An evil mother, dopplegangers and the entire premise of the show turned upside down – we look back at season two of JJ Abram’s superb spy drama
What is the greatest season of your favourite TV series? And what makes it stand out from those seasons around it? Every fan will have their own opinion of what is great and what isn’t and here at The Digital Fix, our team of writers are going to complete the possibly impossible task of selecting what season of their favourite shows makes the cut above all others.
Before he gave us big-screen adventures from the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises, JJ Abrams was the master of television productiom. From Felicity to Fringe, he gave us some magnificent TV dramas – and while Lost might be the most famous of them all, it’s spy drama Alias that stands head and shoulders above the rest.
Running from 2001 to 2006, Alias gave us slick, cool, emotional intense show packed with jaw-dropping revelations. Season one had one of the best pilot episode of all time as CIA agent Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) discovered that she was actually working for the enemy, learned that her father Jack was a spy too and was forced to work as a double agent as both a member of the SD6 (under the villainous Arvin Sloan) and the CIA through her agent Michael Vaughan. Across that first season, she saw her allegiances tested as she was forced to work against friends like partner Marcus Dixon and loveable tech wizard Marshall Finkman. Every episode, Sydney would trot across the globe on multiple dangerous missions, each as cool and thrilling as the other.
Alias boatsed a slick cast, with Garner effortless stealing the screen as arse-kicking but equally vulnerable Sidney. Victor Garber delivered the best performance of his career as dangerous Jack Bristow who balanced his love for his daughter with decades of dark secrets, Ron Rifkin was a brilliant, insidious villain as Sloan. Carl Lumbly brought gravitas to the role of Dixon, Kevin Wiseman was a delight as Marshall and the chemistry between Michael Vartan’s Vaughan and Garner’s Sydney spilled off the screen into a real-life romance for a while. It also saw Bradley Cooper kick off his career as reporter and best friend of Sydney Will Tipin, whose investigation into SD6 saw him almost killed.
Season one is one of the strongest debut seasons of any series – yes, it beats even Lost – so how could it continue that high? While seasons three to five didn’t quite measure up, the second year is peak Alias. A lot of that is down to dear old mom Irna Derevko. The discovery that Sydney’s dead mum was not only alive, but a KGB agent who had an affair with Sloan, married (and then fell in love) with Jack to steal his CIA secrets and was then the master villain behind everything certainly kicks season two up a gear. but the biggest twist is having Irina turn herself in and spend much of the season locked up, resulting in a number if emotionally-charged meetings with her daughter. Lena Olin commands the screen, never revealing anything to suggest her duplicity as she breaks away at Sydney ‘s façade. The relationship between this mother and daughter remains one the most twisted on television and the addition of Jack only added to the mix, with Garber and Olin sharing equal tension-filled chemistry as they balanced love with betrayal.
The biggest issue with season two is that it brings everything to a head too early – but what a rollercoaster it is. With SD6 revealed to be part of a bigger, more dangerous Alliance, Sydney’s life as a double agent become more and more tenuous, with her relationship with her mother and love for Michael reaching boiling point in a thrilling take down of SD6 that turns everything upside down. Between battling deadly enemy agent Julian Sark (another career defining role for David Anders) to the ultimate betrayal – best friend Francie murdered and replaced by an evil imposter (Merrin Dungey excels at evil). Season two builds and builds to that almighty cliff-hanger – Sydney waking up two years in the future with no memory of what happened. It’s a doozy of a season ender, capping off a superb 22-episode run.
Given the ongoing-narrative, it’s hard to pick five key episodes, but here are what I consider the highlights of that second run…
Season Two’s Five Greatest Episodes
2.08 Passage Part 1
The first half of season two hinges on the emotional trauma of the Bristow-family relationship. Sydney finds herself confronted with a mother that is the enemy and nothing like the woman she remembered growing up. For Jack, Irina is the woman he loved more than anything and the one that betrayed him the most. This conflict builds throughout the episodes, building to Passage two-parter.
After being behind bars for several episodes, Irina Derevko finally steps foot outside the CIA as she accompanies Jack and Sydney on a mission to Pakistan to defeat the plans of Sloan and Sark, who has now taken control of Irina’s criminal organisation. Seeing these three conflicted – and very dangerous – people forced to work together and play a family of happy US tourists is an absolute delight. But nothing quite shows the Bristow family coming together then taking out the enemy armed with machine guns. You can cut the tension of Passage part 1 with a knife; fortunately there’s plenty of humour in the family dynamic to keep the audience grounded.
2.12 The Getaway
The death of Sloane’s sick wife Emily at the end of season one elevated his villainous status, as he gained a seat at the table of the shadowy alliance. The blackmail story that runs throughout the first half of the season chips away at his facade, only for The Getaway to play the ultimate double bluff and reveal that Emily’s death was faked; all part of a greater plan to get Sloan out of the clutches of the enemy. It’s one of the first really big twists in a season packed with more twists to come.
The Getaway also sees the professional relationship between Sydney and Vaughan progress into a personal one during a secret mission, setting up ‘that kiss’ in the next episode, while Jack’s attempts to outwit SD-6 security expert, Ariana Kane (a brilliant tete-e-tete between Victor Garber and Faye Dunaway) is nail biting stuff as the normally unflappable gentleman spy is threatened with exposure. It’s a taught episode, bringing to a head a number of long-running threads and keeping the audience on their toes every minute of it.
2.13 Phase One
Possibly the greatest episode in the show’s history, Phase One blows the lid off the show’s entire premise as Sydney and her CIA allies take down SD6 and the Alliance for good. It’s a tense 45 minutes of television, as Sydney and Jack are forced to stay on the good side of new SD6 director Anthony Gieger (Rutger Hauer), with Jack facing near death, Sydney, racing to unlock the Alliance’s secrets and the thrilling takedown that sees Sydney and Michael finally have that kiss in the ruins of her former workplace.
From Sydney telling SD6 partner Dixon everything to Sloan’s betrayal of everyone, there are plenty of emotional stakes amongst the high octane action and a rather gratuitously sexy where Sydney seduces her way into the Alliance’s confidence. But even with all that, the episode plays its greatest trick at the very end with the shocking discovery that Sydney’s best friend Francie has been shot in the head by…evil Francie. The first of many of Alias‘s evil dopplegangers, this reveal blindsided everyone – and just after the real Francie and Will revealed their feelings for each other. This doesn’t end well for him – or Sydney…
2.18 Truth Takes Time
While the pace falters a little after the shocking events of Phase One, the betrayal of Syndey’s mother Irina in the previous episode kicks things up another level in this instalment. With Sloan and Irina united, the former SD6 director’s long-suffering wife Emily becomes the ultimate casualty as Sydney the CIA track them down.
It’s an episode packed with raw emotion, as everyone reels from betrayal; Jack from having his feelings hurt by his wife despite his best intentions, Sydney for believing there was good in her mother, Dixon, who’s entire world has been turned upside down and Emily, who gradually comes to realise her husband will never give up his crusade. The greatest tragedy of the episode is that Sloan is willing to give everything up for her, even when she betrays him in turn by working with Sydney. Emily’s death at Dixon’s hands, in the episode’s climax is harrowing and will continue to have deadly consequences as the season progresses.
2.22 The Telling
One of the best season finales of all time, The Telling takes everything we know about Alias and blows it up a second time this season. Sydney confronts her mother after one final desperate attempt to stop Sloan, Jack becomes a hostage of the villainous Sark, more clues to Rambalidi are uncovered and ‘evil Francie’s identity is blown.
The Telling is an episode packed with tension, double crosses and revelations, but nothing prepares the audience for the final act. Sydney discovering Francie is evil is wracked with tension; a bait with ice-cream turning into a fully fledged battle to the death and the shocking fate of Will that would not be be resolved any time soon. But even after that fallout, the cliff-hanger, as Sydney wakes up in Hong Kong with no memory of how she got there, finding lover Vaughan now married and two years of her life missing, is perhaps the biggest twist in the show’s history.
Season Two’s Greatest Moments
Sydney meets her mother for the first time – who then promptly shoot her. Now that‘s a way to open the season! (The Enemy walks in)
Sydney attempts to access the equipment on a rocket in Sri Lanka, moments before it launches, in one of the show’s most nail-biting action sequences yet (Cipher)
Sydney deciding whether to kill Sloan on Sark’s order in order to get a cure for Vaughan – all while disguised as a Japanese Masseuse! A ridiculous and tense sequence in equal measure (Counteragent)
Irina, Jack and Sydney on a field mission together – be it posing as adoring American tourists or taking down the enemy with machine guys, this sums up what the Bristows are really all about! (Passage Part 1)
Sloan fools the Alliance – and the audience – with the revelation that Emily is alive all along and he used the ‘blackmail’ to make his escape (The Getaway)
SD6 is taken down and Sydney and Vaughan share their first momentous kiss (Phase One)
Francie is shot dead – by Francie, in one of the most mind-boggling and traumatic twists to date (Phase One)
A Ramabaldi weapon is activated inside a church, emulating the congregation in a disturbing episode opener (Firebomb)
Irina betrays Jack in Bangkok, just when you thought they might actually rekindle their decades long love affair (A Dark Turn)
Emily is accidentally shot and killed by Dixon as she makes the brave decision to join her husband as he flees CIA forces (Truth Takes Time)
Will is extracted by Sark, having already been framed by evil Francie, in another nail-biting moment for Sydney’s best friend (Second Double)
The whole discovery that Francie is evil, the discovery of Will in the bath and the very brutal showdown, in one of Alias‘s greatest fight sequences (The Telling)
Sydney wakes up in Hong Kong, two years in the future (The Telling)
What are your thoughts on Alias season two? Did the addition of evil mother Irina Derevko to the show make this run the cream of the crop? And where does the spy drama rate among JJ Abram’s shows? Let us know in the comments below…
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