ALIAS – ‘Cipher’ (2×03 – 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…

If Trust Me worked to establish Sydney Bristow’s psychology toward her mother, Cipher begins the same process with Jack Bristow as regards the woman who used to be his wife.

Understandably across the first two episodes of Season Two, Alias didn’t really devote a lot of time to Jack and where he stands with all of this. The Enemy Walks In saw him mainly putting Will Tippin back into the world, while in Trust Me he voices brief notes of caution about Irina Derevko which are entirely to be expected. Jack was the man she betrayed in the most personal and soul-destroying way, and Season One established very clearly just how much Irina’s ‘death’ and the betrayal about her origins he kept from Syd all her life had turned him into an emotional shell of a man, one unable to truly connect with the daughter he loved dearly from such a tragic relationship. Jack was always going to react badly to Irina’s reappearance on the scene but Cipher establishes the terror underneath the anger and caution: that Syd might be bewitched by her mother.

This fear forms the core basis of Cipher, an episode which otherwise is a fairly formulaic outing for Alias. It feels the most ‘Season One’ of the three Season Two episodes to date; that sounds like a rebuke, but please don’t read it as such. Season One, which I’ve talked about in depth, is an extremely confident and accomplished first year of television but many of the early initial episodes lack the same nuance and depth of the middle and later half of the season as they work to establish plot points and character arcs that will pay off down the road. Cipher suffers from the same problem, as writers Alex Kurtzman-Counter & Roberto Orci (in their first script this season) seed storylines that will bloom: Jack’s secret about Syd’s childhood, Will’s CIA interactions, Sloane being ‘haunted’ by Emily. Around this, they strive to stick to the spinal mission structure employed by the first season as Syd pursues a MacGuffin, but there is less weight and heft than the previous hour.

In truth, Cipher is probably the first of the five weakest episodes of Alias Season Two, running from here through to The Counteragent. Fine episodes on their own terms, and necessary ones, but hours which lack the dramatic payoff Season Two later provides in droves.

Cipher builds on the previous two episodes foundations, partly by utilising the same MacGuffin from Trust Me in the terahertz wave camera but also adding deliberate narrative beats: Syd utilising Irina, Sark’s reintroduction, and the first true dose of Rambaldi mythology this season, albeit working fairly in the background.

While Cipher is a little too diffuse in its plot points and character arcs to have the structural intrigue of The Enemy Walks In or the effective through line of Trust Me, it does successfully anchor Jack’s growing fear as the emotional heart of the episode. Unable to stop his daughter from seeing her mother, Jack works to “devise a strategy” as he would try and put together an espionage mission by attempting to rope CIA psychologist Dr. Judy Barnett into a plan to convince Syd not to see Irina, aware that Barnett has worked successfully with his daughter before. Jack’s lack of awareness and reading people on an emotional level means he cannot see this strategy was doomed to failure. “I am not about to help a father manipulate his daughter, no matter how good his intentions might be” Barnett icily states, and quite right. Jack is fixated only on the monster he has created in his mind. “Irina Derevko is an opportunistic sociopath” he assures her.

At this stage, he may well be right. We don’t know as an audience. We are never likely to trust Irina but twenty years of festering bitterness and anger mean Jack utterly lacks objectivity where she is concerned. This is all, of course, the very heart of what Alias is about. A family drama, yet unlike a traditional narrative where parents may have divorced, here both parents were spies from different countries, from the two Cold War ideological enemies, one of whom betrayed the other. It is a fairly traditional, melodramatic, even soap opera narrative played out on a heightened reality scale as a spy tale. Sydney is the child caught in the middle of two parents, one of whom abandoned her, the other of whom wants to protect her. 

Simon Brown & Stacey Abbott, in their essay ‘Cant Live with ‘Em, Can’t Shoot ‘Em’, in Investigating Alias: Secrets and Spies, argues that Alias fundamentally deconstructs Jack’s place as a patriarchal American father figure:

Many contemporary American television series possess alternative patriarchal figures or remove the father figure (The West Wing, Buffy, Six Feet Under) to challenge the traditional patriarchal family structure. Alias, however, attempts to place the ‘father’ under the microscope by situating Jack Bristow at the heart of its fractured family. Throughout the series, the audience witnesses Jack’s gradual transformation from the estranged and emotionally detached father first presented in Truth Be Told to the proud grandfather-to-be in Fait Accompli. But Jack’s apparent move from taciturn CIA agent to accessible new family man is not a linear progression nor is it designed to reinstate him as the head of the family. Instead it introduces fundamental questions about the nature of fatherhood and masculinity into the matrix of a post-feminist action series.

In Jack’s very first scene in Truth Be Told, as we see Syd’s ill-fated fiancee Danny call to ask her hand in marriage, Jack presents the stoic image of a traditional American father figure, but this is steadily deconstructed across Season One as we discover him to be exceptionally dysfunctional personally whilst being highly skilled professionally. Had Irina, or Laura as he slips and refers to her as to a curious Dr. Barnett, remained his wife and they had raised Sydney in the traditional manner, he could have operated in this traditional father role – indeed, this is played with comically by the series far ahead in Season Five’s Maternal Instinct, where Jack and Irina pretend on a mission to be Syd’s loving parents. Jack, however, was robbed of this traditional role as head of the family, and therefore seeks to control Syd’s life and actions as a way of attempting to regain a level of control over such a blow to his masculinity.

We have seen this behavioural pattern across Alias up to this point. Jack didn’t tell her the truth about SD-6 but watched over her instead until the truth—brutally—came out. He lied about Laura’s true origins until Syd forced his hand (almost costing him their relationship). He kills men in cold blood to protect her (Stephen Haladki) or breaks her out of Federal custody (as in Q&A). He even goes to great lengths, without her knowing, to protect Will. Everything Jack does seems designed to protect Sydney by keeping her in the dark as much as possible. “I trust your judgment” he says, through gritted teeth, when discussing her seeing Irina for information, but later he threatens to kill Irina should she try and betray their daughter. He cannot simply trust Syd to make the right decision for herself and Barnett voices what should concern him. “Have you considered the more you keep her from her mother, the more you’re going to spark her interest?”.

The most telling factor as to Jack’s need to control his daughter’s life comes in Irina’s tease that Jack did something to Syd after she disappeared that she was never told about, setting up revelations in The Indicator soon to come about how Jack manipulated Syd in the most primal of ways. Syd’s uncertainty of being able to recall the part she played in the Thanksgiving play encouraged by her music teacher foreshadows this revelations. “There are these gaps in my memory…”. Syd wonders if, during the play, she performed as one of the initial opposing ideological forces in the American psyche, as Jack and Irina represent the international ideological opposition. “Was I a Pilgrim or an Indian?” “Neither. You were a turkey” Jack replies, the only one not slaughtered. Jack worries that would not be the case if Irina had her way.

Jack and Irina’s first scene together is charged with electricity thanks to the remarkable, and immediate, chemistry between Victor Garber and Lena Olin. Irina seems almost as angry at Jack’s presence as the reverse. “I’ve had a picture of your face in my mind for 20 years. I remember a loving husband, a generous man, a patriot. There were times when the illusion of our marriage was as powerful for me as it was for you. Looking at you now, I see that illusion is finally gone”. These are strong, combative words from a woman who expects the man she betrayed to hate her, and they are very much positioned at this stage as mortal enemies.

The Jack/Irina relationship isn’t the only plot strand in Cipher which touches upon the echoes of a destroyed marriage, and an assumed marital betrayal. Arvin Sloane, on the basis of what we see in Cipher, is being haunted by the essence of his late wife Emily; he finds a garden he spoke of at their home as “dying with her” fully, miraculously, in bloom, and later receives a spooky static phone call from a bed & breakfast in California she had booked them to stay in before her death. With the benefit of hindsight, we know full well this is part of Sloane’s endgame, planting a long and complicated ruse for the Alliance as part of his and Emily’s escape plan, but the show at this stage does not tip its hand that Sloane is behind all of these events. Ron Rifkin plays it as a man who, it appears, murdered his wife to gain power being haunted by the spirit of someone he betrayed.

In that sense, you can liken this visage of Emily to Irina herself, who has essentially returned to haunt the lives of Syd, Jack, Vaughn and everyone whose lives she destroyed. Season Two at various points returns to the opposing duality of Emily and Irina as mother figures; indeed Sloane here gives Syd, in what appears to be a genuine gesture of kindness, a seed box that Emily’s mother gave to her. “She would have wanted you to have it”. This further positions Syd in the Demeter role from Greek mythology, as discussed in Trust Me; Paul Zinder argues that this further symbolises Sydney as being a mythological descendant of Demeter, the Goddess of Grain, filling the Persephone role in opposition to Irina’s (or here Emily’s) Demeter. Her affirmation to Sloane, through gritted teeth, that Emily’s death wasn’t his fault elicits a genuinely surprised expression on the man’s face. She is one of the few people capable of getting under his skin.

Cipher continues, through the intelligence exploitation of Irina’s knowledge, to see Alias trading off it’s long-held position as a post-Cold War espionage series. The fact the ostensible villains of the piece, the Asiatic Space Agency, are “displaced Russian scientists” is key; if the Alliance formed at the end of the ideological conflict through a network of displaced spies, so former Soviet geniuses have banded together to form an agency who Sark—returning from the end of Season One—ends up threatening to spread are “the poor man’s version of NASA” at one point. The network of groups that Irina’s mysterious organisation exploit for their own ends continue to be relics of the crumbled Iron Curtain, fragments of a system which during the 90’s fell into different orbits. Even what Sark covets, the formula for zero-point energy, “a fuel source” as Irina calls it, feels distinctly akin to the kind of nominal, vague geopolitical unbalancing threats from the Daniel Craig James Bond series, which would soon come into being following Alias’ run. 

The Calphysics Institute describes zero-point energy as:

In conventional quantum physics, the origin of zero-point energy is the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which states that, for a moving particle such as an electron, the more precisely one measures the position, the less exact the best possible measurement of its momentum (mass times velocity), and vice versa. The least possible uncertainty of position times momentum is specified by Planck’s constant, h. A parallel uncertainty exists between measurements involving time and energy (and other so-called conjugate variables in quantum mechanics). This minimum uncertainty is not due to any correctable flaws in measurement, but rather reflects an intrinsic quantum fuzziness in the very nature of energy and matter springing from the wave nature of the various quantum fields. This leads to the concept of zero-point energy.

Neel V. Patel for Inverse breaks it down into a clearer definition of applications:

Zero-point energy, also known as ground state energy, could be the greatest gift the quantum world can ever give us. It’s a byproduct of the fact that subatomic particles don’t really behave like single particles, but like waves constantly flitting between different energy states. This means even the seemingly empty vacuum of space is actually a roiling sea of virtual particles fluctuating in and out of existence, and all those fluctuations require energy. If there’s as much energy in those fluctuations as some — though definitely not all — physicists believe, and if we could ever learn how to tap into this phenomenon, we would gain access to an unparalleled source of energy. Zero-point energy could power the planet with the strength of multiple suns, making it easy for us to solve Earth’s energy problems forever or to travel beyond the solar system and take our place among the stars.

While zero-point energy serves as part of the wider Rambaldi mythology, the formula unlocked via a 500 year old music box buried under the Siberian ice, the application of such a powerful piece of ‘future science’ is never quite dealt with on Alias. Like many of Rambaldi’s innovations, they seem to serve the purpose of simply revealing his advanced level of scientific genius rather than the kind of cohesive plan we would later see Massive Dynamic in Fringe, say, employ. It is purely another MacGuffin, a means to an end which Irina suggests the applications of could be “limitless”, but Cipher nor ensuing episodes really underscore what those applications *are*, or why Rambaldi’s followers would have gone to the trouble of burying it deep under the Russian ice. It feels more symbolic of post-Cold War Russians digging into the secrets of their own country.

There is even a Russian connection behind the titular ‘cipher’ leading to the music box, with the four names of Russian authors Irina uses to decode the location (one of which is misspelled Chekov – presumably not Pavel!). It does allow for the somewhat tenuous means Will Tippin is first drawn into the CIA’s orbit, undergoing regression hypnotherapy to recall Sark working on the code during unseen events between Rendezvous and Almost Thirty Years. “This is just a memory” he is told. Alias again recalls The X-Files, which used this regression technique with both Agents Mulder & Scully when needing to extract key information or emotional significance. Will remains, as a character, in the shadow of that inspiration series, and again Alias refuses later to pay off the suggestions here—after Will’s very civilised first meeting with Vaughn—that there may be some underlying jealousy between both men about their relationship with Sydney.

Cipher, as you can see, is therefore an episode with a number of character and narrative threads vying for attention, some of which impact in a stronger way than others. Alias remains, at this point in the season, in a deliberate construction phase having introduced the majority of the story and character threads of the season – Syd/Jack/Irina, Sloane and Emily, Will in the CIA, and is beginning to add complications while at the same time fuse together the traditional structure of Season One—replete with a literal cliffhanger moment of peril in the ice cave for Syd to try and escape—alongside a dose of the ongoing deeper Rambaldi mythology. It is the most overtly Bondian and silly in its mission structure since last season, with hydraulic luges and hidden ice caverns with gun battles. It almost feels at odds as a result with the deeper dramatic storytelling Season Two is attempting to employ.

As an episode, Cipher is busy but works reasonably well on its own terms, however it lacks the innovation of the premiere and the dramatic heft of the previous outing.

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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