What we talk about when we talk about the Super Bowl episode of Alias
I think Crock-Pot would agree that the greatest post-Super Bowl episode of television is Alias’ “Phase One.” The premise-busting hour roundhouse-kicked its way into our living rooms 15 years ago, on Jan. 26, 2003, at the not-so-primetime hour of 11:01 p.m. ET. At the time, J.J. Abrams’ spy drama was a buzzy cult favorite aspiring for the mainstream audience Abrams eventually found with Lost. “Phase One” was supposed to be the episode that took Alias’ reach to the next level. Thanks in part to the start time, that never happened. Ratings hadn’t been that low for a Super Bowl episode in 16 years.
But maybe mainstream audiences never deserved the first two seasons of Alias, which reinvented itself so much it was basically the Good Place of shows starring Jennifer Garner. The Super Bowl episode started with one premise — Garner’s Sydney Bristow was a double agent for the CIA — and ended with another — Sydney Bristow was a regular agent for the CIA because she did it, she took down the Alliance, she saved her dad, she kissed her man! But in giving Sydney what she wanted, and in giving viewers the slightly less complicated show they wanted, Alias put out a warning to be careful what you wish for. The result was an hour of TV storytelling that felt as risky and exhilarating as jumping out of a plane, which Sydney does.
It says a lot about “Phase One” that Jennifer Garner gets sucked out of a plane and it’s maybe the 10th thing I usually remember about the episode.
When we talk about the Super Bowl episode of Alias, we tend to talk around it, admiring the leap and debating how well it stuck the landing. But there’s so much more to the story than the chain reaction it started. “Phase One,” written by Abrams and directed by Jack Bender, is a feat on its own, one of the series’ best. It’s a wild cocktail of fight scenes, torture, a kiss that treats the ruins of Sydney’s old office like the gym in West Side Story, literal sparks, figurative sparks, turtlenecks in Southern California, Very Significant Emails, Rutger Hauer rubbing Vaseline on Victor Garber’s leg while whispering “Where are your loyalties, Jack?,” and a circular mirror on the ceiling above a bed on a skeezy French guy’s plane. It has no business coming off as smart as it does.
And yet the hour works its excesses to its own advantage, handing us everything we expect from a major network spy show only to flip it on its head. The first shot is a shameless play to catch the attention of the Super Bowl audience: Jennifer Garner in lingerie, framed in a doorway, to the tune of AC/DC’s “Back in Black.” (If only the Raiders had won the game that year! If only ABC had started the show earlier!) But Sydney turns the tables, straddling that skeezy French guy only to kick his ass, put on a sensible jacket, and hack into a server. The scene has its objectification cake and eats it too, sure, but man, is it gratifying. Alias got away with all of its flashy disguises because it never defined Sydney by them; more often, it defined her by how much she chafed at them.
Even down to its direction, “Phase One” is styled like Sydney Bristow’s mind might work, the camera pulling back to shrink her inside the window of a private jet and then tightening claustrophobically on her tears. Bender’s palette is heavy on primary colors: red in the gaudy undercover world, blue when the tactical gear comes out, yellow when her life feels like it’s about to go up in smoke. But the colors are all muted as if by the Los Angeles smog. In the best scene of the hour (visually, emotionally), Sydney calls Dixon (Carl Lumbly), her partner at the secretly-evil SD-6. He still believes he works for the good guys. She meets him where she told her fiancé Danny (Edward Atterton) the truth in the pilot, which led to his death. She takes a risk with Dixon and tells him the truth anyway. The sky is sickeningly yellow.
No one is a more innocent victim of the spy game than Dixon, the show’s unwavering moral backbone. In asking for his help, Sydney is destroying his life as he knows it, and Lumbly does his best work as Dixon fights what he’s hearing, leaving Sydney with a look so withering she looks like she’s going to faint after. You could make the argument that Dixon is the real hero of the hour; Sydney’s realization that she knows how to take down SD-6 is useless without his help. For all of its twists, this episode hinges on a man at his desk, losing his faith in both the system and his own actions, deciding what comes next while a bunch of agents on a mission huddle around a computer and wait for his email, oblivious to his crisis of conscience.
“Phase One” owes its success to the same instinct that makes Alias work on the whole: its willingness to be patient with emotion and attentive to consequence, and its twin disdain for people who don’t care about the bodies they leave in their wake. Dixon sends that email, but he calls his wife first to tell her that he loves her. Meanwhile, the boss who lied to him for years is hiding out on a beach, enjoying the fruits of his manipulation and killing someone else: Sydney’s best friend, Francie (Merrin Dungey), who’s executed and replaced by her double in a last-second bombshell that made me fall off my couch. In revealing that Sloane (Ron Rifkin) pulled the strings on his own organization’s downfall, the story justifies its too-easy outcome with knife-in-the-back precision: Sydney won because her enemy wanted her to.
Alias always felt like it was trying to be less complicated, but it just didn’t believe in that kind of world. J.J. Abrams told EW at the time that he decided to blow up the concept of the show because “good guys posing as bad guys pretending to be good guys” could only last so long, and “if we did another story in which Sydney was almost found out, I was going to kill myself.” It’s surprising on rewatch how much this episode feels like a second pilot: Terry O’Quinn helpfully explains the entire concept of the show in a series of monologues that likely wouldn’t work if he weren’t Terry O’Quinn. But as Alias reboots itself, it takes all of its emotional baggage with it, and that’s a compliment. It’s a standalone hour about how nothing ends.
Anyway, after Jennifer Garner gets sucked out of the plane, we cut immediately to Bradley Cooper in a crewneck boiling lobsters.