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Worthwhile TV #2: Trust Me

Season one of Alias ended with a cliffhanger; season two opened with a resolution to that story, and so I do not find it fair to judge that episode as the beginning of the season, for its primary function is to tie up loose ends. Season two really begins with episode two, and it is a very worthwhile episode, not as high-impact as some, not as flashy, but that is what makes it all the more admirable; it does its job with much less artifice than its companions. Spoilers within.

The episode begins—after a recap—with a rainy scene accompanied only by pounding music and a few cryptic words by Director Kendall (the wonderful character actor Terry O'Quinn, Lost's Locke), and we see Lena Olin for the first time in the episode; she turned herself in (the surprise/twist ending) in the previous episode.

That the creators of Alias were not exactly certain where they were going with things was made clear in the transition between seasons; they recast Sydney's mother, the Leno Olin character, and the character, Irena Derevko (a.k.a. Laura Bristow), goes from minimal KGB agent to most-wanted terrorist, criminal, you name it.

We then bring back Sydney's father, Jack, and her roommate, Francie, in one scene dominated by perfect dialog and facial expressions that portray more than any plot elaboration could. Francie has decided to open a restaurant and needs to paint the walls; she asks Mr. Bristow for advice, and in this completely casual social setting he is caught completely off guard. He stutters through “I-I-I'm not really into interior decorating,” the type of phrase you never expect to hear him say. He follows it up shortly thereafter with “You know, to the Vietnamese, and Chinese, the color white means death and bad fortune. Try red.” It is said with a straight face (but slightly raised eyebrows at the end), but could almost pass for dry humor in a British comedy.

The exposition continues with but a line—“Will's sentencing is at two, meet you there?”—and not only are we reminded that in order not to be killed by SD-6 Will had to fake a heroin addiction and get convicted for use/possession, but we get the ironic (not in the ha-ha-funny sense, but in the sense of double meanings and one character not knowing something important) line from Francie to Jack that she wants to kill the guy who introduced Will to heroin.

That would be Jack.

We get some exposition-oriented but still pointed dialog from Jack and Sydney, as well as some father-daughter bonding, and a rare emotionally tender or sensitive moment from Jack, along with a great deal of subtle eye work from Victor Garber (Jack).

We have a non-semantic shift to Sloan at Alliance headquarters in London, and we have one of a couple Stargate SG-1 actors who made guest appearances on Alias, Tony Amendola, who plays Bra'tac. Sloan is inducted as a full member of the Alliance. This gets us introduced to most of important characters. We then have a semantic shift: the next scene involves Sydney talking about Sloan being let into the Alliance, and then we transition to plot exposition in the same scene, setting up the main plot of the episode. Then we transition to Sloan detailing the first operation of the episode—to retrieve a blackmail disc—and back to Sydney and Vaughan, along with a reference to Weiss and Kendall coming to talk to Sydney.

Cut to credits, end of introduction.

Then Will's sentencing, then Sydney and Vaughan with the coutner-mission and Vaughan trying to convince Sydney to talk to her mother (Kendall's request). Next scene: Vaughan and Kendall.

Sydney's 'thing'
Sydney's thing

Then Rabat for the mission, with some Dixon action, a sleazy zebra-skin-style dress, 80s glasses, and big hair on Sydney's part. Important here is Dixon identifying her “tell,” the thing she always does with her hair, passing a hand through it.

Taking care of two birds with one stone, we shift to Vaughan talking to Irena, which is part of his attempted bargain with Kendall, but which also fits with Sydney's mission, when Irena offers intel regarding that mission.

The only melodramatic and annoying part of this—and a few later—episodes comes up here: the low, depressing, cello theme that is played whenever a character deals with Irena in her cell. Let's call it the cell(o).

We cut back to Sydney, and then back and forth to Marshall, detailing the op-tech and her attempts to crack a safe. Then back to Vaughan and dealing with Irena's intel—is it good? Should Sydney follow her advice? Sydney wants to know what her father thought about her mother's supposed help; we cut to him having a coronary. Some great tense dialog and moments. Sydney doesn't listen to her mother's advice, sets off an alarm, and things go a bit south.

Sydney's failure allows Sloan to attempt some blackmail, which means Sydney is off on a CIA (but not SD-6) mission to thwart him. We have sleazy Sydney-Sloan interaction that makes us hate him even more, Sydney-Jack interaction with the Irena musical theme in the background, and then Will-Francie interaction.

Irena's 'thing'
Irena's thing

Sydney is then introduced for the first time to the secret CIA/whatever special operations center that is the main “office” set for the next two seasons, until Lauren Reed (Vaughan's wife in season three) blows much of it to hell at the end of season three. She meets her mother—cue ominous music—and the dialog is tense, the power-relations still in flux.

Irena does the same thing with her hand and hair as Sydney does.

Betcha didn't see that coming ...

The dialog is a bit unrealistic at points, but it is terse and taut in its delivery, and thus it just works. The show builds its own reality.

Sydney and Vaughan are off on their Helsinki mission, Sloan arrives and Sydney avoids him, gets the MacGuffin, and Sloan returns to the U.S. extremely pissed off.

Sydney returns to L.A. and drops off the MacGuffin on Kendell's desk while wearing her wig.

We have another antagonistic Sydney-parent moment (see: end of episode 1, season 1), but this time, as Sydney leaves, Irena provides a predatory close-lipped smile, Bob Dylan still playing in the background.

In short, this episode, “Trust Me,” is to be read in parallel to season 1, episode 1 (1x01, 2x02)—Sydney's return with the booty here is analogous to her return at the end of “Truth Be Told,” although this time to Kendell (whom she at this point despises) rather than to Sloan. The plot parallels continue insofar as we have her failure (or rather, partial success) at the beginning leading to a second mission in the second half of the episode.

Good television succeeds where so many movies fail in a particular structural fashion: the lack of explicit time constraints in most movies leads to edit after edit after edit without necessarily coming to the most essential, well-formed scenes and dialog. Editing is used as a substitute for getting it right in the script. In television there is a set number of minutes. Of seconds. There is only so much time to shoot an episode, so many sets available, and thus in good television, and this episode is good television, every line of dialog fits. Eyes and smiles or frowns, subtle motions with the hands or the tilt of the head, these communicate. This episode demonstrates everything that is right with the first two seasons of Alias, and it's something shared with much but not all of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: tightly connected, semantically-transitioned scenes, not just random cuts. The episode feels as if all parts fit. When I recently re-viewed season three I felt that it was good, and the performances were good, the production values were good, the casting was good, and the plotting was good. But somehow almost everyone who has watched all of Alias agrees that season three is inferior. Some blame it on the content or plotting; I see potential problems there, but not the real problem. The real problem is that season three fails to build episodes that are wholes. That is not the same as episodes that stand alone. No, a whole consists of parts, but only the parts that matter. Wholes are tight, well-constructed.

“Trust Me,” much like “Truth Be Told,” sets the tone for the season and works as a whole; it's the real first episode of season two.

—February 17 2007