Reviewed by David Williams (January 13, 2004)
Buena Vista did an incredible job with their Alias: The Complete First Season set and I was fortunate enough to review it for DVDMG.COM. Imagine my elated surprise when the studio rolled out season two a mere three months afterwards. Pure bliss for those of us who have found out that the only way to watch TV these days is via our favorite medium, DVD; no annoying commercials, no waiting seven days or more for new episodes, the ability to pause the show when nature calls and rewind when you miss some important dialogue (which TIVO will do for me when I move into my new home next month), and so on. If there are any disadvantages to watching your favorite TV shows on DVD, I have yet to find one and Buena Vista only makes this habit harder to break by releasing their hit series, Alias, so quickly and professionally.
The second season of Alias failed to suffer from the sophomore slump that many shows do and so far, seems to be on track for an incredible third season (airing now on ABC) as well. While the show definitely had a few missteps during its second season, it never veered too far off course and managed to stick to its bread-and-butter for the vast majority of season two (i.e., Sydney’s various and sundry costume changes, the beleaguered search for the McGuffin, “The Rambaldi Manuscripts/Artifacts”). In a somewhat bold move, bit characters and big name guest stars showed up more frequently the second time around and some of the supporting actors even took away somewhat from Garner’s usual spotlight. While these developments made for a nice change of pace, don’t be fooled, this is still Jennifer Garner’s show and we aren’t allowed to forget that for very long. However, series creator JJ Abrams really kept fans on their toes after the 2003 Super Bowl when he turned the Alias universe upside down in an episode entitled “Phase One”; essentially an hour-long episode that made everything we thought we knew about the Alias world irrelevant … down became up and up became down … and Abrams deserves a lot of credit for tweaking an already proven, winning formula with such delicious results.
When we last left Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) in season one, she had just learned that the mother (Lena Olin) she assumed was dead was not only alive, but was in charge of one of the international espionage organizations that Sydney was, and still is, working to bring down. (I’m not gonna brush up too much on characters and backstory here … if you need a quick refresher, just check out my season one review from late 2003.) Sydney and her father, Jack (Victor Garber), are still working undercover for SD-6, a black agency that does all sorts of dirty work around the world under the auspices of the CIA. However, as double-agents working for the CIA, Sydney and her dad are subversively trying to bring down SD-6 and its leader, Arvin Sloane (Ron Rifkin). However, when we pick up season two, Sydney is a prisoner and her handler, Vaughn (Michael Vartan), is MIA and presumably dead. Soon thereafter, Sydney has quite a reunion with her mother, Irina (Lena Olin) - who we learn is responsible for the deaths of quite a few CIA agents in her day - and in the ensuing gunfight, Sydney is shot and injured by dear old mom. Sydney eventually escapes and makes it home in order to recount her story to a CIA psychiatrist … and then the fun really begins!
The second season of Alias simply picks up where the first left off, as there are plenty more sexy costume and wig changes, exotic locales, double crosses, near misses, great escapes, and thrilling cliffhangers. Playing more like an hour-long feature film than a weekly television series, Alias continues to command our attention with its top-notch production values, intelligent writing, strong supporting cast, incredible soundtrack, and quite simply, a fun, action-packed show to boot.
By reading on, you’ll get a very spoiler rich breakdown of season two and many of its developments. If you’re not interested and don’t want to spoil the second season for yourself, cruise on down to the Audio/Video/Extras portion of my review and simply skip over the next few paragraphs. You’ve been warned …
- Disc One -
The Enemy Walks In (Original Air Date: September 29, 2002)
In an incredible season-opener, JJ Abrams and crew deliver big time. After season one’s incredible cliff-hanger, we learn more about the Bristow’s and their rather perverse family tree. After it’s learned that Sydney’s (Jennifer Garner) supposedly dead mother, Irina Derevko (Leno Olin), is alive and working as a Russian agent in international espionage, there’s quite a little showdown between mother and daughter. Sydney is injured (shot in the shoulder by dear old mom) and her mother is now on the run. Sydney also attempts to find out what happened to Vaughn (Michael Vartan) and she attempts to explain to Will that she and her father both are CIA double-agents. However, after Will’s expose on SD-6 hits the stands, Jack (Victor Garber) does his best to protect Will from assassination and discredit his story at the same time.
Trust Me (Original Air Date: October 6, 2002)
Many more of this season’s subplots are fleshed out and touched on here, as we find Irina, aka Laura Bristow, surrendering herself to the CIA. However, she refuses to deal with anyone there except her daughter and Sydney wants nothing to do with her whatsoever. But when an important mission goes awry and a diskette containing some crucial photos falls into the wrong hands, Sydney turns to her mother for help … against her father’s wishes. Meanwhile, Will is found guilty of drug addiction and Sloane (Ron Rifkin) runs into a familiar face while looking for Irina.
Cipher (Original Air Date: October 13, 2002)
Sydney’s old nemesis Sark (David Anders) returns in this episode and he’s trying a launch a satellite for the Russians with some powerful spying potential and it’s up to Sydney to put a stop to it. Sydney once again turns to her mother for help and opens up a new can of worms while questioning her. Meanwhile, Will (Bradley Cooper) and Vaughn meet for the very first time.
Dead Drop (Original Air Date: October 20, 2002)
Sloane deals with some information that leads him to believe that his wife may have never died. Being somewhat rattled by the events, the SD-6 sends Dixon (Carl Lumbly) down to figure out just what’s going on. Meanwhile, Will meets a woman (Marisol Nichols) who claims to know the truth about SD-6 and Vaughn meets the person who killed his father, Irina. Jack tries to convince Sydney that her mother is supplying her with bad information and he goes to extreme measures to make sure she believes him.
- Disc Two -
The Indicator (Original Air Date: November 3, 2002)
By sabotaging Sydney’s mission and placing the blame on Irina, Jack gets his daughter’s undivided attention – and it places his ex-wife on death row. However, Vaughn finds out about what Jack did and it leaves him slightly mortified. While on a mission, Sydney learns some startling information about her family and her childhood when her father tells her that she has been a spy-in-training since she was 6-years old.
Salvation (Original Air Date: November 10, 2002)
Sydney is obviously furious at her father when she learns that he attempted to sabotage one of her missions and Jack makes a desperate attempt to prove his love for his daughter. Sydney is torn between making her mother pay and ratting out her father for his untrustworthy actions. Meanwhile, Will is given a seemingly routine CIA assignment and Vaughn contracts a serious virus after the investigation of Khasinau’s “red ball” from last season. Sloane learns more about his missing wife while at her burial site.
The Counteragent (Original Air Date: November 17, 2002)
Vaughn is close to death because of the contracted virus and Sydney must turn to Sark to secure the antidote. In return, Sark wants Sydney to kill SD-6’s Arvin Sloane! But in true Alias fashion, a couple of turns and betrayals change everything. Will meets with the author of some standardized IQ tests while investigating them.
Passage: Part One (Original Air Date: December 1, 2002)
In part one of this somewhat silly two-part episode, Sark’s new association with SD-6 puts Sydney’s double-agent status in danger. Irina is very suspicious of Sark’s motives and when he provides some rebels with the activation code for some nuclear weapons, she uses her intel on Sark as a bargaining tool in order to be released from CIA custody. While released, she goes on a mission with Jack and Sydney to Kashmir, posing as a vacationing family. Meanwhile, Will learns a bit more about “Project Christmas” and fills Vaughn in on his findings.
- Disc Three -
Passage: Part Two (Original Air Date: December 8, 2002)
While Sydney spends a lot of time keeping her squabbling parents separated, their mission to steal some nuclear warheads from a group of Pakistani rebels starts falling apart. However, the mission progresses and the Bristow’s infiltrate a military compound out in the desert that contains some shocking Rambaldi discoveries. Irina then proceeds to rat her family out to a former collaborator (Derek DeLint). Back at home, Sloane lets the Alliance members in on Emily’s kidnapping after he gets a call for a ransom to return her to him alive.
The Abduction (Original Air Date: December 15, 2002)
The Alliance has Ariana Kane (a guest starring Faye Dunaway) to investigate the plot against Sloane. Unfortunately for Jack, he’s the one who raises Kane’s suspicions. Sark cuts a deal with Sloane in order to recover a surveillance system and SD-6 sends Marshall (Kevin Weisman) and Sydney on a mission that requires the CIA stepping in to protect their assets. A really great episode …
A Higher Echelon (Original Air Date: January 5, 2003)
Sydney and Dixon have to team up to find Marshall after his kidnapping and Sydney must work against Sloane to make sure he comes back. With her investigation firmly underway, Kane links Jack to a murder and the finding raises Sloane’s suspicions. Meanwhile, the CIA is attempting to block SD-6’s access to a top-secret system and Irina proves her loyalty by filling the CIA in on what SD-6 is looking for. Will learns more about the psychological exam.
The Getaway (Original Air Date: January 12, 2003)
Sydney and Vaughn hook up while on a mission in France and it threatens to blow both of their respective covers, as they’re almost spotted by some SD-6 agents working for Kane. Meanwhile, Jack tries to pull a fast one on Ariana Kane as she continues to suspect him of blackmailing Sloane. Also, more is learned about the abduction of Sloane’s wife.
- Disc Four -
Phase One (Original Air Date: January 26, 2003)
Commentary with JJ Abrams, Jennifer Garner, Jack Bender, Greg Grunberg, Michael Vartan & Victor Garber
This is the episode that turned the Aliasworld on its ear, as Sloane mysteriously disappears and SD-6 is taken over by an agent named Geiger (a guest starring Rutger Hauer) – someone who doesn’t know or care about Sydney or Jack like Sloane did. This keeps the Bristow’s on their toes, as they try to keep their secret lives as double agents out of Geiger’s watchful and suspicious eye. Vaughn receives some information on members of the Alliance and Sydney plans to act on it and bring them down, along with SD-6 – but not before she tells Dixon the truth. Will and Francie (Merrin Dungey) make some rather startling discoveries.
Double Agent (Original Air Date: February 2, 2003)
CIA agent Jim Lennox (a guest starring Ethan Hawke) comes under suspicion when his partner, and fellow agent, dies. Sydney is on the case and immediately, she and Lennox strike up a relationship as they find they both have a lot in common … in life, as well as work. However, when Vaughn and Jack learn that Lennox was in hot pursuit of a technology that allows people to change their physical appearance, Sydney wonders if she’s dealing with the “real” Jim Lennox. Meanwhile, Francie falls for an unlikely partner.
A Free Agent (Original Air Date: February 9, 2003)
With the Alliance all but dismantled and Sloane on the run, Sydney feels that maybe the time is right for her to hang up her spy hat. However, a brilliant mathematician (a guest starring Christian Slater) kidnapping – and a strange phone call from Sloane – convince Sydney that maybe it’s best she stick around, as it looks like SD-6 is back in business. Sydney once again teams up with Vaughn, as they work together to find the mathematician, who holds they key to transcribing an ancient document into a very dangerous weapon.
Firebomb (Original Air Date: February 23, 2003)
Sloane has had hands on a very dangerous weapon – the finished Rimbaldi device - and the one person who can help Sydney – a very betrayed and hurt Dixon – refuses to help. Without Dixon’s help, Sydney decides to go it alone. Meanwhile, Vaughn learns of an enemy with close ties to Sydney.
- Disc Five -
A Dark Turn (Original Air Date: March 2, 2003)
Commentary with Ken Olin, John Eisendrath, Jesse Alexander, & Jeff Pinkner
Sydney learns that Vaughn is under investigation for being a double agent. This turn causes the unlikely and uncomfortable partnering of Jack and Irina as they work to get Sloane out of hiding, as well as get their daughter out of the CIA for good.
Truth Takes Time (Original Air Date: March 16, 2003)
After her mother’s betrayal, Sydney promises herself that things will go down much differently the next time they meet. Also, Sydney gets help from an unexpected ally to bring down Sloane and his cronies, Sark and Irina, before they can get their hands on some serious genetic-coding technology.
Endgame (Original Air Date: March 30, 2003)
When the CIA intercepts a covert message, Sydney learns that Neil Caplan (Christian Slater), the mathematician forced into servitude by Sloane and Irina, is in danger … and from a very dubious source. Caplan’s wife makes a statement that sends Sydney off to Russia and once again, against her father’s orders. Sloane goes after the person responsible for Emily’s death and it causes some major repercussions for a particular agent.
Countdown (Original Air Date: April 27, 2003)
The CIA learns more information concerning the Rambaldi prophecy and Dixon is focused on revenge after the murder of his wife and refuses to stop working until Sloane is brought to justice. At the same time, Sydney and Dixon are working to find Sloane and Sydney is afraid that Dixon, hell-bent on revenge, will jeopardize the mission. Marshall has someone with her eye on him and Sloane receives from disturbing news about his wife from a reclusive monk (a guest starring David Carradine).
- Disc Six -
Second Double (Original Air Date: May 4, 2003)
Commentary with Ken Olin, Bradley Cooper, Carl Lumbly, & Terry O’Quinn
Sydney attempts to clear Will’s name after Francie names him as the CIA leak … a treasonous crime. Sloane makes Jack an offer that will allow them to work together again to acquire more of the Rambaldi artifacts and Irina and Sark lure Sydney and Vaughn into a trap that could prove to be a bigger problem that she could ever imagine.
The Telling (Original Air Date: May 4, 2003)
Commentary with JJ Abrams, Merrin Dungey, Ron Rifkin, Ken Olin, & Kevin Weisman
In the second part of the two-hour season finale, Sydney gets her chance to bring Sloane down and go after her mother at the same time. Her confrontation with her mother leads to a shocking revelation that she, Sydney, is the fulfillment of the Rambaldi prophecy. Will learns who set him up for treason and it meets with disastrous results and after a deadly confrontation with the “fake” Francie, Sydney wakes up to find that she has been missing for over two years!
A bit more inconsistent than its first season, Alias still shines. Sure, there were some slightly ridiculous episodes and moments, but taken as a whole, Alias on a bad night still rates better than most TV shows on their best night. While Alias avoids the sophomore slump, I fully expect them to ramp up the action a bit more in season three.