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…
The second half of Passage is proof positive that Alias might have benefited more often by indulging in the traditional two-part episode structure of old, given how well it makes use of the breathing space afforded to it by part one.
The Box, as we previously discussed last season, played structurally with the classic two-part event episode by seeding a high-concept idea within the ongoing, serialised fabric of Alias, in a different manner to Alias’ penchant for ending stories week by week in a truly serialised fashion with a cliffhanger, frequently Sydney-in-peril. This lessened over time, with many Season Two episodes having the confidence to end on an emotional beat, but connected narrative structures remain – take how Salvation flows into The Counteragent, for example.
Passage, like The Box, has a condensed conceptual idea—Syd, Jack & Irina work together on a mission—that only exists within the construct of these two episodes, while helping the forward the broader arcs of the season.
Passage therefore has the space to establish the global stakes—in this case stolen suitcase nuclear weapons inside contested Kashmiri territory—and establish the emotional stakes—here surrounding whether Syd, Jack and the broader CIA can trust Irina enough to let her out of her cell—which gives this entire story a greater depth than some Alias episodes are afforded. It is a sign that Alias can break from the traditional Season One template of a mission Sydney goes on with a specific objective, broken up into two or three set-pieces per episode. The mission in Passage is the episode, and it works entirely to service the Bristow family drama. Not until Season 4 premiere Authorised Personnel Only will Alias again give itself the two-part framework to tell a story in quite this manner.
That is part of the reason Passage works so well, indeed rarely for the second part of a story, it works better than part one and the establishment. Passage also works because the payoff is as satisfying, if not more so, than what the episode sets up.
The title of this two-part story, as with many Alias titles, can be read more than one way.
In a literal sense, the Bristow’s undertake passage first via train, then on land, through hostile territory deep into Kashmir. On a subtextual and metaphorical level, the title refers to a traditional ‘rite of passage’ as experienced by a wide variety of cultures. First coined by cultural anthropologist Arnold von Gennep, a rite of passage is characterised through his work, according to the Encylopaedia Britannica, as:
Van Gennep saw such rites as means by which individuals are eased, without social disruption, through the difficulties of transition from one social role to another. On the basis of an extensive survey of preliterate and literate societies, van Gennep held that rites of passage consist of three distinguishable, consecutive elements: separation, transition, and reincorporation—or, respectively, preliminal, liminal, and postliminal stages (before, at, and past the limen [Latin: “threshold”]). The person (or persons) on whom the rites centre is first symbolically severed from his old status, then undergoes adjustment to the new status during the period of transition, and is finally reincorporated into society in his new social status.
Ostenisbly, much of Sydney’s journey through Alias so far has been an ongoing liminal journey, combined with the Campbellian mythical constructs of the hero, but in terms of Passage as a story, the liminal journey seems most appropriately applied to Irina Derevko. Irina, after all, is given the opportunity to escape in Passage as she refuses that chance.
Writer Crystal Nix Hines—taking over from part one scribes Debra J. Fisher & Erica Messer—plays in the back half of the episode with Irina’s loyalty, dropping at one point the supposed plot twist everyone had long expected and had been waiting for, when she betrays Syd and Jack in the People’s Revolutionary Front facility to the slimy Gerard Cuvee (played with delicious, Euro-villain relish by Derek de Lint, late of Poltergeist: The Legacy fame). It becomes a twist within a twist, with Irina playing Cuvee in order to help Syd & Jack in their objective, but there remains a nice ambiguity over whether her fake betrayal was part of her master plan all along.
Nevertheless, on the face of the story being told, Irina rejects the opportunity to rejoin the fold she abandoned to hand herself into the CIA. This is a key step in Irina building trust with Syd and Jack, which is what the core theme of Passage as a story is really about. Her liminal journey is in rejecting the life she had before, the people she worked with. Cuvee describes himself as Irina’s former supervisor in the KGB, and Irina later tells Syd that in Taipei, during the events of The Enemy Walks In, she shot her daughter as a way of proving to Cuvee she was loyal. Throughout the episode, Irina is trying to prove to various people her trustworthiness. She explains to Jack that she knows the PRF facility so well because it was once a prison where the KGB interrogated suspected traitors (we’ll skip over why this would have been in Kashmir…), the inference being she was suspected of treason after faking her death as Laura Bristow and returning to Russia. Irina is still proving her trustworthiness to the Russians if she is telling the truth about Cuvee’s influence in Taipei, and here she tells Jack she was caught by Cuvee and “I had to do this or we’d all be killed”.
The difference now is that Irina sees proving herself to the American family she abandoned, for whatever reason, more important. As an aside, this further suggests Irina’s organisation is an exact geopolitical parallel to the Alliance, in that she, Cuvee and presumably the late Alexander Khasinau were all displaced ex-KGB officers who became international terrorists after the fall of the Iron Curtain. It’s a neat parallel to the Alliance, who we again see in Passage and are reminded are constructed of former American, presumably German and French espionage agents. Two crime syndicates forged out of the collapsed Western and Eastern geopolitical paradigm. Passage does leave a few questions where this is concerned, given we never see Cuvee again.
Why exactly is he leading a pro-Pakistani revolutionary organisation whose aim seemingly is the Pakistani control of Kashmir? And if Irina was ‘The Man’ who Khasinau was reporting to in Season One, why would she be servile to Cuvee? Was he The Man behind The Man behind… The Man? If so, that significantly undermines the pro-feminine message of Irina’s power and control, having adopted a masculine moniker as a means of fear to remain in the shadows. If an actual man was really in charge all along, why the subterfuge?
Putting these questions aside, Irina continues building this trust throughout Passage by attempting, in contrast to Jack’s fatherly instincts, to adopt motherly actions and tropes.
When Syd is shot early on during their mission, Irina rushes to help fix the wound, sparring with Jack in adopting that position. In another great example of Alias contrasting the everyday mundanity of parenting with absurd espionage and action tropes, Irina asks Syd how school is going while they’re attempting to cross an active minefield. “I’m writing my dissertation… supposedly” is Syd’s pithy reply, which both reminds the audience that, yes, she is technically still an undergraduate even though the show never mentions it, and on a meta level is the writing staff acknowledging this to the audience. They will at least address this head on in A Free Agent coming up soon. Irina even allows herself to be drawn into a sad reminiscence by Jack about a comical moment from their former life, which Syd also remembers – a brief flicker of the life they had many years ago. It’s a deeply melancholy moment, played so beautifully and quiet by Victor Garber. That man can do mournful angst better than anyone.
This focus on those familial, parental touches are what give Passage the emotional core that sells everything else going on around it. Jack’s pride at how Syd has turned out, in spite of how Irina destroyed their family and destroyed him, emerges in his quiet admittance at how difficult he finds such proximity to Irina, and Syd’s delightful surprise when Jack’s contact in Kashmir admits “he always brags about you”. Jack, as always, finds it easier to convey his love for his daughter to other people, whether it’s a Congressional committee in Salvation or a random contact on the other side of the world. Irina is the exact opposite – she understands the value of a loving word, or tender moment, and how powerful that can be on Sydney.
It’s telling that, in part one, Syd calls her “Mom” for the first time (without it being a baffled question like in Almost Thirty Years) when asking for her help. This second part continues the equalisation Jack has been afraid of since Irina reappeared, whether genuine on Irina’s part or not. What also becomes apparent in Passage, and this ties back into the geopolitics of these vying criminal organisations (though Cuvee and the Alliance are actually working together, for once, in this story), is how estranged from the world they knew both Irina and Jack have become over the years. Irina returns to a place in the PRF facility that holds traumatic memories for her.
Jack, meanwhile, is surprised when an arms supplier he worked with in the area for a long time has died – not in the field but of natural causes. “We are old men, Jack, we don’t live forever. Especially in Kashmir”. The world around both of these Cold War spies has inexorably changed. Where once was an American/Soviet level playing field, now displaced Russian agents acquire suitcase nuclear weapons under the guise of a revolutionary force. That’s not to mention how much of the ordinance is due to sloppy American accounting after the fall of the Soviet Union, as Irina claims when Syd asks where the PRF got anti-personnel mines. “You Americans have the worst inventory controls in the world”.
Even the criminals themselves no longer conform to traditional standards of spycraft.
Sark describes Cuvee as “more like a banker than a rebel leader” (again begging the question of just how Cuvee ended up running the PRF, because it’s a weird mismatch), and he even compares Sloane to the man “but then you’re a money man too, aren’t you?”. Sark is showing the mercenary true colours we will see in the mysterious terrorist over the course of the series, in how his loyalties can often be bought at the right price. Sloane doesn’t react well to Sark’s suggestion that he is as mercenary as Cuvee, given he does not see himself in the same way, but in reality they may not be too distant from one another. Cuvee is, after all, using the nuclear weapons to access a piece of Rambaldi arcanum, and later in Season Two we will see Sloane go to similar efforts to put pieces of that puzzle together. Sloane just seems to be a little repulsed at the idea financial gain is what these espionage wars are all about. “This is about money?” he incredulously asks his (fake) blackmailer. “Everything is about money” is the response.
One wonders if Sark’s comments are actually, in a low key way, a form of institutional racism, even anti-semitism. While Alias never directly calls attention to it, Sloane is quite clearly of Jewish extraction, and not just because Ron Rifkin, himself a Jew, plays the role. Jews, of course, have for centuries been characterised as money-lenders and power-brokers, all the way back to William Shakespeare’s Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, and a whole raft of conspiracy theories have long swirled around Jewish bankers secretly controlling global politics and economies. Is Sark playing into this kind of racism? Does Alias? We even see Sloane, under prosthetics, posing as a Swiss banker during a high-tech theft in A Free Agent. The inference is clear, and it’s a little troubling.
Alias never directly confronts these issues, of course, but there is a ripple of them beneath. Another example of how Passage sits within the reactionary post-Cold War world of shifting geopolitical dynamics is in how it deals with the threat of nuclear weapons. They are more abstract in Passage than other shows or films might portray. The Peacemaker, for example, from Mimi Leder in 1997, sees George Clooney and Nicole Kidman racing around the world to stop Eastern European fanatics using Russian nuclear ordinance, in suitcase packages, from attacking New York City. Passage is never about these nuclear weapons destroying American cities. There is no SPECTRE-style threat Syd and her family have to defuse.
Their use ends up being subverted to feed into the broader, arcane mythology of the show, even if Passage does attempt to use them to build up geopolitical tensions between the Indians and the Pakistani’s.
Kendall worriedly sums it up to Vaughn: “If the Indian government learn that Pakistani supported rebels in Azad Kashmir have acquired nuclear weapons, the Indians will launch a pre-emptive strike, the Pakistanis will retaliate and I’m gonna get called in front of half a dozen Congressional committees demanding to know why we screwed up!”. There are bigger concerns to consider, and Passage does invoke a ticking clock when the CIA realise the PRF are ‘activating’ the nukes at a certain point, but Passage is less interested in these partition tensions than it is the personal stakes and the Rambaldi revelations of the final act. To an extent, there is an argument that including a Rambaldi device in Passage cheapens the threat and scale of what the dysfunctional Bristow family are facing. Surely there should be a threat of mass destruction from weapons such as this? Conversely, their use is perhaps precisely the point.
Alias aired in an age where global nuclear tensions, which have since from our early 2020’s vantage point have started to ramp up again, began to thaw to levels unprecedented since the development of the atomic bomb. In 2002, nobody really believed a paramilitary organisation could get hold of nukes and even if they did, what good would it serve anyone to detonate them? The nuclear deterrent, the sheer devastation on the planet should weapons detonate in populated areas, has become so ingrained in our societies following the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atrocities, it feels more unbelievable if nuclear weapons were being set off. Who can forget possibly the nadir of action series 24, which set off a nuclear bomb in LA in its fourth episode, and had forgotten about it by the fourteenth? Nobody wants a repeat of that.
The point being that Cuvee using the plutonium cores of the stolen weapons to open a sealed Rambaldi device is quite a unique, spy-fi subversion that only a series such as Alias could probably get away with. The juxtaposition of a yellow flower at the heart of the device, a symbol of pure nature set against a weapon of mass destruction and with the background of destructive air strikes, is also quite potent. “A flower? That’s what this is all about?” Syd asks, as ever literal and far from intrigued in the face of what Jack claims the PRF believe is Rambaldi’s “proof of endless life”. Syd is confronted with a symbol of immortality and she simply doesn’t understand the relevance. It is, perhaps, more a symbol of the futility of conflict. All of the power and death involved, and ultimately all it yields is something grown from nature as part of a repeating cycle. These juxtapositions and inversions with its mythology are among the more interesting aspects of Alias, even if the central characters never seem that awed with the profound revelations within.
Passage ultimately does cut a few corners by the time we reach the conclusion.
Cuvee, despite being portrayed as a slimy weasel who rubs Jack’s face very personally in it over his betrayal by Irina, is dispatched far too easily and quickly. Vaughn, conveniently, turns out to have been stationed in India and has a strong enough contact, who even knew his father, to help effect the rescue of Syd and co at the last minute. Once the Rambaldi revelation happens, the whole point of the episode feels deemed unnecessary and Nix Hines’ script very quickly works to get everyone back to the homestead and reassert the status quo, but not without some level of change. Irina gets the pillow and blanket Kendall sarcastically promised her. She breaks significant personal ground with Syd, explaining and apologising for her actions properly for the first time. And there is a sense this mission has changed the core paradigm, even if the episode hasn’t fundamentally altered the series. If Irina was undergoing a rite of passage, she passes it here.
Alias would have struggled to drop the major twists, turns, revelations and betrayals to come, without the solid base that Passage provides on a character level for many of them.
Check out reviews of the rest of Season 2 of Alias here: