Mea Culpa is the first episode to truly utilize Ron Rifkin. Prior to this week, Sloane has very much been an 'idea' rather than an actual character, various CIA players speaking of his arch evilness, Sydney understandably only reacting with disgust at the events he's supposedly orchestrated -- from the murder of her fiancee, to the lies he forms to convince most of the innocents trapped in SD-6 that they're working for the good guys. Even so, it's evilness at arm's length, the show telling us about a man but withholding the man himself. But here we begin to see the person behind the image, and instantly he becomes a far greater character.
The method to get there remains the suspicion that Sydney is a mole, and it goes without saying that Tobin Bell's stern interrogator is barking up the right tree. Sure, his evidence isn't concrete, but something's clearly amiss with Syd, and it doesn't take a master of lies to work that out. But Sloane is bent in her favor, refusing to see her as anything other than a good girl doing her job. There's definitely compassion there, and even if his 'goodbye' scene turned out to be part of an elaborate ruse to get her outed as a double agent, you believe what he tells her. Whether it adds up or not is irrelevant, but Sloane sees her as a daughter figure, and respects both her smarts and her strength.
What makes it all even more interesting is that Rifkin still plays Sloane with this sliver of menace, where you remain unsure of what he's truly thinking. Like Victor Garber, he's another actor who consistently performs with this steely, expressionless demeanor, but there's always something lurking underneath. It's not at all wooden, instead assured coldness where you can never truly read their intentions. They're just wonderful actors, and as a result you can completely buy Sydney's wavering over the two of them.
The missions this week were unsurprisingly strong, with Syd parachuting into a garden party and tearing off her jumpsuit-thingy to expose the kicky party dress underneath. Then there's the tension-filled drama with both sets of Syd's superiors monitoring her dead drop, Jack sure that it's a plot to expose her and not an actual assassination. I also loved how casually Syd sprayed the bank executive with that knockout device. Lord, she's awesome.
Elsewhere, Will's subplot got this eerie intensity with the arrival of the shady, mangled robot voice calling him about the device he found in Eloise Kurtz's car. Again, the show exploits the tonal differences between both worlds, never better than in that great scene where Francie's playing around with the brooch and speaking right into it, only for Will to immediately get called by 'the voice' and told to pipe the hell down and get it away from his friend. Gah. Every week he falls deeper down this hole.
The action is still routine, if consistently fun, but the real meat here arrived with the character moments. Alias has always been about dueling allegiances and the separation between the coldness of the mission versus the intimacy of human emotion, but it really comes to a head this week, particularly with Sloane. It's another stroke of intrigue. B+
Guest stars Miguel Sandoval (Anthony Russek); Tobin Bell (Karl Dreyer); Timothy Landfield (Kretchmer); Christopher Thornton (Nevil)
Writers Debra J. Fisher, Erica Messer Director Ken Olin