Alias

Alias – ‘The Box – Pt 2’ (1×13)

The first part of The Box established that nothing would ever be the same for Alias once this story was over. The second part cements this one hundred percent in stone.

In discussing part one of The Box, one of the major aspects that becomes clear watching this two-part story is how heavily indebted everything about it is to the classic Hollywood high-concept, and particularly the seminal John McTiernan action thriller from 1988, Die Hard. Indeed, the van which delivers Quentin Tarantino’s McKenas Cole and his lethal band of non-denominational terrorists has the marking ‘McTiernan Air Conditioning’, a direct nod to Die Hard’s helmsman. Later, investigative journalist Will gets key information about his ongoing probe into SD-6 in an envelope on a ship named the ‘Alba Varden’, sharing the name of the same ship key to Richard Donner’s Lethal Weapon 2 from 1989. The Box is keenly aware of the touchstones it is borrowing from and utilising on a modest TV budget, but it suggests the clear scope of Alias’ ambition as a series.

The end of the first part sees Sydney Bristow, now working secretly to frustrate Cole’s attempts to break into the locked down SD-6 vault to steal something for his mysterious employer ‘The Man’, almost exposed by the terrorists who are now getting wind that not all of the SD-6 staff are at their mercy. During part one, Syd had been aided by her father Jack, forcing them to put aside the immediate heightened emotion of the revelation her mother had been a KGB agent, but part two serves to swop out Jack, her first nominal protector, for Vaughn, who my previous reviews have shown is her second protector – the would-be suitor. This is all after the fact Syd, by this point of The Box, has gone full on John McClane. She even strips down to the vest.

This is not lascivious, of course. Alias is guilty of the ‘male gaze’ on plenty of occasions, even when it tries to work at giving Syd as much empowered agency as possible, but The Box places her very much in the mould of a classic action heroine; her story may be John McClane’s, but she’s far more Ellen Ripley here, just without the xenomorph chasing her. Indeed at points The Box resembles a modern video game, something tactical akin to Metal Gear Solid (if a bit less sneaky) in which Syd has to crawl around a contained space on a mission to disarm three explosive packages before the vault door is opened by Cole’s bad guys. Even unconsciously, The Box feels like it’s tapping into the increasingly prevalent first person shooter video game culture of its age – how much does Cole resemble a cheesy, end of level video game boss? He’d probably fit into the awkward, cod-American stylistics of Metal Gear Solid quite well, in fact.

Oddly enough, Syd’s role in the second-part of this story ends up being oddly functional by all accounts. She is the woman sneaking around getting things done for the majority of it, aided ably by Vaughn for the most part, and even when she is captured by Cole and his men she remains Jack-like in her stolid refusal to engage in any way with her captors sense of theatre. A great deal of the drama ends up flowing around her – Vaughn’s realisation that there is a major situation at SD-6 while clashing with the ever-present Stephen Haladki, Sloane’s continued torture at Cole’s increasingly vengeful hands, even the undercurrent of tension in Dixon’s determination to contact the CIA over Jack’s objections, without knowing the context. “Under normal conditions you could pull rank. These are not normal conditions.”

In this, Dixon is more right than he knows. The Box consistently reveals itself to not be a ‘normal’ episode of Alias, and in many ways after this two-parter the writers become more comfortable in developing episodes constructed around more of a singular narrative idea – The Prophecy, for instance, where Rambaldi’s connection to Syd personalises, or subsequently Q&A which though a shameless call back to 1990’s television it is as a ‘bottle episode’ to save money, it nonetheless changes the format of Alias for a week. The show doesn’t feel the need to completely reinvent the wheel yet but The Box is already a keen example of how JJ Abrams and his team are prepared for Alias to roll the dice and see how the numbers land.

It does continue as a piece to focus more on Tarantino’s guest character than some of the principal cast, such as Dixon or Marshall or even this time in some sense Jack, but this is understandable in the context of the star involved and the character, because you have rich pickings with Cole. Not only is he enjoyably flamboyant and verbose in his language (indeed had Alias been a cable show, every other word would surely have been a motherf*cker), he also comes out the end of The Box as a fairly well-rounded antagonist, even if his primary function is to introduce a deeper source of villainy for the rest of the season and allow Alias to play Syd’s story beat of rediscovering the meaning in her personal quest.

Jesse Alexander & John Eisendrath’s script (both writers carrying over of course from part one) works to shade out Cole more in this second part. Though he swaggered in with a brio and deadliness which catches everyone by surprise, Cole’s power is revealed to some extent here to be smoke and mirrors; Jack barely recognises the man and only remembers the mission in 1996 Cole was captured on, and this suggests he was probably only a minor operative in the SD-6 machine given Jack has long been one of Sloane’s closest top men in the agency; Cole is at pains to remind Syd of who he is once she’s captured, how much he liked her back in the day, and yet Syd doesn’t even remember the time he sleazed over her in the SD-6 coffee room. “You told me that if I ever talked to you again, I’d break your kneecaps”. Cole was so unmemorable that Syd even forgot such a cutting jibe.

Sloane turns out to be the one to really bury the knife in Cole’s underlying little man syndrome, however, and it ends up being a real testament to Ron Rifkin’s skilled performance across this entire two-parter. Cole monologues repeatedly to Sloane, attempting to exert his dominance and authority on a man he has spent years blaming and despising for his betrayal, but Sloane barely says a word – remaining powerfully controlled and calm even when Cole inserts numerous ‘needles of fire’ into him, described in the previous episode as so hot and deadly a legend was created that the Devil’s spat into the frying pan in which they were brewed. Sloane ends up reconceptualising Cole’s own hero complex in the Grozny mission, framing him as a coward who risked his entire team’s life, and ultimately someone who cracked under interrogation. “They broke you, didn’t they? They made you beg.”

There is probably some truth to this, given how Cole reacts so violently and emotionally he shoots Toni, the woman on his team he was sleeping with (who unluckily for her was also undercover British intelligence – not that he knew it), but there is also undeniably a level of cruelty to Sloane’s defiance in the face of almost certain death, trapped and at the mercy of painful levels of torture. It not only reveals the depth of Cole’s swaggering facade but also the depth of Sloane’s own ability to resist pain and suffering; indeed this is the only time across Alias we really see Sloane placed in a position of torture in this way and he reacts to it by turning the tables and psychologically tormenting his captor, before allowing Jack to literally cut off his right index finger in order to save the day. Ironically, Sloane ends up being one of the biggest heroes of The Box as a whole.

Alexander and Eisendrath work hard to remind us, however, that Sloane and SD-6 are still ultimately the bad guys. In part one, it became clear that to some extent The Box reclassifies SD-6 as the underdogs you end up rooting for, but the writers understand the irony in Syd saving the agency she has sworn to bring down (even having her say as much), and here we see the continued parallels between Cole and Syd as characters when framed against SD-6. Both believed they were working for the CIA and were lied to, both ended up being betrayed by Sloane and left for dead (or in Syd’s case losing the man she loved and then being targeted for assassination), and both have been left filled with a seething hatred for the man. 

Cole doesn’t know the depth of Syd’s feelings for him but when he says about Sloane to her that “he *will* disappoint you. And you will hate him”, the look on Syd’s face is one of quiet affirmation and understanding. Cole’s codename when he was at SD-6 was even ‘freelancer’, which is of course Syd’s own double agent code in her CIA role (and a plot point from Mea Culpa which will come back to haunt her in the last two episodes of the season). This is no coincidence. The writers are very much suggesting that Cole is, if not Syd’s dark reflection (that’s Anna Espinosa), someone who under different circumstances Syd could become. Oddly enough, when she poses as brainwashed Covenant agent Julia Thorne in the ‘missing two years’ arc of Season 3, she essentially becomes the agent Cole ended up. Cole is even partially running the Covenant by then and is very much complicit in Syd’s brainwashing, as we see (or more appropriately hear) in Full Disclosure.

The scenes between Cole and Syd underline the aspect of empowerment commentary to The Box which heightens themes that are baked into Alias’ very DNA. Syd’s necessary transformation into Ripley meets McClane in this episode, taking from Jack control of a situation only she can resolve through brains and brawn, is questioned by Cole, who is shocked that someone as svelte and indeed attractive as Syd could be the “badass beating up my men”. He displays not just a visible male gaze—again defining traits of the video game bad guy—but equally a disdain for women in general. He calls his lover Toni ‘baby’ repeatedly and though he values her, you sense she’s more of a sexual object in his eyes than an equal – clearly one of the reasons she secretly loathes him in her role as a double agent herself. Indeed when goaded by Sloane into a rage, he murders her in an extreme fit of pique.

It therefore feels appropriate that Syd fights him literally as well as psychologically, come the climax in the vault. Cole isn’t just a cheesy, battle-scarred former soldier, he epitomises the kind of latent sexism Syd has encountered before in her role – particularly Mark Rolston’s replacement for Vaughn in Parity. Men who refuse to believe she could be stronger or more masculine than they. Cole is perhaps, worryingly, a proxy for many male audience members even in the present day, and while Syd loses their first battle (thanks to Cole’s really quite impressive fighting skills, which combine the height of Tarantino with a mix of old-fashioned brawling and defence against martial artistry), it’s important for her quest that she defeats him ultimately. Syd isn’t just taking down the man, she’s taking down the proverbial ‘man’. Who also works for The Man. Not confusing at all…

Cole’s defeat feels like a rebuke against the institutionalised sexism which almost cost Vaughn his position at Syd’s handler, which indeed again he briefly loses during The Box after the questions raised in the first part about how he may be growing too personally attached to his charge. Having the breathing room to explore these issues with Vaughn, and introducing the character of Stephen Haladki as that internal antagonist, makes his eventual decision to ignore the orders of his boss Devlin (who thus far seems designed as a character for Vaughn or Jack to bust in on whenever they need to cut corners) and for the first time go to SD-6 on the gamble they may actually be in trouble, more satisfying. It makes sense for Vaughn, at this stage, to go off book – especially given Haladki is even suggesting the whole thing could be a Sloane gambit to expose double agents inside SD-6.

This is, of course, the one and only time Vaughn will go anywhere near Credit Dauphine and its secret organisation until Phase One, when he joins the team to help Syd finally take SD-6 down for good. It is, in terms of his character and his dynamic with Syd, quite a momentous occasion, and as series producer Ken Olin relates to Alias Declassified: The Official Companion, a narrative decision which reflects the changing world of US intelligence: 

In The Box, Agent Vaughn storms SD-6, which he can’t really do because he’s on US soil. So we fudged it by showing that he did it without authorisation and got in trouble for it and, secondly, that with the USA PATRIOT Act passed after 9/11, the CIA had been given the benefit of the doubt in certain situations.

Signed into Congress by President George W. Bush a matter of three months before The Box aired at the beginning of 2002, the USA PATRIOT Act was ratified in the wake of not just the World Trade Centre attacks in New York on 9/11 but the 2001 anthrax attacks around a week later (in which letters containing anthrax spores were sent to Democratic Senators and cost the lives of at least 5 people) which had caused widespread fear about the growing tide of terror attacks on the West. The act broadened the scope to indefinitely detain immigrants, broadened the powers of law enforcement agencies to search homes and businesses without consent, not to mention advanced surveillance of phone and email records. Put simply, it gave the US government broader powers to respond to what they considered, perhaps justifiably, deadlier threats to national security.

Interpretation of the act is, of course, widened in Alias for the purposes of what is ultimately escapist entertainment, but it again shows the immediate and lasting effect of 9/11 on the series alongside the latent Cold War anxieties it displays. Alias often feels trapped between these two ideological challenges and threats to modern America and, in the end, the narrative and mythology it employs ends up fusing together both; organisations such as the Alliance or later the Covenant operate as both powerful blocs and ruthless terror cells, and Rambaldi’s secrets often lead as much to weapons of mass destruction than they do occult or arcane secrets to the mysteries of the universe. Episodes like The Box further reflect the American fear that these two worlds, the old order and the new, are beginning to collide.

Speaking of Rambaldi, incidentally, The Box creeps back in the mythology Alias has introduced over the first half of the season and will concentrate on much more following the events of these episodes and the rise of The Man as a significant new threat. From this point on, the series begins to start connecting several Rambaldi dots in a manner the show hadn’t quite pieced together in episodes such as Parity or Time Will Tell, where it seemed more about Syd racing to find artefact pieces against her Russian equivalents than giving Rambaldi’s mystery any level of cohesiveness. Jesse Alexander talks in Alias Declassified how this changed once they figured out what Cole was going after in the SD-6 vault:

Another thing about The Box was Cole is opening the SD-6 safe to get a box thats a Rambaldi artefact – and we didn’t know what that was going to be. One idea was that it was a special Rambaldi signet ring, then it was, ‘How about a jar of clear liquid, something that could be anything we wanted it to be?’ So that liquid ended up being the washed used on Page 47 of the Rambaldi manuscript to make this hidden image of Sydney Bristow appear. We hadn’t originally planned on that but it felt organic, this notion that the Rambaldi book was written in a secret ink that’s revealed when you apply the liquid from this vial.

This again shows the malleability in a mythology which was never completely arced out from the beginning by the Alias writing staff, and always served as part of Sydney’s personal quest in the espionage world, once her own deeper and mythic connection to Rambaldi was established. Returning to the mythology at the end of The Box, however, does give the episode that extra spice at the climax and makes Cole’s actions, if anything, mean more; he hasn’t just broken into SD-6 and challenged our characters in such a fundamental way for no reason that matters—to steal money or something disposable—he was after a piece of a larger puzzle Alias has already established exists and the audience by this point are intrigued by. It’s the icing on the narrative cake to be given a flash of Rambaldi’s mystery here.

As an aside, it’s quite intriguing from a geopolitical standpoint that the British don’t seem to have any real knowledge about Rambaldi or his mystery. When Toni reveals herself to be British SIS (aka Secret Intelligence Service, which feels very much a throwback to Alias inspirations from yesteryear such as Ian Fleming or Len Deighton), she only knows that whatever Cole is after in the vault is connected to “someone named Rambaldi”. Given we later discover in The Prophecy that the US government have an entire department dedicated to investigating Rambaldi, and have collected a great deal of his works in a secret Nevada base, it’s surprising a power as significant as the British (or at least this agent) don’t have any knowledge of him. Yet they had spent years trying to identify The Man, who not even SD-6 seemed to have any idea existed, let alone the CIA.

Come the end of The Box, the world for everyone in Alias has changed. “What happened here tonight, this is unacceptable” Sloane laments, in scenes where he appears—following his staunch defence against Cole and the amputation of his index finger—remarkably human for a few moments. “This has changed everything” he adds, and he’s right. It’s almost as if Alexander & Eisendrath knew this would be the story that blew the doors off Alias and set the show on the course for the next half of the season, whereby they could fully challenge SD-6 and the CIA with a bigger antagonist and a stronger connection to and development of the Rambaldi mythology. People talk about the moment shows truly figure out what they are and where they’re heading. There’s a strong argument The Box is that moment for Alias. It proved just how elastic the show could be within its own parameters.

For Syd, her journey through The Box can be summed up in the line she says to Vaughn, once the dust has settled on the experience: “Hockey can wait” referring to her date invitation in the previous episode. The events of this story revitalise her quest to destroy SD-6, reminding her there does exist a bigger picture beyond her own personal devastation at the secrets central to her life. There are people worth saving from men like Cole or Sloane or The Man waiting in the wings. The Box ends up not just being a thrilling piece of television, showing all of Alias’ strengths – but it shows just what a hero we have in Sydney Bristow. 

She will go on to prove it time and time again.

Check out reviews of the rest of Season 1 of Alias here:

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