Every television show has that one, signature episode which stands out as the series at its best and often its most iconic. Phase One, for Alias, is very much that episode.
It has passed into the cultural lexicon in American TV as “the Super Bowl episode” of Alias, in that it was chosen by ABC for the very prestigious honour of airing directly after the Super Bowl, America’s biggest watch sports event in mid-February by some distance, and in the days where network television ruled the roost, many shows would save major two-part episodes or important narratives to air in the slipstream of the Super Bowl, aware that they had a larger guarantee of attracting a major audience. Phase One was originally designed, structurally, to air after Double Agent, but once J.J. Abrams—with some advice from his wife—realised the powerful potential of Phase One, and quite how much of a game changer it was, the running order was adjusted and Phase One aired after the 2003 Super Bowl…
…to the lowest audience numbers in that spot since 1975! Though perversely it was still the highest rated episode for reviewing figures the series ever achieved. This is a reflection on how Alias, despite being supported well by ABC who believed in it and Abrams enough to consistently renew the series, even when the numbers were eclipsed substantially by Abrams’ next series Lost from Season 4 onwards, would consistently struggle to find an audience, even in the wake of the most watched television event of the year and the fact that Phase One ends up being, for all intents and purposes, a second pilot for Alias. It is structured and designed entirely to close the book on the knotty espionage premise introduced in Truth Be Told, do away with SD-6, the Alliance and Sydney Bristow as a double agent, and reboot the series with a streamlined, if not simplistic and uncomplicated, premise going forward.
As a result, Phase One is not only the best episode of Alias since Abrams’ pilot, it is also arguably the show at the peak of what it was capable of. It is the closest Alias ever comes to true TV greatness and a motion picture scope and gravitas.
It is worth stopping to consider the journey of Alias up to the point of Phase One for a moment.
Premiering just nineteen days after the devastation of the September 11th attack on the Twin Towers, Alias quite possibly suffered from attempting to portray organisations such as the CIA and the world of global terrorism in a colourful, retro-futurist 1960’s style that fused B-movie action stylistics, James Bond gadgets and villains, and a post-90’s, post-The X-Files sense of the United States as heroes of the world, encapsulated by the virtuous Sydney and her role trying to destroy an organised crime syndicate who were posing *as* the CIA. In the world of Alias, the government were the good guys. The villains were disaffected, post-Cold Warriors who from the West formed the Alliance, a SPECTRE from Bond in all but name, or on the opposing side ex-KGB Russians who plotted and schemed across the planet with their own agendas.
In that sense, Alias has operated up to Phase One as a show born to reflect the post-Cold War paradigm of espionage operatives set free by the crumbled ideological battle, who morph into pre-9/11 terrorists and criminals as befitting a world in advance of fundamentalist religious terror, or at least before organisations such as Al-Qaeda or the Taliban became the new enemy, replacing Communism, for Americans to fight and fear. Though 24, which premiered around the same time and gained instant popularity thanks to a lone wolf hero who takes the fight directly to those terrorists, sustained itself as a major hit and permeated popular culture, Alias struggled to balance the heightened reality elements of its mystery box premise with the cold, anxious realities of Western democracy under threat from suicide bombers or hijacked planes. It probably should have aired five years earlier.
As it stood, Alias found it difficult to latch onto an audience, arriving during a period of natural decline for ABC, serving in the vacated slot given up by the US version of popular game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and led in by the incompatible family friendly series The Wonderful World of Disney. Ratings continued to fall even despite critical acclaim and occasional awards love, with Jennifer Garner winning a Golden Globe for her performance as Sydney in 2002. Saturn and Screen Actors Guild Award wins would follow, not to mention Emmy nominations. Alias, for a time, was a series d by the industry, launching Garner’s career and, paradoxically, that of Bradley Cooper, who despite eventually being let go from the series went on to have the biggest career of any of the main cast by some distance.
Alias nevertheless had the cache to attract well-known guest stars from cinema of the like and standard you just didn’t see on television at that time, such as Quentin Tarantino in The Box, Roger Moore in The Prophecy, or most recently Faye Dunaway for three Season 2 episodes. Ethan Hawke, Christian Slater, David Carradine – all would follow in the back half of the second season. Yet despite all of this, audience numbers continued falling, and would only achieve some semblance of success during Season 4 when the show arguably gets a boost thanks to the strasospheric and immediate success of Lost. Alias gained a cult following, and a devoted online message board community, but nothing like the obsessive fandom of Lost, or even the worship of another cult show of that era, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Try finding Alias fans or communities online today. They are largely an extinct breed.
Halfway into Season 2, therefore, with Alias straight-jacketed to some degree by the complicated set-up, one so entangled it needed a specially designed ‘previously’ segment to lay out the series’ premise every week until The Counteragent, Abrams decided the mixture needed shaking up, as he describes on the DVD commentary for Phase One:
So this idea of raiding SD-6 was kind of scary because it’d been a fixture of the show from the beginning. But it was something that ultimately was very confusing for a lot of people, in that it was a show about good guys working for the bad guys who had to pretend that they were bad good guys, some of the bad guys didn’t know they were bad guys and other bad guys pretended they were good guys. Getting rid of SD-6 was more about trying to maintain the things we loved about the show – the relationships, the characters, and actually get rid of the stuff that made it hard for certain people to understand what the show was about.
Abrams and his staff have maintained since that the decision was not mandated by ABC, which audiences suspected at the time, but there is a sense that everyone involved had become tired of the gambit that Sydney was under deep cover and of SD-6 as a mechanism to convey that. From the beginning of Season 2, the writing staff visibly seemed to lose interest in SD-6 as an entity, introducing the CIA Rotunda set and Terry O’Quinn’s Kendall character in order to ground the series inside the good guy tent rather than the bad guy one. Across Season 1, the CIA was represented in little more than a few shabby offices and handler warehouses. Season 2 makes it clear that the heart of the show is the CIA, and SD-6 itself is a temporary situation.
They are even less interested in the Alliance, which always felt more like a conceptual representation of the post-Cold War era than an entity in itself. Phase One nor subsequent episodes even bother to reveal what exactly happened to some of the Alliance chiefs we had seen controlling Sloane since the beginning – Ramon Veloso or Alliance founder Alain Christophe. The organisation gets the odd mention at points in future seasons, and factors into some plotting in Season 4, but Phase One establishes it as a necessary fixture to dispose of, alongside SD-6, to free up the concept. It becomes a noose around the writers necks, to the point they desperately toy with extracting Marshall from that paradigm in recent episodes, and Dixon only gets decent material once he is free of those conditions.
Yet it is worth remembering that, as Abrams says, taking down SD-6 and the Alliance is equivalent to shows such as The X-Files bringing down the Syndicate of alien conspirators, or Babylon-5 ending the Shadow War, or perhaps when Lost introduces the flash-forward narrative device. These are fundamental conceptual changes to the very fabric and framework of the show we have been watching for almost 35 episodes up to this point, and cannot be overestimated in how important it is to Alias as a whole. By detonating SD-6 and the Alliance behind it, freeing Sydney from her responsibilities as a double agent, you change the entire structure and premise of the series. Stories are no longer told in quite the same way. Characters are able to develop and evolve past a certain point, which even in Alias’ heavily serialised format they were unable to do. It changes the show forever.
There is a sense going into Phase One that it knows it is a special episode, that it is a distinct piece from what came before and what comes, to some extent, next.
It opens with the same in media res technique that Abrams employed on Truth Be Told, placing Sydney in a dangerous situation, mid-mission, and building to a cliffhanger placing her in direct peril. The opening sequence is a mini-movie in itself, set memorably to AC/DC’s ‘Back in Black’, as Sydney goes undercover to take down a crime boss on a private plane as a high-class escort, forced to parade before him in sexy black and red lingerie. It is a striking opening, not just for the fact it presents Garner in an extremely risqué situation at the height of her power as a sex symbol under the male gaze (perhaps representing the later Super Bowl time slot), but for the fact it allows Syd to take aim at one of the key gambits across Alias thus far: the costumes.
“You think it’s comfortable wearing clothes like this?!” she angrily tells Gils Nacor, the slimy Alliance ‘Jabba’ demeaning her. In their essay ‘Aliases, Alienation and Agency: The Physical Integrity of Sydney Bristow’ in Investigating Alias: Secrets and Spies, Deborah Finding and Alice MacLachlan discuss how Syd frequently has to use her sexuality, even perversely as the ‘asexual’ virginial character, in her aliases in order to often get what she needs from greedy male criminals, citing the above encounter as an example:
In this case, it’s not the alias but Sydney herself who has been degraded. While on one level this reads an an allusion to post-feminist fantasy, since Sydney can both ‘pull off’ the ultimately sexual call girl outfit and be self-aware enough to reject it, it also articulates an increasingly desperate struggle to claim her own body. It is she, Sydney, who must wear the red lingerie, after all. Sydney has no choice but to change from the black underwear into the red underwear in order to maintain her cover. She is still performing sexually for a man who believes he is coercing her and paying her to do exactly this. That it is the CIA, rather than the man, who will ultimately reward her financially for her performance does not alter the sex-for-work dynamic, and Sydney still risks being alienated from her body-as-asset.
This is particularly fascinating because one of the precepts of Alias is that Sydney must adopt a persona of some kind, in almost every episode—the titular ‘alias’—to succeed in her missions. The show is, ultimately, all about dual identities. Syd pretends to be someone else on her missions as well as at SD-6 for Sloane and company. SD-6 itself is pretending to be part of the CIA. Sloane is pretending to be a government agent who, as Syd comments in The Getaway much to her disgust, “wraps his criminality in the flag”. Phase One is the episode in which everybody stops pretending. When Syd goes on that mission as the escort, she is playing no character. The only instances she must adopt that persona in this episode are when she speaks to Sark, or when she meets with Sloane’s replacement, Anthony Geiger.
Phase One even begins with Syd and Vaughn, after the near consummation of their unspoken passion for each other in The Getaway, almost being honest with each other directly, as Abrams teases what will become an iconic, passionate embrace in the very crumbling halls of Alias a show. As Vaughn says “You need me to tell you what? That when you’re on operations, I can’t sleep at night. That when we’re in debrief I have to force myself to remember what the hell we’re supposed to be reviewing. When all I want to do is kiss you.” When they do eventually kiss, it takes place symbolically amidst the destroyed remnants of SD-6. It can only happen when the established concepts and precepts of Alias are, quite literally, blown to pieces. It becomes the first major example of Alias breaking through into its new reality.
Everything about Phase One suggests scale. We are ahead of the characters at this point in knowing Sloane manufactured his entire escape, and Emily’s death, to be free of the Alliance, but the characters only know he is is gone, and there is a shock factor to the idea that a crucial part of their established reality has suddenly, and inexplicably, been taken away. “I’ve been doing this a long time, Sydney. There’s rarely an end to the story.” Jack comments, sagely aware that Phase One is both ending, beginning and something in between. A transitional point of no return. Sloane is even replaced by a more recognisable, cinematic face in Rutger Hauer as Geiger, an actor known principally for his role as Roy Batty in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, but an example of Alias’ cache in attracting key talent.
Abrams uses his character, as he does Kendall here, as mechanisms to explain the entire history of the series to date – Geiger on a personal level, Kendall briefing us on the very nature of the Alliance and the SD cells. Geiger, in many ways, represents the Alliance in one character, in a more effective fashion than any other character to date. He is Euro-centric, and despite having tentacles in US intelligence via SD-6, they always were presented as a European crime organisation – a French founder, based in London etc… and Geiger is as deliberately mysterious as many in the Alliance setup. As Kendall says: “Anthony Geiger. Which is about as much as I can tell you about him. Geiger has no file at CIA, FBI, no police record, no overdue video rentals, nothing”. Geiger is an ultimate expression of the ‘other’ Alias has always been anxious about; a complete anomaly within the CIA’s viewpoint of the world, and the perfect vehicle for Alias to re-explain its own premise.
Geiger asks Sydney about Danny, looking to try and understand her loyalties, and Abrams is able to recap Syd’s entire rationale for operating as a double agent for so long in such a conversation. Danny may have been alluded to in recent episodes, as Syd grows closer to Vaughn, but the show hasn’t directly called back to its own history in this way for a while. “If the people I work for would assassinate my wife, I would not show up at the office the next day. So why come back? What for?”. You almost wish we had had more episodes with Geiger running SD-6 because he’s a different animal to Sloane, who knew Sydney and the Bristow’s well enough to be an oddly reassuring presence, despite his murderous villainy. Geiger is a complete outsider and he, conversely, makes SD-6 and the Alliance feel even more alien to Syd and Jack. He, himself, is a reboot. They would have had to start their entire cover mission from scratch if the situation had endured.
In fact, Sark suggests Geiger is “former German intelligence” which makes him just as much a disaffected Cold warrior as Sloane, or Jack, or even Irina Derevko, except within the reconstructed, post-war paradigm of likely East Germany. He isn’t quite in the Russian orbit, but close. He represents much the same thing. As does Sark, in many ways, and it is he who pulls the trigger on the CIA operation to take down the Alliance by mentioning ‘server 47’ (a light Rambaldi reference, in case you had forgotten about him). There is a wonderful sense of the plot snowballing and building after Sark’s revelation, as Syd and Jack face the real, tangible possibility of bringing down the Alliance and SD-6. “Dad, this could be the silver bullet” Syd suggests.
Alias has often likened the Alliance and the SD cells as a ‘monster’. Vaughn even suggests the whole operation is about “killing the monster” in So It Begins…, not just about “cutting off an arm of the monster” and the silver bullet describes Phase One in a nutshell. The monster, in a sense, is the first iteration of Alias. The first phase. The bullet is the script designed to puncture the complex, knotty narrative the show has constructed over the last 34 episodes. Had Phase One not been as skilfully written by Abrams or directed by Jack Bender, who would go on to become one of the series’ signature helmsmen, the whole idea of a central Alliance computer that allows them to bring down the entire network could have felt cheap, but in truth there’s a logical simplicity to the story that is satisfying. When the good guys snatch victory here, the build up over a season and a half delivers a genuine payoff, a buoyant relief at what they’ve achieved.
The key that truly makes the payoff significant in Phase One lies in how they manage to tether the mechanism of the Alliance’s collapse into the development of the series’ most neglected character: Dixon.
It really is quite inspired. In order to get the code to the SD-6 security system, and prevent taking down the organisation and allowing the C4 planted underneath the building—as we memorably learned in The Box in Season 1—Syd has to tell Dixon the truth about SD-6 and appeal to his character, and the strength of their partnership, to get his help – especially after Jack is exposed and captured before he can succeed. This is one of the greatest combinations of narrative and character development I’ve seen in one swoop, so good you would think it had been planned since the beginning, when that certainly wouldn’t have been the case. The writers frankly have had no idea what to do with Dixon ever since he almost discovered Sydney was a double agent at the end of Season 1. He has often been a spare part since, often barely appearing in episodes or not appearing at all. Phase One makes up for all of that in one scene.
The whole moment is wonderfully played and you can feel the electricity in Garner and Carl Lumbly’s performance, riven with game changing revelation as it is. Garner plays it with impassioned, emotional sincerity and Lumbly with stunned anger. It is pitch perfect. Syd and Dixon’s relationship is severely tested in the wake of this and Dixon’s entire character, and life, is upended over the rest of Season 2 after being told the truth. The only other character they could have played this beat with was Marshall and it wouldn’t have been half as effective – in the end, Marshall just soaks up his changed situation with mordant humour. Dixon is shellshocked at the idea the life he imagined, the virtuous work he was doing, was rooted in falsehood. It is such a powerful moment when he calls his wife, just to hear her voice, as he agonises over helping Syd.
A major reason is that Dixon, in many ways, is the true everyman of Alias. He is the closest representation of a real person we have in this hyper-real world. He is a husband and a father. He has no tragic past or secret backstory. He is not up to this point tortured. He is a true blue depiction of a virtuous, loyal American patriot. Abrams lands the revelation, consequently, as a gut punch and while you never doubt Dixon won’t do the right thing, the episode makes Sydney and us wait just long enough to build up tension and create drama before the final act. It is thrilling and it turns what could have ended up a functional episode filled with theatrics into a truly weighty, emotional point of momentum and revelation. It is writing in Alias at the top of its game.
It is perhaps a quirk of plotting, and indicative of how Phase One may have ended up coming together as it did relatively swiftly, that Jack ends up captive in the SD-6 torture room for the second episode running, captured in very different circumstances. His encounter with Geiger is far more satisfying, however, than with Kane in The Getaway. Abrams gives us a sense that Jack and Geiger may actually not be too dissimilar, simply on different sides of the ideological fence. They recall a party in 1987 they were at in Kanagawa and “the woman with the club foot” and you can almost picture them out of a John le Carre novel, two Cold warriors at the end of the conflict with a shared, professional sense of comradeship. It’s a small moment but a great example of brief characterisation that dials into more of the core ideas underpinning Alias.
The ending is of course thrilling, and hugely well-staged by Bender, but you know from the way Abrams writes the episode that the CIA will succeed in their global coordinated effort. It is an elegy for the Alliance while threading in storylines and character beats for the next phase, the next era, of Alias, and it too does this quite brilliantly. In some sense, destroying the Alliance is Alias, aware of its place in the rapidly changing post-9/11 world of fundamentalism, letting go of it’s post-Cold War position as a reflection on that conflict’s decayed geopolitical paradigm. The whole realisation that everything Syd and the CIA have done is according to Sloane’s design is a wonderful, logical twist which immediately elevates him from consistent villain into enigmatic super villain, especially as the show could in theory have given him a twisted happy ending and closed off his storyline in The Getaway. Phase One just tantalises possibilities with Sloane that immediately thrill, and further serves to suggest the show can survive the transition away from SD-6 and the Alliance.
Which brings us to the final moment and the final shot–originally designed to appear in the next episode Double Agent–which remains a jaw dropper of tremendous proportions, seeing Francie having shot herself dead in the head. It works because it is free of any initial context and poses a whole wealth of questions – does Francie have an evil twin? Has she always been linked with the enemy? Is she a clone? How is this possible? It’s as good a cliffhanger as the show ever delivers, so good in fact that almost a decade later, J.J. Abrams’ future Bad Robot created series Fringe essentially replicates this exact storyline with Francie for Olivia Dunham in its third season, with some variations. It’s a marvellous way to turn Francie, who has long been a pointless and disposable part of the Alias fabric, into a fascinating, dynamic presence for certainly the rest of this season. It’s another inspired inversion of the show we have come to know and understand.
Phase One, for me, is proof that Alias deserves to be bracketed in the theoretical modelling of what scholars call ‘quality TV’. Coined by Robert J. Thompson in his book Television’s Second Golden Age: From Hill Street Blues to ER: Hill Street Blues, Thirtysomething, St. Elsewhere, China Beach, Cagney & Lacey, Twin Peaks, Moonlighting, Northern Exposure, LA Law, Picket Fences, with Brief Reflections on Homicide, NYPD Blue & Chicago Hope, and Other Quality Dramas, and reflected upon by Janet McCabe and Kim Akass in their book Quality TV: Contemporary American Television and Beyond:
‘Quality TV’ is best defined by what it is not. It is not “regular” TV’. Surveying a new type of programming that emerged in 1981 ‘thought … better, more sophisticated, and more artistic than the usual network fare’, he set out a debate for defining quality that scholars have been disputing ever since. Furthermore, just as Thompson was analysing the 1980s institutionalisation of unique televisual primetime network shows like Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere and thirtysomething, something new was happening in American television. Changes in broadcast delivery, new systems of production and distribution, economic restructuring based on brand equity and market differentiation, and the rise to prominence of Home Box Office (HBO), whose tagline ‘It’s Not TV. It’s HBO’ characterises its quality marker, defines the post-1996, post-network era.
Thompson essentially defines this bracket as containing the following: a pedigree, a large ensemble cast, a series memory, creation of a new genre through recombination of older ones, self-consciousness, and “pronounced tendencies toward the controversial and the realistic”. These are all aspects, I would argue, Alias demonstrates, particularly after Phase One airs.
We will talk more as Season 2 continues about the impact Phase One has on Alias, not just this season but the remaining eighty or so episodes of the show over three successive seasons. Rarely does a television show, in the midst of a strong season delivering quality episodes within its established structure, so quickly and indeed so expertly ‘blow up’ its own concept in order to instantaneously trigger a new era of the show. Phase One feels unique in that context and is an example, as an episode of television separate from Alias as a series, of a great piece of storytelling on television. It demonstrated what Alias could achieve and how masterfully it could tell stories rooted, at its heart, in character.
The question by the end of Phase One on everyone’s lips is simply… what *is* Alias now? Where does it go? And what kind of show will it turn out to be?
Check out reviews of the rest of Season 2 of Alias here: