ALIAS – ‘Trust Me’ (2×02 – Review)

Over the course of last year, I began my first deep-dive TV review series looking at JJ Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. Over the next year, I’ll be looking at Season Two’s 22-episode run in detail…

On some level, Trust Me is really where Season Two of Alias begins.

The Enemy Walks In did everything required of a premiere episode of a new season, re-establishing the key characters and plot-lines while dealing with the dangling narrative threads from the previous season finale, but it also operated much like an epilogue to the climactic revelations and twists of Season One finale Almost Thirty Years. JJ Abrams had to remind audiences of the central mission statement of the show while getting the ensemble collection of characters back into their traditional roles but at the same time he added in new characters, new complications, and introduced the major new character of Irina Derevko who would drive the primary character arc for Sydney Bristow across the season.

Trust Me is more about establishing not just a sense of place but a central, driving theme that will permeate across the entire season: the titular trust. Immediately, in the previously discussed introductory segment reminding us of the series’ concept, Alias is keen to remind us that we may not be able to trust Irina, whose surrender to the CIA at the end of The Enemy Walks In tags onto the end of the introduction. “The true loyalty of Agent Bristow’s mother… remains unknown” Greg Grunberg ominously warns, as the word ‘UNKNOWN’ flashes on the screen across Irina’s moment of surrender. Alias is very much labouring the point that Season Two will be about answer this question – who is Irina and what does she want? Can she be trusted? And just how does that effect our main characters, particularly Syd?

Trust Me asks those questions right from the get go and packs a huge amount, from primarily a character perspective, into a short running time. We are left far more grounded concretely by the end in what Season Two is looking to achieve than we were at the end of the premiere.

While across Season One, the central emotional arc of Sydney was crucial to the spy-fi theatrics all around her, Alias still worked to externalise that character work. Everything was about what Syd would discover and learn about her past, her present and ultimately her future, building to the climactic revelations of Almost Thirty Years. Trust Me begins the inverse. It begins turning Syd’s emotional arc within.

Sergio Angelini, in his essay ‘Endoscopic Spies’ in Investigating Alias: Secrets and Spies, argues that the traditional quest narrative Sydney undertakes in Alias is geared toward internal motivation:

Alias has used the smoke and mirrors that form the conceptual basis for the appeal of the spy genre and blended them with the demands of a long running American network television drama to produce a self-reflexive show in which representations of truth and reality are paramount and, crucially, not to be trusted. Beginning with its second season and throughout the three that followed, Alias has repeatedly explored the mind/body duality of Nietzsche’s Apollonian and Dionysian conception of drama, a battle between the opposing forces of concrete reality against imaginative and emotional flights of fancy. To achieve this, the myth and archetype of the heroic quest, filtered through to the espionage genre, has been repeatedly subjected to the irrationality of explanations, motivations and rationales based on pseudo-scientific precepts and quasi-religious mysticism and fervour.

Said mysticism could of course refer to the Rambaldi mythology, which has not directly been referenced and addressed this season so far but lurks in the haze behind Irina, the organisation she controls, and all of her organisation’s apparent motivations across Season One, and it’s those motivations which are central to the questions raised in Trust Me. Syd begins this episode in a very concrete, resolute place after The Enemy Walks In – she tells Jack she will not see the woman under any circumstances, fuelling his own certainty that the CIA are naive at even considering trying to work with or negotiate with Irina. “I don’t support the death penalty, but I hope that she dies for all that she’s done”. Syd is certain – Irina cannot be trusted, she cannot be worked with, that she is the enemy.

John Eisendrath’s script suggests Irina is a microcosm of how the American government and military consider Russia itself as this time. She is brought into the so-called CIA ‘Rotunda’ in chains, wheeled in akin to how a post-9/11 member of Al-Qaeda might be brought into Guantanamo Bay, but she represents the unknown mystery that is post-Cold War Russia. How did Americans consider their former Cold War enemies at the turn of the millennium? Generally relations appeared stable, despite Vladimir Putin having come into power in 2000. The Russians were ready to operate more as bilateral allies of the wounded United States following the trauma of 9/11, jointly ready to face the threat of fundamentalist terrorism, but echoes of historical mistrust remain. The fact all-American intelligence operatives such as Assistant Director Kendall can’t make head nor tail of Irina’s motives speaks volumes for this cautious uncertainty.

As I discussed across Season One, Alias was from the beginning a series that traded off Cold War tropes, free of the ideological conflict to paint them in broader, colourful terms. How else to explain the central dynamic of an American spy with a secret KGB mother? It’s a concept decades earlier writers would have been too scared to play with, aware such a reality might genuinely exist. How else to explain the Alliance? An organisation lifted straight out of James Bond, a modern technocratic SPECTRE freed of the camp megalomania and more akin to a pragmatic, Brexiteers idea of the European Union inner sanctum. We see them again here making Arvin Sloane a member, so paranoid of their own internal mechanisms they inject their new partner with a tracking device to watch his every move. So much for trust, huh?

In some respects, the Bond franchise ends up swallowing some of Alias’ ideas further down the line in the Daniel Craig-era (post-Alias) when SPECTRE is re-introduced as a modern organisation, particularly the idea of information as a significant power play and bargaining tool. The 2015 movie Spectre of course has the luxury of the social media/digital age in which to retrofit a criminal outfit, which during the 1960’s would ransom the world by stealing nuclear warheads (see Thunderball), into a group who instead would threaten to expose secrets or the identities of spies (see Skyfall), whereas Alias does the same in now much more of a quaint, distinctly Cold War fashion. Irina collects secrets, uses them for blackmail. She “controlled people who influenced policy decisions at NATO, the UN, the World Bank” Kendall points out. But everything lies conveniently on one ‘disc’ inside a Moroccan vault, that Sydney can go ahead and steal. Were Alias still on the air, Syd would have trouble stealing such secrets permanently from the Cloud.

Trust Me nevertheless paints the idea of a blackmail disc in moral terms. Syd is repulsed by the idea Irina would gather information such as voice recordings or pornographic material with which to ransom people, as much as Sloane in his SD-6 briefing suggesting they have an “obligation” to get hold of such material. “The disc is a physical manifestation of human weakness” Sloane declares to Syd after hinting the images of the daughter of a technology designer, Peter Fordsson, are of a distinctly perverse nature. He is holier than thou about these motivations. Syd, as a result, is caught between two examples that repulse her – the mother who abandoned her and became a global crime figure and the surrogate ‘father’ who killed her fiancee (and yes, we get another creepy, touchy feely Sloane tries to be a Dad to Syd moment here).

What is interesting is that Eisendrath’s script doesn’t quite paint the CIA in the same beyond reproach terms we often saw in Season One, where via primarily the earnest Michael Vaughn or cuddly Eric Weiss (now absent as Greg Grunberg was presumably jobbing elsewhere for half the year – though he does at least get a mention) they were presented as resolutely ‘the good guys’. Kendall, stymied by Irina’s demand that she’ll only talk about her operations to Sydney, actively threatens Vaughn with criminal charges following his breakout of Syd from Federal custody during Season One’s Q&A (the handy clip show where Kendall made Syd recount the entire history of Alias, not at all for the audience’s benefit…). “Guess it’s two for one day on blackmail” Vaughn quips, but he’s right. The CIA might *be* the good guys but Kendall certainly is not above extreme measures to get results. “I don’t have time to go through channels” he earlier declares.

A momentary aside, but Kendall is immediately one of the best things about Season Two from the off in Trust Me. I have no doubt espoused my adoration of Terry O’Quinn before as one of the finest American character actors in decades, but Q&A didn’t really give him much opportunity to shine as the kind of obstructive, masculine presence we see here; Trust Me instantly makes the most of Kendall in the hard-ass boss role the show has, until now, lacked. Sloane, as we know, is a supervillain in sheep’s clothing. Jack proves later in Season Two he just doesn’t work in the boss role, and the CIA’s Devlin is more like a cuddly old father time. Kendall instantly clashes with Vaughn, with Syd, with everyone, and O’Quinn is more than capable of going toe to toe on gravitas terms with Lena Olin. It’s telling he practically becomes a regular character in Season Two, even if he never gets main cast billing, because every episode is massively improved by his presence.

The mistrust Trust Me has not just for the Russians but for the American intelligence service themselves underpins the more liberal trappings behind the writing staff of Alias, even as the show aired in particularly hawkish times following the Twin Towers attack and President Bush’s ‘Shock and Awe’ response. It doesn’t take the CIA’s virtue for granted, even though you suspect Kendall wants to do the right thing. Sydney ends up, consequently, facing her own moral quandary in how she responds to the pressure of the CIA wanting her to talk with Irina, Jack’s outright terror at the idea, and Vaughn’s flip-flopping uncertainty as to whether it’s a good idea. That forms the core of Syd’s journey through the episode, as the narrative internalises her journey. “This is what you’re trained for, compartmentalising your emotions” Vaughn declares early on. “This isn’t the same” Syd asserts.

She is right, of course, as Vaughn soon learns that lesson himself when he visits Irina to try and get information from her. He is very quickly emotionally compromised, particularly as Irina only shows real interest in his interpersonal relationship with Syd, and hauntingly comments that “you look just like him…” referring to Vaughn’s father, who she of course killed. Vaughn earlier reminding audiences his father could only be identified by his dental records, which of course immediately sends up a ton of question marks as to whether he is *really* dead that would linger across the series. It’s interesting how the production design set up Irina’s cell is these such scenes; there is a distinct The Silence of the Lambs feeling to Irina’s confinement, and Vaughn interestingly invokes Hannibal Lecter earlier by describing Sloane as “killing his wife wouldn’t surprise me, eating his wife wouldn’t surprise me”.

This design, if intentional, is interesting iconography given Alias repeatedly seems to question whether the human villains of the show are, in fact, human monsters. “I hate her. I don’t understand her. I think she’s a monster” Syd later declares as she justifies her change of heart to Vaughn, following a mission in which she didn’t take Irina’s intel and loses the blackmail disc to SD-6 for it. Sloane is often described as “the Devil”, indeed Syd suggests Kendall thought the same of her during Q&A following fears due to the Rambaldi prophecy. Hannibal, and his confinement by the FBI (Kendall, remember, presents himself as FBI this season), are already by this point iconic symbols, with Lecter a mercurial human monster not to be trusted. Alias positions Irina in similar terms as an unknowable, potentially devilish enigma, and much of Trust Me is about characters trying to figure out how to approach her.

Indeed once Irina truly arrives on the scene, emerging as less of an external super-villain to be hunted in The Enemy Walks In and more of an internal character with mysterious motivations, you realise just how much of Alias has organically geared itself around her. Many of our central characters have open wounds when it comes to Irina. Jack, furious in his conviction she cannot be dealt with, suggests to Syd that “the minute you start depending on her… she will gut you”, a POV entirely framed through his own personal experience of her betrayal. Vaughn finds it hard to be around her. Sloane is intrigued by her presence and doesn’t seem surprised she is alive. Everyone ends up connected in this episode to the main thrust of the narrative in a way Alias struggled to do in Season One, with its myriad amount of threads.

It is also why flipping back to Will and particularly Francie seems so redundant. This was a problem of course in the first season but Will’s narrative, at least, did connect to the wider SD-6 conspiracy, and here so far he is feeling the repercussions of the climax of that plot line. For a little while though here, offering to help Francie set up a restaurant she is getting money from loan sharks to finance, you fear Will might end up becoming as superfluous to the broader arcs of the series as she. This doesn’t turn out to be the case for either of them, thankfully, but Season Two very quickly establishes that too much is now personal and internalised for Syd in both the CIA and SD-6 to warrant the subplots if her friends crashing the party.

In the end, Syd does of course confront Irina, but in two very different and distinctive scenes. The first encounter has Syd on the back foot, reeling from Irina’s own affirmations of her role. There is a telling moment when Irina tucks her hair back over her ear, which Syd notices; earlier in Rabat, on mission, Dixon comments that she often does that with her hair “it’s your thing” he claims. It turns out to be an unconscious motion Irina passed down to her daughter, and it speaks to Paul Zinder’s theory in his essay ’Sydney Bristow’s Full Disclosure’ in Investigating Alias: Secrets and Spies, about the mythological roles both Syd and Irina fulfil:

Just as the Sydney Bristow character appropriates archetypal patterns of both the Virgin Mother and Christ, she borrows from the paradigms of Demeter, the Greek goddess of Grain, and her child, Persephone. In ancient rituals, Demeter and Persephone were referred to as ‘the two goddesses’ as the characters were transposable. Irina Derevko is Sydney’s birth mother and their biological bond anchors Irina to the Demeter role even before she is reunited with her daughter in the series. In A Broken Heart, Jack dreams of Irina while undergoing a psychological evaluation, only to watch her become Sydney when she turns around to face him, suggesting that mother and daughter, like Demeter and Persephone, are ‘interchangeable’.

Allusions to Judeo-Christian and Greek mythology lie all over Alias, some of which we have previously discussed, some of which will be discussed in future episodes, but Trust Me feels like another instance where the biological aspect of Syd and Irina is brought to the fore. Nature vs nurture. Sydney is a product of her mother’s death and likely but she cannot escapes the natural realities of how she looks like Irina and has inherited certain traits. This puts her at a disadvantage in their first conversation here, as Irina already understands this, and wheels out the psychological zinger. “Trust me” “Why should I do that?” Syd replies. “Because I’m your mother” Irina calmly, pragmatically replies. Trust is inherent. Trust is *genetic*. Nurture, history, even betrayal, they don’t matter. What child should not be able to trust their mother? Michael Giacchino’s Russian strings through the scene even echo a lullaby.

Following the second mission to Helsinki to retrieve the terahertz wave camera—a well-staged sequence which takes Ron Rifkin out of the office and shows just how much fun Sloane can be when he’s doing evil across the globe, something the writers very much take into account later in the season—Syd returns with a great deal more internal strength and resolve in how to deal with everyone around her – Kendall’s impassiveness, the hero worship of Kendall’s nerdy aide Vicki Crane (who it feels like the writers were road testing before figuring out how to make this character work far better at the end of the season with Carrie Bowman), and primarily Irina. Instead of the gym wear, Syd at her most personal, she visits Irina in her Helsinki mission costume – replete with black bob. It’s a costume she wears that imbues her with the strength to shut Irina’s mind games down. “You are not my mother” she asserts.

Trust Me is exceptionally confident throughout in how it takes Sydney deeper into the internal, personalisation of her quest to destroy the insidious forces within her country, but also her family. It has all the Alias trademarks—silly missions, sprawling cast, gadgets etc…—but the storytelling has narrative, emotional and psychological depth. Everyone in the episode pivots around Irina, what she represents, and how they attempt to contain her, literally and emotionally.

Trust Me lays out many of the core thematic arcs of Season Two and few episodes, particularly early in what is overall a strong and strident season of television, mix together as skilfully as they do here.

Check out reviews of the rest of Season 2 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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