If Masquerade was a busy episode of Alias that needed to function as both ostensibly the beginning of a two-part episode, and deal with the reverberations from the mid-section of the run, then Snowman ranks as one of the most disposable outings in Alias’ debut season.
Snowman in any other series would have been a two-part episode expressly designed for our protagonist Sydney Bristow to enjoy a brief romantic attachment that would in no way impinge on the formula of the show. As discussed in Masquerade, this kind of plot device would often be deployed in TV shows across the 1990’s which balanced stand-alone storytelling with a level of narrative serialisation; any number of Star Trek characters across The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager or Enterprise for example as one of the worst offenders for this trope. The problem with the character who serves this function in Alias, Noah Hicks, and the problem with Snowman in general, is that it has to function within a broader ongoing serialised narrative that is ramping up for the climactic beats of the season.
By this point in the twenty-two episode season, Sydney is simultaneously balancing her role as a double agent for the CIA inside the sinister SD-6, reeling from the revelations that her mother was secretly a KGB agent but is also in fact still alive, now aware she is central to an arcane, esoteric prophecy by a 15th century genius who predicted she could be some kind of human weapon of mass destruction and she is having to keep all of this secret from her two best friends, plus has steadily been developing an attachment to her CIA handler which goes beyond professional concern. Where exactly could any kind of meaningful love story fit amidst such a dense stack of open and ongoing plot lines? Especially when each episode has to service the majority of them at once.
Snowman ends up being an episode which focuses on the one story element that, in the long run, is never going to matter.
The central problem with Snowman is that you only probably won’t guess who the titular assassin is if you’re not really paying attention.
Writers Jesse Alexander & Jeff Pinkner work hard to try and ensure when Syd sees the arm bandage, pulls off the mask of the dying killer and reveals Noah, it ends up being if not quite a gasp moment for the audience then certainly a point of sadness for anyone who has cared about the possibility Syd could find happiness with Noah. Except… that is unlikely to have been the case for most people watching. The most the Noah reveal may elicit is a nod and a “huh… makes sense” given Snowman telegraphs, in its own way, the fact there are probably only two logical candidates for who this mysterious character could be: Noah or ‘Calder’.
Calder, of course, is part of the internal mythology behind the extraction of Syd’s mother after she was exposed as a KGB agent, which includes the omnipresent Alexander Khasinau who SD-6 are pursuing. There is a beat missing to all of this we won’t really get clarification on until Season 3 – exactly what led to Irina being unmasked and Jack’s world crashing down around his ears. Alias doesn’t ask the question perhaps because, at this stage, the answer doesn’t actually matter (and as Season 3 will prove, it is almost certainly not an answer they knew at this stage anyway). Calder—or Igor Sergei Valenko—serves entirely as a plot point in Snowman – a possible face behind the shadowy assassin lurking behind proceedings.
Except it probably would have been a smarter move for Masquerade to have ended with Noah, after sleeping with Syd, being exposed as the bad guy. It likely would have made Snowman more compelling television if Noah was attempting to steal Syd away from the complex life she is entangled in while we remained one step ahead. We could have been nodding along as Dixon admits the guy has been away too long to be trusted anymore, or when Sloane finds out about his secret accounts full of money he siphoned while undercover in Vienna’s Russian embassy. It would have been more poetic to hear Noah claim he was “sick of lying to everyone I know” while being aware he is, at that point, lying to Syd in his promises they could use that money and completely escape from the life of espionage.
The downside to this is that it would have made Syd look unbearably stupid and gullible for an entire episode in order to facilitate the central parallel that Alexander & Pinkner are setting up with this relationship – that Noah is secretly not what he seems just like Laura was to Jack all those years ago. The truth is, however, that Syd does come off at the very least blinded by infatuation, if not directly stupid. “You have no perspective on who that man is!” Jack rightly claims. “Dad, you don’t know him!” “And you don’t know him either – that’s the lesson in all of this”. Jack is right, of course, and it takes a leap of logic to accept that Syd, as vulnerable as she is following the kind of year she has had, would indeed so soon after losing Danny be prepared to throw everything away and romantically follow Noah to a tiny South Pacific island for a life away from the spy game.
Yet Snowman still works to try and make us believe that Syd wouldn’t see that Noah is a lot shadier than when she first knew him, and indeed tries to mythologise the Snowman himself as some kind of terrifying, Carlos the Jackal-esque figure. How else to explain the otherwise enjoyable character of Kishell (played with rasping camp by Stephen Spinella, who will return in the part in Season 3’s The Frame for almost no reason at all), a haunted Colombian national and CIA contact of Vaughn’s who survived an encounter with the Snowman and was left with horrific injuries to his face. “His speciality is an ice pick” he recalls, adding florid touches such as “Killing is his job. He likes his job” and asking Vaughn to promise “When you find him, he will suffer too”.
If we had been aware that Noah was the Snowman, and we had even seen him in action before Syd later walks in on him murdering Calder, the idea of Noah secretly being some kind of shadowy, scary international Jackal might have somehow worked, and it would absolutely have given the fight between Syd and the Snowman more weight and depth. Yet we’re supposed to buy into Vaughn being left a little rattled by Kishell’s ominous warnings with no other reason to be afraid of this character, only to see him once before he is fairly easily bested by Syd and dies before he can be any kind of threat. It’s a shame Alias never really tried on for size another Jackal-esque villain because the concept is wasted with Noah and the Snowman.
Far more interesting than the unconvincing Syd/Noah romantic entanglement is how Jack is responding to this recent cavalcade of personal revelations which cut to the core of his own pain and betrayal. As in the previous episode, Victor Garber does a tremendous job of quietly ensuring Jack’s ever-present demons are all over his expressions, and the moment where he witnesses the old footage of Irina explaining about her assignment to marry him to gain the secrets to ‘Project Christmas’ (which we’ll return to in a big way next season…) and outwardly voice “Jack Bristow was a fool” is yet again heart breaking to watch. Alias is never exactly subtle in telegraphing audiences how to feel emotionally but it’s nigh on impossible to not feel for Jack at moments like this.
It undoubtedly goes some way to explaining why he does attempt to protect Noah from Sloane’s suspicions and enlist him in helping Syd find Calder, because despite his fears Syd could too be betrayed by the person she loves, he wants to believe Noah is not Irina and that history won’t repeat itself. Frankly he should know better. He does at least return to see the CIA’s (apparently only) counsellor Judy Barnett, who we first met in Masquerade as Syd booked him in to discuss the Irina revelations, aware that he needs support in dealing with these issues after pushing Barnett away. While we will see Jack in with Barnett again next season, not enough is every really done with Jack in therapy as a way of explaining his psyche. It’s a thread Alias could and should have pulled on more heavily.
Perhaps because Snowman as an episode does not end up really amounting to much of import, Alexander and Pinkner feel the need to again justify Bradley Cooper and Merrin Dungey’s role as created regulars by having Will and Francie confront Syd about the plane ticket to Italy they randomly found in Masquerade, when she said she was in Boston (this references events during The Prophecy). Syd has to break out a fairly standard bank-related cover story Will and Francie fall for and while designed to remind audiences of the heavy burden Syd holds in keeping the truth from her friends, it seems wedged in to further add to the (weak) argument that Syd might be better off escaping with Noah and leaving this all behind.
It’s just another one of the flimsy reasons Snowman, from soup to nuts, feels nothing more than filler to push everything out wide enough so the show reaches twenty two episodes. Jack explains the entire Arkhangelsk mission brought them no closer to finding Khasinau or any details on the still-lurking Rambaldi mythology. We know that Syd is not going to disappear off with Noah because she is the protagonist in a series filled with important storylines she is at the very heart of, most of which are just ramping up – either Noah will remain in the show, disappear or die, and the latter is the easiest and most functional in order to facilitate the series continuing as normal. Snowman ends up purely existing to fulfil a trope of the kind Alias indulges while everything else around it is moving past those kinds of tropes.
Snowman does have its moments. There is a very well executed action set piece utilising a sound-cancelling gadget in tandem with Paul Oakenfold’s pulse-pounding ‘Ready Steady Go’ which is well shot and very entertaining, as Syd must get Noah’s help without being able to speak to him. So much of it, however, feels like Alias spinning its wheels with a disposable storyline and character trope yanked right out of the decade it is rapidly sailing away from. Alias won’t always learn its lesson where this is concerned in future seasons, and at times will remain trapped between two different eras of storytelling, but rarely does the show in its strongest earlier seasons feel as pointless as this.
As a prelude to a three-part climactic run for what has otherwise been a propulsive and impressive first season for Alias, Snowman melts into nothing before you can stop to appreciate it.
★ ★ 1/2
DIRECTOR: Barnet Kellman
WRITERS: Jeff Pinkner & Jesse Alexander
CAST: Jennifer Garner, Ron Rifkin, Victor Garber, Bradley Cooper, Kevin Weisman, Carl Lumbly, Michael Vartan, Merrin Dungey, Peter Berg
Check out more reviews of Season 1 of Alias here: