ALIAS – ‘Dead Drop’ (2×04 – 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…

Dead Drop is far more of a confident, layered episode of Alias than it is perhaps given credit for. While Cipher worked too hard to balance the colour of Season One with the myriad narrative aspects of the second season, Dead Drop contains a similar strong dramatic through line as we saw in Trust Me, only flipped.

Trust Me explored Sydney’s relationship with her mother Irina in light of her surrender to the CIA and how this rippled out to affect the characters around her, bringing Syd from a position of weakened denial to empowered strength. Dead Drop does the inverse through her relationship with her father Jack, taking her from a position of personal security to utter, child-like weakness. Syd is manipulated by both of her parents across the course of Season Two, but while Irina passively infiltrates the heart and mind of her daughter, Jack’s tactics are overt levels of psychological and emotional control. Dead Drop in many respects is Jack at his absolute worst – bitter, angry, completely lacking objectivity, self-destructive and ultimately corrupt, giving into his darkest instincts to sabotage a mission—even technically risk Syd’s life—in order to establish control over his grown up daughter’s life.

This is what makes Dead Drop as an episode so compelling because Jack’s twisted psychology is front and centre. Cipher did much of the leg work on this, establishing Jack’s growing frustration at Syd’s professional relationship with Irina, and Dead Drop dials in particularly on those character points. Jesse Alexander’s first script for the season therefore has a strong spine on which the rest of the narrative hangs, a clear internal arc as Jack’s manipulation affects Syd and the CIA’s dealings with her mother. It continues the second season’s initial trend of the missions no longer being the most important framework on which Alias episodes hang. The show now has enough dramatic meat on the bone, enough going on in terms of character and theme as well as plot, to justify fewer moments of pure action stylistics.

Though not a showy or particularly individually memorable episode of the show, Dead Drop is surprisingly essential to the establishing phase of the season.

One of the reasons Dead Drop works so well is that it cuts to the core of Alias’ key dynamic: the father/daughter relationship. JJ Abrams’ series is always at its best when it front and centres Syd and Jack’s tortured, twisty relationship.

Jack is motivated by a primal emotion: fear. He is the sundered father betrayed by his spouse who has devoted his entire life to protecting the only family he has, even if it often has meant she has misunderstood him, or found relating to him on an emotional level difficult. From Truth Be Told onwards, Alias has always seen Jack go to sometimes desperate measures to protect Syd. He is prepared to risk his SD-6 cover to help her in The Box. He breaks her out of Federal custody in Q&A. He even cold-bloodedly murders a man in Almost Thirty Years to try and protect her cover. We have discussed the work of Paul Zinder before, particularly in The Prophecy, as it relates to Syd’s position within a Christian and Greek mythological tradition, but in his essay ‘Sydney Bristow’s Full Disclosure’ in Investigating Alias: Secrets and Spies, Zinder posits that the first two seasons of Alias are an Old Testament re-telling, one in which Jack plays a key role:

An Old Testament requires an all-powerful Yahweh, and Jack Bristow befits the god-archetype during the first two seasons of Alias. Jack’s Almighty duality carries ‘a terrible double aspect of grace met by a seething lake of fire’ (Carl Jung, quoted in Edinger 1986: 48). Jack, like Yahweh, is a ‘desperate paradox’ (Edinger 1986: 33). During Alias’ Old Testament, his puzzling nature confounds Sydney, who shifts from anger to admiration for the Father she struggles to comprehend.

At one point, during a conversation with Will, Syd’s phone rings and he asks “good guys or bad guys?” to which she replies “Neither. My father” and it is a key exchange in the context of Dead Drop, because Jack vacillates in this episode particularly between those two opposing positions. When Jack chooses to hire a mercenary to set explosives underneath the house in Madagascar in an attempt to frame Irina, he is no better than Arvin Sloane, the series’ arch villain. We have often witnessed cold-blooded moments where Sloane casually orders someone’s execution, and even in Dead Drop he quietly has Will tested by an undercover agent to ensure they don’t need to assassinate him given he knows about SD-6, but Jack in all of the moments listed above in which he has pushed at, or even crossed, the moral line in his actions, they have always been motivated by a greater good.

Dead Drop is a point of no return that, in the long run, Alias probably lets Jack off the hook for with too much expediency. On a technical point, even if they are unnamed ‘redshirt’ goons loyal to Sark, Jack unnecessarily gets men killed by his actions when the house explodes. While Irina is by no means innocent, and at the very least deserves probably a life sentence in jail for murder and terrorism, Jack breaks every ethical code in the book as a government employee—an agent of the CIA—in setting her up. Finally, perhaps most unethically, he allows Sydney to believe herself a fool for starting to believe that Irina might actually have a soul beneath all of the murder and betrayal. “I’m sorry that I doubted you” Syd cries at the climax in Jack’s arms, and while his choices clearly weigh on him, it is likely Jack never would have told Syd the truth about what he did in this episode were he not soon exposed.

Alexander’s script, however, works to underscore Jack’s amoral, criminal actions as grounded in a deeper, wounded psychology. Season One established, and we have discussed numerous times before, that Jack was left shattered by Irina’s betrayal. He didn’t quite lose his soul, but he lost a great deal of humanity, and importantly *faith* in humanity. Jack discusses this in more depth in Salvation but the one light in the darkness for him was always Syd, and Dead Drop works—primarily through his ongoing sessions with Judy Barnett—to place Jack’s actions here within a psychological context. If he is an unknowable Old Testament Yahweh to Syd, a ‘desperate paradox’, he goes to these extremes because he truly believes it is the only way to protect her. “You ask what I’m afraid of? The answer is obvious. I’m afraid of losing my daughter”.

In this sense, Jack is driven by his own deep-seated, unresolved emotional anxiety about his relationship with Syd. While their dynamic has taken strides since she learned the truth about SD-6, and her knowledge of his life as a spy brought them closer, we are reminded here that her interactions with Irina are part of a bigger means to an end. “Anything to get me out of this life as soon as possible. Anything”, to which Jack actually looks a little crestfallen. With his dying breath in series finale All the Time in the World, Jack may tell Syd he never wanted the spy life for her but he undeniably sees, at least in Dead Drop, that their involvement in crushing SD-6 brings them a contact and understanding they could never have reached had Syd gone to college and had a normal life. “I don’t think I would trade that for anything” Jack admits to Barnett when discussing this bond. Many of his actions in this episode are geared toward keeping Syd in his life for more selfish, emotionally needy reasons.

He can also see that, very slowly, Irina’s own manipulation of Syd is developing, and while his actions may be hard to forgive, his warnings about Irina could well at this juncture be correct. Jack is frustrated people are “complacent and cooperative”, listening to a woman “who took countless lives” and while he has no objectivity when it comes to the anger and bitterness directed at Irina on a personal level, he can see what Syd doesn’t – that Irina has her own agenda. She successfully requests, and gets, a pair of earrings belonging to her own mother, and Syd doesn’t stop her sharing the anecdote. “You would have liked her had things… been different…”. We are already moving away from Syd’s resolute compartmentalisation of her mother as an asset in Trust Me toward the hope Irina may be more than just a monster. Jack sums up her complacency early on. “You’ve wanted a mother. Your mother. All your life. And now here she is”.

There is also an element of control Jack is frustrated he cannot maintain. At several points, in the context of a mission briefing or practical moment of spycraft, Jack attempts to exert fatherhood over Syd’s decision; he tells her she isn’t going on the Madagascar mission in the vein of a father refusing to let his daughter attend a party he worries might be too raucous, and he is frustrated that Syd won’t simply accept his authoritarian diktat. Jack has no personal or professional control over his daughter in adulthood so he attempts to change the rules of the game, to manipulate events in order to serve his agenda and frame his narrative of Irina as the terrible parent, and him as the protective saviour. 

It’s interesting how Alexander has Vaughn, more in the background in Dead Drop, play the middle; he works with Irina when necessary—even telling Syd not to worry when she feels it is unfair he must deal with the woman who killed his father “I certainly didn’t join the CIA looking for fairness” he cracks—and at one point he empathises with how “insane” this whole situation must be for Jack, with Irina back in play. In this sense, Vaughn is already positioning himself as the supportive boyfriend even before the romantic connection, the rock in Syd’s world when torn between the vicissitudes of both warring, ideologically oppositional parents. Jack would no doubt hate his words of support to Syd given in this episode.

In some sense, Will also attempts to provide this role in Dead Drop, despite not being aware of Syd’s problems with both parents. He does ask about Irina but Syd shrugs it off, not wanting to bring that conundrum into her personal space, but by doing so she keeps Will at a remove she doesn’t with Vaughn. Will ultimately values how the events at the end of Season One into Season Two changed his relationship with Syd, and in some intriguing group therapy introspection Will admits much of his crusading, Fox Mulder-esque actions to expose SD-6 in Season One was geared by his hope he could be a “hero” to Syd, following Danny’s death, which might develop their relationship beyond the platonic. Alias was never interested in truly exploring this, however, until it was too late, but it’s striking in retrospect how many parallels are drawn between Will and Vaughn in these early Season Two episodes, as both support Syd from different ends of the spectrum.

Equally, Alexander provides a nice feigns in terms of Will by suggesting the conspiracy SD-6 plot line could be revived, as Will is approached by Rebecca Martinez, an undercover SD-6 agent purporting to be a post-90’s, hipster Internet-era, female Fox Mulder with her website (I haven’t clicked the link but give it a try, wonder where it might lead…). Will is given the opportunity here to become the ‘Deep Throat’ character, the quiet whistleblower he chased in various forms across Season One, but he refuses. He sticks to his cover story. He has learned enough, and come close enough to death, to understand doing so would jeopardise everything he has discovered. It’s a test that truly confirms Will’s position as an enlightened character, someone now part of the inner circle. Will refuses the overtures of a tempting, attractive female figure to sabotage that truth, as his personal trials have left him better off as a person.

On one level, this weakens Will as a character. He increasingly becomes functional only to the story as someone who reveals aspects of Syd as a protagonist, in this case his unrequited sexual love for her blinding him to the reality that knowing her destroyed his life (which he finally admits in Second Double). “I never thought about my reputation until I lost it” Will admits but he doesn’t seem to much care about all of the years building up a career as an award-winning investigative journalist either, and it doesn’t quite ring true. Alias’ strongest characters are those who can exist beyond Sydney as a character, and it’s why supporting main stars such as Francie, Dixon, Marshall, Vaughn to an extent, or later Syd’s sister Nadia, never quite manage to successfully maintain narratives independent of our leading lady. The writing does them a disservice.

That said, Will and Vaughn’s dual positioning as ‘hero’ figures in contrast to Jack is something that Alias has been playing with since the beginning, with various points in Season One his parental control and authority challenged by the suitor, the love interest, the man who will replace him as Syd’s protector. In Dead Drop, Jack simply fights on a more literal basis to maintain that role, compromising his ethics to do it. Alexander even has fun suggesting a third suitor to upset the balance – Sark. While in this episode particularly, as he did in Cipher, Sark’s main role here is to pop up in a variety of costumes as the external enemy foil for Syd to combat for the McGuffin—in this case Irina’s Operations book aka the Bible (another Judeo-Christian wink)—but there is another, intriguing layer to their dynamic that becomes apparent here.

In her essay ‘(Re)Writing Alias? An Examination of the Series’ Fan Fiction and Media Tie-Ins’ in Investigating Alias: Secrets and Spies, Tricia Jenkins discusses the appeal of the ‘Sarkney’ dynamic to their antagonistic relationship in wider fan fiction:

Examples of eroticisation are easily located in the large body of ‘Sarkney’ stories available on the internet, which demonstrate the transgressive appeal of fan fiction. Sarkney fiction derives its name from the pairing of popular Alias villain, Sark, in stories with the heroine, Sydney Bristow. These stories usually use the eroticisation strategy to explore an explicit sexual relationship between the characters in response to the tension evident between them on the television series but not explicitly explored by it. Sydney and Sark find each other sexual attractive and respect each others skills, but because they are pitted on opposite sides of good and evil they cannot make whatever desire they possess for one another manifest.

Dead Drop is certainly the first episode to lay the foundations of what would become ‘Sarkney’ fiction, given how Sark explicitly tempts Syd to join his side while visibly looking at her in a sexually desirable manner. In Season Three, while embarking on his affair with Lauren Reed, its suggested in Resurrection that Sark may be turned on by Lauren while she wears a Mission Impossible-style Sydney disguise. Sark visibly dislikes Vaughn, particularly when he and Syd are in a relationship, and enjoys the chance of torturing him in Season Three’s Blood Ties. “Sark is like the good looking guy in high school who knows how cute he is and won’t take no for an answer” Syd tells Vaughn with a smile on her lips, post-mission, even after almost being killed by Sark. A basic attraction is evident.

While Sark, of course, would never become a serious romantic position for Syd, given he eternally remains a mercurial terrorist and assassin with almost no personal morality, Alias works here to place numerous male suitors in the role of a sexual or emotional challenge to Jack’s primal, Freudian role as her caregiver and anchor. Dead Drop is all about Jack attempting to conquer his personal fear of both literally and figuratively losing his daughter, both to adulthood and to an equal emotional role with her mother and a suitable male partner. In true Alias fashion, however, Jack literalises what for other fathers would be a metaphorical struggle in retaining control, and he breaks all his moral and personal codes in order to maintain that central position in Syd’s life, even if by the emotional final moment, we sense as an audience it cannot possibly last.

As a result, thanks to these deeper reservoirs of subtext and character, Dead Drop is a thematically impressive episode of Alias, amidst a collection of episodes which take time in unfurling ongoing narrative. The irony is that Jack’s deepest betrayal, and arguably his nadir as a parent to Syd, is yet to come.

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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