Series Retrospective: ALIAS – ‘The Two’ (3×01 – Review)

In 2018, we began a deep-dive TV review series looking at J.J. Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. Over the next year, we’ll be looking at Season Three’s 22-episode run in detail…

You could make a strong argument that Alias peaked at the tail end of its second season, and from The Two onwards the journey of J. J. Abrams’ series is all downhill.

There is merit to that but it isn’t precisely fair. The Two is a solid reestablishment of Sydney Bristow as a character and the re-conceptualised series as a concept, triggering the first half of a third season which ultimately consumes itself but starts out heartily, with a fascinating new mystery surrounded by a revived and re-developed set of character dynamics. Penning this opening episode, if not directing as he did the Season Two barnstormer of a finale The Telling, Abrams sets the stall for Alias to come. This is a soft reset of the show, one designed to follow through on the structural changes established after Phase One. In previous reviews, we talked about how Alias spent the rest of the second season moulding itself around a mid-season explosion of the series’ initial idea. The Two is a response to that.

The Two could not have functioned in the manner it does if Phase One had taken place at the end of the second season, as was rumoured to initially be the plan. SD-6’s collapse would have triggered a third season which began with Arvin Sloane as the villain, and much of what happened at the end of Season Two likely would have taken place in the first half of Season Three, with one key difference: no Lena Olin, who had rejected the opportunity to reprise her role as Irina Derevko after her one season stint as a regular. Given how awkwardly Season Three has to write around Irina’s absence, try and imagine the cluster of post-Phase One, pre-The Telling episodes without Irina. They would never have worked as well as that last third of Season Two does, however fractured and galloping the storytelling might be.

Given Alias detonated Sydney’s role as a double agent halfway into the previous season in order to streamline the series, The Two has the space in many ways to do just that. It attempts to provide a rough template for the new season to follow.

While Alias was constructed entirely on heavy seriality, combining the ‘90s genre sensibility for character work and high concept plotting with ongoing, detailed story arcs growing emergent the The Sopranos cable era, this duality never sat well with ABC, the show’s parent network, as Abrams explained to TV Line:

The first two seasons were what I wanted the show to be. And then [ABC] said in Season 2, “This is the last season you can make it serialized. It has to be a standalone show.” And so Season 3 began the season where it was episode-to-episode.

In reality, however, Abrams cheats. As someone who fully embraced serialised storytelling headlong, adopting stylistic narrative touches from series such as The X-Files while combining them with a retro-1960s pulp sense of propulsion, he never completely transforms Alias into a standalone episodic series. While the first half of Season Three does largely provide a ‘villain of the week’, such as The Two’s silent but deadly Gordei Volkov (Oleg Taktarov), it fully maintains a consistent level of ongoing mythology and personal character arcs that would have been anathema in a purely standalone series, before the latter half of the season gives up on this pretence completely and barrels into the same rush of seriality we saw in the first two seasons. In reality, Season Four is the Alias year that truly embraces standalone storytelling to a much greater degree.

What Abrams does with The Two is a convincing job of serving both masters.

Season Two left far too much hanging up in the air simply to return and have Sydney mindlessly tackling a brand new bad guy week to week with zero consequences. The Telling’s cliffhanger, with Syd waking up after her fight with Allison Doren in Hong Kong only to find she has been missing and presumed dead for two years, with no memory of what happened to her, is a whopper of a twist even for Alias’ standards. What happened to Sydney in that two year period dominates the atmosphere of Season Three from The Two through to Full Disclosure, and Alias never pretends otherwise even across this premiere. Abrams might have stripped away SD-6, successfully (for now) removed Irina from the picture, found a way to scale back Sloane’s week to week super villainy, and given the series the space to go in completely new directions, but The Two is centered on a brand new, layered core mystery.

This is how it should be. Part of the appeal of Alias was always how complex the storytelling was, how intertwined the destinies and narratives of Sydney and the cast around her, and how intriguing the show’s central mythology that underpinned the ‘spy-fi’ espionage was, and Abrams understands in The Two that you can service all of these core aspects that make Alias so appealing, and in many ways unique, while giving the writing staff room to dial back on a week-to-week level of myriad story which, in fairness to ABC, could well have alienated audiences who wanted to casually dip in and out week by week. In our modern age of streaming services and binge watching, such concerns would never be a problem, but in the age of the network, shows like Alias were always maintaining a careful balance between accessible escapism and intelligent storytelling. The Two is a textbook example of that.

Josh Applebaum, who with his co-writer Andre Nemec joined the staff of Alias as the third season began, both replacing founding Alias scribes Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman, who left at the end of Season Two, sums up this guiding philosophy:

It was always about the saga of Sydney Bristow, the whole world that was created. I think in a nice way, what that mandate forced us to do was to tell standalone stories within the mythology. There’s always the mythology going, but it was nice to feel like to some extent each episode had its own individual satisfaction and the show wasn’t just this one long run-on sentence.

The Two, quite rightly so, plays into that thinking by centralising everything around Sydney’s post-waking up experience. 

Abrams picks up precisely where Season Two left off, amidst the same conversation between Syd and who is now her former lover Michael Vaughn, as her world comes crumbling down and she refuses, initially, to believe anything around her is true.

Syd plays surrogate to the audience through The Two well in that, in many respects, she acts as we do. She remains stubbornly wedded to the psychological space of Season Two, despite everything now having changed within a blink of an eye. She steadily learns information across the episode from various characters which help orient her into this new landscape – Vaughn married and gone from working at the CIA, Dixon now boss of the Rotunda, Jack in prison, Sloane reinvented as a humanitarian, and so on… we learn all of these new facts at the exact same point Sydney does.

This works to The Two’s advantage, given the seismic adjustment Abrams is forcing us to accept. Such changes are common place for third seasons of television shows, particularly from this era. Many do not give the narrative the kind of enormous jolt Alias does, but a litany of shows in the same genre vein attempt to reinvent themselves come their third seasons. The X-Files fully introduces its own mythological villains in the sinister Syndicate and finally ties the characters of Mulder & Scully to that central mythology. Lost characterises the mysterious Others and takes its own steps toward a time jump that, much like Alias, entirely adjusts the show’s narrative.

Even as recently as Westworld, which ventures out into the world beyond the titular park in its third year, we see examples of established series’ working hard to maintain vibrancy and relevance as they move from new kids on the block to growing veterans.

Third seasons are, for this reason, often a tricky beast. They can make or break a series.

Lost fumbled so badly at the beginning of its third year, it forced show runners Damon Lindelof & Carlton Cuse into a defined plan to end the show after a set number of seasons. Westworld’s third year split its fandom in two, with a whirlwind of accusers convinced the series had completely lost its way by the end. Yet you can point to The X-Files or Buffy the Vampire Slayer or the aforementioned The Sopranos as examples of third seasons which take everything the first two years did so well and build on them, serving both as bridges and entrenched examples of the shows at their best. They can be, as Brooklyn Nine-Nine creator Mike Schur attests, the end of the honeymoon period for a series:

Everyone’s favorite seasons of shows are seasons two and three, because you’ve had a year to get to know them, and then you’re still in the honeymoon period where you go, ‘This is great!’ And then after season three, everyone starts to go, ‘Eh, that show’s not as interesting as it was anymore.’ And it’s like, ‘Well you’ve been watching it for three years.’

Alias is unique in the sense that Season One remains, creatively, the show’s strongest and most consistent year of storytelling.

Season Two had more blockbuster twists, turns and payoffs, and Season Four to come promises some of the series’ most effective writing, but Season One emerged with a remarkable sense of security and self-belief, and crucially understanding of what the series was, that it can take many shows—including some of those previously mentioned—a season or more to find. Alias arrived fully formed and hit the ground running, and by the end of Season Three, the glow had more than worn off Sydney’s high concept, high adventure escapades. The Two, nonetheless, is a grounded and rounded enough season premiere to not yet suggest that. The omens here are good.

A principal reason for this is because Abrams, as discussed above, presents the episode entirely through Sydney’s prism. We share in her disorientation and disbelief as she emerges from her lost time. “Hell of a way to wake up!” as she puts it.

We have no more idea of the meaning of the strange dream sequence she experiences at this point—which will be expanded on in Prelude—than she does, and we are left to infer the details. Is that Irina we see? Is it Vaughn? Why are their church bells ringing? Is there a Rambaldi connection, given his close connection to the Church? (The answer is, because it’s Alias, of course yes). Sydney, to her credit, asks Dixon a flood of questions we the audience also want to know. “I wish I only had a million questions!” she exclaims. It’s unlikely Abrams had the answers when writing this script, as enamoured more specifically as he is with asking questions rather than answering them, but we sympathise with Sydney in her confusion.

Let’s face it, The Two is asking a lot of us as an audience.

Abrams wants us to accept that Syd & Vaughn have been quite violently torn asunder as a couple, after the show gets them to a point of romantic security, and not only that Vaughn is married, to a woman destined to be pathologically hated by the ‘shipper’ fanbase who watched for Syd & Vaughn’s UST and continued watching as they got together. It wants us to accept Dixon is now the man in charge, that Sloane is theoretically a ‘good guy’ after The Telling saw him at the very height of his ultra-villainy, and even that Eric Weiss has slimmed down. “You lost weight” is one of the first things Syd says to him, and at this point you wonder if she’s talking to Weiss or Greg Grunberg. Probably both. The only fixed point is Marshall, and even he is about to become a father with his late Season Two paramour Carrie Bowman.

While these are significant right turns from where Season Two left the show, they are all theoretically smart moves for Alias to make, particularly where Sydney & Vaughn are concerned.

While Jennifer Garner & Michael Vaughn have always had good chemistry, the two of them as a functioning, happy couple is a dramatic dead end, and the writers understand this. Even when they appear to have returned to that equilibrium at the end of Season Four, the writers contrive to sever their relationship once again. Syd & Vaughn’s best years were as their professional relationship slowly bloomed into an unspoken romantic attraction, the classic UST which Abrams works to reconstruct across Season Three. Syd’s anger and seeming loathing of Vaughn by the end of The Two, once she has processed what she considers an emotional betrayal—“I would have WAITED”—is a strong position to be in, placing these former lovers and close partners at odds.

It also ensures that Season Three doesn’t have to be solely about their developing romance, and allows Abrams to position the core relationship in The Two as the one that Alias has always truly been about: Syd & Jack. He manages in this premiere to tether Syd’s disoriented emergence with Jack’s incarceration (replete with the Beard of Sorrow), and have Jack once again serve as Syd’s tether to normality and the world, despite all of his betrayals and how their relationship was severely tested across Season Two. Jack was the only one who refused to believe she was dead. Jack was fighting for her, to the degree he landed himself in solitary confinement as a result.

In that sense, Jack is the only other character to remain in narrative carbonite as Syd has, which makes him even more of an ally. He never moved on either, and his put down of Vaughn upon learning he’s married is as wonderful as it is withering: “Michael Vaughn is just a boy who was never good enough for you anyway”. Tell it like it is, Jack!

Juxtaposed with this is the part Sloane plays in The Two, which is slight but important in establishing where he fits in this time jumped mosaic.

Much like the Syd/Vaughn relationship, he too had been written into a corner to some extent by the end of The Telling. Sloane was the root of all evil, engaged in plans beyond anyone’s understanding after his gift of knowledge from Rambaldi in Countdown, activating a device everyone assumed to be apocalyptic… where do you go from there? More of the same? That would have grown old very quickly and prevented Ron Rifkin from doing what he does best with the character: enigmatic, nebulous creepy monologues with dubious motivations, always speaking to the classic villain idea that they see themselves as the hero. Allowing Sloane a pardon and fashioning him, in the greatest of ironies, into a humanitarian executive who fronts TIME-esque magazines with the moniker ‘Rising Angel’, is an inspired development because it is precisely the opposite of where you would have expected his character to go.

In her essay ‘Alias’ Inversion of White Heroes and Brown Foes’, Jennifer R. Young suggests that this twist for Sloane’s character turns him into a ‘global citizen’ in the Alias framework:

In this episode, Sloane explains the motivations behind starting Omnifam, his world health organisation based in Zurich. In this same episode, viewers learn that he helped dismantle over two dozen terrorist cells around the world. While he is as devious as the characters get, Sloane has redeeming qualities through his humanitarian efforts. Whether viewers believe his good intentions or not, part of Season Three is dedicated to the notion of Sloane as a man without country, but a son of the world.

This is certainly how he presents himself to Syd, his presence part of how her shock and upset at the beginning of The Two steadily transforms into a righteous, burning anger by the end of the episode. Sloane reminds audiences of the otherwise dormant Rambaldi mythology by claiming the device he activated gave him just the word ‘peace’ as part of a developing philosophy that he was on the wrong track. He asks Syd if she believes in redemption and, despite all of the pain he has inflicted on her, has the temerity to say “I loved you like a daughter. And there were times, I could see it in your eyes, you looked at me like I was your f—“. Syd cuts him off before he can say the word, violently, and in this moment Sloane’s entire arc across Season Three is quietly telegraphed, while playing logically into the antagonism that has existed between them in some form since the beginning.

These are all narrative techniques Abrams employs to both deepen while at the same time freshen up these pre-existing relationships, and we see Syd harden across the episode as she is forced to accept them. Dixon no longer her partner but more distant boss. Sloane a CIA ‘consultant’ she will have to work with as opposed to seek out and kill. Vaughn as an ex-boyfriend who has, it appears, moved on with his life, and Syd chews out for magnanimously turning up at the end to see if she’s ok. “What you came here for us closure and there is not a chance you are getting that from me” Syd promises him and, in that, the stage is set for a third season with a huge amount of character stories and threads left wide open and rich for new development amidst the more episodic structure Alias deigns, for a while, to employ.

It is a shame that, around these aspects, The Two is fairly threadbare. Despite Volkov being amped up as a sinister, silent Russian bad guy in the stylishly-produced opening train set piece, he never amounts to much and is quite easily dispatched by Syd in the climactic, explosive sequence where Syd dons a red-wigged disguise—her first in this new world—as she returns to the skin of the super heroic secret agent we know and love. Equally, the central gambit of recovering plans for a spy drone capable of potentially dropping chemical or biological weapons is one Syd takes in her stride, and while technology that almost two decades later is far more commonplace, it never seems like a piece of espionage Abrams is all that interested in.

The Two is an early sign that the standalone spy narratives Alias will try and employ will, unless directly connected to Syd and the mystery of her missing two years—as in A Missing Link, for instance—will be disposable as to be almost pointless.

The audience also is required to suspend a level of disbelief, even for Alias, in Syd bringing a literal blowtorch to the CIA as she threatens our new Kendall-replacement, the oily and obstructive NSC boss Robert Lindsey (sadly not played by the Robert Lindsay, rather a nicely odious Kurt Fuller), with destroying the plans unless Jack is released. It is among the more ridiculous moments in Alias history and once again underlines that Syd only has a moral conscience when the writers deem it relevant – otherwise she’s willing to indulge all the worst aspects of her parents and threaten, blackmail and cajole in order to get what she needs, often to protect those she loves. Lindsey should have had her thrown out of the building whether she destroyed the plans or not!

Despite this, The Two works as a season premiere with a great deal of work to do, as Alias has to begin settling from The Telling’s huge plot twists and the monumental adjustment after its cliffhanger. It remains oddly streamlined while pulling us, and Syd, into this new dynamic, and ends with a striking revelation which deepens the mystery of the two year gap in all kinds of new ways.

It might be the weakest season opener yet, but given quite what Season Three has to grapple with, and what it ends up becoming, it does what it needs to do.

Check out our other reviews of Alias Season 3 here:

  • The Two
  • Succession
  • Reunion
  • A Missing Link
  • Repercussions
  • The Nemesis
  • Prelude
  • Breaking Point
  • Conscious
  • Remnants
  • Full Disclosure
  • Crossings
  • After Six
  • Blowback
  • Facade
  • Taken
  • The Frame
  • Unveiled
  • Hourglass
  • Blood Ties
  • Legacy
  • Resurrection

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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