ALIAS – ‘Countdown’ (2×20 – 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…

Countdown is quite a strange episode of Alias, especially considering the placement of it toward the end of Season Two.

A season ago, The Solution began establishing the key narrative pieces that would build up into the finale, that played out over the next two episodes, but Countdown doesn’t quite operate in that way. Jeff Pinkner’s screenplay—from R. P. Gaborno’s story—certainly contains ongoing pieces of the narrative in play, but it chooses to specifically focus on two characters who are going through the same trauma in very different ways: Dixon and Sloane, both of whom killed each other’s wives. In that sense, it almost hits the pause button on the thrust of the Rambaldi narrative and the majority of the other storylines, to facilitate these two key character arcs.

At the same time, Countdown chooses to hone in on an aspect of the Rambaldi mythology which has never been expressly explored, outside vaguely of the nebulous quatrains in The Prophecy: the idea that Rambaldi is not just analogous to Leonardo da Vinci but also Michel de Nostradame, the 16th century prophet who predicted, with varying degrees of accuracy that have been questioned by historians for centuries, a wide range of future apocalyptic events and key points in ‘future history’. The very conception of Rambaldi was as ‘Nostravinci’, a fusion of these two legendary figures of the Renaissance, but while Alias has given us plenty of examples of Rambaldi as Da Vinci, there have been few points to date where he could be compared to Nostradamus. Countdown changes that. Countdown suggests Rambaldi could see the future as well as create technology that was centuries ahead of his time, and in many ways beyond our own.

Indeed, for all Rambaldi’s prophecies and mythology influences Alias in the next three seasons, we never quite get an episode like Countdown again, where the prophet’s hand reaches out from the 15th century and directly threats to destroy the world of the 21st.

In step with Truth Takes Time recently, Countdown also chooses to begin with the in media res technique, opening on the point that Dixon is threatening to detonate a bomb on mission. “I’ve got NOTHING to LOSE!” he barks, clearly at a point of desperation (because he actually has two kids to lose), as Vaughn is ordered to potentially take him out.

This really does mirror Truth Takes Time quite clearly, with this time Dixon in the crosshairs as opposed to being the one behind the trigger, and it shows just how far the character has travelled in just a matter of episodes. Over the course of seven hours of Alias, Dixon has discovered he was secretly working for a crime organisation, almost lost his wife Diane to those secrets, joined the CIA, accidentally shot and killed Emily Sloane, and watched Diane be horrifically murdered in a revenge car bombing. It is a tremendous amount of character development packed into a short time, perhaps designed to make up for all of the episodes that Alias effectively ignored the character completely. Pinkner’s script here is making up for lost time by taking Dixon to the absolute brink of emotional security and even sanity.

It is a shame that Alias does, in doing so, reinforce certain stereotypes about black culture in having Dixon immediately turn to self-medication after Diane’s death in order to keep his mind clear. Alias has never particularly been aware of a distinctive element of black culture in the ethnic characters it has included on the show, and there’s an argument that Carl Lumbly and especially Merrin Dungey have been among the most underused main cast in the series to date (perhaps only Kevin Weisman being the exception). Alias is a shade tokenistic in how it depicts other cultures, and is fairly white monocultural in the lens it views the world, so while it’s good to see Lumbly getting dramatic meat to chew on as Dixon, it’s a shame it comes at the expense of destroying the one reliable, secure family unit on the show in the process, and sees Vaughn become his most self-righteous in trying to get the damaged Dixon removed from field duty: “If he makes some mistake out there, it could get you killed!” he tells Syd.

Vaughn admittedly does have a point, with the episode working to explore how the extreme reaction to Diane’s murder sends Dixon on what you could describe as an elliptical crusade to Sloane in Endgame. The moment Sloane shoots Caplan in the leg and furiously interrogates him in that episode is not entirely different to the brutal scene in which Dixon, hunting the Di Regno heart, beats Danny Trejo’s Vargas half to death, focused less on the MacGuffin they’re trying to find than the location of Sloane. Even Syd worries he’s gone too far in that moment, even if for most of the episode she works to defend the man she has long considered as much a elder brother as a partner. She even lies to protect him when he fakes his drug test in order to stay on duty. “Marcus Dixon is one of the strongest people I’ve ever known. I trust him with my life, without hesitation…” she tells a returning Judy Barnett, the CIA counsellor last seen in Dead Drop.

This is the second episode in a row Syd, in fact, lies to the CIA and goes against her superiors in order to protect someone whose virtue she believes in. Endgame saw her protect Elsa Caplan, desperately trying to rationalise the fact the woman wasn’t another version of her mother, and Countdown sees her lie to Barnett, lie briefly to Vaughn, even though her trust in Dixon almost ends up getting him killed and costs the mission. There is a sense that Syd, even though free of SD-6 and her previous life, has inherited some of Jack’s refusal to tow the line with established authority, and is happy to take unilateral action when she feels, morally, it is the right thing too do. It’s a little sickening that Vaughn, for all of his self-righteousness, ends up being right in this one, and does neuter Syd a little bit when Pinkner’s script suggests she has learned the lesson about lying to her future potential spouse. “You know this, but my parents were absent when I was growing up. I never had anyone to disappoint. That’s different now. I’m sorry”. The apology makes Syd a little subservient to Vaughn when, in reality, he would absolutely likely have done the same thing in the opposite position.

In one sense, as a result, Countdown ends up feeling a little melodramatic when it comes to Dixon. His anguished, angry reaction is totally understandable after witnessing and experiencing such a trauma, but Pinkner seems more interested in exploring how it puts Syd in a quandary and how it affects her relationship—albeit briefly—with Vaughn than it does truly digging into Dixon. He’s still angry after this—as we see in Second Double—but why does it take an entire episode of him almost getting himself killed to realise he has two children worth living for? “I got in my car and drove to this bridge I know. I was standing there, looking up at the sky… asking God for forgiveness for what I was about to do. And then I heard something. It was a baby crying. It was a baby crying. I-I didn’t know where it was coming from, I was alone… and I started thinking about my babies”. It feels in some sense engineered when there could have been more nuance.

The way Countdown explores Sloane’s grief, though the B-plot of the episode, is far more interesting. He undergoes a personal transformation, or the beginnings of one, which is quite fascinating, stemming from a realisation, post-Endgame. “I thought I would have some measure of satisfaction with Diane Dixon’s death. I killed the wrong person”. Sark guesses he means Dixon in this moment but what seems clear to me, following Countdown, is that Sloane was really talking about himself, just not from a literal perspective. He never subsequently hunts Dixon down on any personal crusade, indeed when he next sees the man in Season Three (in a completely changed set of circumstances), he essentially forgives him for killing Emily. Sloane seems to fundamentally understand that he called Diane’s murder wrong. More death didn’t bring him any personal solace.

This again suggests that there is more to Sloane than Alias sometimes presents as a character. We saw through Emily that he did have a heart, that he was capable of loving something beyond his own self-interest and self-obsession. Yet often Alias suggests he is a callous, calculated mass murderer (such as in Firebomb) and literally analogous to a Devil archetype. In truth, he rests somewhere in between these two extremes, and Countdown is a good example of that. Pinkner affirms the idea that was introduced in Season Two, that Rambaldi had been a quest, an “odyssey” that Sloane had been on for decades, long before he joined the Alliance, and in a twisted inversion of the Campbellian ‘heroes’ journey’, Sloane has to return to the place he began, or the person the quest perhaps began with, in order to move forward to the next stage.

We get another bit of stunt casting here in David Carradine, hot property once again in Hollywood and surfing something of a career renaissance after his appearance as ultra-villain Bill in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill pictures. Carradine was famous to an earlier generation, of course, for the TV series Kung Fu, as a martial arts legend in the 1970’s, which made him something of a natural fit for the mysterious character of Conrad, a Western man living in a remote Nepalese monastery who seems to have some understanding or knowledge of Sloane’s life and future, and is aware that Emily’s death has seriously undermined Sloane’s faith in Rambaldi. “You mean that meaningless quest that you sent me on thirty years ago that made me abandon the CIA and betray everyone I ever loved?” Sloane tells him at gunpoint.

This tracks with Sloane’s obsession in Endgame. He was fixated only on avenging Emily by killing Diane, and showed no interest in the ongoing quest he had been so resolutely undertaking during A Free Agent and Firebomb particularly. Much like Dixon, Sloane has undergone a vast amount of fundamental changes since The Getaway, transfiguring him into the role of international terrorist and representation of unpredictable, post-9/11 geopolitical chaos. Countdown works hard to remind us he is, and has been, a zealot on a quasi-religious, fundamentalist crusade, one he never expected to cost the life of the woman he loved. Conrad serves to remind him that for any crusade, any pursuit of faith, you must embrace sacrifice. “Thirty years ago, I could only tell you so much. The information had to come to you over time or you would not have understood. Certain events… need to unfold. According to Rambaldi’s writings, your wife’s death, although unfortunate, was a necessary step on your journey.”

What’s interesting about this is not just how it directly overlaps with the main threat of the episode, which we’ll discuss in a moment, but how it for the first time suggests a pre-ordinained, personal connection between Rambaldi himself and Sloane. Rambaldi didn’t just see great global events or points of apocalyptic mass destruction, he saw particular events in the lives of people key to the realisation of his work, and if Sloane has started to become synonymous with the Rambaldi mythology, this is the point the deal is sealed. Rambaldi saw Sloane’s life and Conrad, working off that knowledge, seems to have engineered Sloane’s destiny to reach this exact moment of personal transformation. “Now you understand… your journey has just begun”. It is a moment of profound realisation for Sloane, which he hints at in Second Double, but Alias suggests is just as apocalyptic as any suitcase neutron bomb. We won’t understand the context for almost another season, but Countdown changes him.

Even more intriguingly, Conrad tells him, before he reads what appears to be a personal communication to Sloane from Rambaldi, that “You can always choose to ignore it”. The idea of free will versus destiny is an idea that plays out more expressly in Abrams’ two spiritual successor series to Alias, Lost and Fringe, but Pinkner throws this in to add some uncertainty as to quite what is happening here. Sloane is, apparently, in command of his own destiny, even if Countdown is keen to suggest everything is pre-ordained and playing out to an unforeseen grand plan. It is, at least, enough to give Sloane back his faith in Rambaldi, and stronger than ever, and is an exceeding enigmatic way of reaffirming Sloane’s quest in the light of all of the personal changes that have circled around every main character since Phase One. Sloane may be, in terms of distance, further away from literal capture than he has ever been in Countdown, but he is more connected to the entire mythology here than ever before.

Every genre show such as this works to ultimately personalise the main characters connections to the central mythology of the series. The X-Files does it when Mulder’s father turns out to be an alien conspirator. Babylon-5 does it when its lead characters turn out to be part of ancient prophecy, indeed the same for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Lost and Fringe bake in those connections to the very DNA of the series as opposed to backing steadily into them. So many series understand that a mythology will have deeper resonance if the primary cast have a stake in it. Alias did this with The Prophecy but has ignored it since, meaning Syd remains at a remove from the Rambaldi mythos, and as a result the writers seem to have found it a harder job to integrate that mythology into the storytelling of Season Two than it did Season One.

As Simon Brown and Stacey Abbott say in their essay ‘Can’t Live With ‘Em’, Can’t Shoot ‘Em: Alias and the (Thermo) Nuclear Family’ for Investigating Alias: Secrets and Spies, the integration of personal and mythological works in the context of the episode:

Matters of family and matters of global significance are intertwined. So, for example, in the finale of ‘Countdown’, while the CIA hunts for a bio-weapon they believe is about to set off a cataclysmic global event prophesied by Rambaldi, the actual event is in fact the very personal matter of Sloane’s discovery that he has a daughter. As a result of this entangling of family and work matters, Alias pays more attention to the domestic space but does so not because this is the location of family, but because the domestic space becomes part of the action.

Countdown gets that balance right in an intriguing way by having the main characters in the CIA attempting to stop a Rambaldi predicted apocalyptic event, part of a page filled with his predictions of key dates in history along similar lines. “September the seventh, 1812 — Napoleon’s bloodiest battle with the Russians. June twenty-eighth, 1914 — the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. Started World War I. August the sixth, 1945 — Hiroshima. The list goes on” claims NSA deputy director Brandon, a hawkish boss figure drafted in because presumably Terry O’Quinn was unavailable (though he is played by Jonathan Banks, who would go on to cult fame as Mike Ehrmantrautt in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul). Rambaldi here isn’t just an arcane device to be sought, part of an unknown whole, but he is tangible threat to national security in a way we have never before seen.

This tracks with some of the moves we have seen in Alias across Season Two to suggest the unpredictability of a post-9/11 world. The CIA and NSA have no idea what Rambaldi’s date refers to, what will happen or where, they just have a time. It could be another Twin Towers in the making (it’s curious Rambaldi didn’t cite 9/11 in his dates, but perhaps this would have been seen as too insensitive by the writing staff). It is enough of an unknown for the NSA to become involved and the stakes to be significantly raised. We do get a nice example, though, of Alias bringing these arch ideas down to earth in the sweet budding romance between Marshall and NSA agent Carrie Bowman, who talks about how frustrating it is to live in a world predicated on destructive unknowns. “To tell you the truth, I’m exhausted by the world. Everything — the evil and the rage and the darkness. And the last thing I need is some fifteenth century dork telling me I got a day and a half to live”.

That’s a level of self-awareness Alias doesn’t always reach, or tap into, but it very much suggests the growing anxiety amongst Americans about the sheer unknown nature of the threats to their way of life, and if Sloane and Irina have represented that unpredictability in the last few episodes, Rambaldi here surfaces as the ominous mechanism for a world no longer rooted in the world of two rival blocs, with rules and systems. A weapon of mass destytruction now can be anywhere at any time, with barely any sense of warning. The ironic fact that the apocalyptic event, which appears to be rooted in the Di Regno heart, is more about the personal journey of a bringer of apocalyptic destruction, is a slight of hand that reinforces that uncertainty. Countdown ends up weaving Rambaldi neatly here into the wider reality of the geopolitical framework beyond Alias.

With two episodes to go, while Rambaldi will echo in the background in terms of motivations, Alias will arc back toward personal stakes and consequences, but if the mythology had been as well utilised as it was in Countdown every time, the Rambaldi mythos may not have ended up as great a missed opportunity as it ends up being.

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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