Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Alias: The Enemy Walks In (2.1)

Let's just picture the scene. Your mom died when you were a child, and you grew up with this fantastical mental image of a woman who loved you unconditionally and gave you the emotional support you always needed, especially in the light of an absent father. Then, years later, you are told that she wasn't at all who she said she was, but in fact a lying, murderous, criminal traitor. A couple of months later, you discover that she isn't dead at all. Then you see her face-to-face for the first time in decades. And then she shoots you in the shoulder, before disappearing. The next time you see her, she shoots her nearest ally dead in cold blood, yet spares your life. She then disappears again, only to hand herself over to the CIA soon after. This lady is not a walk in the park.

It's that whirlwind of emotions that bring out the humanity in Sydney Bristow. She initially approaches the subject of Irina Derevko with steely anger, disgusted at the thought of her mother's crimes and what she's responsible for. But after the events in Spain, in which Irina kills Khasinau and leaves with Sydney the cryptic message of 'truth takes time', there's suddenly that lingering hope that something is there, that not everything is what it seems and that maybe, just maybe, she's actually a good person.

That ambiguity carries Alias' entire second season to preposterously masterful heights, and it's evident from the very first scene of The Enemy Walks In. Irina is a character with unflinching drive and devotion to a cause. We don't know quite what that cause is, but every action and every decision is severely calculated and building towards something important. Lena Olin, appearing in just three brief scenes here, immediately grasps the character's mindset, saying so much with so few words, but really pushing the sense that her brain is constantly whirring with force and intrigue.

Away from Irina, The Enemy Walks In early on signals itself as an episode designed for freshman viewers, right down to the elaborate walk-through of the series premise that opens the episode. It's not at all another Q & A, but it's not a ton of fun for long-time fans, either. That said, J.J. Abrams cycles through last season's lingering plot threads with ferocious intensity, wrapping up Dixon's distrust of Sydney with an endearing moment of friendship, explaining away Vaughn's near-drowning with some iffy lack of detail, as well as bringing to a final close Will's investigation. It's the latter that proves especially affecting, Will's career going up in flames and dumped with an elaborate "I'm a heroin addict and made all that shit up because I'm all high" cover story in exchange for his life. He's at a personal crossroads, and the story showcases the inevitable methods that the CIA and SD-6 have to resort to when they're threatened.

This isn't a flawless episode, but that undeniable sense of the series being headed in an arresting new direction is carried over from last season. This is a show with an uncanny knowledge of its long-term aspirations, and Abrams has created a world that's hard not to get sucked in to. B+

Guest stars
Derrick O'Connor (Alexander Khasinau); Greg Grunberg (Eric Weiss); Patricia Wettig (Dr. Judy Barnett)
Writer J.J. Abrams Director Ken Olin

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