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…
Ever since the very beginning, Alias has always neglected a key group of its contracted regular cast, among them the character who finally gets his moment in the spotlight in The Abduction: Marshall Flinkman.
Though Will had his conspiracy investigation angle in Season One to give him meat to chew on, Marshall was one of three characters particularly who week in, week out would get short shrift compared to Syd, Jack, Vaughn and Sloane principally. Dixon would only be wheeled out when Syd needed someone to go on a mission with, getting only the briefest of interesting plots when he suspects Syd of betrayal in Almost Thirty Years. Francie, Syd’s roommate, gets an unconvincing romantic sub-plot ditched from The Coup onwards, after which she barely features. It takes Dixon’s entire belief system and then family to be destroyed to give him anything of real substance, and Francie has to actually *die* before she becomes in any way interesting. Which just leaves Marshall.
Right from pilot episode Truth Be Told, Marshall is designed entirely as comic relief. He is the nerdy oddball who is tolerated purely for his technical brilliance, given how much he irritates all of the serious people in the room. There is barely an episode of Alias up to this point that doesn’t feature Marshall in a briefing awkwardly dropping one-liners or geek references that nobody in the room finds funny, or rambling too often before being cut off and falling quiet. He is, effectively, Xander Harris from Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Q from the James Bond series by way of the Lone Gunmen in The X-Files. Marshall, as a character, runs entirely counter to everyone else in Alias and that’s precisely the point – though he may be a genius, he is also perhaps the most relatable person in the show. If we were in Alias, we’d all be a variant on Marshall, most likely.
The Abduction, and particularly A Higher Echelon after it, are designed with one question in mind: what if we throw Marshall out of his comfort zone?
Marshall was, of course, famously envisaged very differently at the outset of Alias. He would have been older, sported a ponytail and wore a Motley Crue t-shirt, perhaps designating as more of a ‘stoner Q’, a post-90’s retro nod to the 1960’s style of television Alias was updating in a modern context. Marshall would have been a symbol of counter-culture in contrast to staid, sleek present day espionage. When Kevin Weisman was cast in the role, Marshall’s persona changed to better fit the actor in question, with Marshall instead re-conditioned as a fairly cliche Generation X’er. Marshall ended up something of a thirty-something basement dweller, both at work and at home where he still lived with his presumably overbearing mother. Weisman certainly seemed okay with him serving as comic relief in this context as he recounted to Alias: The Official Magazine:
I think people like rooting for the underdog, the show is so serious and I think people enjoy a bit of comic relief. I think they enjoy both my and Greg Grunberg’s character, Weiss, because we provide a little levity and a little reality.
Before becoming part of Syd’s mission in The Abduction, Marshall even reinforces these geek stereotypes by asking Syd to snap some pictures of Paris for her while she’s over there: “you know, we have to maintain our cover for our loved ones and, well, my mom thinks I run global IT services for the bank so I like to composite myself into photographs for her.” Cue intentionally badly composited shots of Marshall next to landmarks such as the Sphinx. “Of course, I never actually left southern California but every once and a while I like to show my mom all the places I’ve never… really been to”. It’s quite a sad portrayal and one that readily buys into the idea of what Marshall represents: the lonely, awkward geek in love with the beautiful, unattainable, functioning woman.
This, in and of itself, is inherently quite sexist toward Sydney as a character because it reduces her, in Marshall’s mind, to an object. It’s also playing, again, into the cliche of the tech geek who cannot have a proper conversation, let alone relationship, with a member of the female species; Marshall already trips over his words, gabbles, runs out of breath, and often in his own charming way complements Syd while briefing her on the gadgets she will use in missions. Granted, Syd has enormous affection for him, Marshall is genuinely just a nice guy and in no way lascivious, and Weisman imbues the character with such nerdy charm he’s impossible not to embrace, but Alias looks distinctly dated in how it characterises Marshall in relation to the rest of the show. He’s not just comic relief, he’s often intentionally designed to make everyone else around him look cooler, sexier, more efficient and more capable of functioning in society. The Abduction, in that sense, is a gimmick episode based on the what if scenario of “what if Marshall has to go on a mission?” and exploring the consequences of trying to insert the character into a scenario he couldn’t be further away from.
Inevitably, writers Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci play it for comedy, and that’s inevitable and quite right for Marshall. He is justifiably terrified at the prospect of going into the field to copy the content of the Echelon operating system and crack the code beyond the super-intelligent capabilities of even Syd, as we see when he is on the plane to London attempting to control as much of the flight operations as he can in order to find some semblance of order to the chaos injected into his world. Scenes like this we would only traditionally see on planes if Syd has tense or difficult conversations to have with characters, but here Alias uses one to detail Marshall’s anxiety about having to do what he helps others do. “You don’t have to thank me, it’s my job to keep you safe” he sweetly tells Syd at one point, but it’s an inversion. Marshall is not the strong masculine figure who will protect the female from danger, it is rather the reverse on a physical level – but when it comes to technology, field equipment, and the hyper-real tools Syd uses to escape and survive her missions, Marshall does in that sense operate in that role. Without his mind, she would have been dead long ago. This turns out to be true for the both of them by the end of this episode.
The Abduction also plays on his visible hero worship and ‘love’ of Syd. It establishes primarily that Marshall isn’t in love with Sydney as a person, he rather idealises and loves what she represents as a strong female archetype – he might as well fall in love with Lara Croft while playing Tomb Raider. The episode perhaps reaches a nadir when Marshall, doped up by a tranquilliser and dropping off to sleep instead of hacking the software (this is after he drunkenly declares his love for her), is jolted into action after Syd plants a smacker on the lips. It’s a beat played for comedy, and almost a reversal of the Sleeping Beauty trope, but it is cheap and hackneyed and just feeds into the worst caricature depictions of Marshall’s character. The only thing worse than this is in Season 3, when on mission in The Frame, Marshall literally slaps Syd’s butt in character – the fact by then he’s a married man and a father just makes the moment worse. That’s for later. For now, The Abduction falls down when it engages in the virginal, nerdy lovelorn aspects of Marshall’s character, but perks up when engaging Marshall as vehicle for a comedic slant on the traditional Alias mission structure.
Perhaps Marshall is an example, however, of the growing normalisation of geek culture in society. Tracy L. Cross argues this in 2005 in her essay ‘Nerds and Geeks: Society’s Evolving Stereotypes of Our Students With Gifts and Talents‘:
The term geek is now used increasingly as an adjective, rather than merely a strict stereotype. For example, “tech geek” is a common phrase used to describe someone whose passion for technology has made him or her a computer expert. This more positive spin on the word geek has occurred for two reasons. First, many people in our society are passionate about computers, so being viewed as an expert (geek) is socially rewarding. Second, because many others strive to become more technologically savvy, the expert or geek is seen as a helper, and in many cases the term geek even attaches an avant-garde quality to this individual. In addition to the individual striving to become more technologically advanced, the evolution of cyber cafés and other multimedia advances in our culture (especially in the bigger cities), have contributed to the evolving stereotype of a geek.
Though Alias is of course a hyper-real spy show, and not by any means high or intense drama, Syd’s missions are always treated as life or death scenarios are taken, quote on quote, seriously by the writers of the show. Marshall partnering Syd gives them the chance to entirely upend that, and play the same kind of scenario for laughs. That doesn’t make The Abduction a comedy episode in the sense that, say, the Ferengi-based episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine might be badged as farces or romps, as The Abduction also contains one or two ‘serious’ plot-lines running alongside the A-plot that continue the main narratives of the show. The Abduction nevertheless does engage with physical humour – Marshall tranquillised, falling over as Syd has to prop him up (this would never happen with Dixon!); his theatrical joy of playing the role, hamming it up with terrible posh and later Cockney British accents with a relish Syd never employs when playing a character on mission; dropping terrible puns at the set-piece villain Severin Driscoll “if it ain’t Baroque, don’t fix it”, shouting at guards in Ewok! The comedy comes from how Marshall seems to forget just how much danger he is actually in.
This is why The Abduction’s climactic beat, as Marshall is captured by enemy forces, works so well, because throughout the episode Kurtzman & Orci’s script encourages you to never truly believe Marshall is going to die on his mission, when in reality he probably would have given how unprepared he is (despite being drilled, terrifyingly, by Sark!). He has Syd with him, so of course he is going to be fine. Marshall, when he’s not clowning around, spends more of the mission in awe of Syd than he does being afraid. “Syd, you were amazing! You were acting, you’re spying…” he comments after seeing her in action, and in this sense Marshall is use. That awe and hero worship is the same as the audience. He even describes her as his hero at the end of A Higher Echelon, after being rescued. For him, the London trip is one big adventure. “I’ve got this unbelievable filmstrip running in my head. The thing I still can’t believe is that we’re the stars. I just want to watch it a couple of more times before I go back to my room”. Marshall believes, at this point, his life will snap back to normal.
The audience, however, have already been primed to expect quite a seismic change in the fabric and order of Alias, one his capture subverts. Fearful that Marshall copying Echelon could give SD-6 a powerful advantage, Vaughn suggests using the mission as a way to pull Marshall out of SD-6, who as we know he has no idea are a criminal organisation. Syd’s horror at this possibility perhaps reflects the reality that Alias is changing under everyone’s feet as a series, and fast. “As ridiculous as this sounds, SD-6 is his whole life. It’s never easy finding out everything you believe in is a lie”. Marshall’s potential experience is one Syd, of course, can relate to, and she worries he will lose contact with his mother if the CIA pull him out, and offer him the chance to work with them. Even at this point suggesting Marshall could be removed from SD-6 is evidence Alias is wrestling with the possibilities of what the show might look like with key characters in different positions, and the comedic mission tone of The Abduction is given added emotional weight with the audience aware his life is about to change. “Hey, you know the best part? I’ve never been prouder to be one of the good guys” Marshall tells Syd, and it’s a sad rather than heroic line.
Around the central Marshall on mission gimmick, The Abduction is working as, essentially, an epilogue to the recent two-part episode Passage. The villains of the piece are the remnants of the People’s Revolutionary Front from that episode, particularly Gerard Cuvee – who oddly enough isn’t actually seen, just frequently discussed. My guess is that the Driscoll character in London was originally meant to be Cuvee but Derek de Lint was unavailable to reprise the role. We’ll never know and it’s not particularly important, but rather serves as an echo of Passage in more of a direct way than expected, given how self-contained that story was. There are no mentions of nuclear weapons or Rambaldi devices here. Cuvee has quickly moved on to seeking something entirely different, the Echelon software, a key piece of US surveillance technology described by Sloane with some irony as: “Phone calls, e-mails, faxes from around the world are filtered through a program capable of flagging key words on an NSA watch list. Echelon has been immeasurably successful in indicating threats to our national security”. Cuvee is immaterial in the end but Echelon certainly will be important in the long run to the series.
Cuvee also, strangely, doesn’t factor into a key scene with Irina which begins the episode, in which we fully see just how much her relationship with Sydney has developed. They are now not just on talking terms, but there is a warmth and trust between them that Syd encourages through a—forbidden—embrace, and Irina further works to try and explain her psychology, as she did in Passage. “I was eighteen when the KGB recruited me. For a woman to be asked to serve her country, it was a future, it meant… empowerment, independence. I was a fool to think that any ideology could come before my daughter”. This is as close to an apology Syd ever truly gets from Irina about the past, as she acknowledges—whether being truthful or not—that she made the wrong choice, that she put national politics and expectations ahead of her maternal instinct. The mythology and backstory of Alias will, in time, throw all of this in doubt and complicate it, of course, but it feels a natural evolution here from the events of Passage. Irina’s journey, to an extent, mirrors Sydney’s as a young woman, and it helps further humanise her in her daughter’s eyes.
There are also lingering narrative effects from events that took place in Passage. Sloane believes their failure in Kashmir is an example of Sark’s disloyalty and is very quick to apply horrific torture to the young man, which likely with the hindsight of stories to come, is probably all for show for the Alliance’s benefit. Nevertheless, Sloane medieval method of inflicting pain is really quite savage, reflecting methods by war criminals in lands controlled by violent dictators. “This interrogation technique was developed by the Khmer Rouge. Minimize brusing on political prisoners when they were allowing them to be photographed.” Sloane here must deal, two-fold, with the consequences of failure in the eyes of the Alliance – not getting hold of the Rambaldi artefact and his admittance that he is being extorted for money over Emily’s, apparent, corpse. Without The Abduction being the conclusion of a three-part episode, it certainly follows on in a heavily serialised fashion from both episodes of Passage.
Though we will talk more about her in the next episode or two, Alias here also quite casually drops, into the B-plot of the story, easily it’s biggest name guest star since Quentin Tarantino swaggered into view in The Box in Season 1. The director of Alliance counter-intelligence, at SD-6 to investigate Sloane’s blackmailing, is none other than Oscar-winning actor Faye Dunaway. The pull of J.J. Abrams in this regard is quite remarkable, as actors of this renown simply did not do television before the age of cable and streaming, bar one or two notable exceptions. Dunaway is arguably one of the singular legends of the American New Wave in Hollywood, having shot to stardom in Bonnie & Clyde in 1967, while going on amongst other highlights to appear in signature films of the 1970’s including Roman Polanski’s Chinatown and Sidney Lumet’s Network. It’s the equivalent now of Meryl Streep rocking up in Legends of Tomorrow. The first of several casting coups across the next two seasons which will barely be paralleled for a decade or more. Al Pacino appearing on Amazon Prime’s Hunters might not be such a shock now, but Faye Dunaway on Alias in 2002? That’s a big deal, and still impresses from this vantage point – especially as she’s not even the focal centre point of the episode!
Ariana Kane’s investigation into SD-6 is a key building block for Alias to begin its mid-season transformation into a different kind of series, but it not only allows for some wonderful verbal sparring between Dunaway and Victor Garber (“There is one way for you to verify if my nocturnal activities are a security risk, Ms. Kane, but somehow I think we’d both prefer the torture.” is a real BAZINGA of a line)—but a deeper exploration of the psychology behind Alliance membership, as Kane questions why he and Sloane joined the organisation: “We were both disillusioned with the US government. We’d both come to see it as corrupt and we believed then, as we do now, that the Alliance would ultimately succeed in achieving global dominance”. Jack is, of course, lying and there is later evidence Sloane didn’t even really believe this either—indeed, Sloane is distinctly apolitical in his geography in the end—but it certainly feels like an echo of the conspiratorial distrust in government we saw in 90’s television, particularly The X-Files. This has simply transformed, as we have discussed before, into SD-6 being the incarnation of that dark, shadow intelligence organisation, while the CIA represent ‘the good guys’. Alias still believes this and we’ll have to get a few more years away from 9/11 for the show to really begin questioning whether the CIA itself as an inviolate as these early seasons suggest.
Ironically, the CIA aren’t even sure still that they can trust Will, even if Alias begins the natural steps to bringing him into the organisation by having him pass the ‘Moglin-Reich’ allegiance test (which appears to be an invention of the show). Will has travelled from nascent Fox Mulder by way of Bob Woodward, exposing conspiracy in a cod-1970’s shabby chic style, to government informant, and bringing him closer to Vaughn’s orbit—even if too little is done dramatically to make him a threat to Vaughn romantically where Syd is concerned—makes sense. There is a hint of that, admittedly, as Syd & Will awkwardly and randomly bump into Vaughn with his girlfriend Alice, but it’s just greasing the wheels for what we’ll get soon in The Getaway. Will’s psychological evaluation of the test he was given is more intriguing: “I can’t believe some of the questions they asked. Like, if forced to choose, who would you rather kill. A) Your mother. B) Your father. C) Yourself. And “none of the above” wasn’t even an option. I mean, what the hell does that measure?”. Syd points out its trying to establish if he would sacrifice everything for his country but Will seems spooked by quite what the government expect, potentially, for his service.
Bringing Will deeper into the CIA is a necessary development, however, and you can see that most clearly in how Kurtzman & Orci have to actively have Francie question if Syd & Will are being intentionally secretive when she’s around to give her something to do, even remind the audience that she exists. This is a problem they’ll soon solve but it highlights how much more streamlined Alias ends up when Syd doesn’t have to lie to her nearest and dearest anymore. The promise of Marshall breaking free from those constraints in The Abduction further illuminates how exciting the concept of Alias looking like that, with everything out in the open, might feel.
Though a crowded episode with, perhaps, too much going on and being juggled for its own good, The Abduction somehow manages to pull it all off with a confidence that belies the central gimmickry central to the story. It also proves that you can do more with Marshall than have him pop up in an office throwing out a gadget or two, and further proves Alias might be able to survive the significant changes on imminent approach.
Check out reviews of the rest of Season 2 of Alias here: