ALIAS – ‘Passage – Pt 1’ (2×08 – Review)

In 2018, I began my first deep-dive TV review series looking at JJ Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. This year, I’ll be looking at Season Two’s 22-episode run in detail…

If the first seven episodes of Alias Season Two deal with the fallout from Season One and establish the narrative and character arcs of the second season, Passage is arguably the two-part episode which kickstarts the beginning of the end of the series we have come to know up to this point.

The change is evident right away with the lack of a pre-credits sequence explaining the concept of the show, as every episode up to this point has in some manner included. This could have been a decision designed to afford the show greater running time, having to worry about those concerns as a network series, or equally it could simply show the confidence Alias now has that the audience will be keeping up enough with a standard ‘previously on…’ segment. The stabilisers are now off. Even the slippery Mr Sark, who we see in a brief car dual alongside Sydney Bristow which recalls a much cheaper version of the car chase in Mission Impossible II, is blasting out Creedence Clearwater Revival’s classic ‘Bad Moon Rising’ on the stereo. “I see a pale moon rising… I see trouble on the way…”.

Everything about Passage, immediately, is foreshadowing significant change on the horizon. Syd is now working with one of her key antagonists in Sark, though she very quickly establishes a Mutually Assured Destruction quid pro quo with him as regards the truth about her role as a double agent. “If you burn me, I burn you”. His presence, nevertheless, moves a bad guy into her orbit in a way the series has not previously attempted. As Sark arrives, the stakes also massively raise as Passage introduces a big gun: nuclear weapons. Sure, Syd may have casually defused a nuke early on in Season One’s So It Begins…, but here it matters. Passage considers stolen nuclear weapons big enough, Thunderball-style, to warrant a broader, two-part canvas.

Passage, in that sense, mirrors the key Season One two-part story The Box, even if they go about their business very different. They both change the game in several ways. They are both points of no return.

Though essentially a key thematic driver of Alias in general, the issue of trust front loads Passage as a contained story, bringing to a head the dynamic of the central triumvirate who have dominated Season Two thus far: Jack, Syd and Irina. Writers Debra J. Fisher and Erica Messer are concerned with confronting the problem Syd has had from the beginning of the season: can she trust her mother?

Jack has gone out of his way, adopting the worst of criminal means, to control Syd and Irina’s slowly developing relationship, and while his overt manipulation has been foiled, he still resorts here to quietly manoeuvring Assistant Director Kendall to where he wants him when Irina requests a furlough from her maximum security prison. “You argue your way, I’ll argue mine” Jack suggests, when Syd calls him on what he’s trying to do to prevent Irina’s release. She is now wiser to his game playing, even if she remains somewhat naive in how she approaches her mother. She *wants* to trust the woman, especially after she helped save the life of the man she loves.

Passage is constructed as a two-part story, ultimately, around the fun idea of the dysfunctional Bristow family going on a mission together, which we get to see play out much more in the next episode, but it is as high concept an idea as The Box. That two-parter posited “what if Die Hard, but in SD-6?”. Passage is less clean cut but boils down to “what if Syd and her parents go after stolen nuclear weapons?” and there is a sense this is the story they have been waiting to tell with Irina particularly, given she has spent most of her appearances thus far behind a jail cell. When Irina was in the world in The Enemy Walks In she was just that—the enemy—and operated much like Sark has done since, a one-dimensional international terrorist. Since she gave herself up, we have seen enough different sides thanks to Lena Olin’s nuanced performance to develop Irina as more of a complicated creation.

Olin relishes what Passage affords her throughout this episode, as Irina attempts to convince Syd that the stakes they are facing are higher than ever before. “Everything you have worked to accomplish will be lost” she warns, even though she can’t explain why she needs to be let out of her cell following the supposed theft of Uzbeki communication codes eventually leads to the revelation they are infact control codes for six stolen portable nuclear warheads. Irina asks for her daughter’s “faith”, a concept which is deep rooted within the chief villains of Alias as we will see in later episodes as regards the Rambaldi mythology, but what is faith if not a facet of trust? To have faith in something, usually a higher power, we must first trust in them or it, and this is Syd’s central conflict as a character. Can she trust her mother enough to have faith in her?

This issue of trust manifests in how the government organisations in Passage respond to the terrorists in their midst, with the CIA being forced to utilise Irina and SD-6 working with Sark. We, of course, know full well Arvin Sloane is as much as terrorist as both of these people, but Marcus Dixon—one of the few unaware—is the salient voice in the room concerned that “we should not offer immunity to a terrorist, no matter what he has to offer”. Kendall, equally, at first is highly reticent to show Irina any trust, even when Syd and even Vaughn are batting for the CIA to work with her. It takes the reality of missing nuclear weapons and the absence of a better plan to neutralise the threat for him to agree to Irina’s determined claim that only she can get them access to the villains of the piece, the People’s Revolutionary Front.

We should stop and look at the geopolitics behind Passage and the central problem of nuclear weapons for a moment as they represent a key flashpoint in Asian territorial warfare that still rages to this very day. Fisher & Messer choose to place the story, initially, within the sphere of former satellite states of the Soviet Union which later gained their independence following the end of the Cold War, chiefly Uzbekistan, with the supposed communication codes feared to be capable of fuelling terrorist acts committed by rebels in neighbouring Tajikistan, another former Soviet satellite. In the end, SD-6’s already false concern of destabilisation in these regions turns out to be a fallacy but Alias remains keen to frequently place espionage narratives within these echoes of the Cold War, as a series, it is constantly operating in the wake of. SD-6’s contact, the slimy Zoran Sokoloff, is even a Russian living like a prince in Uzbekistan, just to add an exclamation mark to the point.

Instead, the bulk of the story concerns the state of Kashmir, a controversial disputed territory since the painful Partition of India in 1947 following the British Empire pulling out of Indian colonial rule. Kashmir has, for almost a century, contained a mixture of Indian and Pakistani people cruelly divided by a hard border the British delivered without any sense of cultural or political nuance. The Encyclopaedia Britannica gives more specific details on the cultural makeup of the area in subsequent years:

Although there was a clear Muslim majority in Kashmir before the 1947 partition and its economic, cultural, and geographic contiguity with the Muslim-majority area of the Punjab (in Pakistan) could be convincingly demonstrated, the political developments during and after the partition resulted in a division of the region. Pakistan was left with territory that, although basically Muslim in character, was thinly populated, relatively inaccessible, and economically underdeveloped. The largest Muslim group, situated in the Valley of Kashmir and estimated to number more than half the population of the entire region, lay in Indian-administered territory, with its former outlets via the Jhelum valley route blocked.

Alias very much recognises the broader political problem of stolen nuclear weapons existing in Kashmir, given frequent historical nuclear tensions between India and Pakistan, who have almost gone to out and out war over Kashmiri territory across the decades. It is also heavily suggested that the suitcase nukes, which disappeared from Uzbekistan, were likely Russian ordnance given their presence in a former Soviet state, and given how former Russian military agents are controlling the rebel Kashmiri force—as we will see in part two—it is further suggested that proxy Russian crime lurks behind the exacerbation of nuclear tensions behind these two countries. It is why Alias, while aware of these historical problems, never truly makes the episode about Kashmir as a place, serving rather as a functional means to an end to sell the point that these nuclear weapons could lead to not just nuclear weapons activating, but full blown nuclear conflict between two nations.

The main nod to the Kashmir cultural aspect is Irina’s reaction to Saeed Akhtar, the Bristow’s contact on the ground in Kashmir, when she guesses he has mixed Indian/Pakistani heritage – his mother being from Jammu, on the Indian side. “Your parents were brave to marry knowing the prejudice they would face”. This is less about digging into the differences between the two partitioned races, however, as it serves to show a level of humanity to Irina and connect back to the dysfunctional, destroyed marriage at the heart of the episode. Does Irina admire Saeed’s parents because she wishes she could have built a life with Jack in America, free of her obligations to the Soviet apparatus? We will never know for sure. Irina’s true feelings and motivations will, to an extent, always remain ambiguous – well, until Season Five at least – but this acknowledgement does at least open some questions.

Passage does a lot with the Jack and Irina relationship, working to frame them as bickering, embittered former lovers who are unable to put their personal problems aside while on mission, much to Syd’s open chagrin. Stacey Abbott & Simon Brown in their essay ‘Can’t Live With ‘Em, Can’t Shoot ‘Em: Alias and the (Thermo) Nuclear Family’ in Investigating Alias: Secrets and Spies, suggest this is an example of family bonds being expressed through violent actions:

Not convinced that Irina is trustworthy, Jack forces her to wear an ornate necklace filled with C-4, which he gently places around her neck like a string of pearls. Should she try to escape or betray them in any way, Jack informs her, he will detonate the C-4 and blow her head off. The accessories of a loving marriage are used to literally bind Irina to Jack. Later, while undercover as a ‘normal’ family on holiday, an immigration officer comments on how beautiful Irina’s necklace is, to which she ironically responds “an anniversary gift from my husband” as she lovingly caresses the chain and kisses Jack on the lips. Here the performance of the idea, loving couple thinly veils the threat of violence and death. In fact, is it through the act of violence that the Bristow’s demonstrate they can function as a family. When captured by the terrorists, Irina in league with Jack, uses the necklace as a grenade to distract their captors and gain the upper hand in battle. The sequence ends with the family, each armed with an automatic weapon, firing in unison at the terrorists as the work together to defeat their enemy. As Sydney later tells Vaughn, “some people go miniature golfing with their parents. We go to India and look for nukes”.

Passage therefore is cleverly, as Alias always does, rewriting the rules of a broken, fractious marital relationship within the constructs of an espionage drama. Jack and Irina struggle to be in the same room as each other at various points on mission, he furious particularly when Irina deigns to psychoanalyse Syd’s relationship and feelings for Vaughn (however correctly) and invokes the “I’m her mother” argument as her rationale. “Your motherhood is a biological fact with no substance in Sydney’s life”. Syd ends up frequently being the grown up in the room, telling off her parents like they are errant children for their constant squabbling, which all comes from a place of fear and the exact opposite of trust, with Syd caught squarely in the middle.

The fact is that both of her parents are right. Jack’s caution, though born out of the fear he discussed in Salvation, that he might lose Syd, is understandable and arguably sensible given how dangerous Irina is and how little they truly know about her. Irina, conversely, is on the money about how Syd and Vaughn feel about each other; Vaughn, after all, earlier in this episode—in one of the less mawkish or tortured examples of their central UST which drives these early seasons—uses a watch metaphor to tell Sydney that he loves her, in not so many words. “Me too” is Syd’s simple reply. Love has been admitted, and it’s only a matter of time before their kiss in Phase One—which The Getaway soon plays with—and Irina knows this. “You’re so willing to take risks for your country, why aren’t you willing to do the same for your on happiness?” she asks her daughter.

Jack knows the threat of such a risk all too well, but this is another example of Irina’s subtle manipulation in putting Syd and Vaughn together. She has been pulling similar tricks on Vaughn this season after all – take her querying in The Counteragent for example, where Vaughn almost tells her how he feels as a result. Maybe Irina sees a chance for the two of them she could never have with Jack. Or maybe she knows Syd closer to Vaughn puts her further away from Jack, and closer into her orbit. All of these are possibilities. And all are neat ways for Fisher & Messer to both continue the Syd/Vaughn relationship ticking away while being a major source of conflict for Jack and Irina. These interpersonal conflicts, these moments of tension and manipulation, only serve to make the three of them on mission all that more enjoyable. Passage, after all, is not really about a nuclear threat. It’s about the Bristow’s being forced to work together, in the field. “We need to start trusting each other. Right now” Irina tells them at the end. Part two will explore that declaration.

Passage does have other narratives working alongside the central story, in much the same way Will’s investigation into David McNeil allowed the writers to cut away from the intense action during The Box last season. Sark’s arrival in the SD-6 orbit does overlap with the nuclear plotline, given SD-6 provide the PRF with the control codes and are in league with them, and it is immense fun to see he and Sloane having scenes together. Sark considering the agents of SD-6 “pathetic” for not seeing through the facade also engenders a surprising defence from Sloane over “his people”, which just serves to exemplify his internal hypocrisy given how he lies to them on a daily basis. He nevertheless seems affronted at this young upstart, or “that cocky British son of a bitch” as Will later describes him, casting aspersions on genuinely honourable people being duped. Is this a sign Sloane still has some innate decency in there or even feels regret for his actions? Perhaps…

Beyond this, the creeping plot involving Sloane and the Emily mystery takes a step further as Passage reveals she is both alive and abducted (with a nice parallel to The Box in that Sloane receives her severed finger as proof), with a blackmailer demanding the codes for SD-6 investments or they reveal all to the Alliance. It is, of course, interesting to see this plot line from the distance of knowing how it ends, with Sloane’s entire actions being a level of theatre, but the mystery remains compelling, with no clear indication of where it exactly might be going. The same can be said, in fact, for Project Christmas, which Will handily re-explains for the audience to Vaughn (in a scene visually dappled in a morose grey), and these scenes—though underscored by Will’s hope he can make a difference in helping the CIA, even when they fear he’s a security risk as a former journalist—are more about establishing future plot lines than being necessarily compelling in the here and now. They are, at least, intriguing ongoing mysteries.

Though less showy and explosive than The Box, Passage is no less important to the fabric of Alias, and serves as a key lynchpin to the first and second halves of the season, which will look very different to each other when all is said and done. This only tells half the story, on a narrative and character level, but there is plenty of substantive meat to chew on, and plenty to leave the mouth watering for the concluding part.

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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