What was in store for our little spy family this week? “Cipher” (2:03) is a good name for this episode--OK, this particular title might work for several episodes of Alias--my point is that, in the happy double-naming tradition of Alias, the title can refer to an element of the plot (Sark’s ciphertext, which Irina decodes for Sydney) and Irina herself (whose motives are cloudy at best). Jack himself, nearly a cipher at the beginning of the first season, has only been partially decoded. We know that he loves Sydney and that his overriding concern is to protect her, but that he still conceals some very large secrets. But more about that later. Jack gives himself a mission this week: how do I keep Irina (oh, sorry, he still thinks of her as Laura) from hurting Sydney? First, he goes to Dr Barnett, hoping she would have some advice as to how he could get Sydney to stay away from Irina, but she’s not willing to help. As she points out, she’s “not in the habit of helping a father manipulate his daughter.” Meanwhile, Sydney meets once more with Irina to find out what Sark’s after with the special satellite camera. It turns out to be a Rambaldi music box. When Sydney asks why Sark is interested in a music box, Irina couches the answer in terms of Sydney’s childhood, asking her what the first thing she learned at her piano lessons was (that music = mathematics). The melody of the music box is the key to zero-point energy, something with immense potential. Irina goes on to mention that the music teacher had encouraged Sydney to participate in the school play and asked what part she played, something that Sydney didn’t remember. Sydney discusses the meeting with Jack and claims that she views Irina as a means to an end, but asks about the Thanksgiving play. Jack tells her she played the only turkey spared to celebrate the harvest and starts to say something more but stops himself. He has to tell her that he trusts her. How can he say anything else? He doesn’t want her to hide anything that happens between her and her mother. Later, when Sydney gets Sark’s cipher from Will through hypnosis, she takes it to Irina for decoding. She pushes a little for the right to explain her actions--shooting Sydney--given the fact that Sark is a dangerous adversary who might deprive Irina of the chance. Sydney won’t budge, but she does tell Irina she played a turkey in the school play, causing Irina to smile slightly. Jack watches this from a hidden location, concerned. Obviously, Irina is trying to open things up between Sydney and herself. She associates her questions and answers in motherly associations, attempting to draw Sydney in--with some success. She says she wants to explain herself, but can we trust any motive she states for herself? So far we have little to go by. The first piece of intel from the blackmail disk led Sydney on a useless wild-goose chase that nearly brought her face-to-face with Sloane. On the other hand, she correctly decodes Sark’s cipher so that Sydney can play the music box. Is she calculating that Sark would prevail? Or is she doubling her bets, maintaining ties with one side as she plays nice with the other, in case it prevails? By staying tight with Sydney, she can follow the action step-by-step, CIA and SD-6, using what she knows about her own organization to fill out the package. Did turn herself in for Sydney, as part of a plot, or a little of both? Finally, Sydney goes after the music box. Juxtaposed with Sydney’s descent into the frozen eye of Rambaldi is the meeting between Jack and Irina. Is the atmosphere any less glacial as Jack faces his ex, in full game face, his eyes hard and narrow? (Did Rambaldi’s prophetic eye witness this?) Jack seems to be doing an excellent job of keeping it compartmentalized. Meanwhile, Irina holds her own in cold impassivity. It is such a short exchange, let me transcribe it here as best I can (probably inexact): Irina: I’ve had a picture of your face in my mind for twenty years. I remember a loving husband, a generous man, a patriot. I may have been under orders to fabricate a life with you, but there were times when the illusion of our marriage was as powerful for me as it was for you, especially when Sydney was born. Looking at you now, I see that illusion is finally gone. Jack: I want to make something clear to you. There are those here who believe you can repay the debt you owe this country through your continued cooperation. I am not one of them. If Sydney in any way becomes victim to your end game, I will kill you. Sydney spent most of her life believing you were dead. She’ll get used to it again, no matter what bond you try to forge with her. Irina: You haven’t told her what you did to her after I disappeared, have you? This is not a conversation, this is an exchange of messages. Jack does not respond to what Irina says, but simply delivers the message that he came to convey. Irina does not respond to Jack’s threat directly, but instead probes with a question that both reminds him that she holds a secret of his (you did something to Sydney) and contains an implied threat (I can tell Sydney). But look at Irina’s opening volley. She may say the “illusion is finally gone,” yet she evokes the ghost of it, just as she uses the events of the past--music lessons, school plays--to open a dialog with Sydney. Here, in just a few words, she paints Jack in a flattering light and claims that at times she was swept up in her performance. Truthful? Maybe. Manipulative? Maybe. But Jack doesn’t respond to her statement. Is this why she changes her tack after Jack has his say? Is Irina’s purpose to remind him of the feelings that he felt for her during the illusion-marriage? Test the waters? Or is it to remind him of her superior position in that marriage? It was, after all, the most one-way relationship possible. Jack must have shared his innermost thoughts with her, while she simply shared what fit the role of Laura. So Irina knows Jack through and through, but Jack doesn’t know Irina at all--not really. He knows her abilities as an agent, especially as an undercover agent, possibly as a manipulator, in retrospect, but he doesn’t know the person or her motives. Jack simply delivers a message that he, no doubt, has rehearsed: if you hurt Sydney, I will kill you. There is no guile here; it’s a father’s message of protectiveness. But what of the big question? What is it that Jack “did to” Sydney? I can think of several possibilities. When did this happen? Irina says “after I disappeared.” However, this is unlikely to mean “after I faked my death” because she was out of the loop escaping the country at the time (she doesn’t know about the play that followed immediately on its heels). Irina knows all about this event. My guess here is that there was some period of time during which Jack was undergoing the horrible realization of just who “Laura” was--a time during which she disappeared prior to her “death.” It was at this time that Jack--probably in some desperate strait--did this “something” to Sydney. Why? To lure “Laura” back? And why wouldn’t Sydney remember it? Was she unconscious? Ah, but this is all unspoiled speculation. This takes me back to last season when I heard the most heartbreaking words I ever heard pass from father to daughter issue from Jack’s lips: “What’s happening between us [our rapprochement], Sydney, is just temporary” (1:18 Masquerade). He really believes that estrangement is the natural state of their relationship--perhaps what he deserves. Is this secret why, or part of it? Were I to advise Jack, I’d tell him he should (as hard as it might be) spill the beans on how he and “Laura” parted--tell Sydney everything--before Irina tells Sydney her side of things. And why does Irina mention it? At first glance one would think that it would only serve to increase Jack’s motive to kill Irina (I can tell Sydney something you don’t want her to know). But remember, Irina knows Jack well. She’s betting that he wouldn’t simply kill her as a preemptive strike. So what’s the point? Well, that’s murky, too. Is it simply to undercut his confidence? Or does she just enjoy hurting him? We certainly can’t rule that out. Venturing a little off-topic, all I gotta say is BRR! Good luck, Sydney! OK, that’s enough over-analysis for one week! Next: We see Jack actually embracing his daughter in the promo? And he’s able to do this without suffering a major breakdown or something?