If The Confession was the point of no return, The Box is the tale which catapults Alias into what is, barring one or two exceptions, a season and a half of dynamic, top drawer storytelling.
Alias was a high concept TV series from the outset. The ‘high concept’ in Hollywood vernacular defines an idea which can be distilled into a pure, accessible, often blockbuster form. ‘What if we could clone dinosaurs?’ for example with Jurassic Park, or to use another Michael Crichton example, ‘What if theme park robots became sentient and took control?’. Alias itself flaunts the high concept in its DNA, pitched essentially as ‘What if a spy found out she was working for the enemy?’. Even from Truth Be Told, Alias perhaps throws a few extras caveats into that pitch but in basic terms, that’s the point JJ Abrams’ show starts from. The Box, however, is the first episode to truly deliver on a high concept idea.
If you look at Alias across the first half of its first season, we haven’t seen an episode anything like The Box. Right from the get go, Alias engaged in a level of serialised storytelling through which it broke the 90’s mould of stand-alone, easy to syndicate episodes of television to depict a compelling, ongoing narrative journey for Sydney Bristow as she becomes more embroiled in her double-agent life with SD-6 and the CIA. Each episode, even those which carried heavily over to each other such as Reckoning and Color-Blind, tells an espionage tale on a scale which never overwhelms the broader character and narrative arcs in play: Syd & Jack’s relationship, Syd & Vaughn’s relationship, the Rambaldi mythology etc… Thus far, the spy stories have been fairly incidental and the weekly bad guys relatively disposable.
All of that changes, immediately, with The Box. The first genuine two-part story in Alias’ lifespan, labelled indeed as such, it delivers on the high concept idea with the pitch: ‘What if terrorists seize control of SD-6?’. Alias does Die Hard, basically, and without a shred of embarrassment. Writers John Eisendrath and Jesse Alexander immediately understand their reference point and the fact they are riffing, broadly, off one of the greatest examples of a high concept in Hollywood history. It only adds to the joy of The Box which exemplifies the remarkable level of confidence Alias had in its storytelling from the very beginning.
Many other series wouldn’t have the balls to make The Box until maybe its third, even fourth, seasons. Alias gets it out the way as a midpoint to its debut year.
The Box serves as the fulcrum, in many ways, for Alias as a series at this stage.
The show is never quite the same after this two-parter, both in terms of how the narrative progresses and indeed how the characters react. In some respects, it’s a climactic beat, a one-two punch rejoinder to the stunning revelation at the end of The Confession which threw everything Sydney knew and understood about her life into question. The Box is almost an essential story for her as a character. Sydney needs the most significant threat to her life and work to date in order to propel her into the second half of the season and the next phase of her role as a double agent. Alias needs The Box as a narrative even more than it realises it does.
It is perhaps chiefly famous as an episode of course by virtue of its special guest star – none other than cinematic directorial legend, Quentin Tarantino. This was really the first example Alias gave us of employing the A-list megastar, the household name, as a fun guest who popped in, made and mark, and then sauntered out. Jennifer Garner and the rest of the main cast at that time (even Bradley Cooper) were jobbing character actors enough to allow a major star to appear and not overshadow any of them – it’s only after Alias that particularly Cooper and Garner went onto bigger things (if not exactly better ones for Garner). Over the first half of the season, Alias had supplied a surfeit of interesting guest stars—Tobin Bell, Miguel Sandoval, Gina Torres, James Hong—but John Hannah was the closest the show had come to a bigger name on the guest roster. The Box changes all that forever.
Remember, even this early in his career, J.J. Abrams had a certain Hollywood pull.
This is a guy who had been writing and script doctoring for a decade or more up to the point where Alias began to put Bad Robot on the map – penning scripts for Harrison Ford vehicles, contributing lines to such iconic 90’s blockbusters as Con Air, and in some respects doing the same kind of jobs that Tarantino did when he wasn’t directing pictures which defined and repurposed the cultural moment – take how Tarantino added memorable pop-culture references to the script of Tony Scott’s mid-90’s claustrophobic, post-Cold War military pot-boiler Crimson Tide. Abrams knew people. He knew Tarantino. He knew enough people that by the end of Season 1 he had already, impressively, drafted in Sir Roger Moore to appear on a TV show for one of the first times since The Persuaders, and in Season 2 he landed unprecedented TV guest spots by legends such as Faye Dunaway, Ethan Hawke and Rutger Hauer. It all started, however, with The Box.
Tarantino here plays, appropriately, the kind of larger than life character in mercenary McKenas Cole that befits such an exuberant personality. Jesse Alexander, who co-wrote the episode alongside John Eisendrath, talks in Alias Declassified: The Official Companion, about their process as scribes when they discovered Tarantino had agreed to play the part:
When we found out that Tarantino had the part, we pulled this all-nighter in the writers room to write this new character, sort of ‘Tarantinoed’ the script. Quentin has a specific way of acting, his characters include pop references and speak with an almost musical rhythm, so we wrote the part specifically for him. He liked what we did and was really into it.
It’s telling how Tarantino enters the episode with a flourish – first spotted wearing cool shades, allowing his team to do all the work, before showing impressive action chops by slide-running under a laser grid to the strings of Rob Zombie’s Dragula (which itself had become a pop culture scion of a sort, having appeared in The Matrix and video games such as Gran Turismo 2), dressed as he will be across both of these episodes like a Reservoir Dog. Alias wants us to recognise this is no two-bit random actor appearing this week, this is Quentin Tarantino. We must remember how unusual this was for television up to this point and how it prefigures the blurred lines that took place across the 2000’s into the 2010’s when it came to television and cinema; actors like Tarantino, or Dunaway or Hawke, very rarely appeared on television, if they ever did at all.
There remained a level of institutionalised snobbery, a dividing line, between the two mediums which has only really begun to dissipate as the mid-budget level movie has vanished and the prestige, well-funded TV series has bloomed.
Jay Caruso, writing for The Federalist, argues that the 90’s was a turning point for this change, particularly when Tarantino directed an episode of massively successful medical drama series ER:
The change began in the 1990s when producers such as Dick Wolf, Steven Bochco, and Tom Fontana took a risk and introduced grittier shows with darker story lines as well as more realistic characters, both good and bad. The result was Law and Order, NYPD Blue, and Homicide: Life on the Street. Medical dramas ER and Chicago Hope added to the lineups and brought with it one of the first crossovers from film to television. However, in this case it was a director, Quentin Tarantino, who made the jump by directing the ER episode “Motherhood” after being asked by George Clooney (Clooney starred in the Tarantino-written From Dusk Til Dawn.). In the world of television, it was a big deal at the time since Tarantino was coming off an Oscar win for his screenplay of Pulp Fiction. Well-written dramas became the norm, but it was HBO that took the dramatic television series to an entirely different level with the prison drama Oz (created by Homicide’s Tom Fontana) and two years later with the mob-themed The Sopranos. Both shows explored areas until that time were only explored by motion pictures.
Alias arrived at the crux point of this changing era for television, emerging into a new century, and while it has not been remembered as a show which changed the conversation or ushered in the so-called next Golden Age of TV, it without a doubt in engaging a highly serialised narrative and employing A-list guest stars such as Tarantino contributed toward that slow, incremental change. It’s why Alias both feels and doesn’t feel like a traditional network series of the 90’s. It has aspects which feel like a holdover, particularly in its first few seasons, but builds on the work done by landmark serialised shows such as Babylon-5 on the sci-fi spectrum, or some of the aforementioned dramas by creatives like Steven Bochco, who challenged TV to break free of its conventions.
The Box, therefore, is a hugely important part of how Alias staked its claim as part of that televisual revolution and sea change. It was originally devised as a single episode before producer Sarah Caplan, aware that over 190 scenes had been written by Alexander and Eisendrath for the show’s biggest story yet, realised it needed to be what would constitute a traditional two-part episode. Alias had broken another trend in not limiting ongoing character development or its mythology to major two-part stories, as for instance The X-Files before it had done, but The Box glances a little more in that direction as it plays out a signature moment of choice for Sydney amidst a very specific narrative crisis. It feels as a result the most contained and in a way old-fashioned Alias episodes of its first season. It’s a wonder it wasn’t timed to play as part of the classic Super Bowl February sweeps.
When you look at the structure of The Box, you realise just how much of a prologue The Confession was to all of these events. Not unusually for Alias, The Box picks up directly after the previous episode, but this time Syd isn’t in some kind of perilous, life or death situation, but rather a point of devastating, life-changing emotion. That in itself sets The Box apart from every previous episode of Alias to date as it allows the revelation, one we have been building towards in some form or another for the entire season so far, to carry us through into this blockbuster episode. It also allows Alexander & Eisendrath to lay out the central character dilemma at the heart of the entire episode – are you in or are you out?
This is mirrored across The Box in two ways. Syd, having learned that her previously beatified mother Laura was in fact a KGB spy whose marriage to her father Jack was all a lie, reacts to this revelation by wanting out of the CIA, of the double-agent battle to bring down SD-6, to everything she had both committed to and has questioned ever since Danny was killed in Truth Be Told. This is a natural character point as Syd has wrestled all season as to whether she wants to be embroiled in this complex situation. “The truth changes everything” she says, as the revelation that her mother was the one who killed Vaughn’s father unites them even closer. “I need something in my life to be real” she tells him, finally asking him out on a light, if at this stage directly non-romantic date. She wants to assert her own reality on what has been, all season, a fake life filled with costumes and, well, aliases. “Sydney, you can’t do this” is Vaughn’s typically pragmatic response.
The mirror comes in the form of her friend Will, whose storyline as the shaggy, throwback 1970’s investigative reporter unwittingly working to expose the entire secret life Syd is involved in, has been steadily building and developing across the season. Will too, now, is ready to throw that quest away, concerned that too many lives are at stake, having become aware that whatever SD-6 is, it’s a secret people are willing to kill to protect. This has now been writ large upon meeting David McNeil, an innocent man who went to jail to protect his daughter from the same SD-6 that framed him for their murder of his wife. Will is under pressure from his mystery source, and McNeil’s crusading teenage daughter, to find the justice in his case, but though Will may be a journalist, he is frequently seen to be emotional, human and a man of conscience. While Syd wants her life back, Will doesn’t want anyone else to lose theirs.
Though both are on different tracks, even if they lead down the same road, and both are unaware of the other’s quest, The Box ultimately is designed as the answer to their question – for both of them, the answer is simple: I’m in. It simply takes the events of this two-parter for them to realise that, based on the choices they make, and for Syd the almost unstoppable, bigger and more dangerous force exemplified by Cole, his team, and the mysterious, unseen ‘The Man’ he works for. The Box is about the rediscovery and resumption of both of their quests.
The Box, introducing a more powerful antagonist for Sydney and the characters spiralling around her, also suggests that the stakes in Alias can and will be raised. Consider the villainy since the show began – for Syd, beyond Sloane and the continuing threat of SD-6, it has been decidedly neutral. The Alliance haven’t yet really established themselves in the show as anything but a name and the odd voice on a phone; rival agencies such as FTL or K-Directorate are used as framing devices for assorted bad guys Syd can dispose of with relative ease; even recurring bad guys such as Ineni Hassan are more geopolitical than particularly effective. Had Anna Espinosa been allowed to gain any deeper characterisation before waltzing off the stage, this may have been different, but up to this point Syd’s only significant point of antagonism has been the agency she has been working to bring down.
With The Box, all of those anaemic sources of villainy are blown out of the proverbial water. Jack even comments how K-Directorate, the first guess Syd has for who might be behind the attack on SD-6, would never launch such a direct assault against the Alliance because they know there would be retaliation; the major, organised criminal powers which have risen up as part of the underbelly of traditional governmental espionage are now embroiled in their own sense of detente, of M.A.D., even with the Cold War over. Cole and his group represent a change in that paradigm, a new breed of terrorism. While they may be distinctly Die Hard in their multi-ethnic, non-territorially specific ideology, the analogy is potent in Alias’ post-9/11 world – Cole is the lethal unpredictability of a rapidly changing world, and one which destroys the natural order of the Alliance and K-Directorate’s statesmanlike criminality. This becomes even clearer in the next episode, The Coup.
It is interesting how Alexander & Eisendrath also choose to place the backstory of Cole with the latent Cold War paradigm of the Russian ideological conflict, and suggest he is a symptom of a system which left the door open for new power brokers like The Man to walk in. Cole is established over these episodes as a former SD-6 agent with parallels indeed to Sydney herself; he believed he was working for the CIA until he was captured by the Russians after a mission went wrong in Grozny, attempting to rescue a fallen comrade, for which he blames Sloane. This happened in 1996 – some years after the end of the Cold War, in the ‘sweet spot’ between conflicts old and new, and a point in time where Cole was ideologically and psychologically changed after undergoing horrific torture at the hands of Russians who made him aware he was never working for the US government.
We don’t ever get all of the details in Cole’s backstory, either here or when Tarantino pops up again for a cameo in Season 3’s After Six (by which point he is second in command of a threat which develops in the wake of The Man, called the Covenant). Though Cole’s story never intersects with that of Irina Derevko, we can infer that she and her cadre of ex-KGB organised criminals recruited Cole after his Russian capture, informed him about SD-6, and turned him against his country; indeed they seem to have turned Cole into a man without a country, filled instead with a similar hate Syd has for the man who betrayed him: Sloane. They may also have radicalised him as a Rambaldi follower, but Cole never seems much interested in that mythology beyond what he ends up stealing from the SD-6 vault, so maybe not. These aren’t details we need but they factor into the wider mythological picture behind The Box, and the threat to come. “You will learn about The Man…” Cole promises, ominously. Won’t we just.
Ultimately, Cole is representative of another soldier ‘left behind’, and while he is too moustache-twirling and hammy a villain to invoke any sense of sympathy, it is easy to forget he is much a victim of the lies and ideological misrepresentations of Sloane as Sydney is. He may be in love with himself and his skills, and his smart mouth, but he is also angry at Sloane’s absence of morality. When talking about the ‘Conversation Room’ where SD-6 questions captives—where we’ve previously seen characters like Anthony Russek suffer horribly—Cole quips: “Torture room means you actually gotta admit what the hell it is you’re really doing down there”. It’s also an indictment against the kind of extreme methods the US government would start to employ on terror suspects in the wake of 9/11. The writers of Alias are clearly already worried where the fight against terror is going.
That said, Cole has been warped to enough of a degree that he is prepared to unload the same torture he experienced at the hands of the Russians on Sloane, with the memorable ‘needles of fire’ he threatens across the episode. These needles take time to be revealed from within the 19th century box they’re contained in (also suggested to be of Eastern extraction, further tethering the show lightly to Asia which connects Truth Be Told to season finale Almost Thirty Years), but they represent one of the numerous meanings that can be derived from the title of the episode. The Box can be interpreted as Abrams’ long-held obsession with mystery boxes and how that relates to his storytelling, to Cole’s literal torture box, or even how SD-6 in this episode is a contained box filled with vents, corridors and rooms that Syd must writhe through in order to ‘reopen’ it back to normality.
There is a great moment in relation to this when Jack and Syd realise that they will need to access vent shafts in order to begin their mission to subversively take down Cole’s hostage situation, and Syd lists all of the reasons why it makes no sense for her middle-aged, fairly stocky father to be doing it. In Die Hard, it was John McClane’s wife who needed saving – here the woman is McClane, saving the middle-aged man (Sloane) from the veritable Hans Gruber. This is another example of how Alias takes a cue from Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s culturally defining moment of the empowered, capable heroine. Though she gains a partner in part two (much like McClane steadily gains partners in subsequent films) in Vaughn, there is no doubt – without Syd, no one would survive The Box. “I can’t believe of all things we’re saving SD-6” she quips. Oh, the irony.
One of the things The Box as a two-parter does well, and this first part establishes, is in how it manages to actually cast SD-6 in a slightly different light. Since the pilot, SD-6 has been the grungy, low-fi stylistic example of sinister corruption, with its sleek angles and open-plan aesthetic – a fake sense of sharing and welcoming disguising a dirty underbelly. This has been in contrast to the worn, slightly tired and creaky setting of the righteous CIA offices – all cluttered offices, hazy lighting, and agents whose suits were old fashioned by the mid-90’s. SD-6 has been redolent in its open-handed, for the time futuristic example of modern-day espionage, and through Syd’s eyes we have seen the coldness of it. Yet at the same time, characters like Marshall and Dixon have reminded us heart exists within the darkness, and people like that are the reason Syd does what she does.
The Box has a tricky job in that it needs to, in some respects, cast SD-6 as the victim and make us root for characters like Sloane in the face of a greater, even slicker and even deadlier enemy. Sloane’s villainy up to this point has been a quiet, polite and gentlemanly malevolence, with the facade only occasionally slipping (it will come right off, of course, next season) but Cole is a shotgun blast to that icy civility. He is all rage, all smarts, all emotion and all pleasure in seeing Sloane suffer, with a callous disregard for the life of anyone around him. In the face of that, of mercenaries prepared to slaughter everyone we have been following for eleven weeks, how can SD-6 not come off in some way as the underdog we’re hoping survives? You end up being scared for Sloane when he, for the first time, looks anxious about Cole’s weapons of torture and sinister proclamation: “Arvin, trust me when I tell you, you do not want me, to open… this… box!”
To make us worry for the sinister organisation, and the sinister arch villain of that organisation, who we have seen our heroine fighting to take down since the beginning, takes some skill, and arguably the engaging power of Tarantino’s extravagant performance helps in that regard. Equally, it helps in removing the CIA essentially from the struggle in this first episode, allowing the show the breathing room to explore an internal source of antagonism for Vaughn in that CIA setup. By freeing up the CIA from the conflict at SD-6, Alexander & Eisendrath can further delve into Vaughn’s mindset in terms of his deepening feelings for Sydney, and how they are complicating the difficult operation to take down SD-6 and the Alliance. This allows for the first appearance of Patricia Wettig as CIA psychologist Judy Barnett (who will have much more of an interesting arc in Season 3), and crucially Joey Slotnick’s irritating CIA agent Stephen Haladki.
The choice to give Vaughn an internal antagonist like Haladki is an excellent one, given how Vaughn is very much the buttoned-up, straight man of Alias who also frequently is quite righteous in his determined pragmatism and protection of Sydney. Greg Grunberg’s amiable Weiss will call him on his feelings but from the perspective of a buddy – a character like Haladki calls it from the perspective of the agency, of a frustrater, of someone looking at the bigger picture. Syd is Vaughn’s only blind-spot to that; while she frequently lets emotion cloud her decision making process at SD-6, Vaughn does the same with the CIA, and when he butts heads with people who question those decisions, he reacts defensively. It’s why he clashes with Jack. It’s why he tries to talk himself out of therapy Barnett has been ordered to give him.
Michael Vartan, who plays Vaughn, commented how well Haladki worked in Alias Declassified as a fiery point of tension against his character:
The Haladki character is a perfect example of how JJ has a basic framework but can go with the flow. That part was originally planned for that one episode but Joey was so great, and we all loved him so much, that JJ said “Hey! Screw this – he’s going to be in more!
You sense The Box is a story constructed on these kind of fairly loose narrative choices which allowed the writers over the course of Alias’ first year build to a point where they needed to not just establish a greater sense of threat for the characters and the situation, but they needed Sydney and those around her to reach a point both of conclusion and catalyst. This two-parter, certainly with this first part, delivers that in barnstorming, blockbuster fashion. A major Hollywood guest star, a high concept ripped from one of the most celebrated action blockbusters in cinema history, and a surfeit of storylines which challenge many of the central characters involved – Syd’s quest, Will’s quest, Sloane’s resolve in the face of a deadly enemy bent on revenge, Vaughn’s position as one of Syd’s guardians. Everyone’s futures are on the line during the course of this episode.
The second part if anything has the more difficult role to play. Where do all these balls drop? How do they land? How will that affect and direct the course of the first season? Only one thing is certain at the end of The Box: nothing in Alias will ever be the same again.
★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2
DIRECTOR: Jack Bender
WRITERS: Jesse Alexander & John Eisendrath
CAST: Jennifer Garner, Ron Rifkin, Victor Garber, Bradley Cooper, Kevin Weisman, Carl Lumbly, Michael Vartan, Merrin Dungey, Quentin Tarantino
Check out reviews of the rest of Season 1 of Alias here: