ALIAS – ‘Salvation’ (2×06 – 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 there is a disposable episode of Alias Season Two, it is probably Salvation. It struggles to follow in the dramatic wake of Dead Drop and the personal revelations of The Indicator as much more than an epilogue to episodes which cut to the very core of Sydney and Jack Bristow’s relationship, and the central themes of the show itself.

Salvation to an extent also misses a golden opportunity to fully tether the post-Cold War politics of Alias with the post-9/11 reality of America at the time. Irina Derevko, again unseen in this episode, is tried for treason by the US government and (off screen) pleads guilty, having been interrogated at the ominous Camp Harris—Alias’ version of Guantanamo Bay which we would eventually see in Season Three’s Breaking Point. Irina is sentenced to die by lethal injection in an extremely short time frame, which adds some level of ticking clock to the events of Salvation, as Syd’s moral conscience compels her to try and expose Jack’s crime in framing her to try and save a mother she, otherwise, distrusts and is telling herself she despises.

This has been the crux of this entire mini-arc that has dominated Season Two so far – Sydney being manipulated in different ways by both of her highly dysfunctional parents to choose which one she is loyal to. Jack still believes Irina is manipulating her in accepting her guilt. “She plead guilty to stop you witnessing her trial, Sydney” he assures her, reeling off a reminder of the lives she took as part of the eighty-six counts of espionage levelled at her. Jack considers Syd to be naive in not seeing her manipulation and whether right or wrong about that, Salvation *does* depict Syd’s naiveté in how she believes exposing the misdemeanours of one parent would save another. Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci’s script does her a disservice in how little she understands the actions and motives of a hawkish US government responding, in the wake of 9/11, to an unspoken societal trauma. Had the episode depicted Irina on trial, answering for her crimes, we might have felt the same core level of dramatic weight as we experienced in Dead Drop or Trust Me.

Salvation, sadly, wants to race through character arcs and plot beats of significance, while still servicing the natural structure of Alias as a show, rather than focusing more heavily on the meatier drama at the heart of Irina’s possible execution as a terrorist. It makes for a frustrating hour of television.

Part of this frustration isn’t the fault of the writers, who at points during Season Two had to necessitate Lena Olin’s schedule. While credited as a season regular, Olin filmed her appearances in blocks while she was in Los Angeles, as she commuted from her New York home. This was among the reasons Olin’s absence from Alias for almost two seasons worked to the detriment of a series that was forced, routinely, to write around the character.

Salvation is a clear example of that. Had Alias been made these days, likely with a shorter season order, Olin would almost certainly have appeared in every episode and the narrative would have been structured to maximise Irina as a character. Olin appears ultimately in 16 of the 22 episodes of Season Two, equating roughly to around three-quarters of the season, and some of these are fleeting. There are plenty of episodes where this is not really a problem – Double Agent, for example, or Fire Bomb, both of which focus on storylines semi-independent of the character, but Irina should have been involved in both The Indicator *and* Salvation, given how crucial she is to the spine of both episodes. Every bad decision Jack makes in there episodes is because of his fear of Irina’s influence, and her pointed absence is noticeable. Kurtzman & Orci can’t be blamed for that as they needed to compensate for a real-world production factor.

It’s telling that Salvation has so much going on, it even struggles to conform to Alias’ standard action template. Season Two has naturally at times veered away from the Season One initial template of the character drama being interspersed by two distinct missions Syd would go on for SD-6, with perhaps a cliffhanger endpoint. Cipher is the only episode to try and replicate this. Salvation places a slightly longer mission at the core of the narrative but even that is tethered to the central character arc of Syd and Jack’s antipathy after revelations in The Indicator. Alias was often good at finding mission structures that exploited character points they wanted to explore, and having Syd & Jack forced to pose undercover as a loving father-daughter in a Swiss clinic—when they couldn’t be further from that—adds something to what could otherwise have been a standard action set piece. The trick would essentially be repeated in Season Five’s Maternal Instinct, by then with Irina in tow.

Ultimately however, Salvation struggles to balance all of the elements in play. Jack & Syd’s relationship, Irina being executed, Jack facing a tribunal, Vaughn’s investigation into Project Christmas, Sloane’s ongoing mystery involving Emily, and the spectre of a Rambaldi bio-weapon lurking in the background. Alias often would manage to throw a bunch of balls in the air and control them well but Salvation feels a little like a drink juggler at times, veering from one plotline to another without much in the way of seamlessness. It has to work harder to retain the core thematic idea of Syd having to choose between her parents in deciding their fates, and realising she can control neither, which is ultimately an interesting idea. Children often feel emotional responsibility when they find their parents in turmoil and Alias is all about actualising these concepts through a high-concept spy-lens, and Syd does learn a lesson here.

Indeed, by the end, Syd ends up having to become them—certainly become Jack—in order to resolve the situation, given how she abducts Senator Douglas—the totem of a Bush-era Republican administration cracking down on the War on Terror—and lies to him about an internal CIA mole in order to get Jack off the hook and Irina’s sentence commuted. “I’m not proud of what I did” Syd admits to her father, perhaps aware she has compromised the moral values she often holds very dear as a protagonist, as an example of the all-American values that make her such a compelling, strong female figure surrounded by corruption. Yet something about it doesn’t ring true, not just the complete lack of consequences Syd ever faces for lying about a national security threat to a high-ranking government official. That and, well, Douglas is kind of right about Jack when she defends his actions as wanting to protect her. “His intentions are irrelevant, it’s his *decisions* that matter”. It’s again why Jack gets far too much of a free pass for this entire story arc ultimately.

It does Sydney a disservice too as a character because she’s smarter, surely, than to think a touching speech by Jack, which she witnesses via a secret surveillance camera, as he testifies to the Joint Intelligence Committee is enough to absolve him—to give him salvation—for the seriously dark shit he has put her through. “I see only the promise of my own redemption” Jack tells Douglas and co about his daughter, and while this the very soul of their entire relationship—Syd being the one who keeps Jack out of the darkness—it doesn’t feel earned here. Everything moves too quickly.

Only thirty minutes of screen time earlier Syd is suggesting their relationship is irreparably broken. “If Mom hadn’t fooled you, if you hadn’t been so gullible, I never would have been born” she quite cruelly, but rightly, says to him on the way to Switzerland while Jack is unrepentant in his actions, sticking to the conviction that he knows better because of what Irina did to him. To go from there to Jack, at the end, promising “it is your decision to make” about Syd seeing Irina, all just feels way too swift after how much these last few episodes have unpicked.

In the end, there should have been more in the way of significant consequences, given Douglas claims: “My colleagues and I have a zero tolerance policy for anyone who would lie to their own government, especially in this day and age”, which is about as direct an indirect reference to 9/11 as you would ever get on a series which intentionally divorces itself from too many intentional references to current geopolitics, while on a subtextual basis being entirely governed by them. Douglas even points out that Jack has a history of rogue behaviour, and only turned himself in to the JIC because he knew otherwise he would be exposed. He remains unrepentant about his actions serving the greater good and it’s the kind of mindset that would see someone like Jack—and Syd the way she acts here, frankly—cashiered out of the CIA quicker that you can say Al-Qaida. Kurtzman & Orci box themselves into a plot corner they have to resort to the Bristow’s both lying to write themselves out of.

Oddly enough, for once it is Michael Vaughn who ends up displaying more common sense and good judgement, which is rare for him as a straight-shooter who nevertheless is often quite self-righteous in his own ethics. Vaughn is the one who reminds Syd, when she starts to wonder if Jack did the right thing in framing Irina, that for all his loathing of the woman, Jack wants her to die “for something she *might* do”, and quite rightly can’t get behind that. He helps Will Tippin in his moment of need after the CIA, let’s face it, leave him hanging out to dry to the point he needs to try and sell his car to make money to survive. And Vaughn is also smart enough to suspect their may be more to Project Christmas and the standardised testing the Triad did in the EU than meets the eye, given rumours of a KGB sleeper agent program. Returning CIA chief Devlin certainly isn’t interested: “We can’t spare a single agent right now, much less a team, for a project that at best has historical value”.

This does at least confront a modern reality about necessity and need within an intelligence service elsewhere fighting Middle Eastern fundamentalist terror and, in the Alias world, threats like Sark and Irina’s latent organisation and SD-6. Would the CIA have the time to be looking at old records, seeking out a conspiracy given, as Devlin claims “The KGB doesn’t even exist anymore”. This is naive on his part, especially as ostensibly the boss of the CIA (and presumably he was drafted in here because Terry O’Quinn was busy to reappear as Kendall), because it was widely acknowledged after the end of the Cold War that the KGB simply morphed into an alternate identity. “The FSB, Federal Security Bureau… same friendly old service but with a new name” as Russian crook Valentin Zukovsky puts it in 1999’s James Bond movie The World is Not Enough. Given Alias has also seen the CIA combat K-Directorate, a criminal legacy arm of Russian espionage fused with Mafia connections, not to mention the fact Alexander Khasinau and Irina Derevko themselves are former KGB turned international crime figures, to suggest the KGB no longer exists is to ignore subsequent connections and organisations.

Vaughn drafting Will into his suspicions of a more insidious truth behind Irina’s mission to steal Project Christmas isn’t just a neat way of foreshadowing one particular major character and revelation that impacts the end of the season, and Will’s story directly, it also gives Will again a doorway into greater relevance as a character. Much as it is a boon to have Syd able to interact with Will at home about spy stuff, giving those external scenes more of a purpose, Will has been listless while recovering from the trauma of the climax of his SD-6 investigation at the end of Season One. Having him work for Vaughn in exposing the sleeper project taps into his investigative journalist side and makes his eventual CIA recruitment more of an organic plot-thread. It also further allows Alias to engage with its own latent, Cold War-paranoia that the existential superpower threats never entirely went away, that they just took on a new persona – be it the Alliance or The Man or here the possibility of KGB recruitment questions being added to standardised US school tests in the 1980’s.

You almost want Alias, in the long run, to spend more time on narratives such as this. You suspect were the show ever remade, Project Christmas could well be the central part of the show’s mythology instead of Rambaldi, which in Season Two has thus far struggled to assert itself in any meaningful way. The writing staff have used it tangentially, perhaps intentionally to prevent an overload of the occult aspects to the mystery, but one senses at this stage the Alias writing team aren’t sure where it’s all going entirely. Yet having said that, the bio-weapon that begins to become clear in Salvation is something which was seeded even in The Enemy Walks In as being connected to the Red Ball from Almost Thirty Years; hazmat teams were studying the water, Khasinau was medically examining people, and in Dead Drop we first met the unfortunate Claus Richter, here infected by a virus revealed to be the flu x1000 above normal levels, equivalent to Ebola. This central Rambaldi mystery was seeded in so well, it wasn’t entirely apparent that Rambaldi was behind it until this episode itself.

Looking ahead, it’s surprising that Alias takes two and a half seasons to come back around to the idea of a deadly Rambaldi contagion, and even then it doesn’t present quite the same concept in episodes such as Season Four’s Before the Flood as we see here and in The Counteragent next time. Ebola was then, and remains now, one of the greatest viral bogeymen in modern human history, the 20th and 21st century equivalent of the bubonic plague many year a full global outbreak could destroy humanity. In the 90’s, films such as Outbreak or articles such as The Hot Zone confronted this potential reality and embedded it inside popular culture, so it’s strange that such a deadly contagion remains just one arm of the Rambaldi mystery rather than central to it. It speaks more perhaps to how fragmented and on the fly the Rambaldi mythology ended up being constructed over Alias’ five seasons, in how it lacked an internal consistency.

What remains consistent over these episodes is Sloane’s character arc, particularly in how separated it feels from everything else going on. It feels jarring, indeed, to see Jack snap from a scene where he is castigating Irina in Syd’s eyes about infecting her followers intentionally with the virus, to suddenly counselling Sloane about the possibility of Emily being alive. Though Sloane’s machiavellian moves, particularly in this episode, are crucial to the overarching narrative of the season, as an audience in isolation he feels entirely removed from the remainder of the cast, almost as removed as SD-6 feels as an entity in Season Two, focused thus far as it is on a half-dozen other narratives. Sloane’s arc here at least does track thematically with the idea of salvation, given how he leads Jack into a church as part of the ruse he and Emily are cooking up.

“A place to confess” Jack reminds him he has walked into, obviously as unaware as the audience at this stage that Sloane is masterminding his entire psychological defragmentation as part of his plot, but Alias does a good job of genuinely invoking the Christian iconography that Sloane has been associated with across the show so far – particularly in episodes such as Page 47, or when Will referred to Emily as “the Devil’s wife” in The Enemy Walks In. Sloane faces down Christ at one point, the Devil in a house of God, and Alias wants us to believe that Sloane is tussling psychologically with his own innate sense of duality. The show will do much more with this over the next few seasons but it is seeding the idea here, as false as it ends up being, that Sloane is not entirely pure evil, and like Jack he may too be worthy of some kind of spiritual redemption.

In the end, however, Salvation just has too much going on to successfully dial into the themes and character motivations necessary to be Alias at its best. It is by no means bad television, and it does have compelling moments—the action beats in Switzerland are particularly good—but it wants to juggle lots of plot lines Season Two is balancing here and doesn’t manage to forge its own singular identity as an episode as a result. It also fundamentally misses a few key opportunities on a dramatic level and, for the first time, feels the absence of one of its principal new characters to its detriment.

An example of Alias spinning its wheels when it has a lot raring to go.

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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