Sunday, November 25, 2012

Alias: Phase One (2.13)

We've come to expect certain things from television. A series' basic premise will remain intact for several seasons. An endgame couple will experience numerous false starts before they finally get together. Token black friends will stay on the periphery of things, never doing anything of consequence. A heroic victory usually means the end for key villains. All of that is more or less true... and then there's Phase One. This is an episode that rapidly undoes everything we thought we knew about Alias, tearing down the series' narrative conventions with an unexpected explosion of surprises. Alias was always a show that seemed to have a handle on where it was going, but Phase One is that rare episode that switches things up to such an extent that you're left breathless and completely unsure of where they're going to go from here, more so than ever before.

While Phase One absolutely deserves the kudos its constantly received, something that surprised me this time around was how entirely goofy it was, structurally speaking. This is so clearly an episode designed to screw around with the show, so much that this week's entire premise is hilariously abrupt. So there's a plane in the sky with all the information to take down the Alliance on board. And Sydney gets that information, and the Alliance and all the various SD cells are taken down. It's silly as all hell, and grants the show a sense of "oh... really?" that I'm not sure entirely works from a narrative standpoint.

But the episode somehow overcomes those issues, primarily because it's so batshit relentless as a piece of television that you can't help but get carried away by the sheer ballsiness of it all. It's the spectacle that saves the hour, and it's something evident from the very first scene. That shot, the door bouncing open with Sydney dressed in that tiny lingerie, Back in Black pulsating on the soundtrack and Jennifer Garner strutting towards camera in slow-motion, is so gloriously tacky that you can almost smell the desperation of the producers to grab those sweaty post-Superbowl eyeballs. But, like Phase One's premise itself, you're shocked into enjoying it all by seeing Sydney eventually beat the crap out of the guy who made her do said strut. It somehow makes it all okay again.

The energy doesn't let up from there, later returning to the scene in medias res and resolving it with one of the coolest action scenes ever seen on Alias: Sydney shooting the plane's doors open and holding on for dear life as her enemies are sucked out into the sky, some of them falling right back into the jet engine. It's the cool juxtaposition of feminine oppression and female strength, Syd opening the episode a figure of tawdry exploitation, before turning the tables and kicking ass, taking names and initiating an escape plan so outlandish and unthinkable, but that actually works.

Phase One isn't just a showy spectacle, though. At its heart is Sydney's relationship with her father, and how his possible murder throws everything out of the window. While it could cost her so much, she instantly sets up a scheme to overthrow SD-6 and rescue Jack, expressing so much fear at what could happen, but strong enough as a person to take the risk. Dixon is also a real stand-out here. His risk is arguably greater, having to take Sydney's word despite how extreme and mind-boggling her claims are. This is a man who has been lied to for so many years, and everything he thought he knew comes crashing down unexpectedly in one short scene of exposition. It's heartbreaking, as is his phone call to his wife: he doesn't know if he'll be home for dinner tonight, not actually because of work, but because he's falling into a deeper rabbit hole than ever before, trusting blind instinct more than any real evidence. And he can't even talk to his wife about it, as much as he desperately wants to. Some incredible work by Carl Lumbly here, who has never gotten a ton to do prior to this.

At the same time, Phase One ends with one of the most batshit cliffhangers I've ever seen on television: Francie, Syd's best friend and confidante and a master when it comes to dialogue about souffle, shot dead and replaced by a clone. Let me just repeat that for a second: Francie is shot dead and replaced by a clone. It's a plot twist that feeds into the overriding narrative leaps that plague the rest of the hour (the writers clearly having grown bored by Francie as a character), but is so unexpected and insane as a plot point that you can't help but be entirely blown away by it. Not only is it a horrible thing to happen to a character who was always so unaware of being even loosely connected to such a violent world, but it's also the show crossing into science-fiction in this extreme and ridiculously absorbing manner. I remember it being the icing on the cake for this episode, one of the few times that I've been genuinely shaken by a cliffhanger ending on TV. Poor Francie. Poor clueless Francie.

And then there's that kiss. Returning to what I wrote at the beginning, it's typical to expect Sydney and Vaughn to dance around their mutual attraction for a long while. Hell, The Getaway ended with what seemed like a momentary death knell for their relationship. But, again, Phase One tosses that out into the sky with everything else on that damn plane, the two of them embracing in one huge romantic gesture of victory. It's just a sweet closer... right until the inevitable tragedy and violence appears once again to throw everybody off.

Phase One is a spectacular depiction of everything that's successful and disastrous for Alias. It's relentlessly ambitious as an episode, abandoning so much of the show's initial premise and proving that this is a series with an unstoppable drive and determination to blow minds. But it's also an example of the show's tendency to abandon stories mid-flight, or a precursor to arcs being dropped all-together. In that respect, it's almost too abrupt and unexpected an ending for SD-6 and the entire 'double agent' thing -- something that proved harmful enough in the long run that the show wound up getting this re-formatting re-re-formatted in a couple of years time.

But, judged on its own, as well as with the memory of how profoundly badass this was when I first saw it back in 2003, it's crazy to not view Phase One as a singular masterpiece. This is Alias' grand statement, the true pinnacle of the show and a landmark in televisual unpredictability. A+

Guest stars
Terry O'Quinn (Kendall); Jean Pierre Bergeron (Gils Nacor); Angus Scrimm (Calvin McCullough); Greg Grunberg (Eric Weiss); Rutger Hauer (Anthony Geiger)
Writer J.J. Abrams Director Jack Bender


  1. Here here. Nothing else to say. Superb review for an incredible, iconic piece of television that forever changed the way I watched my shows. Outstanding!

  2. I really liked the way you looked at all this. It's definitely a spectacle, but its one that makes absolutely no sense.

    I actually only got into Alias after it aired, so I binged on it and had no idea that this episode was coming. All I remember is sitting there kind of aghast as to what the hell was going on. Then that cliffhanger, what a weird move, but an amazing move all the same.

    You analysed this episode so perfectly. Great review!

  3. Best episode of season two next to The Telling. Poor Francie, she never found out that her best friend was a a super cool spy who save the world on a daily basis.