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Worthwhile TV #3: Phase One

Episode 13 of season 2 of Alias is one of the high parts not only of the season but of the series, and numerous elements of this episode appear in later seasons. Spoilers inside.

Let us begin as it does: trashy.

Jennifer Garner in lingerie and holding a riding crop. Fishnets. High heels. And an utterly bored-with-this look.

But let us return, as the episode does, to intelligence. First: semantic connections. She wears black, and the scene is accompanied by AC/DC's “Back in Black.” But no the sleazy fat French dude with the crappy complexion says, and she returns to a back room to put on something red (you want a bored-with-this and utterly disgusted look?). The halls and walls are black and red. Lots of wood paneling, and all very 70s in the worst way, minus the shag carpet. I say semantic connections; let's be real—I just mean meaningful associations.

Such obnoxious terminology on my part.

The point remains, however: various aspects of the episode—dialog, costumes, set design, etc.—work together, with similarities reinforcing themes and the differences working as irony.

Soon we learn in the following order:

Show opening title but skip the normal title sequence—play “American Woman” in the background—and we're in L.A. 24 hours earlier.

The approach to the titles should tell us that something special is going on. The guest-star list also includes Rutger Hauer.

The meta-dialog continues. In the plane Sydney talks about the absurdity of her costumes, and now in the operations center Vaughan pulls her aside and lets her know that “This isn't working.” He of course means their non-relationship, but he means more generally the status quo, and that's exactly what this episode alters.

By introducing a handful of “new recruits” in the building to observe an opportunity is given to provide a re-cap. And alter the status quo (for the first time in the episode). Sloan is being replaced, we're told, and Anthony Geiger—Rutger Hauer—is his replacement. It's a new SD-6.

Off to work we go, and Sydney introduces herself to Geiger in a tense and ill-at-ease scene. Then we get Sark.

Sark: When I met with Geiger this morning I left his office feeling as unstrung as you look.
Sydney: Just so you know, I'll fully strung.

We get some background from Sark on Geiger and an introduction to Server 47, which is our first important plot device of the day. Skip to a Jack and Sydney conversation. Then Sydney and Vaughan at operations with Server 47 exposition: the computer is in a plane and always airborne. Plot device 2: the bad guy on the plane gets a new woman every so often as a play thing, and Sydney gets to play the role. Back to over the Atlantic, a retelling of the first scenes, but from the perspective of Weiss and Vaughan in a nearby plane observing Sydney. We also get jealous Vaughan dialog and Weiss's wit.

Back to the fighting and shooting. During the fight Vaughan gives advice, which explains her actions from the first time we saw them. Then fatso arrives and shoots, but in the continuation we see that he misses. She then shoots out a window, depressurizing the cabin and blowing the bad guys out, one of whom gets sucked into an engine. Sydney finds a parachute and goes for it. The background music is very faux-Bond. Very.


Back to L.A. with Francie and Will cooking lobsters. Very optimistic: her restaurant is making money, Will lets her know that he has a job (travel magazine: CIA job). They hook up.

Back to Sydney and Vaughan and then those two with Jack and Kendall, plotting to take out the Alliance based on the intel from Server 47. But to make sure the intel is reliable Jack will have to go to SD-6 to confirm matters.

Will and Francie with Sydney, the latter noticing something going between the other two.

Geiger calls in McCullough (Angus Scrimm) and finds out by examining Sloan's computer that Sloan knows that Sydney and Jack are double agents. Alas, Jack is going to show up to work (but not before another brief scene between Sydney and Will talking about the budding Francie and Will relationship). Geiger talks to Jack, and, alas, the latter is now trapped. Cut to the operations center, and Jack calls Sydney, warning her via a code that he has been compromised. Geiger decides to torture Jack, Jack relates a previous meeting they'd had (and we see what sort of sick freak Geiger is, since he's able to carry on the friendly banter while torturing someone), and back to Sydney, warning Will to get out of town. Sydney realizes she has to change the status quo some more.

She meets near the oil drilling machinery and tells Dixon about her double-agent status, about SD-6, etc., and Dixon, as expected, doesn't want to believe her, but eventually he agrees to go back to SD-6 and get the relevant intel for her. He emails Sydney, and the raid is on.

Back to Jack being tortured, cut back to the raid, more quick cuts and moving cameras, some dramatic pauses, the typical grammar of action movies. A nice, calm moment between Dixon and Marshall, the latter offering the former pigs in a blanket, and then cuts between the slow nostalgia of the SD-6 office and the rapid motion of the invading forces. The two meet, a gun battle and property damage ensue, and Sydney runs off to save Jack. She bursts into the torture chamber (Geiger had been talking about what he could do to her) and shoots our bad guy. Dead.

In the aftermath of the raid we get some stats, but we also get Marshall and Dixon and others being led out. In the case of Dixon we have a last encounter with Sydney and a tense and tearful moment as she approaches in a friendly fashion, but he just responds in a broken voice, “Don't talk to me.”

Now we wrap things up:

Roll end credits.

AC/DC alone could have made this a great episode, but on top of that it has Rutger Hauser and more twists than any single episode should be allowed. Sloan has disappeared and has been replaced? Check. They finally find the intel they need to take down SD-6? Check. But Jack is caught in a trap and might not make it through? Check. Ah, he does, though, in the end. Vaughan and Sydney, after one and a half seasons, get together? Check. Turns out that the whole thing was orchestrated by Sloan as a way to free himself from the Alliance and Jack, Sydney, and all the rest were just his pawns? Check. And a major character gets killed with an impostor left in her place? More spy goodness check.

Season one had Quentin Tarantino guest star in two episodes (he comes back in season three a couple times), but it was really with this episode that the guest stars kicked it into high gear. In the coming episodes we get Ethan Hawke, Christian Slater, Richard Lewis, Danny Trejo and David Carradine among others.

This episode marks the second time in the series—the first time being episode 17, “Q & A,” of season 1, which also served as a recap of sorts, as does this one—that the opening scene is revisited later in the episode and extended so as to give it meaning. In that episode Sydney drove a car off a pier, and, by the end of the episode, came to the conclusion that her mother was still alive. Here we have something much similar to the season 4 premiere: lingerie, mission on a piece of transportation (train, plane ... in season 1, an automobile), a sudden cut at the climax when Sydney is in trouble to a scene a few days earlier, and the same scene retold with extra input and/or perspective later on.

“Phase One” is arguably the best-composed single episode of the series.

—February 20 2007