“The Enemy Walks In” (season 2, episode 1; originally aired 9/29/2002)
In which Sydney learns there may be a problem she does not know how to handle…
Welcome back, Alias fans! We always planned on continuing our trip through this series, and it’s finally time to get back on that Rambaldi Express into one of the great all-time television seasons. Does saying that set up impossible expectations for the next three months? Possibly. But I distinctly remember thinking, at the time of the season’s original airing, that I was witnessing a nearly perfect run of serialized television. Whether or not that holds up is something we’ll explore together over these 22 episodes.
What seems key, even in this first hour, is the importance of Lena Olin’s addition to the cast. If I can make a comparison to a contemporary show, I’d equate her addition to the show with that of Margo Martindale’s addition to Justified. Both shows had strong, albeit imperfect, inaugural seasons. But each show then added a strong female character that was not only compelling in and of itself, but also brought out strong and interesting dynamics with whomever she came into contact. Now, Irina Derevko hung over her show’s first season in ways Mags Bennett never did, to be sure. But having Irina’s physical presence in season two makes a world of difference.
Just look at that first scene, which is a slightly restaged version of the final one in “Almost 30 Years.” Alias hadn’t cast Olin yet, so there’s some weird vocal dissonance for those that switched discs instantly to keep the party going last summer. Oh well. It’s television. Would we rather J.J. Abrams had pulled a George Lucas and re-dubbed the final moments of season one using Olin’s voice? That’s a slippery slope, ending with Alexander Khasinau suddenly drawing first at the Port of Barcelona at episode’s end. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. In this first scene, we see Irina’s icy resolve, but we’re also keenly aware that little about her is what it seems. Yes, she shoots her own daughter in the freakin’ shoulder moments into their reunion, but Irina is also a cipher, someone who has an agenda that others can only guess at in an increasingly futile manner.
After that initial moment, she disappears for a long stretch. What happens in between can be split into two parts: there’s a lengthy chat between Syd and her CIA psychologist Judy Barnett which functions partially as a debrief but mostly as a “Hey, newbies: Here’s season one in 15 minutes!” Giving Jennifer Garner the dialogue she has in these early minutes seems close to a hate crime, but to the show’s credit, it makes this exposition dump into something Syd is loathe to give as well. She both hates the protocol involved that necessitates at retelling of known facts (a hatred established in season one’s “Q&A”), and she also hates that she’s there instead of helping the CIA search for a still-missing Vaughn.
Via exposition, flashback, and new scenes, we get up to speed on what happened between the end of season one and Syd’s return to L.A. For her own part, after getting shot by her mother, Sydney MacGyver’ed her away out of the stronghold in a bravura series of set pieces. (Using a gas tank to blow the door open? Awesome. Using the still-handcuffed chair legs as nunchucks? Double awesome!) Meanwhile, while waiting for Vaughn to meet them on the plane, Syd gets a call from Francie that Will’s story about SD-6 leaked to the press in his absence. Also? Jack realizes that Dixon told Sloane’s suspicions about Syd’s double-agent status. Because he’s Spy Daddy Supreme, Jack solves both problems in the time it takes most of us to get ready for work in the morning. Firstly, he tells Sloane that Syd’s mysterious call signal from “Time Will Tell”/”Mea Culpa” was his idea, part of his distrust of Sloane at the time. Secondly, he injects Will with freakin’ heroin in order to disgrace the poor guy in hopes of staving off his almost inevitable death at the hands of SD-6. Whew. I need a cigarette. You?
With Vaughn still missing, it’s business as usual for Syd as we head into the second half of the episode. It’s time for the season’s first mission/countermission, as Syd and Dixon (who apologizes to her in heartbreaking, Dixon-ian fashion before they leave) head to France to bug the phone of Jean-Marc Ravais, a man helping to fund Khasinau and Derevko. While there, Syd spots a man who was in a hazmat suit analyzing the remnants of the Rambaldi Device, and follows him down into a secret laboratory where Vaughn and others are being held for creepy-ass experiments involving rotary saws. She fights Khasinau, who takes advantage of her weakened shoulder to temporarily overpower her. He leaves to get back up, but in the interim Syd pulls a Pulp Fiction and jabs a roughly 47-inch needle into Vaughn’s chest, pumping him full of enough adrenaline to escape the facility.
Syd’s countermission for the CIA allowed them to delay any calls through Ravais’ phone, which allows them to hear about a meet to deliver “The Bible” to Khasinau in Barcelona and simultaneously keep that information hidden from SD-6. So it’s off to the meet where Derevko manages to
- learn about Sydney’s role with the CIA,
- outwit said CIA operatives by herself,
- double-cross Khasinau to obtain The Bible for herself,
- slip past Sydney once again, and finally, in the mother (see what I did there?) of all twists,
- turn herself into the CIA by episode’s end, in a scene that recalled Syd’s first entrance into that building back in the series’ pilot episode.
Now, throughout the hour, Syd maintained a calm exterior while dealing with the problems before her. She maintains a strong façade in front of her colleagues and friends. But Irina turning herself in is something she can’t handle, especially in light of delivering Emily Sloane’s eulogy that morning. And here we turn into what will be the signature aspect of this season of Alias: The ways in which the secrets that families keep from each other can be more devastating than any national security secret could ever be. Most of Emily’s eulogy is a lie (in ways newbies and veterans can detect, albeit to varying degrees that I pray aren’t spoiled in the comments below), but it’s the truth that provides the anchor for most of those deceptions that truly cuts Syd to the core. Yes, she has Will now to share her true profession. But that’s not enough by any stretch of the imagination. And her other emotional rock, her father? Well, let’s just say he’s about as equipped to handle the emotional onslaught to come as well as his daughter. Let’s bring the pain, Alias.
“Trust Me” (season 2, episode 1; originally aired 10/6/2002)
In which Irina starts to break everyone’s brains…
This episode closes with Bob Dylan’s “Shelter From The Storm.” Well, Irina’s the storm, sweeping up everyone around her in a maelstrom of emotions, contradictions, and manipulations. She spends the entire episode inside a CIA stronghold, separated from the outside world by bars, glass, security systems, and a dozen other elements designed to keep her contained. But just like another overly incarcerated prisoner, Hannibal Lecter, she has a way of getting into the heads of her interrogators and beyond. Her silence speaks volumes, and gnaws into the unknown spaces of all in her sphere. Hot damn, Alias, it’s fun to be getting into the good stuff here.
While all the typical trappings of an Alias episode are in full view here, what really matters are the psychological mindgames going on in the new world order of the show. Not only does Irina Derevko come into play more fully due to her incarceration, but there’s a new branch of the CIA now as Agent Kendall returns to the show in full-time capacity after his single appearance in the aforementioned episode “Q&A.” He works out of an operations center that serves as the new basis for government operations for the year, and he brings the bull-headed approach that he did to Syd’s inquisition in season one. In some ways, he’s the typical “I have authority but no wisdom” government official that populates so many spy fictions. But he’s also played by Terry O’Quinn, which means there’s also a hint of something else going on under the surface as well. Maybe subsequent years of watching Lost infect my viewing the way Irina’s past infects Syd and Vaughn, but it’s tempting to watch Kendall’s actions as having a similarly layered goal. He’s not exactly a criminal mastermind, but he’s also not a complete bureaucrat, either.
Since we’re in Lost world here, it’s impossible not to compare Irina with another mysterious figure from that world: Benjamin Linus. Both tend to be very still. Both tend to say only what needs to be said. Both tell enough truth to let their victims hang themselves upon it. And both, let’s be frank, ultimately grate with the levels of lie upon lie upon manipulation atop deception. We’re a long way off from Irina tying herself (and the show) up in narrative knots, but what largely keeps her from turning into Linus Lite are the personal stakes involved in the game she’s playing. Whereas Ben played people like violins for an abstract concept, Irina is manipulating people with whom she has personal history, and personal stakes. Plus, let’s be honest: Would you rather watch Michael Emerson snake along a glass wall in cat-like fashion, or Lena Olin? Thought so. Glad we’ve settled this.
Irina is now in custody, but won’t talk to anyone but Syd. Most of the episode finds Syd unwilling to do so, as she and Jack start a “Irina Derevko Pretty Much Psychologically Destroyed Me And Now I’m A Quivering Bowl of Bristow Bisque” support group to deal with her re-appearance. Kendall puts the screws on Syd to talk to Irina, but it’s no go. Vaughn decides to step up, but he’s just as ill-prepared as they are, given that Vaughn’s father was one of the agents Derevko killed during her time as a spy. He does get Irina to give up one piece of valuable intel concerning a mission to get a blackmail disc, but Syd isn’t nearly ready to trust her mother at this point. The intel turns out to be real, but Syd’s disbelief means her countermission fails. Sounds like a typical McGee family reunion to me.
The mission itself also stems from Irina’s incarceration, but from a plot perspective, not emotional one. The vacuum created by the implosion of her network means the Alliance of Twelve now has an opportunity to seize the sizable portion of underworld activity now up for grabs. The blackmail disc has scandalous photos of Petr Fordson, a scientist who developed a terahertz wave camera, which, when coupled with a satellite, could take pictures inside NORAD or even worse: inside the Kardashian compound. Now a full-time member of the Alliance after Emily’s death, Sloane handles obtaining the camera personally. This puts Sloane and Syd into the field at the same time, which allows for some pretty great tension as the latter plays mouse to the former’s unknowing cat. In another visual nod to the series pilot, Syd eventually plunks down the camera on Kendall’s desk as proof of loyalty, in much the same way she dropped the Mueller device on Sloane’s desk as “proof” then.
After completing her mission, Syd makes what seems like a strong stand against her mother, stating she will call the shots from now on. But what seems like the end of a certain cycle is only another round in Irina’s overall game. Syd chooses to consciously believe that her “real” mother died decades ago. But both have the same subconscious way of pulling their hair away from their ear. Dixon calls that Syd’s signature “thing,” but it’s not her thing at all. It’s Irina’s. And trying to separate the woman behind the glass as an asset to be used rather than as a family member to forgive won’t work at all. Irina’s long smile at the end of the episode confirms this. Jack and Syd spent all of season one carefully rebuilding their bond. And it’s all about to get smashed to bits. The Bristow Family Drama is only beginning. The storm is coming, and there will be no shelter.
- J.J. Abrams wrote “The Enemy Walks In.” The next one credited to him? “Phase One.” Lord in Heaven, can’t wait to cover that one.
- The small scene in which Dixon apologizes to Syd for distrusting her is just incredible. So much of “Enemy” is non-stop propulsive storytelling, so it’s nice to have moments like this in which things slow down and we see the human costs of their high-stakes lives.
- Another strong emotional moment: the way in which Jack tries to comfort Will before injecting him with heroin. Will understands that his life as he knows it is over, and Jack feels sympathy for a man he didn’t come close to respecting when the series first started.
- Not much Francie in “Enemy,” but she does get approval on space to open her restaurant. No way that will end badly.
- This week in The Numbers: The CIA tries to capture The Bible on Port 347.
- Not much Will/Francie in “Trust Me,” except for Jack giving Francie hilarious wall-color suggestions and Will agreeing to help her navigate the complicated legal world of opening a restaurant.
- Arvin gets injected with something in his neck as part of the Alliance’s initiation. My memory of this is fuzzy, but I’m 99 percent sure it’s a tracker so Alain Christophe and the others know where he is at all times.
- “Trust Me” is the first time we see the complicated way in which Syd needs to access the operations center. Each season of Alias seems to feature a new way in which the CIA has hidden its bases in plain sight. If we make it to season three in these reviews, we can marvel at the underground station buried inside the public transportation system.
- Irina: “I could have prevented all this, of course. You were so small when you were born.”
- Will: “Seriously?”
- Sydney: “What am I supposed to say? Something insightful?”
- Jack: “Yes, I can think of a number of other ways. But all involve your burial.”
- Francie: “I want to kill him. With my hands.”
- Vaughn: “Killing his wife wouldn’t surprise me. Eating his wife wouldn’t surprise me.”
- Irina: “You look just like him.”
- Jack: “The answer is NO.”
- Syd: “I need to know why.” Irina: “No, you want to know why. There’s a difference.”
- Next week: Sark returns and Emily’s garden grows.