ALIAS – ‘Second Double’ (2×21 – 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 not officially classed as a two-part season finale for Alias, Second Double originally aired on the same night as The Telling, which gives the structure of this episode very much the feeling of a story that is inextricably linked.

Second Double operates on multiple fronts, as both the beginning of a season finale tying together numerous threads which have unfurled across the latter half of Season Two, and as a direct sequel of sorts to Double Agent, which introduced the central idea of Project Helix and the doubling technology. Crystal Nix Hines’ teleplay, from a story by Breen Frazier (though it is likely this was heavily or at least partially re-written by J.J. Abrams in advance of the finale), reasserts the significance of this plot strand by finally starting to pay off the Evil Francie storyline that has been nicely cooking since the end of Phase One. It is satisfying for the audience to see Syd and the main characters around her starting to catch up with us, given we have been a step ahead and aware of Francie’s death and Will being compromised for the last third of the season.

In that sense, Second Double feels more like the beginning of a boulder running downhill which the last couple of episodes have been steadily pushing back up the hill following the climactic point of Truth Takes Time. Endgame and Countdown were both transitory episodes in which our principle villains didn’t make significant strides in their master plan and which focuses more on character or theme – the duality of Elsa and Neil Caplan, or Dixon and Sloane’s voyages of post-traumatic discovery. Second Double from the very beginning kicks over some dominoes, having the CIA close in on the mole who has influenced events in A Dark Turn and Endgame, which dovetails with Irina and Sark, in particular, having to compromise, gamble and adapt to stay one step ahead of Sydney and her colleagues.

Consequently, Second Double feels too inextricably linked with the episode to come to feel entirely functional as an episode of its own, but it threads numerous character beats and ongoing plots to quite fast-paced, thrilling effect. Much like Truth Takes Time, it once again personalises all of the espionage scheming and threats to national security to make for a story that resonates for our protagonist.

Second Double serves as the last episode to really focus on Will Tippin as a major cast member, since Bradley Cooper leaves Alias after The Telling, returning only for guest roles in Season Three’s Remnants and Season Five’s There’s Only One Sydney Bristow. 

The biggest irony in Alias’ history is that Cooper went on to be the A-list Hollywood star where Jennifer Garner arguably never quite managed to break out in the same way following Alias, for which she remains principally best known. Abrams and the producers back in 2003 never really understood what they had in Cooper, which led to something of a torrid experience for the actor, as he recounted to GQ magazine. 

I would only work three days a week. And then for the second season, I got even more sidelined. I was like, ‘Ugh.’ And then next thing you know, I was like, ‘I want to … kill myself,’. J.J. was like, ‘OK.’ (when he asked to be written off). He probably would’ve fired me anyway.

It doesn’t serve as the most reigning endorsement for Alias and what appeared, by and large, to be a fairly even tempered production behind the scenes in which cast members genuinely liked each other and stayed close after the show ended. Victor Garber is a surrogate father figure to Garner in real life, even serving as godfather to her son with Ben Affleck. Cooper certainly seems to be enjoying himself on certain of the DVD commentary tracks for the series (such as the fairly riotous one for Almost Thirty Years), and he certainly remained in contact and friendly with Ron Rifkin subsequently, giving him a small role in his tremendous directorial debut, the latest remake of A Star Is Born. Cooper simply wasn’t well served enough as an actor during his time on the show.

You only have to look at the development of Will to understand why Cooper may have felt this way, and wanted out after two seasons. ABC never liked Will as a character and lobbied early on for Cooper to be dispensed with, influences that may well have put paid to the early exploration of a romance between Syd and Will in Parity – a scene, interestingly, Syd references in this episode as a means test to determine if Will is who he says he is. Will’s conspiracy thriller narrative in Season One as a grungy Bob Woodward on the trail of SD-6 certainly have him a stake in the story, but it often felt circular and anti-climactic, revealing little to the audience they didn’t already know given they were on the inside of what he was investigating. Pulling the trigger on Will knowing the truth about Syd gave him, at the end of Season One, probably his best material in the series’ run.

Season Two struggled to build on that promise, however, and Will was used if anything even more sporadically and erratically in the second year. Him being aware of Syd’s true life does allow for her scenes at home (seldom as they are in Season Two) to feel more tethered to the main stories in play, even if it made Francie feel even more disconnected, but the show simply has too much else going on to really pay off the storylines they do throw at Will – making him an analyst in the CIA, his romance with Francie and very quickly Evil Francie, even the interesting US-based conspiracy Project Christmas, which admittedly does come back in The Telling but feels like a fascinating concept Alias never really knows entirely what to do with after establishing it, forgetting about it after Passage. Every plot thread Will is given just seems to disintegrate into nothing.

Second Double is, in fairness, a real showcase for Cooper and the Will character, and works well precisely because we have spent a third of the season watching him be lied to, seduced and brainwashed by Evil Francie, making him on some level a ‘Manchurian Candidate’ figure along the lines of John Hannah’s Martin Shepard in the Reckoning and Color Blind story way back in Season One. We are now one step ahead of both Will, knowing who is behind his framing and why, and Sydney and the other CIA characters in knowing, despite suspicions on their part, that he is not the titular ‘second double’ and that Francie is. It almost feels like an inverse of Abrams’ traditional style of mystery box storytelling, bringing us in on the conspiracy and allowing us to witness the plotting and scheming of the villains as they work to stay one step ahead. Had we been trying to figure out if Will really had been replaced, that would simply have made this a rather dull re-tread of Double Agent all over again.

Instead, Second Double, quite understandably, chooses to focus in on Syd’s reaction to Will’s predicament and her refusal to believe it. That now makes for the fourth episode out of five to expressly see Syd go against her CIA superiors, and CIA rules, in her refusal to believe her personal view on the world could be compromised by outside forces. A Dark Turn saw Syd refuse to believe Vaughn was working on his own, until it was confirmed. Endgame saw her go against Jack’s orders to help Elsa. Countdown saw her reject Vaughn’s moral relativism, and risk her career, to help Dixon cover up drug use. And now Second Double sees her, in league with Jack this time, go against the D.O.J. to help prove Will’s innocence, refusing to accept Will is a traitor or has been doubled. “Cause if it wasn’t Will then Will is most likely dead and I can’t handle that”.

You can almost sympathise with Syd’s consistent refusal to play by the rules at this point, given everything she has gone through in the last half a dozen episodes. The double agent life she knew ended, her mother betrayed her, Emily died, Diane Dixon was killed, the man she loved almost turned out to be a traitor, and now her best friend might be a double and (who she thinks is) her *other* best friend might be in danger. Psychologically, she must be a mess, but Alias never really stops for breath to examine this, given the wheels of narrative remain in motion. Syd’s reaction is defiance and disbelief, unable and unwilling to accept a new normal in which Will might be dead alongside all of the other changes to her personal life. This does at least reaffirm a central bond between the two characters which has suffered the sheer volume and weight of storylines the season has needed to balance.

It does feel like she can only get away with thumbing her nose at authority for so long, however. She and Kendall (a welcome return after a few episodes for the always missed Terry O’Quinn) become more openly adversarial in this hour than ever before, even when they have crossed swords earlier in the season. Kendall is tired of Syd’s propensity to make everything about her life: “We can’t keep letting your daughter’s personal relationships take precedence over everything else in this office!”, which is a little unfair given how everyone they’re hunting is either related to, or deeply connected to Syd in some way. Kendall is also struggling with Jack’s role as his superior, a role Jack essentially, and maybe quite gleefully, forfeits here and hands back to Kendall in helping Syd. “I was never cut out for management anyway”. No, Jack, you weren’t.

One of the saddest aspects of Alias going forward, however, is that we never get Garber and O’Quinn in scenes together again. O’Quinn went off to play John Locke in Lost after this season and while he plays a key role in the mythology of Season Three and appears in Full Disclosure in a big way, but plans for Kendall to reappear with more frequency were hampered by O’Quinn playing Locke (which, to be honest, it’s hard to begrudge). Seeing Jack and Kendall spar in multiple scenes in Second Double is one of the highlights of the episode, and they emerge from the conversations with a grudging level of respect and even a sense of fondness. “You know, we can help each other. We don’t have to be adversaries” Kendall says, offering an olive branch Jack doesn’t quite know how to take, and claiming his actions in treating Will like a terrorist were always about protecting Syd.

While this tracks with what we will learn about Kendall in Full Disclosure (as much of a retcon as that probably is), it also speaks to the treatment of Will in this episode, which very much speaks to the post-9/11 sensibility Alias has steadily edged its way into. Will is assumed guilty before being proven innocent, locked away in the same cell Irina was kept in (and Elsa Caplan) and is almost killed by an angry, clearly not psychologically well enough to be at work Dixon without any consequences. Kendall even wants to send him to Camp Harris, Alias’ ominous version of Guantanamo Bay which we eventually see in Season Three’s Breaking Point, for “unrestricted interrogation”, which sounds awfully along the lines of illegal US rendition of terrorists susceptive to torture methods in the name of national security. Breaking Point eventually bears this out.

Second Double is, ultimately, more of a thriller in which Will turns fugitive and which is ultimately about his relationship with Syd (he delivers the painful zinger “Meeting you destroyed my life”), but this undercurrent of tensions in how the CIA might deal with civilians or agents who commit treason is very much apparent. The ‘enemy within’ anxiety has always been keenly felt on Alias, in the early days primarily in what SD-6 comprised in its function, but Project Helix (and how it eventually links to Project Christmas) takes this one step further. The post-Cold War paradigm had the CIA fighting enemies who pretended to be us. The post-9/11 paradigm sees us fighting enemies who *are* us, who look identical to our friends and family, and are hiding in plain sight. Alias is as terrified of this possibility as shows set in the Cold War were about infiltration from enemy blocs, which Irina represented.

Another undercurrent to this episode is sex, and it tracks back to Double Agent, where we saw Evil Francie for no good reason spying on Syd and Vaughn sleeping together with some level of perverted curiosity. Syd & Vaughn actually learn about that video here and see the enormously creepy and disturbing footage, for a time believing Will has been the person who filmed and watched it (which, though it shouldn’t, feels even creepier than Evil Francie being the person behind it). It’s strange, in fact, why Syd doesn’t immediately suspect Francie when Will’s name is essentially cleared given the video, with the logical deduction being she who made it, but had that connection been made we would have been robbed of The Telling’s thrilling climax. At any rate, the sexual undercurrent to Evil Francie’s actions have rippled across Season Two from the point she entered the narrative.

The episode begins with her, again, spying on Syd and Vaughn having sex, the two of them now at the ‘tearing each other’s clothes off’ stage of a new relationship, and it almost feels commonplace as she conducts business via phone with Sark as she watches. How often does she do this? What does it say about her psychology? It almost feels like she’s studying them. After all, she flirts with Vaughn weirdly in A Dark Turn, and she has been programming Will to consider her the best sex he’s ever had, so is she divorced in some sense from sexual emotion or loving connection? The Telling establishes she has some kind of sexual relationship with Sark, but it honestly feels as much like he has groomed her in some fashion rather than they function as equals. Evil Francie’s sexual psychology is deep rooted in an episode in which even a set piece revolves around the subject.

In order to discover more about the Helix doubling technology, Syd and Vaughn go undercover in a German bondage club, set to pulsing techno music, to blackmail Dr. Hans Jurgens with racy photos of him tied up and being punished by Syd’s dominatrix they threaten to send to his wife. It is suggested Jurgens is sexually conservative in the real world as a scientist yet escapes to the dungeon locale of the sex club to engage these fantasies. The whole sequence is strange for Alias, a fairly sexually conservative series in which attractive, professional white people largely sleep with attractive professional white people off-screen, but this goes out of the way to place Garner in a sexy corset and ‘torture’ Jurgens with a whip and feather, in sequences which sexualise her in the most overt way since the infamous underwear scene in Phase One.

The main difference here, as pointed out by Deborah Finding and Alice MacLachlan in their essay ‘Aliases, Alienation and Agency: The Physical Integrity of Sydney Bristow’ in Investigating Alias: Secrets and Spies, is that the sequence is played differently in how Vaughn then enters and he and Syd snap out of Syd’s ‘role’, playing house:

The relationship between sex, power and violence is once again played for comic effect. This is a relatively safe move, after two potentially unorthodox sexual moments between Sydney and Vaughn (the tapes of their sex, their pleasure in BDSM costumes) earlier in the episode. Alias hints at, but quickly demurs from, any genuine exploration of sexual role-playing in a world based on the interplay of deceit, power relations, violence and sexuality. It remains provocatively suggestive, rather than genuinely subversive. The latter would be a show that provided a female character so in command of both her physical power and her sexuality that she could both own and enjoy them. The comedy of unorthodox sex provides a safer ‘third way’.

Alias therefore remains fairly conservative in how it presents the sexual deviance it has hinted at with Evil Francie’s actions, and the more raucous fantasies Syd and Vaughn entertain, in a way that you feel the show’s modern day successor, The Americans, which has a much edgier and much more adult approach to its storytelling, picks up on. That show makes the confluence of sex and espionage central to the plotting of the series in a way Alias demurs from, aiding and abetting the network restrictions of the time. Second Double nonetheless hints that Alias skirts far more of a provocative world than, at this stage, it can conscience truly allowing itself to be part of.

Second Double ends throwing the audience into the action as swiftly as it began, with the cliffhanger feeling as much like an act break as the conclusion to the episode, as befits its position as the first half of a bigger finale story. The Telling, one of the best season finales Alias delivers, will arguably make all of the set up in this episode more than worth it.

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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