ALIAS – ‘Rendezvous’ (1×21 – Review)

Given Rendezvous has to work as the middle piece in a three-part climactic best for Alias’ first season, and tie together threads which have been building across the entire year, it’s surprising how well it works as an episode on its own terms.

The main reason for this is that Rendezvous finds a way to maintain three distinct but increasingly interlinked, building narratives in a coherent and dynamic way: Will’s investigation intersecting directly with Syd’s search for Khasinau, Dixon’s growing suspicions about Syd’s loyalty, and Sloane’s wrangling with the Alliance over the Khasinau problem and how it could be affected by his wife Emily. Writers Erica Messer and Debra J. Fisher (who last wrote Mea Culpa, but did uncredited re-writes on some of Season 1’s strongest episodes such as The Box two-parter and The Prophecy) manage to satisfactorily interlink most of these threads to the point you can feel the overarching plot stitching together in preparation for the finale.

Rendezvous, of course, is most remembered for finally pulling the trigger on a plot development that was inevitable eventually: Will discovering the truth about Syd’s secret life as an international super-spy, and thankfully they manage to pull this off in the most entertaining and enjoyably histrionic way. Captured by Khasinau’s forces, Will watches the red-headed Syd leap into fray, in slow motion, kicking the arse of the Euro-goons watching over him before realising who it is and delivering a scream of disbelief that is just *perfectly* executed. You feel the payoff of this moment, and Syd’s complete disbelief that Will has shown up on her mission, because the season has really put the leg work in to get Will into her orbit. 

It’s a moment that in its own way changes Alias forever. Rendezvous ends up delivering the first of several leading into Almost Thirty Years that allows the show’s first season to stick the landing.

In a show as serialised as Alias, in which each episode folds directly into the next, the penultimate episode is a critical piece of storytelling necessary to give the finale the payoff it needs to both satisfy *and* launch the series into the next season, if there is going to be a next season. By this point, Alias knew it was returning, hence Rendezvous was placed to ensure the finale brings the curtain down on plot points that had been circling since pilot episode Truth Be Told and set in motion narrative that would carry through into Season 2, which in many respects ends up being Part 4 of this three-part conclusion to the first season. You can’t have as strong a finale as Almost Thirty Years without as strong a lead-in episode as Rendezvous.

This surprisingly has more of an ensemble feel in some respects than most Alias episodes, which ensure they place Syd front and centre of the action at all times. This does but Syd’s central driving plotline – her attempts to get hold of a key Rambaldi document being held by Khasinau inside his club, which then segues off into protecting Will once their stories intersect – is only one of several strands across this episode. You at first have Jack and Will’s mission to root out the CIA mole looking to expose SD-6. You have the interplay between Sloane and a captured Sark. And you also have Sloane’s dealings with the Alliance as regards particularly his wife. All of these elements will affect Sydney in the long run but Rendezvous does a good job of keeping them balanced without losing track of the show’s main character.

For starters, it makes a lot of sense that Dixon would start to grow suspicious of Syd at this stage in the game. Too many of her actions are questionable at this point and Dixon, as her loyal partner perennially out of the loop on her double life, was in significant danger of becoming quite a stupid character unless something happened that threw his trust of her into question. Admittedly they borrow the gambit that exposed Noah Hicks’ secret identity in Snowman—an arm that Dixon cuts a disguised Syd with, which later causes her visible discomfort—but the key is in calling back to Mea Culpa (appropriate given the writers) and the wounded Dixon hearing Syd’s CIA call sign ‘Freelancer’. It is so long ago to be an organic aberration for Dixon to recall, but the show just about gets away with it to play out an important beat between these two characters.

Aside from the Will revelation that foregrounds the core of Rendezvous, Sloane’s journey across this episode after The Solution sets in motion events which not just change his future but, ultimately, that of the entire series. There is a wonderful dramatic irony in Sloane working hard to ensure the Alliance spare his terminally ill wife, only for her to suddenly and unexpectedly enter remission. Ron Rifkin plays the conflicted beat as he and Emily learn she is no longer dying perfectly – a measure of delight and dread across his face, fully aware the Alliance will now kill her to protect the secret of SD-6. At this stage, Alias has humanised Sloane, through Emily, to the point you genuinely feel some level of sorrow for this otherwise vicious crime figure at the prospect of being unable to save his wife.

It speaks to the interesting inversion of family dynamics that Simon Brown & Stacey Abbott discuss in their essay ‘Can’t Live With ‘Em, Can’t Shoot ‘Em: Alias and the (Thermo) Nuclear Family’ in Investigating Alias: Secrets and Spies:

The increasing domestication of CIA HQ is a result of the series’ hybridised nature as a spy/melodrama, which facilitates the constant negotiation of the meaning of family that preoccupies the narrative. This hybridity enables the show’s creators to bombard the audience with images that undermine traditional expectations of family.

This references specifically how future seasons will combine the family dynamic of wives (Lauren Reed) or sisters (Nadia Santos) with the espionage work-based settings, but it also applies to how Alias chooses to focus time on Sloane away from the office, caring for his wife. It should be a completely unexpected and jarring dynamic but it works, in so small part perhaps due to the engaging chemistry between Rifkin and Amy Irving as husband and wife, and Emily’s innate goodness working as a counterpoint to Sloane’s lurking devilry. As discussed in The Prophecy, the Satanic iconography circling around Sloane remains prevalent when he is not in the presence of his own personal angel.

In the scene where he interrogates Sark, Sloane enjoys a bottle of wine with the sophisticated young villain after Sark admits he’s “more comfortable talking over a bottle of Chateau Petruce ’82”; incidentally, Alias enjoys placing the odd clue about Sark’s mysterious origins until more is known about his background come Season 3 – the reference to Galway in Page 47 and now 1982 likely corresponding to the year of Sark’s birth. The wine, which ends up being laced with a “radioactive isotope” designed to help trace Sark back to Khasinau, is blood red and Sloane drinks it like a snake devouring the essence of a human being. There is an urbane power play between the two characters which JJ Abrams and his staff will return to in Season 2, aware that Sark is capable of bringing out among the worst in Sloane.

Nevertheless, Emily is there to bring out the best in him. Sloane’s voice breaks when he believes she will be dead within the week and he actually thanks Syd for not reporting Emily’s mention of SD-6 to the Alliance, like he reported Danny. “That’s more than I did for you”. Sloane shows genuine regret for Danny’s murder here, for the first time, and Vaughn is quick to temper any flickers of sympathy for the man when he reminds her Sloane would kill her if he knew she was betraying him. Alias always does this at any point Sloane is in danger of being too directly humanised and it’s an important beat so audiences never lose sight at how complicated and mercurial a villain Sloane is, plus that he is, and will always at heart be, a bad guy.

Syd finds herself deeply conflicted in various ways across the episode. She is confused at Vaughn’s own distance when Weiss (quite fairly) points out that Vaughn is losing perspective as her CIA handler, which is clouding his judgement – as is what happens in the wrap up to The Solution’s cliff-hanger when he loses Sark from CIA custody to save Syd from the bullet of an unwitting Dixon’s gun. “I don’t know how to be Sydney’s handler without making it personal” Vaughn admits, after Weiss calls him out of having a ‘crush’ on her. This is the first direct nod to the impending likelihood that Syd and Vaughn will cross into a romantic entanglement, which Season 2 will fairly quickly begin to advance head on. Vaughn’s inevitable response? Be weirdly distant with Syd, even though too much has changed between them for it all not to be personal.

The bigger conflicting aspect for Syd is the possibility of Will being brought into the life she so desperately wishes she could escape from. “He *is* in this life now, whether you like it or not” Vaughn states, in the bluntly pragmatic way he can often be, not to mention more than a little self-righteous. Will does essentially ameliorate Syd’s guilt at forever changing his life, after Will digests the reality of Syd & Jack’s entirely secret life (“Who are you people?” he asks with wonderful disbelief during a furiously written mid-section that moves with incredible pacing) by showing real empathy for the secrets she’s had to keep and the life she has led, rather than being angry or betrayed (even if the music lays on the emotion here thickly). That’s Will, though – a bit naive but genuinely a good guy, who put himself in serious harms way primarily to help Syd find justice and closure for Danny’s murder.

Staff writer Jesse Alexander expands on this a little in Alias Declassified: The Official Companion:

Since many of the viewers were finding Will annoying and not this great guy, we decided to clue him in on her secret in time for the next season. The other interesting part of that was to make Will a realistic rival [of Vaughn] for Sydney’s affections. Vaughn is looking out for Sydney, but as her handler in the CIA he’s involved in all the protocol and responsibilities of that world. But Will only cares about Sydney.

It’s these kind of reflections which underscore just how little Syd and Vaughn as an eventual romantic couple truly make sense, when she could be with Will; he is far more forgiving, far more selfless and far more sensitive than Vaughn ever is. In some ways, Will is more like how Jack probably once was before he was betrayed by Irina, whereas Vaughn (especially by the end of Season 3) is far more of a Jack-figure in the present day, which in some twisted way is perhaps why Syd falls so heavily for him. Fans may have shipped Syd/Vaughn far more than they ever did Syd/Will—and the writers certainly always seemed to prefer Vaughn over Will, heavens knows why—but in hindsight, Alias absolutely chose to pursue the wrong romantic core after Season 1.

Vaughn does show a neat level of emotional insight, mind you, when he suggests that Will, now aware of the espionage world, was in Paris “looking at *you*. Maybe for the first time”. Syd may want to try and protect her friendships with Will and Francie from the darkness of her double life, aware they are one of the few tethers to normality she has, but Vaughn’s suggestion is that maybe her friendship with Will can end up being more real grounded in truth that surrounded by lies. It makes the possibility that Will has been shot dead by Sark, in the episodes final moments, all that more of an Alias “GASP!” scene. This would be the first of many to come.

Rendezvous covers a lot of ground, throwing some huge revelations and character turning points into the mix, but retains a sense of individuality as it races toward the climax of the season. It gets to mirror the pilot episode, with scenes such as Jack in the car aiming his gun as he picks up Syd and Will from the Paris club, or indeed Syd reviving a version of the red hair that became so symbolic in Truth Be Told. It also displays a real sense of classical style with the club scenes, as Syd tips a little wink to Michelle Pfeiffer in The Fabulous Baker Boys while writhing on a piano as she sings ‘Since I Fell For You’. So what if Jennifer Garner is no soprano? The elegance of Sydney undercover moments such as this help cement Alias as such an enjoyable series to watch.

Crucially, Rendezvous pulls together all the narrative elements for the finale to tie off Alias’ remarkably solid and cohesive first season. Few shows pull of such a trick so well in year one.

Check out more reviews of Season 1 of Alias here:

Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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