Alias: Season Two

cast: Jennifer Garner, Victor Garber, Michael Vartan, Lena Olin, and Terry O’Quinn

created by J.J. Abrams

940 minutes (PG) 2003
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
Buena Vista NTSC DVD Region 1 retail

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Jeff Young


With its marvellous opening season, the impact of this sci-fi espionage adventure was such that telefantasy fans eagerly replaced their Sarah Michelle Gellar posters with Jennifer Garner pinups – and wondering, Buffy… who? Garner is today’s action girl par excellence (playing heiress turned assassin Elektra, she was the best thing about Daredevil). She has the looks, the charm, and the acting talent to bring rich emotional life to the standard TV heroine. As CIA super-spy double agent Sydney Bristow, we care more about Garner’s troubled character than all of the recent TV action starlets (yes, including angelic blonde Gellar as Buffy) put together. Season two of Alias boasts an impressive story arc that changes nearly every aspect of the SF mystery scenario established throughout the first season, while continuing with a balance of personal tragedies, intriguing conspiracies and convincing geopolitical storylines designed to appeal to keen fans of both 24 and The X-Files. Succeeding where British shows like Bugs (1995-96) failed miserably, and picking up where the likes of Jim Cameron’s Dark Angel (2000-3) left off, Alias delivers plenty of chills and thrills to satisfy the younger audience, plus more than enough gripping human drama with an extensive cast of supporting characters to interest mature viewers.
Spectacular stunts that rival 007 showstoppers are accomplished here on a TV budget, while the programme’s frequently ingenious plot twists, astonishing cliffhanger endings and shattering revelations will keep all discerning viewers in unbearable suspense. There’s startling double and triple crosses, amusing one-liners, an assortment of incredible gadgets (worthy of the cult TV series Mission: Impossible), shoot ’em up gun battles, nerve-wracking torture scenes, gratuitous lingerie or leather costumes, conflicting CIA and NSA agendas, ever-shifting loyalties, perverse moral values, and consistently amusing in-jokes. What more do you want? By now, Alias has long since shaken off any lingering influence of French movie Nikita, Hollywood’s remake The Assassin, the La Femme Nikita TV series, and other influences like Run Lola Run (aka: Lola Rennt, 1998) and cult TV classic The Prisoner (1967-8). Under the guiding hand of Jeffrey ‘J.J.’ Abrams, the show has become a phenomenal international success in its own right. Here’s my pick of the best stories from this batch of 22 x 42-minute episodes…

Sloane briefs Sydney, The Indicator Syd with Jack, Salvation

And you thought your family was weird… In addition to working alongside her poker-faced father, Jack (Victor Garber), as a double agent in fake US spy agency SD-6 and the real CIA, The Enemy Walks In has Syd coping with the appearance of her supposedly dead mother Laura, who’s actually former KGB agent Irina Derevko (Swedish actress Lena Olin). Can Syd trust the woman who abandoned her as a child, and shot her when they were reunited – in the cliffhanger ending of season one? Cipher marks the return of Mr Sark (David Anders) to menace everybody in sight, and this time he’s got control of a new hi-tech spy satellite. Syd has fun with a jet sled when she goes to sabotage the satellite on its launch pad, but nearly gets toasted when the rocket blasts off early. The Indicator has Syd recover missing childhood memories that her parents may have used her as a guinea pig for educational aptitude tests designed to exploit potential spy kids. This builds on evidence that Jack and Irina are both much darker characters than viewers previously thought – and adds greater depth to the basic Alias formula. It’s one thing to see Jack torturing SD-6 prisoners on orders from Sloane (Ron Rifkin), but it’s another thing entirely when Jack risks his own daughter’s life and plots to make sure ex-wife Laura/Irina gets the death penalty for espionage. Now that’s cold!
Passage is a two-parter featuring wall-to-wall action with all three Bristows on a mission to Eastern Europe. A story about stolen nukes, Sark’s new alliance with Sloane, and lots of family-at-war activities, especially amusing when Syd, Jack, and Irina are undercover as tourists, or turning the tables on their captors in the terrorists’ base. This is undoubtedly the season’s highlight (it’s like a movie when both episodes are played back-to-back), delivering an immensely entertaining mix of intimate character moments (such as Irina and Jack sharing a sleeping compartment on the train journey) and spectacular action (a helicopter rescue during an air strike) that lifts the quality and production values of Alias way above your typical TV drama.
The Abduction finds SD-6 tech-ops expert Marshall (Kevin Weisman) partnering Syd for a mission to London, and their comedy double-act, before Marshall gets kidnapped by the bad guys, takes the show to a new level of wry humour that’s continued in follow-up A Higher Echelon. Another outstanding episode is The Getaway. Jack’s verbal sparring with Alliance inquisitor Arianna Kane (Faye Dunaway) is one of the season’s non-Sydney highlights, but our heroine gets fine moments too as her relationship with CIA agent Vaughan (Michael Vartan) turns seriously romantic in Paris. Male chauvinists will certainly enjoy Syd’s punk style pickpocket routine at the airport, as she strips down to a PVC bra for the security scanner. However, this is also the start of Alias‘ most annoying product placement, as Sydney (and other characters) are seen driving the latest model Ford.

Syd as geisha, The Counteragent Syd in action, Phase One

Phase One is where everything about the background to Alias changes. Replacing the missing Sloane as boss of SD-6, Geiger (Rutger Hauer) quickly discovers that Jack and Sydney are double agents. Syd plays a hooker, escapes from a crashing 747 jet, brings her SD-6 partner Dixon (Carl Lumbly) into her confidence about really working for the CIA, rescues her father from being tortured to death, then finally gets to snog Michael in a love-among-the-ruins scene. After the CIA have stormed SD-6 to arrest everyone, including those ‘nice guys’ Dixon and Marshall, you’d think its all over for Alias as a series, but the real fun is only beginning. Just as Syd realises that she could quit the CIA for good, Sloane and Sark kidnap brilliant mathematician Neil Caplan (Christian Slater) and his family to blackmail the scientist into helping them solve the puzzle of a deadly Rambaldi invention. A Free Agent has CIA boss Kendall (Terry O’Quinn, of The Stepfather fame) refuse to accept Syd’s resignation and she realises that, with Sloane still at large, her life cannot be normal or safe.
Truth Takes Time expands on the deceptions and escapades of recent episodes and Syd gets into a big shootout with Irina. Then along comes another raft of moral dilemmas and abrupt plot twists suggesting the season’s principal story arc won’t be going in the direction most viewers are likely to have expected, after all. This is what makes Alias such great TV. Despite the apocalyptic dramas and Rambaldi revelations of Endgame and Countdown (boasting a cameo by David Carradine – hey, if he’s good enough for Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, he’s good enough for Alias), I think it’s penultimate episode Second Double that has the best dramatic scenes. Former reporter Will Tippin (Bradley Cooper) is arrested by the CIA on suspicion of treason and, in a disturbingly Kafkaesque turn of events, he’s unable to definitively prove his identity, even to himself. With the true identity of Will’s new girlfriend Francie (Merrin Dungey) in no doubt for regular Alias viewers, there’s suspense and subtle twists aplenty to please attentive fans.
Season finale The Telling has Sloane completing his 30-year odyssey for all the Rambaldi secrets, and his quest reaches a grand climax when he assembles (teasingly it occurs off-screen) the pieces of “Il dire.” The truth about Francie’s ‘evil twin’ is out, and she gets a fantastic showdown fight against Syd. Then writer-director Abrams presents us with an emotionally devastating and incredibly risky closing sequence (though I won’t reveal the details here), making season three an exciting prospect indeed.

Syd rescues Lennox, Double Agent Syd graduates, Free Agent

The UK PAL edition of this season two boxset isn’t available for several months yet so, if you own a multi-region player and an NTSC compatible telly, I strongly recommend this superb DVD package as the solution to Alias withdrawal symptoms. The picture is enhanced for 16:9 TV and has Dolby digital 5.1 sound, plus English and Spanish subtitles. DVD extras include Making Of The Telling, a 45-minute featurette charting the season finale’s ambitious stunts – from rooftop location shooting to blue-screen work on the Disney lot – and offering behind the scenes footage of the extended domestic fight between Francie and Sydney. The Look Of Alias (12 minutes) is a wigs unlimited exposé and reveals a few of the TV star’s chameleonic makeup changes, and occasionally ‘camp cabaret’ of her costumes. There are seven deleted scenes (running total, six minutes) with an intro by Abrams, a blooper reel (mostly actors’ giggles and gurning), four radio interviews, and seven TV advert spots as trailers for specific episodes. Also, a trailer for the eagerly awaited 3rd season, a featurette on the Making Of Alias: Video Game, DVD-ROM Alias script scanner, plus sometimes informative, but too often annoyingly noisy, commentary tracks by assorted cast and crew on key episodes: Phase One (that includes an alternative take of Syd’s duel on the plane, during which the stunt man Garner fights is accidentally but obviously injured), A Dark TurnSecond Double and, unsurprisingly, The Telling.