Best Episode Ever # 17: ‘Alias’
Usually a series’ Best Episode Ever is one that embodies the best qualities of the series week to week. Sometimes though, the Best Episode Ever is the one that shakes up a series’ very foundation. You want to be sure it’s not just a cheap stunt, but if they effectively built up to it, the game changer can be the peak of a series, even if it comes as early as its second season.
“Alias” threw down the gauntlet in its season two episode “Phase One.” It was an episode aired after the Super Bowl, so they knew they’d have the audience, and they really pulled out all stops. J.J. Abrams even wrote this one himself.
I probably have to catch you up to this point. Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) was living a double double life. She was a college student by day working for the CIA by night, and also by day. But as a CIA agent, she was also undercover at SD-6, who were evil but they pretended they were an honorable black ops branch of the CIA. So SD-6 didn’t know that Sydney knew that they were bad, and they also didn’t know that she was now working undercover for the real CIA against them. Got it? SD-6 head Arvin Sloane (Ron Rifkin) was also looking for the mystical artifacts of Milo Rimbaldi, but that’s not important this week.
In a bold move, “Phase One” brought down SD-6 in the episode where they knew everyone was watching. That’s a good way to hook in some new viewers with something major when you have the prime real estate of Super Bowl Sunday, and shows the die hard viewers that you’re not screwing around. It also painted them into a corner. The rest of season two was fine and resolved this all in a landmark finale featuring a knock down drag out fight between Sydney and a Francie (Merrin Dungey) impostor, but subsequent seasons struggled to find a reason for Sydney to keep hunting Sloane. Losing Bradley Cooper as Will Tippin hurt too.
That’s not to say they shouldn’t have gone there this soon. At the time, there was every promise that “Alias” could have continued raising the game in each subsequent season. It is what it is, they tried their best and I certainly kept watching. It just means if you’re looking for the Best Episode Ever, it’s easy to pinpoint.
In “Phase One,” Sloane has gone missing, and he is replaced by Anthony Geiger (guest star Rutger Hauer). The CIA is onto the Alliance of 12, which means that SD-1 through SD-5 and SD-7 and up. On a mission, Sydney uncovers the whereabouts of all 12. After confirming the information in SD-6, the CIA raids all Alliance headquarters, and we get to see the takedown of the SD-6 in which we’ve been embedded for a year and a half.
Most ongoing shows repeatedly promise to take down the enemy, and you know they’re never going to because they have to keep the series going. For most of “Phase One,” it looks like “Alias” is playing the same game. Perhaps that was the ultimate misdirect. By the time they raid SD-6 in the climax, you’re left wondering, “Did that really happen?”
They basically destroyed one of the main standing sets of the series. I happened to be on the Disney lot for a screening the week after this episode aired and I saw the shot up set. Come to think of it, that’s a rather long time to leave the demolished set up. They must have shot this episode weeks, or months, before it aired.
With destroying the series’ lead villain comes a few other major developments in “Alias.” Sydney and Jack are exposed to Geiger, although that threat only lasts until the end of “Phase One.” However, in dealing with that, Sydney brings Dixon (Carl Lumbley) into the fold and she crushes his whole world in the process. Dixon really thought that SD-6 were the good guys. Sydney and Vaughn (Michael Vartan) have been toiling with their secret relationship, and it seems the takedown of SD-6 empowers them to go public.
At the end of “Phase One,” Sloane is revealed to have been orchestrating the takedown all along. It is only phase one of his ultimate plan, which begins with murdering Francie, having an evil doppelganger (also Dungey) take her place.
“Alias” always had great fights, and “Phase One” starts off with a great one on an airplane, Sydney and a henchman one on one using all the accouterments of a first class private jet as improvised weapons. She also crashes the frigging plane. It was CGI but still that was major effects work, and some great wind machines for the de-pressurized cabin. Around that time “24” did a plane crash completely off camera, but Jack Bauer would eventually one-up Sydney by landing a plane on the freeway.
Of course it can’t be all action, and the espionage aspect of “Phase One” is top notch tension. Jack has to get a code from SD-6, but he is discovered. A scene where Geiger interrogates Jack is Victor Garber vs. Rutger Hauer. The emotional impact of Jack being caught and Sydney having to expose it all to Dixon is felt. This is the episode where Francie and Will consummate their love, making her fate all the more tragic.
“Phase One” works as a Best Episode Ever for “Alias” because the series wasn’t about maintaining a formula week to week. There was the mission of the week, but it doesn’t matter if one episode had more action than another. “Alias” was the ongoing story of Sydney Bristow and “Phase One” succeeded in taking her story in both the most satisfying and the most unexpected direction. Also, this is the one where Garner wears both black and red lingerie, so that’s nice.