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…
You might not think it, but ‘Endgame’ is a surprisingly common episode title in genre fiction, and not just for the final episodes of seasons or even series.
Star Trek: Voyager memorably uses ‘Endgame’ as the title of its series finale, of course, and Highlander manages to squeeze a film subtitle out of it (although we know that story never really ends…), as recently has the Marvel Cinematic Universe with its epic Avengers finale. Numerous films, however, share the title, and Alias is by no means is the first series to deploy it. The seventeenth episode of The X-Files Season Two has the title End Game, and it crops up in shows as varied as Kyle XY, the BBC’s Holby City, The Equaliser, Babylon-5, Law and Order: SVU, Stargate SG-1 and on and on and on. It suggests finality and is described, frequently, as analogous to chess or games along similar lines. The endgame is the final stage of a game in which few of the cards remain.
That feels fairly appropriate to Alias at this stage because as we enter the last few episodes of Season Two, particularly after the shattering events of Truth Takes Time, a sense of tragic finality is falling across the series. Emily is dead and Sloane, consequently, has suffered a powerful loss at the very point he was on a high – he had facilitated Irina’s escape, he was assembling Rambaldi’s work, and Emily was even prepared to forgive him his trespasses out of her love for him. Her death sends him down a path of no return. Sydney, at the same time, has lost another mother in her life. Dixon has killed an innocent woman and is struggling to come to terms with his role in that. An ending feels in sight for these characters, even if Alias uses this point to pivot many of them again in a direction we didn’t, earlier in the season, see coming. Endgame also, along the way, manages to make a literal use of the title and weave it into the plot.
Endgame, while doing so, also manages to pick up and return to more of a stand-alone story thread that Alias didn’t necessarily need to focus on again, but serves as a key thematic point to explore that is resonating right now across the entire series: the security and fallibility of the American nuclear family.
Alias has just emerged from, with Truth Takes Time, the most personal episode it has ever done. Everything is about family. The CIA may be hunting a pair of dangerous international terrorists, but for Sydney she is hunting her mother and the family friend, an ‘uncle’ for all intents and purposes, who murdered a man she loved.
The show has always been, at its root, about the American family in a post-Cold War paradigm, and how the ideological conflict is represented in the dysfunctional representation of the Bristow’s. Irina returning this season displayed that keenly, as she and Jack used the hyper-real espionage constructs of the series as a way to battle over how they should parent their child, most clearly observed in the Passage two-parter. Sean Gerace’s script finds a way, however, of exploring the collapse of the nuclear family through the Caplan family first seen in A Free Agent, when Christian Slater’s MIT genius scientists was captured by Sloane to help him assemble his devastating Rambaldi devices. His family were rescued during that episode, having been captured to make him talk, but Caplan–off screen—has toiled since, getting the odd mention here and there by our villains.
The Caplan family end up being a neat microcosm for Sydney to see how Jack and Irina might have functioned from the outside in. She discovers a similar mechanism as Irina used when betraying Jack that Caplan, it appears, is using the spy for the Russians in secret from his wife Elsa. Yet Elsa confesses that *she* is, in reality, the secret Russian agent. “Seven years ago I was ordered to seduce and marry Neil. My objective was to keep tabs on his work”. Elsa is, essentially, a younger version of Irina, except she exists beyond the Cold War paradigm in place when Syd’s parents were married. She was sent by the Russians in the mid-90’s to spy on an American scientist, placing her beyond the ideological struggle, and in more of a nebulous position. It explains why Elsa confesses, because she loves her husband with a freedom there is a sense Irina may never have possessed.
This feels an interesting storyline for Alias to explore at this point given it has worked to place the series in the post-9/11 realm and, as we have discussed, destroy the connections to a bloc-based source of threat to American security. Whereas Irina and Sloane are intelligence agents turned freelance global terrorists, Elsa works for the SVR. She still takes orders. She still works for a nation. She is, in a sense, in a dual position to Sydney, who herself works for a national bloc and a structure in the CIA. Syd may not have kept her life secret from the man she loves in Vaughn (who she gives a drawer in her house during this episode, as a way of showing their developing relationship), but she did with Danny, and she did from Will and Francie for a long time. Both women, however, place their love for the people important in their life, their family, ahead of their duty to their country. Irina never did the same. “I just committed treason against my government because I want to get him back” Elsa tells Syd.
We should stop and consider the other major relationship in this episode briefly because it serves as an important parallel for several reasons: the marriage of Marcus and Diane Dixon. We saw Diane briefly more in the background of Season One, with Dixon’s family a key part of his being as a loyal agent to what he believed was the US government. When his world collapsed around him after Phase One, and Diane at first learned he was a spy in A Free Agent, she wasn’t sure she wanted the life of a wife to a man who risked his life every day. “You take that job, you take it alone” she tells him. Dixon eventually does take the job, returning to help save Syd in Firebomb, and here we see the strength of the Dixon marriage in the wake of that.
Jennifer R. Young discusses this in her essay ‘Alias’ Inversion of White Heroes and Brown Foes’ in Investigating Alias: Secrets and Spies:
Endgame shows the intimacy between Dixon and his wife Diane. After a tragic accident in the field, Dixon requests a transfer. While she had known for several episodes about Dixon’s career as an agent, Diane openly expresses herself. “When you first told me the truth, I said I didn’t know who you were. I was wrong. I just didn’t know what you did. I have always known who you are. You are the most decent man I know. Whatever you decide, I’ll be with you”. Dixon and Diane display an unwavering commitment to each other. Somehow, their relationship withstands the lie that Dixon has been keeping for over a decade. Alias portrays a solid relationship through this black couple, one of the few, if not only, healthy relationships on the show.
Young is essentially saying that the Dixon’s are the only true representation of the successful, working nuclear family dynamic in the entirety of Alias, and in this she is correct. Dixon knowingly lied about his work to Diane, even if he himself was being lied to, but Sloane not only lied to Emily about what he did, but his lies ultimately lead to her death. Jack and Irina’s marriage was obviously destroyed by betrayal. Will and Francie’s relationship is built on a disturbing lie. And even Syd and Vaughn, though at the beginning of their relationship, already have showed signs of a lack of trust between them, and Countdown—involving Dixon—will again chip away at how they function as a couple. They only truly manage some sense of equilibrium in Season Four, and even then it has been wounded and almost destroyed by Vaughn’s marriage to Lauren Reed.
This places the Dixon’s as the only true representation in Alias of a functional, as opposed to dysfunctional, family dynamic. It makes the destruction of that, in Diane’s shock, violent and quite horrific death, all the more tragic and reinforces Alias’ lack of concrete belief in a functional family unit. It is a journey the series ends up thematically going on until the very final episode, when Syd & Vaughn against the odds manage to create that secure family dynamic. Endgame robs Dixon, and the show, of that continued security, and ticks multiple boxes in doing so. It reaffirms the deadlines of Evil Francie, this being her first major attack on Syd’s life after murdering Francie. It pushes Sloane further toward a point of being irredeemable. And it immediately, if temporarily, makes Dixon a darker, more interesting character, and Alias enjoys playing out the dramatic repercussions of that loss in the next episode.
It also serves to undermine the security that is reached at the climax of the episode when Sydney manages to put the Caplan’s back together as a secure family unit, which she sees in some way as a means of repairing the kind of damage that never happened with her parents, and negatively affected her entire life. She goes to great lengths to help Elsa when Jack, in his new position as director of their unit, is prepared to classify Elsa as a traitor and locks her up, tellingly in the same cell as Irina was housed. “My father can’t see straight when he looks at Elsa, he only sees my mother. And if this ends up being a stupid mistake, so be it. I believe her” Syd tells Vaughn, taking a chance because she *wants* to believe her, more than anything. She wants Elsa to be telling the truth when she angrily swears to Jack that “I am *not* Irina Derevko”.
It’s fair to say Jack does not do himself any favours in this episode. He is such an obstructive, condescending jackass he makes Kendall look like a guidance counsellor. He refuses for a moment to believe Elsa may actually genuinely love her husband, convinced he understands her mindset and has pre-judged her based on his own lived experience. “It started as a job, a duty to your country. But it required you to prostitute yourself. It was a small price to pay for servicing the motherland. At first everything went as planned. Then–surely an accident–you got pregnant. You considered terminating the pregnancy but, selfishly, you didn’t. You hoped, somehow, that becoming a mother would redeem you, would absolve your guilt.” That’s not Elsa’s story, that’s the one Jack has conjured in his mind for Irina, and that too is likely at least in part based on his bitter prejudice. Jack being wrong about Elsa is an important step in accepting not every woman is the same as Irina, especially after the second betrayal in A Dark Turn.
Sydney’s determination to prove Elsa is telling the truth, and put back together the Caplan family, drives the core of Endgame, and while weaved into the ongoing narrative as Irina attempts to get Caplan to decrypt the genome DNA database, and Sloane almost kills the man in his vengeful fury after Emily’s death, it nevertheless is a fairly stand-alone way to parallel Syd in relation to Jack and Irina that works well. It is also, tellingly, the first episode in which Syd puts on a disguise since Phase One, since the point her double-agent life collapsed. In an entertaining inversion of the trope of Syd undertaking wild costumes to complete her missions, she cobbles together a costume in a shop in order to escape CIA agents tailing her. This suggests the ‘alias’ is one Syd only uses when she is not being herself, when she is removed from the person she is, and it is only after Endgame she begins to wear disguises again on the missions she undertakes.
The twist in the tale of Endgame, of course, lies in how Neil Caplan himself is revealed to be an NSA agent who was tipped off that the SVR would inveigle themselves into his life and recruited him first – Neil always knew Elsa was a spy! This to some degree makes it easy for the characters to have a happy ending, given they were both lying to each other and working for opposing governments, but it does suggest that Alias sees espionage in a different context, post-Cold War, than it does during the conflict. It suggests America was one step ahead of Russia after the wall fell, that they managed to anticipate their subversion into American life and counteract it, when during the conflict Jack was an example of an America taken completely unawares by the deviousness and corruption of the Communist state. There is balance to Elsa and Neil that allows them to endure once they are back together, and allows them to reconstitute the nuclear family in the post-Cold War world where the blocs are no longer in opposition. “She is not Irina Derevko” Jack begrudgingly admits to Syd, having learned across Endgame enough of a lesson without detaching from his anger.
Though not necessarily an essential episode in the broader fabric of Alias at this point, Endgame is an important one for character, and thematic resonance, while at the same time making some key, and devastating, moves that will influence the remaining three episodes. Family, and the loss of it, continue to be front and centre in Alias’ storytelling.
Check out reviews of the rest of Season 2 of Alias here: