Spy Another Way

Jennifer Garner’s scary makeover.

I know what you did in SD-6 last Sunday

Don’t read this unless you want to know about a novel and gruesome way for a CIA agent to die.

Not in real life, thankfully. Just on Alias, the spy-girl show that airs on Sunday nights on ABC and that is desperately trying to parlay its fine cast, writing, and cult following into genuine primo hit status. In the past few weeks, starting with what Entertainment Weekly called a “shocking Super Bowl Sunday revamp,” the show has shed an entire layer of narrative skin. Until then, heroine Sydney Bristow had been spying for the CIA inside SD-6, an evil rogue intelligence operation. But viewers were having trouble doing the constant double agent math. So in the space of that one post-game hour, Sydney dismantled SD-6 in a single graceful bound, fell ardently into the arms of her cute CIA handler, and unearthed grave new problems to be solved.

Which is fine. The show has always relied on captured-today-free-tomorrow, James Bond-ian disregard for logic. This gives the writing lightness and freedom and permits Sydney (played by always-game Jennifer Garner) to trot athletically around the world, swinging between sexy disguises and even sexier lisping accents. The show’s recent getaway from its unwanted story lines seems like just another MacGyver-quick escape.

The real problem, or potential problem, is the tonal shift. If spy fiction could be laid out along a serious-to-campy continuum, from John le Carré to Austin Powers, Alias would fall on the sillier end, somewhere around Mission Impossible. Until now, its villains wanted the usual, boring trophies: world domination—or was it genetic superiority? Eternal life? Who knew? The plot only made sense on a line-by-line basis, and mostly because those lines were spoken with deadpan zest by superb actors like Victor Garber, Lena Olin, Ron Rifkin, and a still vampily evil Faye Dunaway. The violence was cartoonish and stylized, consisting mainly of heh-vee-lee accented foreigners torturing victims strapped into comfy-looking dentist chairs. Sydney and her cohorts were coated with a thick layer of TV polyurethane, their blood and bruises wiped clean at the end of each episode.

But no longer. Alias, which debuted during the fall 2001 season, has belatedly gone 9/11 and enlisted itself in the war on terrorism. In last week’s episode, a CIA agent not so casually dropped Osama Bin Laden’s name, for what felt like the first of many times. And instead of conjuring up amusing adventures, the writers used their considerable talents to create a truly horrific scenario. In a way that almost no other film or TV show has dared, Sunday’s episode of Alias translated the vague anxieties of the past 16 months into a specific, meticulously staged nightmare.

The show began by showing a beautiful young CIA agent—not Sydney, but a blonder colleague—being “compromised,” i.e. caught by the person on whom she was spying. Cut to the cold blue light of a busy Berlin intersection. A van pulls up to the curb, and the blond agent, nearly naked, is dumped on the concrete. She’s flailing around on the concrete, so she must be alive. Good. Wait, not good at all: She’s tied up, with a band of explosives circling her torso and binding her arms to her sides.

Passersby scream and flee. The agent manages to stand up, but she has nowhere to go. It slowly dawns on her that she’s been made into a human bomb. She can’t run; it’s pointless and maybe even harmful to others. As the area around her clears, she begins to tremble and sob. This is the way even the bravest of agents act in the face of execution, the show seems to be saying: They’re not resolute in the face of danger; they’re scared animals like the rest of us. From a speaker in her ear, a voice tells her, “Do what I told you, and you’ll be fine.” Obedient but terrified, the agent starts warbling, through her tears, the song “Pop Goes the Weasel.” Which, it turns out, has four verses; who knew? Before the agent gets to each “pop,” she flinches, and we flinch with her, waiting for the explosion. She finishes the song and looks visibly relieved. So do we.

Until: Kaboom.

There are traces here of the old Alias: The writing, acting, pacing, and production values are lethally good, and the song gives the murder a slightly surreal, Tarantino touch. But the scene still felt entirely new and foreign to the show: because of its primal terror, because of its echoes of 9/11 (innocent used as unwitting suicide bomber), because it suggests a day when skinny American girls will stand on foreign street corners, weeping and waiting to be blown up.

Maybe Alias newbies weren’t as disoriented; maybe they found the episode hair-raising in exactly the way it was intended to be. It’s admirable to see a TV drama achieve the harrowing tone to which the genre is constantly aspiring. And perhaps the show will soon return to its old, glamour-goofball self: After all, there’s the rich matter of Sydney’s evil-genius mother to resolve, and the new plotlines include an especially cheesy cloning angle. But for a faithful Alias fan, this last episode was a cruel, disorienting watch—like seeing The Sound of Music suddenly morph into Schindler’s List. As the “Weasel” lyrics say, the monkey thought it was all in fun. And it was, for a while.