Alias

Alias – ‘The Coup’ (1×14)

If there is such a thing as a TV comedown episode, it’s The Coup

Not in the sense that The Coup is a bad episode of television. It’s a perfectly serviceable, mechanical Alias episode, even if it probably would fall fairly low in a ranking of what has been a strong first season. The Coup is a comedown in the fact that after a two-parter like The Box, where exactly do you go next? Almost akin to the difficult second episode, the one that has to clean up the narrative mess from the pilot, The Coup struggles to function in any way beyond that of an epilogue to a much stronger piece of television.

The Coup establishes two key things early on – a plot point and a potentially important new character. Firstly, we are told that the attack by McKenas Cole, under the orders of ‘The Man’, was not an isolated incident. At precisely the same time as the events of The Box, as Sydney Bristow was going ‘full John McClane’ in order to save the very organisation in SD-6 that she despises and is working to destroy, in Hong Kong a direct competitor by the name of ‘FTL’ is completely wiped out, ostensibly by the same outfit being ran by the mysterious Man. Two birds, one stone, except in the case of FTL they succeed, immediately destroying a significant organised crime player in one fell swoop. While FTL isn’t significant in the grand scheme of Alias, their disposal is significant as part of the series’ first immediate evolution, the first of several the show would undergo over its five years.

FTL were described previously as an important rival of the Alliance of 12, the SPECTRE-esque organisation behind SD-6 who remain, at this stage, still in shadow. As tech geek Marshall Flinkman states, it “was an enemy for, like, ever”, suggesting SD-6 had long rivalled with this group since before the events of Season 1. FTL had cells, much like the Alliance. FTL were the people who trained and conditioned Alias’ ‘Manchurian Candidate’ in Reckoning, Martin Shepard – the man who killed Syd’s fiancé. FTL may be one of the fairly disposable ‘rent-a-baddie’ groups Alias pulls out when a mission is required, but in the tapestry of organised crime within the Alias universe, the assassination of FTL leader Quan Li in Hong Kong in broad daylight is a statement of intent.

On two fronts, as it turns out. In show, it displays just how powerful The Man and their organisation is; to attack both SD-6 and FTL in one day, and destroy one of them, proves there is brash confidence about their approach. Beyond the show, this feels like Alias flexing its muscles and reconceptualising in the wake of The Box. Remember, The Box two-parter was the first episode since the pilot Truth Be Told that pushed the limits of what Alias could achieve, breaking from the established ‘Syd goes on one or two missions’ formula around which all of the ongoing drama and narratives weaved. The Coup both does and doesn’t return to that.

The Coup suggests the writers, in this case the duo of Alex Kurtzman-Counter and Roberto Orci, are fully aware of how significant The Box was. Random villains along the lines of FTL or K-Directorate just can’t cut it anymore. How can Syd be pitched against faceless villains who are little more than names after the characterisation and menace of McKenas Cole? Granted, given he was played by Quentin Tarantino, you can’t have a character with that kind of joie de vivre showing up every single week, but Alias seems to recognise from The Coup onwards that The Box has cranked the stakes up a notch, and the narrative needs to reflect the fact, as Arvin Sloane states at the end of The Box, everything has changed.

Cue the second major aspect established by The Coup – Mr Sark.

While his appearance in The Coup is fleeting, and we only discover his intentionally enigmatic name at the end of the episode, David Anders immediately leaves an impression as The Man’s ‘Director of Operations’. The first moment we see him is shot by director Thomas J. Wright in the style of a Spaghetti Western, with a slow pan across Sark’s impassible face before he blows Quan Li away. In a quieter sense it is as striking a scene-setting introduction as Cole’s brash slide through laser grids set to Rob Zombie’s ‘Dragula’ in The Box, and very much suggests at the layer of mystery which Sark exudes, and would help him rapidly jump from a random guest character to one of Alias’ most key figures.

A note briefly on Thomas J. Wright who, despite only helming one Alias episode in five seasons, is a very accomplished and underrated television director – principally thanks to his work on Chris Carter’s late-90’s esoteric series Millennium, where he became particularly in the second season one of the series’ distinguishing directorial figures, as Ken Olin will later become for Alias. Wright, who understudied with Alfred Hitchcock, stands out with these touches from many of the other Season 1 directors on Alias and while The Coup is not replete with classic Alias visual moments, there is an undeniable style in Wright’s work which makes you wish he had helmed more than just this one piece.

Returning to Sark, his role bookending The Coup is to establish the ‘face’ of The Man, as one of the chief lieutenants in the organisation. In this he is delightfully, almost intentionally unusual. Even his name is strange, taken from a small island in the Channel Islands between England and France, perhaps as a means of evoking a blend of English and European heritage. 

Anders, who was only 20 when he was cast in the role, speaks with a plum British accent yet remains defiantly hard to characterise. “You seem young for such responsibility” Ilyich Ivankov, the regal Russian head of K-Directorate comments when Sark represents The Man at a summit, and while he is not wrong, there is never the sense that Sark is anything but serious and deadly. The writers will learn how to have fun with Sark and allow Anders to play him for arrogant wit, but the seeds of that youthful confidence are present and correct in his portrayal here.

Sark was never originally to quite become as key to Alias as we will see over the next few years, written as a guest character to presumably provide a voice for the bigger villain of The Man, but Anders delivery won over the producers in a similar manner to how on Lost a few years later, Michael Emerson will take the one-shot guest character of Henry Gale and make such an impression the writers build much of the narrative going forward around his character. That doesn’t quite happen in the same way with Anders or Sark, and there is an argument that Sark does not work very well as a regular character, as we will see in time, but there is enough in The Coup to intrigue about this young, blonde, yet exceedingly mysterious man.

Anders discussed in an interview with Complex about how his approach to playing villains, as he would later go on and do post-Alias with much less success in Heroes and the final season of 24, may have been a factor:

“You got to be careful with playing it too hard. You could run the risk of twisting your mustache too hard. I think you have to play these parts thinking they’re in the right as far as the are concerned. They are just trying to meet their end game.”

Ask any actor who has played a memorable villain on screen and they are likely to agree with that sentiment. Ron Rifkin almost certainly holds to that as a truism in portraying Sloane and though it’s too early to discuss Sark’s motivations as a character, Anders approach as an actor in layering in a side to Sark geared around righteous self-motivation is something the writers will pick up and run with in future. Though we will see Sark again in Page 47, he next appears in The Solution before playing a role in the final three episodes of the season, by which point JJ Abrams and company knew what they had with Anders and Sark.

What also becomes clear very quickly in the attack on FTL is that The Man’s strike had the same motivation as with SD-6: the recovery of a key Rambaldi artefact. This continues the reintegration of the Rambaldi mythology back into the storytelling, which began at the end of The Box with the reveal of the small Rambaldi box Cole was trying to get hold of. The Coup establishes that FTL had another piece of the puzzle, as do K-Directorate with the manuscript we last saw Anna Espinosa beat Syd to at the end of Time Will Tell. Sloane spells it out: The Man is assembling the pieces and may have enough to figure out precisely what Rambaldi’s mystery was all about.

Page 47 will soon begin to peel back the onion that is Sloane’s relationship with Rambaldi as Alias continues to figure out what exactly they have with the mythology and they start tying the established threads together. Right now, everything is disparate. We have a mysterious new enemy. We have Rambaldi artefacts of some significance. We have SD-6 and the CIA’s efforts to destroy the Alliance. And we have the revelation, delivered at the end of The Confession, that Syd’s mother was a Russian spy. The Coup begins the steady process of pulling all of these threads together. By the time we reach season finale Almost Thirty Years, that will have happened with surprising success.

The Coup as a result feels strangely like an epilogue and the second episode of a new season of Alias somehow, troubled with the necessity of having to resolve everything thrown up in the air over the first thirteen episodes and chart a new direction. Oddly enough, in another universe, The Box might well have functioned as the finale of a 13-episode opening season, with The Coup serving as a transitory second season premiere which deals with the fallout on a number of levels. The entire episode, more so than any other Alias episode to date, is living in the shadow of the episode that preceded it.

Sloane has his finger bandaged after his bone-chilling (and breaking) sacrifice at the end of The Box, and in one of those creepy Sloane parent moments with Sydney that Rifkin does so well, he surprises Syd with a round of applause from the office for saving their lives. Vaughn recounts how he was “slapped on the wrist” by Devlin for his unauthorised infiltration of SD-6 which helped Syd save the day, even despite Stephen Haladki (who does not reappear in this episode) reporting him. These are all clear consequences but some are skimmed or brushed over in order to try and reestablish the status quo, even while The Coup at the same time works to dismantle it.

The same will happen in approximately a season’s time after Season 2’s thirteenth episode Phase One. The next episode following it, Double Agent, will face even more of a transition struggle after the entire concept of Alias is deconstructed with remarkable speed. The Coup is dismantling the show we have known for the last thirteen episodes on more of a character level. Changes are afoot personally for Syd. Vaughn admits he wants to spend time with her on a personal level, after her hockey offer as she planned to quit in The Box, and from this point on their looks grow ever more longing. Their relationship is deepening more with each passing episode.

Sydney is now emerging from the other side of the reaction to learning the truth (or some of it, at least) about her mother, still known as Laura. Her immediate anger at Jack, and her determination to quit SD-6 and her life as a spy, which were both tempered by the events of The Box, are now softening to a point of contemplation about her direction beyond work, beyond her life as a spy. While Ron Rifkin can do creepy Dad like no other, Victor Garber is a master of awkward Dad, and his dynamic with Syd across this episode cuts to the very core of a relationship that will consistently ebb and flow over five seasons. Jack asking Syd about college, and then not knowing at first how to guide her, is a perfect beat.

“She was a teacher, so that was something I thought I always wanted to do,” Syd comments about Laura, admitting she is no longer sure if that career means anything without trying to follow in the footsteps of a mother she always wanted to understand. It’s telling she gets an A-grade for a paper entitled ‘F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Tragic Hero’ – is this how she sees herself? If not a modern day Jay Gatsby corrupted by the promise of the American Dream, then someone thrust into a life and a role she never sought, at the expense of the family life she believed her mother had?

There seem to be the first steps toward a catharsis for Jack in The Coup, in relation to Syd’s quandary about her future, particularly in his relationship with Syd; he asks her about school and later returns to a carousel he and Laura took Syd as a child. “I haven’t been back to this park in 20 years” Jack admits, almost wistfully. Has the confession of Laura’s true identity given Jack what he needs, emotionally, to start the healing process with his daughter?

“I’m out of practice when it comes to personal matters” Jack admits, in something of an understatement, when apologising to Syd about how he couldn’t advise her previously, but Syd seems to have forgotten the anger at the secret that was kept from her for decades and is open to some kind of relationship with her father. His advice ends up being quite sage, reminding her that she chose to go to college and pursue a teaching career and that she could “become the kind of teacher your students will always remember”. On the one hand these are kind words from a father who believes in her daughter, on the other the hopes of a spymaster who wants more for his daughter than the life he had.

Alias approaches Syd’s life outside of SD-6 and the spy narrative with less and less interest as the series progresses. While her role as a student was more pronounced in the early part of Season 1, and is of course key to the backstory of her recruitment into SD-6, it is only really pulled out by the writers when they need to remind viewers that Sydney has more complications in her life. A Free Agent in Season 2 features her graduation and beyond that mentions of Syd’s possible future as an English teacher get scant mention for the rest of the series – even the flash-forward at the end of All The Time in the World, the series finale, is more interested in her role as a wife and mother than having a career beyond the spy world.

It further suggests Abrams and his writers had no real interest in defining Syd particularly beyond her role as a secret agent the more Alias went on. This becomes clear in the treatment of Francie in The Coup, which marks the beginning of the end for the character in many respects. The Coup decides, quite unceremoniously, not just to call time on the main sub-plot for Francie’s character, but to pivot the central espionage mission Syd undertakes for SD-6 around this development for Francie in a manner that proves Alias awkwardly has balanced trying to be two different TV series where she is concerned.

The Coup pulls a character rabbit out of the metaphorical hat by having Francie’s bland boyfriend Charlie Bernard, who she was planning to marry, as a cheating ratbag who was dating another woman Syd happens to meet on campus while carrying on with Francie. “Who lives a double life like that?” Will asks when Syd goes to him for advice, in another example of the witty, unknowing references to Syd’s big secret the writers often give to characters like Will and Francie, much as it unfortunately makes them look stupider than the story gives them credit for. The problem is that The Coup tries to sell this as a natural twist rather than a jarring right turn.

Though never central to the storytelling, Francie’s relationship with Charlie has been a constant thus far across the season. Designed essentially as a contrast for Syd, who while discovering a glamorous double life as a kickass secret agent saw her fiancé murdered, Francie’s engagement to Charlie was a reflection to show that Syd did not have a normal life, a glimpse at the life she would have had with Danny. Rather awkwardly in Reckoning, doubt is cast on Charlie’s fidelity after he is spotted with a woman called Rachel, forcing Syd and Francie to turn spies themselves to investigate him. His potential infidelity turns out to be a charming, if odd, secret bout of singing lessons to serve his dream of being a professional singer.

“I guess in retrospect there were signs…” Syd admits, discussing the betrayal with her work partner Dixon, and when you examine Charlie’s motivations they do sound very much like a cover. Who goes for singing lessons secretly with a mysterious blonde as a ‘surprise’ for their fiance? The problem is that Charlie turning out to be a scurrilous two-timer, leading his own double life, does not thematically track with the series, and reflect Syd’s owns secrets, as Kurtzman-Counter and Orci hope it would. Evan Dexter Parke’s dull portrayal and Charlie’s utter milquetoast nature across the season betrays the fact this was never a twist planned for dramatic purpose as opposed to fixing a dead end.

As Orci recounts in Alias Declassified: The Official Companion:

“The potential was we’d follow his music career, play out his engagement with Francie. The problem was the story line of Francie and Charlie wasn’t working because you needed to see them together and that tended to isolate them from the rest of the story. It was important to have a family dynamic between Sydney, Will and Francie – Charlie was getting in the way of the symmetry of that. We had to save one of them, so we chose to save Francie.”

Surely choosing Charlie over Francie was never seriously considered? While Merrin Dungey becomes increasingly surplus to requirements until Phase One onwards, her role as Syd’s best friend and touchstone has been central to the world of her character since the pilot, so swopping her out for such a thinly-characterised boyfriend character would have been exceedingly strange. Orci’s point certainly makes sense but you can tell the way the writers had considered Charlie by The Coup is the way they would eventually consider Francie, once Will became aware of Syd’s double life by Season 2. Thankfully their manner of disposing of Francie is far more elegant and rich with storytelling possibilities than the sudden dumping of Charlie from the supporting ensemble.

More than this, The Coup shows just how clunky Alias can be when it tries to fuse Orci’s aforementioned ‘family dynamic’ with the main espionage plotting, as evidenced by Francie and Charlie showing up in Las Vegas while Syd is on mission. It throws up a whole range of plot contrivances and conveniences in order to facilitate the development of characters who aren’t particularly important to the main narratives in play. What are the chances of Francie and Charlie being in the *same casino* where Syd’s mission is taking place, at the *same time*? Why would the surveillance feed Syd hacks to keep an eye on Dixon’s card game hack the wedding chapel, again, at the *same time* Francie and Charlie are embarking on a shotgun wedding?

Alias is never the most subtle of television shows, and often Syd’s missions can fall prey to narrative conveniences in order to get her out of sticky situations, but the escapist nature of the storytelling allows it to get away with such flights. The Coup suffers because it tries to service both the escapism while at the same time complicating Syd’s life with personal stakes that never feel earned. Contrast this with how urgent and crucial everything that happened in The Box felt over the last two episodes and The Coup suffers wildly from trying to invest us in Francie’s romantic troubles, even if the writers try and sell them as a mirror to Syd’s own duplictiousness, and highlight how fractured she is between her work and private life when it causes her to fight with Francie for the first real time. “I don’t even know who you are anymore. And I don’t want to.”

The first season as a whole is about Sydney coming to understand who she is, and her place in the world, through the prism of the secret agent life and all the personal revelations that come with it, and her decision to stick with training to be a teacher after helping Francie deal with the betrayal of someone leading their own double life, fits the broader themes at play. The Coup just never makes them work in as compelling a manner as Alias can do at its best. It also boasts one of the most inconsistent and unfulfilling missions of Season 1, as Syd dresses up as a Vegas showgirl for no particular reason and Carl Lumbly gets to ham it up as a Jamaican in as crude a manner as he did in So It Begins… as an African diplomat. He, and Dixon, even this early on, deserve better. Even though, ironically, Lumbly himself is Jamaican by birth.

There are one or two high points to these ancillary narratives. Syd’s manner of helping Francie, by aggressively warning Charlie to break up with her, is *exactly* the kind of approach we have seen and we will see Jack undertake when trying to protect his daughter – it is a clear Bristow trait. There are also one or two enjoyable points of light flirtation between Syd and Will which again prove they are a far more engaging and suitable match than her dull as ditchwater, angsty romantic dynamic with Vaughn. “Did the Clinton administration teach you nothing?” she cheekily comments in helping Will cover up a visible love bite, which again grounds Alias in a post-90’s haze, referencing the President Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal which made headlines just a few years before this episode debuted.

The Coup, however, struggles to serve two masters. It wants to resolve lots of the dangling threads from The Box while setting a new course with a union of the Rambaldi mythology, a new source of villainy, and numerous main characters and ongoing narratives, even if all of those connections have not yet quite hovered into view. At the same time, it wants to try and honour the two sides of Alias’ coin – the teen friendly relationship drama and the spy narrative.

All it does is prove conclusively neither of them belong side by side, and it’s a lesson the writers become more and more aware of as the season progresses from here.

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

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