A Higher Echelon might be the last traditional episode of Alias ever produced.
In the sense that we are rapidly on approach to the point of no return that is Phase One, and The Getaway works as much to bridge viewers into the developments and revelations of that episode as it does to tell the kind of story Alias has been telling since Truth Be Told, specifically with the balance of espionage mission set-pieces balanced alongside continuing, ongoing narrative arcs. A Higher Echelon has that structure finely tuned now, even though Alias was always a show that raced out of the gate remarkably confident in how it presented itself. The irony is that an episode like A Higher Echelon, which is fun, well-paced and filled with an array of interesting plotlines, proves beyond a doubt that Alias could have continued in the same vein for at least another season beyond this one.
John Eisendrath, arguably one of Alias’ strongest writers, quite expertly balances a number of different storylines in A Higher Echelon, while simultaneously maintaining a level of cohesion which belies the sheer volume of stuff going on: Marshall abducted and tortured, Syd admitting her feelings for Vaughn, Irina being allowed out of her cell, Sloane’s Alliance investigation, Will becoming a CIA analyst, Francie’s suspicion of Will & Syd’s new dynamic, Ariana Kane’s witch-hunt against Jack, and this is even before the plot revolving around the Echelon operating system and the underlying ideas of civil rights and Big Brother that Eisendrath manages to touch upon. Many other shows would collapse under the weight of these threads but Alias thrives on the fast-paced energy of these escalating narratives. Perhaps it’s because the show no longer has to spin any wheels and is racing, tout suite, toward Phase One.
Whatever the reason, A Higher Echelon is the last episode quite of its kind, and it’s gratifying to realise that it turns out to be one of the most assured.
Eisendrath begins the episode by front-loading the cultural commentary, in terms of quite what the Echelon system means, by having Sydney describe the software and place it in the intriguing context of global conspiracy theory.
“Right now, satellites and ground stations are listening in. Faxes, e-mail communication, phone calls, are all routed to high-speed voice and optical recognition computers. They can analyze words spoken and written in any common language on Earth” Syd explains to Will, voicing what was very much a growing fear at the turn of the 2000’s. Echelon, as it turns out, is actually a real thing, simply repurposed for the hyper real world of Alias. In another example of how J.J. Abrams’ series is rooted in the latent anxieties of the Cold War, Echelon was designed initially in the late 1960’s in order to monitor military and diplomatic communications between the Soviet Union and its allies in the Eastern Bloc, before being re-tooled after the USSR fell into a mass surveillance and industrial espionage piece of software which monitors, for the United States, private and personal communications. “I just don’t understand how it’s legal” Will admits, no doubt voicing the concerns of Eisendrath and many a viewer.
What’s interesting is how Sydney suggests that what once was conspiracy theory has now become objective fact. The X-Files would mention the orbital defence platforms such as ‘Star Wars’ or Brilliant Pebbles, products of the Reaganite era of mounting technological expansion, as if they were actually built; characters such as Max Fenig in Fallen Angel might claim unmarked helicopters and satellites were buzzing him, tracking his every move. Big Brother as unseen technology. Alias, in (almost) a post-X-Files, post-conspiracy theory world, presents a major violation of civil liberty against American citizens as a point of fact, and one that the show suggests external, foreign terrorists and criminals are more likely to abuse than the Federal government. “The National Security Agency argues it’s one of its most important weapons against terrorists. And that they don’t abuse the system” Syd claims, rather naively.
Will’s nervous retort, suggesting it shamelessly violates the Constitution, further places him as the show’s Fox Mulder – a character born from the DNA of crusading anti-conspiracy investigators. “So you get Echelon, you become Big Brother” is Will’s assertion as Syd presents, for the third episode running, slick former-KGB criminal Gerard Cuvee as the ‘other’ looking to corrupt what Alias would otherwise have you believe is a tool in the NSA’s fight against terrorism, post-9/11. The X-Files would have seen Mulder do his best to destroy Echelon and what it stands for. Alias has Syd working to protect it, and in many respects from the Russians too, or a latent example of the hoodlums modern Russian officers have morphed into in the American psyche, as the ‘victors’ at the end of Francis Fukuyama’s proposed ‘end of history’. If anything proves how Alias considers Echelon the corrupted tool of a righteous America in a new global conflict against an unseen enemy, it’s what happens to Marshall Flinkman in this episode.
After his moment in the sun in The Abduction, an episode which gave Kevin Weisman more material in one episode than he’s probably collectively had across a season and a half up to this point, Marshall doesn’t end up being extracted from SD-6 and placed in the CIA as planned but is rather abducted by the sinister ‘Suit & Glasses’, played with a deliciously creepy, urbane menace by Ric Young. He is tortured precisely *for* access to the Echelon software, on behalf of Cuvee, with Suit & Glasses threatening Marshall with a horrific epoxy cocktail if he doesn’t comply. Marshall’s entire task, as the purest example of all-American, naive values, is to open a backdoor into Echelon. In a sense, Marshall is co-opted into opening a window into America’s national security, once again posing a threat to American lives, but Alias’ conservative politics is telling in how this occurs through what is otherwise a system damaging to personal civil liberties.
As a side note, this makes Marshall the third character who Suit & Glasses has menaced in similar circumstances since Truth Be Told, where he tortured Syd, and Almost Thirty Years, where he tortured Will. It places Young as Alias’ closest bedfellow to the Cigarette-Smoking Man in The X-Files – an unnamed menace in a suit who pops up every so often to trouble our main characters. It’s almost a shame that when we next see him, in Season 3’s Legacy, he gets a name and the tables are turned on him by Vaughn, because Young plays him with such a perverse glee that he deserved to appear consistently over all five seasons. It’s easy to forget how evil the guy is – the way he spits, venomously, to “kill his mother” when he realises Marshall has tricked him, is vicious and there is no doubt he would have killed the unseen Mrs. Flinkman out of spite. He’s a great, and signature example of an Alias character – somewhere between an X-Files conspirator and colourful James Bond evil scientist.
Although Marshall isn’t quite showcased as a character here in comparison to The Abduction, we nevertheless see a very satisfying conclusion to this mini-arc for his character. Marshall begins The Abduction terrified at the prospect of being deployed on a mission only he can help complete, and he falsely believes he has achieved some level of heroic success come the end, which is tinged with sadness as Syd knows he is about to learn everything he was fighting for was a lie. Syd feels even worse upon learning Marshall has been abducted, and though there is too much going on across the episode for him to become her complete focus, she does consider him her responsibility. Eisendrath does allow for a heroic, fantasy moment for Marshall, who bravely defies Suit & Glasses and would rather die, and perhaps even let his mother be killed, than betray his country. The fact he then ‘rescues’ Syd with his own technology is even cuter. “Hi. My name is Marshall J. Flinkman and I’m here to rescue you!”.
What’s nice about a moment like this, a moment played for levity at the conclusion of an otherwise traditional Alias mission, is that the show has the confidence enough to understand it’s colourful, spy movie roots. In a darker series, Marshall would have died had he stood up to someone as vicious as Suit & Glasses here, but Syd and Dixon arrive to save the day, and then the story allows *him* the true hero moment he was denied at the end of The Abduction, even if the show slots him back into his traditional SD-6 role by the end (temporarily at least, given Phase One). It doesn’t change Marshall completely as a character but it proves to the writing staff that you can take the character out of the lab and he works, which will lead to the future use of him on missions in Season 3, and episodes such as Season 4’s Tuesday where he is almost entirely the focal point. It’s a successful, playful experiment with the Marshall character.
His entire story also nicely overlaps with the central battle over access to Echelon. Cuvee wants it. Sloane wants it for SD-6 – and incidentally, Sloane coldness over Marshall’s probable death is chilling, and affords the brilliant line from Jack in response “It was as if someone had overcooked his steak” – and Irina is even allowed access to it, given her experience with the Russian version of the technology, called Swarm. Syd’s naivety creeps through again when Kendall is justifiably nervous at accepting Irina’s suggestion she can lock Cuvee out if she’s given access. “Damn it! Why keep her here if you’re not going to use her?”. A line like this shows just how far Syd has come with Irina since The Enemy Walks In, actively advocating for her mother to be trusted enough with Echelon. Even Jack can’t deny her help would be useful. Kendall is the only detached person in the room, particularly after the events of Passage, and the story successfully manages to keep the ebbing and flowing trust of Irina ticking along in the broader context of the busy story.
It is also enjoyable to see Lena Olin inside the Rotunda set, given she thus far has appeared primarily in the CIA cells, or in Passage when she gets a furlough on mission with the Bristows. Though this would be her one and only appearance at the heart of the CIA’s operation, and she is brought in with all the appropriate anxiety and fear of the unknown she represents from the CIA operatives, Eisendrath placing Irina here is a key part of her overall arc, as it works to continually ‘normalise’ her in relation to our virtuous heroes. She is slowly becoming less of that ‘other’, the kind of external corrupting force A Higher Echelon in particular is anxious about, and is functioning more and more as part of the dysfunctional family unit. Vaughn even gets her a coffee! For the woman who murdered his father! It’s a telling moment.
A Higher Echelon is beginning the process across Alias of moving these characters toward what will be the post-Phase One paradigm. Marshall as a more active character emerging slowly from his nerdy shell. Irina transforming from mysterious terrorist into a redemptive mother figure. Another key development is Syd admitting, outwardly for the first time to Francie, that she has a crush on who we know to be Vaughn. This has been unspoken up to this point, clear between Syd and Vaughn more recently, but this is the first time since Danny’s murder Syd has openly voiced these feelings without feeling guilt or shame. “I haven’t heard you talk like this in *forever*” Francie points out and she’s right. She can even begin to detect the change in Syd & Will’s dynamic at home, which we understand to be thanks to Will learning the truth about who she is – a truth Francie is tragically destined never to know.
Will, again, represents continued change, as he officially becomes a CIA analyst, giving him a much-deserved paying job (even with health insurance!), and sowing the seeds for the key function he will (unknowingly) play in Sloane’s evil plans across the back half of the season, but it further edges the character into a more functional, established role in the next era of Alias, and conversely further away from a rival for Syd’s affections. He plays the role of (no pun intended) Big Brother here, on realising through Francie that Syd has feelings for Vaughn. “You’re a good guy and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this job and what I’m going to say is inappropriate. Sydney cares about you, and what you guys have, or don’t have, means a great deal to her. I want to make sure you respect that”. This puts a capper on any possibility of a romantic entanglement between the three, at least until this is lightly revisited in Season 3’s Remnants.
Everywhere, A Higher Echelon seems unafraid to move these characters into new positions, ready for the encroaching transition. Look at how Jack’s entire position within SD-6 is very rapidly compromised by Ariana Kane across this episode, with Eisendrath taking what began as an investigation into the mystery surrounding the Alliance’s blackmail involving Emily Sloane, and twisting it into Kane—played once again with a mercenary relish by Faye Dunaway—going after Jack, convinced (quite rightly) he is not to be trusted. She may not know quite why, believing he’s instead the blackmailer as opposed to a double agent, but nonetheless she directly challenges and explodes outward what has otherwise been fairly inviolate on the show: Jack’s cover. It feels bold. It feels like Alias pushing at the core precepts of what the series is built on.
Again, A Higher Echelon also seems to do this heavily through the use of emergent technology, which tracks with the broader ideas underpinning the episode. Irina is hacking Russian satellite networks. Marshall is downloading MP3’s via Audiogalaxy as part of his plan to fool Suit & Glasses. Syd, on mission, talks to investors about the economic wisdom of a linked orbital constellation of satellites. Dixon has to pretend to be a modern DJ on the decks, which allows for another great Eisendrath line when Syd questions his coolness “I speak nine languages, techno is not one of them!”. Jack and the CIA team use green screen and Photoshop, essentially, to composite him into shots like a film production team, in order to try and fool Kane and her sniffer dogs. Kane even at one point explains the workings of SIM card technology, in a moment that now sounds gloriously quaint! Jack almost gets away with it, indeed, were it not for that SIM technology failing and exposing him.
The episode is fascinated by how technology is intersecting with modern espionage, alongside American civil liberties, and uses it to forward the primary narratives and those of the characters to some exciting positions, using a balance of comedy and inverting established precepts about conspiracy and subterfuge to do it. A Higher Echelon just, for now, pulls back on executing too many changes, however. Marshall ends up back in SD-6. Irina is back in her cell. Echelon is secured. Syd does tellingly ask Vaughn, upon learning Marshall is still living the lie “It won’t always be like this, right?”. “It will end” Vaughn reassures her, and he could almost be John Eisendrath or any of the other writers on staff saying those words.
A Higher Echelon is in a sense the end. It’s the end of the Alias we have always known, as we begin the steady transition into the show it will become…
Check out reviews of the rest of Season 2 of Alias here: