off on CIA missions that don’t involve SD-6.
- The first Syd/Jack scene inside Irina’s cell in “The Indicator” has some classic Michael Giacchino orchestrations underneath it. Listen closely and you can hear the blueprints for his Lost score already emerging.
- The ways in which Vaughn so quickly deduces Jack’s plan seems slightly far-fetched, although it comes more from the manic way in which Alias was burning off story rather than Jack’s sloppiness. I do wonder if this feels odd given the glacial pace at which some modern shows burn off plot in the name of an “epic” story that’s in actuality one stall after another.
- Everything about Syd breaking into the Triad facility felt like a great level of a Splinter Cell videogame.
- I’m not sure how Vaughn didn’t urinate his own pants upon realizing Jack knew he had visited the man who helped rig the explosives last week. But props to Vaughn for holding that in.
- Marshall helps Syd and Jack counteract the sleeping agent used to knock out the doctors in Geneva with the same type of caffeine levels that he uses to keep himself so hyper during SD-6 debriefs.
- There’s only one big action set piece in “Salvation,” but it’s a doozy, allowing Jack and Syd to kick all kinds of ass in numerous ways in cramped quarters.
- Vaughn says only two words to Syd when they both learn they will be in for medical observation overnight: “I know.” Dude’s clearly a Han Solo fan.
- A more cynical person would suggest Jack finally emotionally opening up under oath in front of the Senate committee was just a way to manipulate his own daughter into trying to secure his freedom. Me? I got misty. Gotta love Spy Daddy.
- This week in Numbers: Syd opens Port 47 in order to allow the CIA to hack The Triad’s database.
- Jack: “You do good work, Agent Vaughn. But your consistent shortcoming, you should know this, is your naïve sense of morality.”
- Syd: “The idea that I might have been programmed to be a spy… I can’t tuck that away.”
- Jack: “I’m taking care of her Christmas. Christmas is all set.”
- Will: “The hamburger’s making more than I am.”
Next week: Syd races to find a cure, and the Bristows go on their first vacation together in decades.