ALIAS – ‘A Free Agent’ (2×15 – 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…

There is a strong argument to be made that A Free Agent is the episode in which the second era of Alias truly begins.

Phase One, in a direct attempt to reconceptualise the series, destroyed in one episode the entire conceptual framework of how Alias worked in order to eradicate the complexity of the double-agent spy narrative Sydney Bristow found herself within, collapsing SD-6 and the Alliance beyond them like a house of cards in swift, stylish fashion. Double Agent, succeeding it, was originally meant to air ahead of it, and serves as an unlikely breakwater, geared around a major A-list guest star and while it introduces a key part of the series’ mythology in the Helix doubling technology, it feels strangely divorced from what came before and what follows after. A Free Agent is the direct follow-up to Phase One. It is the episode that deals with the fallout and consequences of SD-6’s collapse, on multiple levels, and kickstarts the new threat Season Two will deal with.

Namely: the threat of Arvin Sloane as a super-villain, freed from the restrictions of his role in SD-6, and allowed to blossom into the character Ron Rifkin has steadily, through the nature of his ambiguous and deadly performance, steered the character toward. A Free Agent also, directly, even up to the nature of its title, deals head on with the reality of Sydney’s existence in the espionage world. She has always been a reluctant hero, dragged into the CIA’s mission to destroy the Alliance after the loss of her fiancee. All she wanted, upon learning the truth about SD-6 and Sloane, was to escape. “I did everything for the CIA I said I would, and I’m done” she claims, determinedly, planning to quit the CIA. A Free Agent does something the audience, even without realising it, needed: it provides a new mission statement for Syd, at least for the time being. A reason for her to continue being a spy and for Alias, logically, to exist.

That reason, interestingly, turns out to be the realisation that Sydney, existentially, is trapped. A Free Agent establishes Sloane as a personal and ideological opponent she needs to, logically, overcome in order to escape this life. The title becomes an ironic one.

A Free Agent is an indication of how Alias will operate from a narrative perspective going forward across the rest of Season Two, and into what will become Season Three.

No longer shackled by the duplicate double-crossing of appeasing SD-6 while secretly working to undermine them with the help of the CIA, Alias theoretically can serve the aims of the ABC network and entertainment head honcho Lloyd Braun’s directive that the series needed to be “more receptive to non-viewers”. Nikki Stafford and Robyn Burnett, in their book Uncovered Alias: The Official Guide, speculate on whether Alias, in its first two seasons, simply *was* too intelligent for viewers:

Was the complexity of the family element combined with the intricate spy genre just too much? Why had 24, another complicated series requiring faithful viewing, gone up in the ratings by 22 percent since the previous season while Alias had gone down 6 percent? Was the promotional campaign not savvy or accurate enough? Or was it simply that 24’s first DVD set came out so quickly after the show aired, causing more viewers to get hooked?

It is hard not to compare Alias to 24 in many ways, despite the fact they are entirely different series. They are approaching a similar crisis event in the 9/11 terrorist attacks from two alternative stand-points while within the same genre. Alias is heightened, retro-60’s pulp which brews up James Bond theatrics with a latent, Gen X sense of slightly ironic feminist style, which could partly explain why Alias had such a strong female fanbase. Though the series wasn’t as culturally successful or significant as the shows these characters lived within, Syd existed in the same stable as Buffy Summers or Dana Scully: strong female icons who exemplified a liberal model of American goodness, whether a scientist, spy or high school vampire killer. Alias wasn’t prepared for the grounded, vicious reality of 9/11, of a war brought home. Its villains were colourful, Bondian extrapolations of the post-Watergate conspirators from the days of The X-Files.

24, however, immediately felt enormously contemporary, and in some dark and twisted way would have benefited from 9/11. Notice how Kiefer Sutherland’s central hero Jack Bauer very quickly in the life of that series goes from fairly average Joe ex-special forces family man to a tortured, near-psychotic killing machine. 24 begins as another descendant of the X-Files’ existential paranoia, suggesting that America’s heartland might be compromised by terrorism, but in that first season the enemies—Dennis Hopper’s memorable Serbian military leader Victor Drazen—are as foreign and ‘alien’ as any number of Euro-goons Sydney would take out.

24 eventually gave way to the idea America itself was compromised by outside forces such as Muslim fundamentalists or Mexican cartels, yet often would return to the ultimate bad guys being murderous, devious US government agents or even a sitting US President. If Syd remained a liberal icon for tolerance and goodness, Jack became a raging cauldron of conservative bitterness and anger, a one-man army in the Steven Seagal mould who would defend America from enemies foreign and, if covertly, domestic. You can see why 24 won out against Alias from a cultural perspective. It leaned into the shadow of 9/11 while Alias moved in an opposing direction.

That isn’t to say Alias doesn’t acknowledge how American society has been changed by the Twin Towers. There are numerous references across the series, often in oblique fashion, to it. Fire Bomb, the next episode, introduces an actual Afghan warlord and sets part of the episode of Taliban-controlled Helmand Province. And, crucially, Sloane is established as a truly international, supremely dangerous terrorist and threat to the United States, both on domestic and foreign soil. He immediately feels far more dangerous than the Alliance ever were, given they often simply existed as a group of stuffy old Cold War relics in SPECTRE-like rooms. Sloane is as tangible an antagonist as Bauer is a protagonist in a world where all the rules have crumbled. Alias was operating as a post-Cold War series until Phase One, with the Alliance or organisations such as K-Directorate operating as underworld equivalents of the order and security of the superpowers. That’s all gone now. This is Alias finally entering a brave new world, the post-9/11 world. The chaos and uncertainty of Sloane is a fundamental representation of that.

Rifkin himself was initially concerned about taking Sloane out of SD-6, as Unofficial Alias reports:

J.J. and the writers were very careful when they told me. J.J. told me what was happening before I read the script so I would know what was going on, and he said “This is a good thing for your character. Just understand: now you can go anywhere and do anything”. If I had not known that and saw SD-6 was destructing, I suspect I would have been freaked out.

While you can understand the actor’s reticence at being unable to visualise Sloane in any other context, given in a season and a half he had barely been out of the SD-6 offices, it turns out to be a move which regenerates Alias’ very existence. Sloane is almost immediately revised as a character without fundamentally losing the essence of the man he was in the previous thirty-plus episodes. The true ‘free agent’ of this episode is not Sydney, it’s Sloane. He got away with it. His machinations didn’t just bring down the Alliance but saw him destroy them while stealing hundreds of millions of their cash, allowing him to fund his own operation in the process. There is a sense across these episodes that Sloane is two or three steps ahead, to the point it’s only here the CIA are discovering the body of Holden Gendler, the crooked tech guy he murdered in The Getaway. The audience are placed in a position of being ahead of our heroes, but a step or two behind the villain.

The other major concern of Alias, post-Phase One, was that the series would ‘dumb down’ as a result of stripping away the double-agent concept, but A Free Agent shows no evidence that is taking place. Alex Kurtzman-Counter & Roberto Orci’s script is filled with ongoing character stories and narratives which make Alias an embarrassment of riches: Syd wanting to quit, Syd graduating school, Syd’s anxiety she won’t get to see Irina, Sloane’s machinations, Evil Francie lurking in the background, Rambaldi, Sark, Syd & Vaughn’s relationship, Marshall entering the CIA and Dixon dealing with the emotional consequences of the truth about SD-6. There are plot threads and character beats falling like dominoes that Alias has weaved and established since the very beginning of the series, and while A Free Agent might be able to indulge in more of a stream-lined narrative through to the cliffhanging beat, it loses nothing in terms of complexity. All it has done is shed the central gambit.

Some have speculated that ABC intervened early in enforcing SD-6’s destruction, but there have been rumours that Abrams would have pulled the trigger on this by the finale of Season Two anyway, conscious of the fact some of the ongoing character beats and plot shenanigans could not go on forever. How long could you have played the will they/won’t they romance of Syd & Vaughn? Granted, Season Three finds a way to get back there but does so in quite an innovative, fresh way, but Abrams was already growing tired of the longing glances during Season Two. You could point, of course, to Mulder & Scully as an example of a relationship that lasted years with sexual tension, but they got together eventually and the sexual side was never as overt in The X-Files as it was in Alias. There was no way to continue containing it, lest the show ended up spinning its wheels like another show at the time, Smallville, and its enormously tedious Clark/Lana/Lex love triangle.

What about the reality of Marshall and Dixon being unaware of the truth of SD-6? The show already had to work hard not to make Dixon seem ineffective as an agent after almost exposing Syd as a double agent at the end of Season One, but Season Two—aware he has almost zero stake in the majority of storylines taking up that season—sidelines him for the majority of the season until his crucial role in Phase One. At least in Season One he had more of a direct role as Syd’s SD-6 partner, but Season Two early on loses interest in the intricacies of SD-6, and runs the risk of Dixon looking utterly incompetent. Destroying the central gambit also frees Dixon as a character. Marshall is different; he is so perky and comical, you can play him slipping into the CIA fairly easily, but Dixon you have to utilise to resonate how existential and fundamental a change to the series this is.

Thanks to superlative acting by Carl Lumbly, it’s quite devastating how this change is played through Dixon. It doesn’t just see him fundamentally question his friendship with Syd, angry she was complicit in the lie, but he tells his wife Diane the truth he works in intelligence, thereby dually placing him in Syd’s role in relation to his family. In microcosm, Alias explores through Dixon and his family the price of truth and freedom, as Diane questions whether he is the man she even married. “My love for you is true. My love for our children is true. As a husband, as a father… I couldn’t honestly say I was protecting my family unless I was out there!”. The collapse of Dixon’s faith in the system, in order, in what he believed was real, could represent America in that moment, in early 2003, the shock of 9/11 having fully settled into tragic reality. What is America now, after this? And who is Dixon now he knows the truth?

These aspects certainly point to Alias being a show in a process of evolution from a series built around a knotty central plot structure, and an examination of the so-called ‘nuclear family’ shattered by the existential Cold War around them, into a show directly about the cost of freedom, and what the truth itself actually means. Sydney believes she is free at the beginning. She believes the enemy has been vanquished. Kendall, that prophet of doom, is ready to point out it is never that simple. “With the Alliance gone, we got a hell of a mess to clean up.” Syd is right in her belief that she isn’t needed for such a bigger, macro operation by the CIA; it has always been a personal quest that kept her involved, but she consistently has refused, with some naivete, to appreciate the bigger picture around her own reasoning. Even Jack wants her to stay, aware of this broader problem.

In the end, Syd’s reason to continue the fight is based on a personal connection, in that she learns the family of a scientist have been captured by Sloane and Sark in order to make him put together a Rambaldi artefact. Dr. Neil Caplan, played again by another famous guest actor in Christian Slater (this means Alias has now gone five episodes with a famous guest face in the show concurrently, with Faye Dunaway, Rutger Hauer, Ethan Hawke and now Slater, a run that won’t be repeated). Caplan is a mild-mannered, all-American representation of that nuclear family, at least ostensibly (this will be questioned itself later in the season in Endgame), and precisely the kind of civilian Alias does not always deal with. Rescuing a good man, and his family, is the only kind of impetus that would keep a virtuous character like Sydney in the game.

It also serves to really amplify Sloane as not just a threat, but a source of evil. While the show has toyed with Devil symbology when it comes to Sloane historically, and will do so again, A Free Agent establishes him first and foremost as a post-Cold War James Bond villain in all but name. He is, in some sense, equivalent also to a classic 1960’s Batman villain, which may appear a strange comparison but in that series, characters such as The Penguin or the Riddler would have their victories and defeats, and you had to even up and balance the scales between them at points. Sloane is riding the wave of an unstoppable victory and here is cool, calm and confident, even to the point he calls Sydney direct to boast and quietly threaten, unfazed even at her barrage of unfiltered truth about how she feels about him. “We’ve helped set each other free, Sydney. And as much as I wish you well, I will end your life if you get in my way”. For the first time, you can believe it.

Alias also uses Sloane’s new found villainous freedom to essentially reintroduce the Rambaldi mythology, which gets a new lease of life from here on in across the season. There is a sense across Season Two thus far, Abrams and his staff had no idea really what to do with the strange, cod-supernatural backbone that underpinned much of the villains plans across the first era of the series. It might be a killer virus. It might be the key to eternal life in a flower. It might be unlimited energy in a music box. There was a cohesiveness to Rambaldi in the first season that has been lacking up to this point; that season you could trace a line from Parity through to Almost Thirty Years in how the mystery moved from MacGuffin to MacGuffin and a recognisable end point in the Red Ball (even if it remained unexplained). Season Two has had no such through-line until now. Rambaldi here is reconceptualised into a component of Sloane’s non-nationalist terrorism.

Deepening Rambaldi into a personal quest was established as a possibility in Page 47 but this is the first time that thread is resolutely picked up on, as Sloane uses Caplan as a mechanism to remind people what the entire mystery is about, and his stake in it. “I’m approaching the finish line of a thirty-year odyssey. I won’t let anyone else take the final steps for me”. You never truly had a sense it was this personal for Sloane up until now but by doing so, the mythology immediately becomes more urgent and tethered to the show in the manner the truth about aliens was in The X-Files for Mulder when his sister was abducted as a child. Sloane *becomes* the Rambaldi mythology from here on in, in a sense, and a through-line is created as a result. He is building something, something the CIA naturally assume is A Bad Thing: “Whether or not you believe Rambaldi was a prophet, he did anticipate technological advances, many of which seem most applicable to warfare. It’s likely Sloane is building a weapon” Jack assumes. Whether this is actually the case is immaterial. The fact is: Rambaldi has a purpose to the story for the first time this season.

Sydney’s lack of freedom, in opposition to Sloane’s complete sense of freedom, becomes apparent in how she steadily grows more and more obsessed with the man over the course of the episode. A Free Agent begins with Syd ready to quit, ready even to graduate from an English degree. Will becomes the voice of us all when he asks “When the hell did you even get to take a class this year?”. Somehow, she did it. Somehow, she edged further to her dream—or at least a career designed to bring her closer to the ideal of her mother, before she knew who Irina was. “I wasn’t even going to go to the ceremony but… and I’ve been lying here remembering why I never gave school up and why I killed myself writing papers instead of… I don’t know, accepting that I’d be an agent forever.” She admits to Vaughn. Yet once she realises Sloane is still out there, and he is more than just a “cog in a machine that doesn’t exist anymore”, she can’t give up. Freedom turns to a trap. Her sense of liberation turns to vengeance.

It builds nicely to a really effective final scene, in which Alias channels the spirit of Mission Impossible in placing Ron Rifkin in a very expressive prosthetic as Sloane, for the first time, goes on his own covert mission with an alias, Mr. Skopic, a vaguely European (possibly Jewish) banker in Switzerland working with a team to steal a key piece of technology Caplan needs. There is a great deal of fun getting to see Sloane, essentially, play the Sydney role at the climax of A Free Agent, infiltrating and eventually turning on the bankers, as Syd and Vaughn—CIA and CIA alone—rush to apprehend him. There is a delightful sense of liberation about Sloane’s character throughout, as if he is even enjoying the life of an international terrorist he is now leading, and it gives A Free Agent a sense of Alias’ new style in a way we haven’t seen before.

This is where ‘phase two’ begins, and it will be perhaps the most exciting, unpredictable and rewarding run of episodes, up to the end of Season Two, that Alias ever manages to produce. At last… Alias is free to really show us what it can do.

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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