Take a drink every time someone says “Rambaldi.”
Thug: “What’s your real name, Charlene?”
Thug: “Ima what?”
Sydney: “Ima gonna kick your ass.”
It’s been a whirlwind few years for CIA agent Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner, Elektra). At one point, she was a double agent, working for the bad guys while secretly undermining them for the good guys. Then she saw several people close to her either die or betray her. Following that, she experienced lost time, which complicated her sizzling romance with fellow agent Michael Vaughn (Michael Vartan, One Hour Photo). Not to mention the fact that she’s traveled all over the world on dangerous spy missions, adopting various disguises and beating up underworld henchmen as needed. Most of these missions had to do with documents and artifacts left behind by an ancient mystical seer named Rambaldi. And it was all captured during the first three seasons of Alias.
This fourth season saw a major change in the series, one even more potent than all the surprise reveals of the previous three. Behind the scenes, Alias was reworked with a new goal in mind—drawing in new viewers. Does this gamble pay off?
Fed up with all the bureaucracy and the paperwork at the CIA, Sydney joins an elite government black ops group called APO (“Authorized Personnel Only”), one that allows her and her cohorts to take out international bad guys outside of the system. The gang’s all here—her now-boyfriend Vaughn, her mysterious father and fellow agent Jack Bristow (Victor Garber, Titanic), and her stoic field partner Dixon (Carl Lumbly, The Ditchdigger’s Daughters). They’re later joined by wisecracking agent Eric Weiss (Greg Grunberg, Heroes), over-caffeinated gadget expert Marshall Flinkman (Kevin Weisman, Clerks II), and Sydney’s recently-discovered long-lost sister Nadia (Mia Maestro, (Poseidon).
Now the bad news: In charge of APO is none other than Arvin Sloane (Ron Rifkin, Pulse), the sociopathic mega-criminal that Sydney has spent her CIA career pursuing, and the man responsible for the deaths of several of her friends and loved ones. Sloane says he’s changed his ways and that his evil past is behind him, but the others aren’t so sure. Now, Sydney and her teammates must keep an untrusting eye on him while saving the world.
It took 30 agents working around the clock for 12 weeks to break the encryption on this episode list:
• “Authorized Personnel Only” Parts One and Two
Sydney and company are reunited and embark on their first case, one that requires recruiting Nadia into their new organization.
• “The Awful Truth”
Working undercover, Sydney stays in the home of a murderous arms dealer in the hopes of securing information about a powerful new supercomputer.
While on the search for a deadly bio-weapon, Vaughn makes a connection with a young woman who might be involved with its production.
• “Welcome to Liberty Village”
Posing as Chechen spies, Sydney and Vaughn discover an American-style suburb hidden inside a Russian military base, where enemy agents are trained to mimic middle class Americans. John Travolta and Ayre Gross are nowhere to be seen.
Sydney gets infected with a powerful hallucinogen, causing her to see nightmarish images everywhere she goes. The others must now scramble to find an antidote before her delusions trick her into unintentionally harming someone. (Note that this is the unedited version of the episode, featuring one extra-bloody scene that never aired on TV.)
Sydney and Nadia must set aside their differences while working together to stop a wealthy arms dealer’s latest transaction.
Sydney’s Russian rival Anna Espinoza (Gina Torres, Serenity) returns with a new evil plot brewing, just as an ancient Rambaldi prophecy predicts that Sydney and Nadia will fight to the death.
• “A Man of His Word”
To catch Espinoza, the APO team calls on help from Sloane’s former right hand man, Sark (David Anders, Left in Darkness). But before he helps them, Sark first insists on revisiting the past, including a reunion of sorts with Vaughn’s ex-wife.
• “The Index”
Dixon’s suspicions of Sloane reach their peak, as he recruits Sydney into some illegal surveillance. But their secretive plan could jeopardize more than Sloane’s latest scheme.
• “The Road Home”
While on assignment in Austria, an American civilian (Jason Segel, Freaks & Geeks) gets caught up in Sydney’s adventures. Can she complete her mission while protecting him as well?
• “The Orphan”
Nadia flashes back to her childhood and troubled young adulthood growing up in Argentina, when she returns there on assignment with the CIA and sees some familiar faces.
Sydney is captured by enemies while in Cuba, just as a biohazard outbreak shuts down APO. It’s now up to Marshall, the only member of the team on the outside, to come to Sydney’s aid.
Desperate to learn more about his father’s death, Vaughn enlists Sydney into searching for some new information, keeping their investigation a secret from their team members.
Vaughn goes rogue in the hopes of learning the truth about his father. This leads to a violent confrontation between him and Dixon, as well as a surprising revelation regarding Sloane.
• “Another Mister Sloane”
In order to capture an unusual enemy, Sloane must resume his examination of the Rambaldi documents.
• “A Clean Conscience”
A health scare has Jack rethinking his relationship with Sydney, Nadia is reunited with a familiar face from her past, and Dixon and Vaughn track down a rogue CIA agent believed dead.
Sydney learns of Jack’s deteriorating health; she and the rest of the team scramble to find help for him.
• “In Dreams…”
The team tracks down Sloane’s imposter in a twisted tale of genetic engineering, behavior modification, and a stolen orchid. And hey, this one was directed by Jennifer Garner.
• “The Descent”
An attack on CIA headquarters leaves several agents dead and many key Rambaldi pieces missing, and the CIA believes Nadia is responsible. From there, Sloane and Nadia embark on an Indiana Jones-style trek around the globe in search of Rambaldi’s legendary “Sphere of Life.”
• “Search and Rescue”
A mystery surrounding Sydney’s mother, Irina (Lena Olin, Darkness), a major player during the show’s first two seasons, sends the team into crisis mode, just as Sloane’s ongoing search into the Rambaldi artifacts might be leading him back into a life of crime.
• “Before the Flood”
The season finale starts with an adrenaline rush as the Bristow clan skydives into a Russian city driven mad by a Rambaldi device. Our heroes have to both dismantle the device and confront Sloane, while navigating an entire city filled with crazies.
Love them or hate them, the first three seasons of Alias were very serialized. Most episodes ended in cliffhangers; plotlines lasted for several episodes, or for entire seasons. Although many criticized the writing for being too complex, I felt that the episodes really held up after watching them recently. Thanks to the luxury of DVD, where you can view several episodes at a time, Alias comes across as one gigantic multi-hour spy movie epic. Until you get to Season Four, that is.
In an effort to draw in new viewers, Alias was significantly retooled for this year. This is evident in the opening two-part episode, in which all the characters are quickly reunited and reintroduced in simple, bite-sized chunks of exposition. Once everyone is neatly in place, then it’s immediately off for knife-fighting villains on trains and other such action thrills. Yes, in one way this does make the show accessible to new viewers. On the other hand, it cheapens a lot of the character interaction that happened before this. These characters have been to hell and back in the previous seasons, and at times they’ve even been bitter enemies. With Season Four, the “reset button” has been pressed, and the characters spend most of their time acting like the past never happened. Sure, there are some references to what happened before, and everyone’s suspicious about Sloane’s alleged reformation, but for the most part, the creators are taking the show back to square one.
Keeping to this mandate, most of the episodes this season are stand-alone stories, which stands in direct contrast to the serialized nature of the previous seasons. Earlier episodes would start by resolving the previous one’s cliffhanger, followed by a look at Sydney’s home life or her interaction with her spy coworkers, after which she would head off on another mission, which in one way or another would tie into a larger, far-reaching plot. In Season Four, however, the missions are the point of most episodes, instead of just one element of them. We spend the majority of the episode with the characters while they’re working undercover. We get to know the people they meet while doing so. Suddenly, the conflict in each story is situation-based, not character-based, which changes the tone of the series considerably. We’re suddenly more wrapped up in whether Sydney will acquire and/or destroy the McGuffin of the week rather than being wrapped up in her relationship with Vaughn or with her father. Speaking of McGuffins, the Rambaldi plotline gets a handful of mentions this season, but it’s nowhere near the driving force it was for the characters in the three previous years. There are a few ongoing arcs, such as Jack’s illness and Vaughn’s investigation into his father’s death, but even these take a back seat to the standalone plots.
So Alias has been dumbed down a little. Fortunately, Season Four is not a total loss. This show gets a lot of praise as a modern-day Mission Impossible, so much so that creator J.J. Abrams was tapped to direct Mission Impossible III. Alias, though, is Jim Phelps’ true successor. Although Garner is the star, most episodes feature a whole team of experts working together on a mission, with high-tech gadgets, disguises, near misses, gunfights, and more. Add to that plenty of cleverly-choreographed fight scenes, and you’ve got a thrilling set of adventure stories to pour through on this set. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s lost a lot of its depth.
The actors continue to make the most of the scripts they’re given. Garner shines when playing an assortment of aliases, adopting different accents and languages for many of them, but she can also bring a lot of heart to scenes in which she worries about her friends and loved ones. It’s Victor Garber who is the real standout. Most of the time, he’s the cold, calculating agent, willing to go to any lengths, no matter how ruthless, in order to get the job done. He, too, gets to show his human side later on in the season as Jack’s health deteriorates. Unfortunately, Ron Rifkin isn’t given much of a chance to shine. He seemed at his best when Sloane was a fugitive, surrounded by the criminal element and always one step ahead of our heroes. Seating him comfortably behind a desk all season has removed of a lot of the drive from the character. Michael Vartan and Carl Lumbly have their tough guy roles down to a science by now, and Kevin Weisman and Greg Grunberg fill their comic relief roles just as nicely.
That brings us to Nadia, the new addition to Sydney Bristow’s life this year. Notice how Nadia is only referred to by name about half the time. Sydney always has to refer to her as “my sister,” and to everyone else she’s “Sydney’s sister.” The emphasis isn’t on who she is, but on what she is. This is carried over from Season Three, when Nadia spent most of her time on screen either unconscious or in a trance. Season Four is our first chance to really get to know her. There are some hints that she might be loyal to Sloane, but for the most part, we don’t really get inside her head until later in the season, after learning about her growing up in Argentina. Mia Maestro portrays Nadia with confidence, as a slightly more serious version of Sydney, but I’m still left with the feeling that even more could have been done with the character.
Special mention must be made of the final episode, which, unlike so many other episodes this season, actually rewards viewers who have been following the series since day one. It almost defies the criticisms that the writers are making it all up as they go along. The Rambaldi plotline would seem to reach its height here, as do a lot of the character beats that have been building over the season and over the series. On the negative side, all the new viewers for whom the creators have so carefully structured this season will likely be confused by the sudden influx of continuity from years earlier.
Realism is not a friend to this series. It’s always been a conceit that Jennifer Garner could beat up thugs twice her size, and now it’s even more so that the petite-looking Mia Maestro can do the same. Also, no matter where on the globe these characters travel, they’re fluent in the native language? Not to mention the constant stream of crazy gadgets, swanky nightclubs, outrageous escapes, surprise double crosses, ancient booby-trapped crypts, and much more. Some might argue, of course, that the over-the-top silliness inherent in the show just makes it that much more fun. Just know that as far as espionage thrillers go, Alias is one of the more cartoony ones.
Alias was broadcast in high definition for this season, so it’s a no-brainer that the picture quality here is razor sharp. Audio is equally good, especially during gunfights and when the show’s trademark techno score kicks in. The four episode commentaries are good ones, combining behind-the-scenes information with amusing trivia. The interview with Jennifer Garner is similarly good, but suffers from some bad audio—it was recorded as the crew built a new set behind her. Mia Maestro’s interview doesn’t have quite as much information, but shows her enthusiasm for joining the show. Another featurette has some of this season’s notable guest stars share their thoughts in quick interview snippets. The “Director’s Diary” featurette follows the production of the episode “The Descent” and the insane amount of work that went into making it. “Anatomy of a Scene” is really about special effects, with a look at how computer technology transforms a bluescreen stage into a moving train, and how the California skyline was replaced with France for one action scene. On the more humorous side, “Marshall’s World” has a camera crew following Kevin Weisman around the set for one day as he horses around with his co-stars, “Agent Weiss’ Spy Camera” has Grunberg sarcastically narrating a slideshow of photos he took during production, and the blooper reel offers plenty of cheap laughs as the actors crack up and/or blow their lines. Overall, it’s an excellent collection of extras for a TV box set.
If this had been the show’s premiere season, I’d be praising it much more. But because I’ve seen how much better Alias has been, that makes this one a slight let-down. The action is great, but the story just isn’t up to par. For die-hard fans, there’s a lot to enjoy, but there’s also a lot that will frustrate. If you’re new to Alias, I say start from Season One, and see where the ride take you from there.