ALIAS – ‘Double Agent (2×14 – 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 we can consider Phase One to be a second pilot for Alias, then Double Agent faces an even trickier job than following up the biggest episode of the series to date. It also has to reset the board and establish the kind of series Alias will be in future.

Or, at least, in theory. Double Agent kind of doesn’t do that. It is a strange episode in some respects. Originally designed to slot in after The Getaway, Double Agent is without question the most standalone episode Alias has ever done to date. If it wasn’t for the key MacGuffin of Project Helix being crucial to the denouement of the season, it could be considered fairly disposable, focusing primarily as it does on the guest character of CIA agent James Lennox and his entanglement with the facial and bodily reconstruction technology that causes such problems for our CIA heroes in this story. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine just how writers Alex Kurtzman-Counter & Roberto Orci could have penned this episode in the same way were it *before* Phase One.

For one thing, there seems no logical way SD-6 or the Alliance could have functioned in this story and for it to have made sense, and one wonders if Kurtzman-Counter & Orci had to re-write and re-structure the story to eliminate the traditional constructs of the pre-Phase One storytelling style – SD-6 mission, Sydney’s counter-mission, and multiple narratives balancing alongside that central thrust. As it turns out, Double Agent operates in a strange nether space between Phase One and A Free Agent. Double Agent has the briefest of cameos from Sloane. No Sark. No Irina. No Marshall or especially Dixon, in limbo as they transition into their new CIA roles. “They’ll be in debrief for a while. Meanwhile, Sloane’s been put on Interpol’s most wanted list” Vaughn claims, allowing the story to continue unabated.

Nevertheless, Double Agent is too awkwardly placed, despite spinning a good yarn, to really answer the question of what kind of show Alias will be. Perhaps in step with the world of Alias, it’s almost deliberately a sleight of hand.

In many ways, you can understand why Double Agent was originally suggested as the post-Super Bowl episode.

It features one of the biggest, heavyweight Hollywood guest stars in Ethan Hawke as Lennox, and his role is as substantial as his cinematic credo warrants, his character the framework on which the entire story hangs. Quentin Tarantino may be a household name film director, Roger Moore and Faye Dunaway both legends, but Hawke is arguably the most famous leading man from cinema Alias ever managed to cast in a guest spot. After an appearance in the celebrated Antoine Fuqua film Training Day opposite Denzel Washington, Hawke was on a break from acting and pursuing other projects in the period he appeared on Alias, not returning fully to cinema screens until 2004, which makes this even more of a minor coup. You can see why ABC might want to cash in on his fanbase in the wake of the Super Bowl.

Another reason could be that Double Agent serves as a stripped back template for the kind of show Alias could be, and does choose to be in Season 4 when the series adopts more of a stand-alone structure, in response to the unwieldy third season it had just experienced. Double Agent focuses the narrative to facilitate a strong guest performance, weaving ongoing character beats such as Syd & Vaughn’s blooming romance and the new Evil Francie development we, as the audience, are two steps ahead of most of the characters on, but it completely eschews the narrative complexity of the show pre-Phase One. Gone is the Irina story, the Sloane story, Rambaldi, SD-6 and the Alliance, all of it. Double Agent might as well be La Femme Nikita, a much more stand-alone 90’s example of what Alias ended up being, and is the first episode to recall the format of storytelling redolent of 90’s television before the advent of major serialisation across the 2000’s.

This sounds like a rebuke but Double Agent is really rather effective as a largely stand-alone story within the Alias framework, utilising a core group of the regular cast to introduce a key piece of season mythology in the context of exploring trust. Is Lennox who he says he is? The episode, to its credit, genuinely keeps you guessing in that regard all the way up to a climactic moment which lands Alias in a well-explored world of science-fiction, from episodes of Star Trek all the way back to The Thing From Another World or Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Syd is confronted by two identical men, either of whom could be Lennox, and an ‘ocular scan’, Alias’ version of The Thing’s blood test, is unable to detect the real McCoy. It’s a really well executed final scene and one that the writers manage to get out of without it being too great a cheat.

Sergio Angelini, in his essay ‘Endoscopic Spies: Mapping the Internal Landscape of Alias’ in Investigating Alias: Secrets and Spies, nevertheless suggests that Project Helix is a form of pseudo-science to explore aspects of the mind-control drama in varied ways:

This is taken literally with Project Helix, which in the appropriately titled episode ‘Double Agent’ is described as ‘a breakthrough in next-generation molecular gene therapy. It refers to a procedure whereby a patient’s face and body are reshaped to identically resemble someone else’. The use of doubles in espionage through plastic surgery or disguises led to such previous efforts as the deliriously titled The Spy with my Face (1965) and The Double Man (1967) with Yul Brynner playing CIA agent Dan Slater and his doppelgänger Kalmar. Ironically the plan to replace the spy fails when the KGB’s brainwashed double is “exposed by his inability to emulate Slater’s inhumanity”. Doubling technology has taken the plots of Alias to an entirely new level of paranoia, emphasising the new ways it has developed to explore protagonists in affecting ways.

This corresponds in Double Agent both to the character of Lennox but also that of Evil Francie, who we are yet to learn is actually named Allison Doren, though this is the character Merrin Dungey plays for the remainder of the season. Double Agent, without making the connection for the characters, immediately provides context as to how Francie can have been doubled, killed and nobody be aware. “According to this, the sequencer’s been used twice.” Lennox claims and Ken Olin provides a beat of great visual storytelling in cutting to Evil Francie the moment Syd asks who the second, mysterious person was who was doubled. We now know there is a pseudo-scientific explanation for how there were two Francie’s which fits Alias’ careful balance of supernatural possibility and fringe science, which makes it a creative touchstone years later for JJ Abrams’ Fringe, on which several Alias alumni would contribute.

In this manner, Alias manages to tell a straightforward story of double crosses and triple-crosses while naturally forwarding ongoing narrative arcs. The entire concept of this story, as Angelini suggests, is in boiling down and deconstructing the very nature of the double agent trope. Sydney has been a double agent since the beginning of the series but Lennox is, in a literal sense, a ‘double’ agent, with Helix working as a scientific way of literalising Syd’s internal struggle at the heart of the show. She may no longer be a double agent undercover, but her best friend has *literally* been doubled and is now operating in the same context in her life. Alias has a real gift for using these hyper-real constructs to shine a light on traditional character arcs. This is as good an example as spinning the dysfunctional split parent family into spies from different countries as we saw in Jack, Irina and Syd.

It also continues Alias’ anxious relationship with emerging technology in the post-Cold War era, as we saw in A Higher Echelon with the surveillance software. Jack says of Helix that: “Over the last few years it’s become common practice for wanted terrorists to employ men who look like them, decoys designed to mislead intelligence agencies. With this new procedure, that would no longer be necessary. Men like Osama bin Laden could simply be made to look like someone else”. This is perhaps the first direct reference to the scion of Al Qaeda in the show, as it steadily embraces its role in the post-9/11 landscape, but it remains somewhat hyper-real in suggesting Middle Eastern terror organisations could start running around with doubles. Saddam Hussain may have been rumoured to have doubles of himself but Helix is less likely to be co-opted by Bin Laden as it is Die Another Day’s smug Bond villain Gustav Graves, who arrived on the scene just a year before Double Agent aired.

Alias’ inclusion of the double, the dark id reflecting back our pure psyche, is just another example of a very well-worn trope in genre, particularly science-fiction. In the 60’s, The Prisoner explores the idea of multiple double personalities in The Schizoid Man while Star Trek would double Captain Kirk during a transporter accident in The Enemy Within, splitting the two sides of his personality down the middle – and subsequent Star Trek series would all dabble in doubles or shapeshifters, particularly 90’s spin-off Deep Space Nine which primes the key villains of the series, the Dominion, as a sinister race of shapeshifters who infiltrate the highest levels of galactic government and sow paranoia and discord amidst the supposed utopia of the 24th century. Alias’ closest inspiration, The X-Files, contains similar alien shapeshifters who can pose as anyone and, in that show, operate as bounty hunters who murder anyone capable of exposing the grand, global conspiracy.

Yet again, Alias exploring these ideas weds the series closely to the post-modern idea of 1970’s conspiracy thriller, a decade which tapped the growing paranoia about trusting those closest to you in Philip Kaufman’s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the ultimate science-fiction story about extra-terrestrial invaders who pose as your friends and loved ones and infiltrate all levels of society. By placing a double, an insider, a dark reflection of someone Sydney trusts inviolately, Alias compromises the fabric and security of our main character’s homestead in an unnerving, vibrant way, even if it takes her the rest of the season to connect the dots. The fun as an audience member being in on the conspiracy, as it were, is in seeing how long Evil Francie can get away with her subterfuge.

There is also a fascinating conflation with the psychological, not to mention literal, aspect of doubling in this episode with sex. Sex is everywhere in Double Agent. The very beginning, in which Dr. Renzo Markovic—the creator of the Helix technology, posing as Lennox—subdues Olivia d’Abo’s CIA agent Emma Wallace, sees them post-coital, she having realised the truth about his identity while intimate. “Now I know why Emma didn’t call for an extraction. She had no idea I was captured. We had a hotel room in Berlin, she thought she was with me” Lennox realises later, after Emma has been publically and violently murdered on a Berlin street—in what can only be described as sadism from Sloane designed to remind us he’s the Big Bad.

Lennox even sexualises Sydney, in what can only be described as some kind of emotional or sexual transference following the shock of Emma’s death, when he kisses her following a conversation about the connections between doubling technology and being an actual double agent for the government. “Emma used to say that she had spent so much of her life pretending to be other people that she was afraid she might disappear. And I have been sitting here trying to remember all her aliases and you’re right. It’s hard to keep track”. Syd references Danny, admitting compartmentalising while being a double is the hardest part, and it’s a key reminder that she lost someone she loved, someone she was intimate with, because of working as a double. Syd writes off the kiss, and Hawke plays it tragically as opposed to creepily, but it fits the general sexualisation going on in the episode.

Syd is sexualised elsewhere too, such as on mission in Cayo Concha when she emerges from the pool in the skimpiest of skimpy bathing costumes, in what is a direct reference to the 1980’s teenage fantasy Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and an almost identical scene featuring Phoebe Cates which has passed into popular culture. She tempts a goon into being captured by the similar promise of removing her bra, delivering him into Vaughn in the process. She does, of course, finally sleep with Vaughn during this episode, as their passion boils over to an inevitable conclusion… with no idea, in one of the show’s most unerring moments, they are being spied upon by Evil Francie using a hidden bedroom camera. She even quirks an eyebrow, as if studying technique, and such a violation further serves to underline the darkness of literalising the id. The double has no morals, or conscience. Evil Francie at this point might as well *be* a body snatcher.

At the same time, while the essence of being a double is being deconstructed and questioned, Double Agent works almost to lionise Sydney within the show in the unknown, post-SD-6 world. Kurtzman-Counter and Orci introduce Christine Phillips, a young ‘clandestine services graduate’, on work experience essentially, and she is very clearly a Sydney fan. “I’ve read your operational file. It’s a real honor”. She is similar in a sense to the character of Leila Harrison on The X-Files, an FBI agent fan of Mulder & Scully’s cases who knows their history better than they do, and while Phillips merely seems to be designed as a way of literalising the horror of Emma’s death—blown to bits while singing children’s rhyme Pop Goes the Weasel—and is never seen again, she represents the kind of presence you wouldn’t have had while Sydney was a double agent. Phillips almost feels like a forerunner to Rachel Gibson, who becomes Syd’s protege and theoretical replacement in Season 5.

Double Agent, then, is an unusual episode in the context of Alias. It doesn’t represent what the show will be for the remainder of the second season but it is unlike any episode the show has given us before, focusing on a major guest actor and one-shot character, and using them as a means to frame a key piece of the ongoing narrative mythology of the season, while connecting to a range of tropes and genre ideas which see Alias mine territory previously explored in a new, personalised way, particularly to our main character. It’s a real curio but a very well-executed one, which twists the broader themes and arcs of Season 2 in thrilling ways while being stand-alone enough to function on its own merits.

It also provides a transition point to the next episode, which arguably is where ‘Phase Two’, as it were, really begins…

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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