ALIAS – ‘Firebomb’ (2×16 – 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…

Though a series born in the wake of the devastating attack on New York in September 2001, Alias was always a series that glanced the other way from that existential trauma. Firebomb begins to see a turn back toward that direction.

A Free Agent worked to establish the new status quo for the show and its characters in the post-Phase One world, placing Sydney Bristow on a new quest not as a double agent but rather a reluctant operative in the CIA dedicated to bringing to justice the man who killed her fiancé, her former SD-6 boss Arvin Sloane. The episode ends with her coming close, facing off inside a Swiss bank Sloane is robbing—himself utilising an alias—as a way of marking how Season Two will, despite shooting off into a variety of different directions in the final third, arc itself around the CIA’s hunt for Sloane, and their determination to prevent him completing his quest to understand the work of prophet Milo Rambaldi.

In that sense, Alias immediately gets the opportunity to streamline the concept that ABC has, in time, become weary of, with the show costing almost 2 million dollars an episode without the ratings improving to show for it. Not even a post-Super Bowl slot for arguably one of the best crafted episodes the show would ever do in Phase One was enough to justify the series’ existence. The network would remain committed to being in business with JJ Abrams, but the show needed to adjust direction. A Free Agent gives a taster of what that new direction could be – less tangled in terms of narrative structure but filled with character complications and ongoing storylines. Firebomb is, essentially, the second part of establishing this new template for how Alias will operate this season, picking up on Sydney cornering Sloane and playing out the first cat and mouse chase between them.

Where Firebomb stands out, despite being an episode of transition and establishment, still working in fixing the new paradigm of Sloane in opposition to Sydney and our heroes, it fully begins to embrace Alias’ position as a post-9/11 series, acknowledging the wider geopolitical landscape around it.

The world Alias presented was one rooted in the paradigm of the Cold War, only played out through organised crime operations as opposed to geopolitical nation states. The CIA represented an ideologically pure America, free of corruption or compromise, while particularly the operation ran by The Man or agencies such as K-Directorate portrayed a post-Soviet Russia. This was the status quo throughout Season One.

The entire concept of Alias was constructed around the idea that a global criminal organisation had compromised US intelligence by pretending to *be* them, which is about as subversive an idea as you can get for the spy genre, and it very much takes a cue from The X-Files and the 1970’s conspiracy thriller in design. Arvin Sloane was the mercurial, largely heartless face of SD-6 but he was, at the time, a cog in a machine. If Syd’s mother Irina Derevko represents a post-Soviet Cold Warrior, Sloane was a post-American Cold Warrior. He was always pretending to represent American values, as he tells Pashtun warlord Ahmad Kabir here: “I am a man with no country”. Sloane is resolutely non-geopolitical and Firebomb cements him as the core aspect of how Alias’ status quo has forever changed. It is key that the first major crime figure Sloane makes contact with is allied with the Taliban, because Sloane is Alias’ way of dealing with chaotic religious fundamentalism of the like America was shocked into fearing after 9/11.

Firebomb doesn’t just solidify Rambaldi as a quasi-religious quest for Sloane, but it presents that quest as uniquely dangerous. Sloane is literally, a man alone, developing a weapon more dangerous than anything the Alliance or Irina’s organisation – for all their arms deals and even attempts to gain control of nuclear weapons – ever produced that threatened not just national but global security. Sloane is actively putting together a suitcase neutron bomb, one that appears to have been designed in the 15th century by Rambaldi. “Is that even theoretically possible?” asks a somewhat awed Sark. Well… probably not, but this is Alias so it doesn’t really matter. Rambaldi is a wizard. He is magic. It doesn’t matter whether what he created was nonsense or not, it’s the application of it that matters. Sloane, fuelled by a zeal that can only come from a zealot, develops such a terrible weapon for the purposes of, ultimately, helping achieve the next stage in his plan. The terrifying part of Firebomb is the final moment, when we realise the entire episode was about getting hold of an old relic containing Rambaldi manuscript pages. It was never about getting in bed with a Taliban warlord. Sloane’s plans go beyond that simple post-9/11 realpolitik.

Yet what’s interesting is that Alias actively confronts those political realities now, perhaps freed from the monolithic duality of the Cold War organised crime blocks the narrative needed to appease. Sloane, a free agent, a free supervillain, is able to lead the show into new waters. His aims, by his own admission, are more colourful and ‘Bondian’ than anything the previous regimes would have imagined. “If you knew what my plans are… this is bigger than SD-6, Sydney, than the CIA, than you being deceived by me, than me being betrayed by you” Sloane tells her, and Syd—as ever a staunch pragmatist with no interest in a wider sense of mythology or geopolitics—is entirely non-plussed. Sloane, in declaring this, is in a broader sense working to recalibrate Alias as a series. The show we previously knew was smaller, more contained, more restricted. The Alias he has freed the series up to be, through his action, will be far bigger, far more expansive, and have far greater consequences.

This is why ultimately we realise Sloane was pulling a long con on Kabir himself. Positioning himself as a rogue element with “few alliances”, Sloane appeals to the warlord for his lack of political complication, and the scope of his enterprise. “All I have is a vision of an enterprise that will influence an existing world order that I believe to be corrupt. I’m looking for partners who shares that view”. In that sense, Sloane places himself in an analogous position to powerful terrorist leaders such as Osama bin Laden, the scion for Al-Qaeda who, at the time, served as a very real ‘face of the enemy’ for American society to demonise. Sloane approaches Kabir not as a zealot but a revolutionary, keen to help bring down what is suggested to be Western society, and the post-war capitalist system the Alliance looked to control and work for them. The Alliance actively subverted Kabir—re-routing a shipment of weapons to him—and would never have been able to appeal to these sensibilities. Sloane, as a veritable ronin, very much can.

Sloane even appeals to Kabir’s nationalism, presenting the gift of a statue of Khushal Khan Khattak, who Kabir describes as “a hero to my people”. Pashtun’s are the largest ethno-centric tribe in all of Afghanistan and Pakistan, with whom they share a dual heritage, and Khattak in the seventeenth century worked to unite the Pashtun tribes as a unified force to revolt against the all-encompassing Mughal Empire. Indeed, you can see parallels between the Mughal and the Americans, in the sense that the Mughal Empire, while bolstered by military warfare, preferred to control countries through administrative practices and equalise their societies rather than suppress their cultures. Is this not the American objective following the post-9/11 invasion of Afghanistan, and precisely what Kabir would be against? Kabir very much sees himself in the mould of Khattak and this paean to Pashtun nationalism is key totem as part of Sloane’s machiavellian game playing. He is a man who has done his homework.

In even more of a shrewd manoeuvre, Sloane directly works to position himself as a consigliere of sorts to Kabir’s warlord, drawing a parallel between the statue he is looking for—the arhat—and himself as a “destroyer of the enemy” going back to Buddhist tradition, which fits with Kabir’s world view as an anti-American crime boss, essentially. He is prepared to utilise the power of Rambaldi in order to exercise Kabir’s whim in this attack on the West, which turns out to target Mexico City, more for personal reasons than political – Kabir is looking to kill his ex-wife, Alia, who abandoned him after the suggestion is made—by Will, when he shows up a group of Harvard political scientists during his first CIA briefing—that as per regressive Taliban practices, she may have been sold into marriage against her will.

On a side note, this is something of a deliberate hero moment for Will, as he moves increasing toward the CIA orbit and a relevant part of the ongoing storyline by now being in the briefing room serving up exposition, but it is also designed to reaffirm his usefulness and intelligence as a character. The Harvard analysts are almost intentionally snooty and in the end mis-informed to help Will look better to the other characters, suggesting that the way to get to Kabir is to appeal to the Pashtun ethnic rivalries Will points out won’t work. “I mean, since 9/11 haven’t we paid guys like this millions of dollars for information and gotten almost nothing in return?”. Much like Will exploited post-70’s conspiracy thrillers in his role as a journalist, now he is reconfigured into a deliberately 90’s purveyor of geopolitical reality. Firebomb assures his new function in the series.

Back to Kabir, his strike is as much against his wife’s betrayal of Pashtun autocratic values against women than a deliberate, 9/11 strike against the West. Yet, that is precisely how the attack on the church in Mexico City is played. It is structured akin to a horrific terrorist attack which Sydney, Vaughn and co are powerless to prevent, in much the same way as intelligence agencies on September 11th would have felt. On some micro level, the events of Firebomb *are* Alias’ 9/11 moment, or at least a reaction to the shock and trauma of an event they previously could not quantify or come to expect. The episode even invokes Echelon, the software system introduced in A Higher Echelon with significant concerns of how it breaches privacy laws, to underscore the threat. “We just had an Echelon intercept. Key words were picked up — “terrorist,” “weapons of mass destruction.” But you ready for this? “Rambaldi.” Weiss claims, as Alias explicitly ties these aspects together for the first time. Rambaldi previously was a curiosity being hunted by dangerous, murderous forces – a treasure hunt for sacred knowledge, albeit one with sinister undertones given The Prophecy. Firebomb actualises those undertones. Rambaldi technology becomes a devastating, fringe science threat to the world.

The religious undertones to this and how it directly connects to the fundamentalist aspect of Sloane’s actions, and his quest, can not be ignored either. The attack may have been targeted against a woman, but it takes place inside a Christian church. In Parity, when Sloane first introduces backstory on Rambaldi, he explicitly states that the prophet was burned for heresy for claiming science would somehow allow us to “know God”. Is this what he meant? Through violent destruction. The weapon triggers spontaneous combustion in people and Alias doesn’t shy away from showing the consequences. We see people burn. We see their bodies as horrific lumps of ash in the aftermath. TV reporters question the religious connotations: “Some people describe it as an act of God”. It is, rather, more appropriately the work of the Devil, and once again ascribes to the portrayal of Sloane as a Devil figure in the mythology of the series.

This was first suggested in Page 47, and Will has subsequently described Sloane as ‘the Devil’ at various points, but Sydney now is starting to articulate these connotations herself. In A Free Agent she describes him as “a plague on my life”, invoking a Biblical parallel on a personal level, and in Firebomb she says: “You know how people are describing it, don’t you? They’re calling it a doomsday device, saying it’s the first sign of the armageddon, like the devil himself rose up to attack that church”. Before Alias becomes too directly anti-Christian and charged with Biblical polemic, Marshall is there to offer a scientific alternative to actually what befell the victims of Sloane’s terror attack. “It works like a microwave. It excites water and fat molecules which don’t exist in inorganic materials and then it converts them into atomic motion or heat”. Though he does suggest the weapon would be unstoppable, passing through any substance, even being able to take out planes. It terrifies everyone in the room.

Alias is working hard at this stage to establish Sloane as an unstoppable, demonic force with no regard for human life, and in this case actively working to play into the new ideological framework Americans were facing: religious, Islamic fundamentalism. The show never explicitly draws this conclusion, more interested in the Rambaldi mystery aspect of the device and the personal connections between Kabir and his wife that fuel the attack, but the subtext is there. Sloane pretends to be anti-American, serving the whims of an Islamic fundamentalist who stages an attack not just on the West but on a symbol of Christianity, the West’s primary religion. John Eisendrath’s script directly and expressly tethers Alias to a post-9/11 sense of existential fear, that ‘the enemy’ may have access to weaponry and power that can destroy them at any time, that they won’t see coming. The new existential terror that has replaced national superpowers locked in a detente over mutually assured destruction.

Sydney is even captured for an extended period of time by Kabir, after unsuccessfully breaking into his compound, which is something that never happened in the previous era of Alias. Syd would dive in, kick some arse, get what she needed, and then make her explosive escape, but not this time. She is locked away and repeatedly questioned by Kabir, who is confident enough to hold all the power. “Admit you are CIA, submitting to a video acknowledging you are here in violation of international law. Condemn the great Satan and maybe I will spare your life.” he tells her, and for the first time, Syd no longer has the mechanics of her role as a double agent to help her. She is exposed, she is captured, and she is at the mercy of the kind of threats she hasn’t yet worked out how to destroy. Even Sloane, who creepily comes in and pleads with her to help him, kissing her on the head like the twisted paternal figure he thinks he is. This is the character at the height, in many ways, of his evil. Sloane will almost never again be at the peak of her supervillany as we see in Firebomb.

There is, also, an interesting subtext about Sydney’s dealings with men across this episode, as there has been in A Free Agent (and in the series in general). She ultimately needs to be rescued by a man, in the form of her ex-partner Dixon, but it works in the sense of dealing with Dixon’s own trauma about existing in the new, post-SD-6 paradigm, and how he returns to duty because he cares about Syd’s life more than anything else, even facing losing his wife and children as a result. Syd, though, often has to negotiate on her missions using her body as a sexual weapon in relation to the masculine figures she almost always has to conquer in order to achieve her objective, but there is a difference in Firebomb, as Deborah Finding and Alice MacLachlan discuss in their essay ‘Aliases, Alienation and Agency: The Physical Integrity of Sydney Bristow’ in Investigating Alias: Secrets and Spies:

Part of the ingenuity of Alias is its Clark Kent/Superman approach to Sydney’s disguises: to viewers’ amusement they are rarely more than a wig or an outfit. And while her fellow spies Dixon and Vaughn will dress up as *characters*, the essence of Sydney’s aliases is often no more than a particular sexual type or fantasy (the drunken flirt, the bookish virgin). Indeed, Sydney’s aliases fit so neatly into the hetero-normative categories of (feminine) young, sexual and desirable that their exceptions are memorable. In ‘Firebomb’, Sydney dresses not as virgin or whore but crone, as an old woman visiting a Catholic cathedral. In this case, it is a woman she must convince, not a man she must overpower. 

This is perhaps why, captured without an alias to empower her in the role of a woman capable of using sexuality to overpower the weakness of powerful men, Sydney is abused when she faces down Sloane and Kabir. Sloane exerts his (fake) personal connection to pretend to be a protective figure looking out for her (despite reminding her earlier he would kill her if she interfered with him, which becomes more and more apparent as a bluff) but Kabir resorts to what could be medieval torture methods to try and get what he wants. It is almost equivalent to the urbane torture Anthony Geiger unleashes on Jack in Phase One. Kabir doesn’t seem a viable choice to be destroyed by feminine wiles—especially after just attempting to murder his wife with a weapon of mass destruction—so in this case, it does not feel a betrayal for Syd to be rescued by Dixon particularly, as it reaffirms the bond between them and places Dixon back within the fold.

Thankfully, this won’t be the last of Dixon’s story, as one of the strengths in this final run of Season Two episodes is that it gets to pay off significant character development and change. Evil Francie is still lurking in the background, using an old SD-6 bug to allow Sloane to spy on Syd’s life (Marshall doesn’t seem nearly sorry or freaked out enough that he was the one who developed it), and she quietly is trying to inveigle herself more into Syd’s friendship orbit more than her deceased predecessor did this season. As we briefly heard mentioned in A Free Agent, while Sloane may be devilish and dangerous here, he still has a wife on standby to show a different side to his character. Irina remains benched and will very soon be dealt with in A Dark Turn. Firebomb may dial in on the consequences of Sloane operating as the new threat, and very much place Alias within the post-9/11 world as the series reacts to that trauma, but it also threads a multitude of narratives that will pay off again and again in this final third.

Alias may never get quite as existential or disturbing, in terms of the wider world view and the underbelly of geopolitical terror about a fast-changing world than in Firebomb, though. It is perhaps the closest the series comes to reflecting its current moment within the hyper-real espionage world it inhabits.

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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