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Throwback Thursday – Alias – Phase One

"What... was wrong.... with the black one?"

Alias: Season 2, Episode 13
Written by J.J Abrams + Directed by Jack Bender

“Phase One”, originally aired January 26 2003 after Super Bowl XXXVII, was the hour of television that made me believe anything that could be done in the movies could be done on the small-screen. Before Lost or Sons of Anarchy or Breaking Bad, Alias pushed the limits of what an hour-long drama series could do – the fight scenes were incredible, the visuals flawless, and the plotlines so insane they needed 22-episode seasons to sort out. Most importantly, arguably, was the cast. It still irks me that Jennifer Garner has yet to take on a movie role post-Alias that really shows her worth: she’s a leading lady, through and through, with acting chops that hold up with the best of them. Alias provided her material that she could dig into, a character that was at times frustrating but always sympathetic, and scenes that ranged from emotionally draining to physically demanding. She was at moments the girl next door, then a flame-haired femme fatale, then a vulnerable and wounded daughter – and then the opening credits would roll.

When Alias premiered in 2001 ABC was in desperate need of a hit (its benchmark series at the time was Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?) Alias was never an outright ratings smash, but the pilot drew heavy buzz and it certainly helped that Jennifer Garner won a Golden Globe for her performance just 4 months into the series’ first season. But despite an impressive freshman run one thing always rang true: viewers were confused. If you happened to miss an episode of the show (and keep in mind, this was before the DVR and online streaming revolution) you'd be hopelessly lost. The original premise revolved around Garner's Sydney Bristow discovering that the agency she had been working for had been posing as the CIA but in truth was a world-wide terrorist organization - cue double-agent duty, with Bristow going undercover to take down SD-6, the agency that lied to her. Sydney's estranged father, Jack (Victor Garber), was also a double agent working inside SD-6. And their boss was his old pal Sloane (Ron Rifkin) who also had a vested interest in Sydney. This set up a world where audiences were never really sure who to trust: good guys were posing as bad guys, and some good guys were bad guys without knowing it - but were those good guys working as bad guys really bad guys? Even I'm a little confused now.

With "Phase One" series creator J.J Abrams set to straighten things out a bit and, in a way, make the show more accessible to new viewers. The results that the wild goings-on of this episode had on the rest of the series can (and, in fact, have been) debated heavily, but one thing is for damn sure: "Phase One" still stands as one of the best television episodes of all time. Abrams should be applauded for the shows sheer ambition going into the episode, but what's truly impressive is the near-perfect execution. Even over a decade later I'm in awe when I watch the episode, and it was only the first of many that Alias would use to completely rewrite the shows premise, though it's certainly the best. I'd gladly pay to watch this in a movie theater despite having seen the thing too many times to count. The intro alone is stuff of legend: AC/DC's "Back in Black" plays while Sydney struts through a room in black lingerie before being told by her french suitor that she should try on the red one. In typical Alias fashion, it's not long before Sydney is kicking the guys ass, stealing intel from a top-secret server and, oh yeah, this is all going down on an airplane somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean. Alias felt like a movie nearly every week it aired, but never more-so than this.

Abrams reintroduced the basic plot of the series to new viewers tuning in after the game ("Phase One" scored Alias the highest ratings of its five year run) by having SD-6 leader Arvin Sloane go missing. As a batch of new recruits pile into the CIA, Director Kendall (pre-Lost Terry O'Quinn) gives a run-down of Sydney's mission as a double agent. Loyal viewers, though, knew that Sloane's disappearance meant something big. The entire first half of the second season, in fact, had been something of a gigantic ruse set up by Sloane in order to orchestrate the happenings of this episode - the take down of SD-6. In under 50 minutes Abrams had viewers witness the deconstruction of the storyline that Alias had been built upon. When the final credits rolled SD-6 was gone, Sydney was no longer a double agent and, thus, was also finally able to seal the deal with her CIA love interest Michael Vaughn (Michael Vartan). And then there was that ending...

Sydney's best friend Francie (Merrin Dungey), the only character left at that point who wasn't hiding something, receives a phone call from Sark (the fantastic David Anders). See, it had just been revealed that Sloane was the one behind the leaked intel which allowed the CIA to take down SD-6, and in the final moments of the show he instructs Mr. Sark to ensure that their 'new asset' is 'in place' so that they can commence with 'phase two'. Cue audiences freaking out when Francie answers the phone. Sydney's last connection to the real world is a TRAITOR! How could this be? Why didn't I see it comi-- wait, what? Francie wasn't the one answering the phone... Francie is dead on the floor. So who the hell is this doppelganger? What's going on?!? Alias don't do this to me!

Nearly every single episode of Alias left us like this, with some kind of wild cliffhanger or insane twist. What J.J did so well was never make the twists feel forced or out of left field, even when they did involve a dead series regular and her evil twin (note: there are no evil twins in Alias. Just, y'know, evil clones.) "Phase One" set itself apart by totally tearing down the foundations of the series but keeping the heart of the show intact. SD-6 may be gone, but Sloane - Sydney's true enemy - was still at large, and evidently with an even more sinister plan. The back-half of Alias' second season was indeed very different from the first, but it was equally as great, if not better. Fans of the series came to expect the unexpected: Abrams was hatching stories so wonderfully over-the-top that if he didn't blow the series up every half-season or so, things would have gotten out of hand. Again, it's been heavily debated whether the exit of SD-6 helped or hurt the series in the long run, but after multiple rewatches and years to let it sit, Alias, as a whole, still stands as one of the most entertaining, innovative and wonderfully creative series to ever air on network television.

I Spy (other notable moments):

- Rutger Hauer makes his first and only appearance on the series as Anthony Geiger, Sloane's replacement at SD-6. After a tense first meeting with Sydney, Geiger - thanks to Sloane - uncovers the truth about the Bristow family's double life. It's not long before he's torturing Jack in the SD-6 basement. Did I mention that torture is also a hallmark of Alias?
- Will Tippin (Bradley Cooper) may have started the series off with a flame for Sydney, but during the first half of season two it became apparent that he maybe also had a thing for Francie. Naturally they waited until the episode where she was brutally murdered to hook these two up, so Will spent the rest of the season sharing his bed with a homicidal doppelganger who used him for information (mainly through hypnosis, another wonderful Alias hallmark.)
- Sydney's mother Irina (Lena Olin, who I literally can't write enough great things about) doesn't appear in this episode. If I were keeping track that would be just about the only thing I think I could put in the hypothetical minus column, though it's understandable why she wasn't present. Abrams needed to keep the episode's story clear to keep audiences tuned in, and while Irina was perhaps the most fascinating part of the second season, she had little to do with SD-6.
- Sydney and Vaughn finally hooking up was great, but the best part of this scene will always be Weiss (Greg Grunberg). "You hear what I said, guys? Asses!"
- If you ever need assurance that Jennifer Garner is 1000x better than flicks like Ghosts of Girlfriends Past or Valentine's Day will allow you to give her credit for, look no further than this episode. Garner was consistently fantastic throughout Alias' run, but in "Phase One" she was pretty much handed an actress' dream script. Sydney goes from utterly fearless to alarmingly vulnerable from one scene to the next. Particularly great is Syd having to tell her long-time SD-6 partner Dixon (the wildly underrated Carl Lumbly) the truth about the agency they've been working for.

With no prior knowledge of what was set to go down in the episode, "Phase One" still stands as one of the best and most exhilarating live viewings I can remember. Did you watch Alias when it aired or binge-watch later on? What did you think of "Phase One" the first time you saw it? Hit the comments and share your thoughts on this episode and anything else Alias related on your mind on this Throwback Thursday. You can also follow my Twitter account for updates on all my SpoilerTV work.

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