In “A Higher Echelon” (2:11) we reach the halfway point in this season. Things get worse and worse for everybody before they get better--and they don't get any better for Jack (see the Spy Dad column)--ergo, "quicksand." Our little family takes a back seat as the CIA finds some big fish to fry. The CIA faces the double danger of both Cuvee and SD-6 achieving access to Echelon, the NSA eavesdropping software capability. Meanwhile, Marshall has been kidnapped (by “Suit and Glasses,” our favorite Taiwanese torturer) and Sloane has written him off as a loss because he has already emailed the software to SD-6. As Jack says, “It was as if someone had overcooked his steak.” However, a few packets from the email were lost in Ho Chi Minh City, where Sydney and Dixon are to be sent to recover them. Sydney is given corrupted data to substitute for the data in the packets. Naturally, she wants to be sent after Marshall, but a CIA team is sent after him instead. Meanwhile, technicians at the CIA are to attempt to locate the access point that Cuvee (and Sloane, eventually) uses, so that it can be shut down. Without that, the software is useless. The CIA was unable to find the breach on their side and so is trying to find it through a backdoor. In discussions with Jack, Irina offered her services in finding the “overlapping access point” between the US and spy systems, but Kendall is understandably unwilling to give her the unrestricted access to US computer networks necessary to accomplish the task. Irina promises them that they’ll find “quicksand.” But things don’t go well at all. The CIA team that went after Marshall finds only C4, which eliminates them--and the operation to find Marshall is halted as a result of the tragedy. Dixon gets to the drive containing the packets before Sydney does, so a very happy Sloane is presented with the Echelon program, which he begins compiling immediately. Meanwhile, the CIA technicians find a virus in the backdoor network that they’re probing for access to Echelon--the quicksand of which Irina spoke. At last Kendall agrees to allow Irina to assist, in part because of Jack’s support: “In this instance I think she could be an asset.” Sydney warns her mother not to disappoint him, saying, “Dad fought for you on this. Don’t make him regret it.” Irina enters the office, greeted by the stares of dozens of agents. It’s as though she were a particularly dangerous animal at a zoo, being moved from one cage to another. None of this seems to bother her, but she settles straight to work. Fortunately, Marshall surreptitiously hacks his way into SD-6 as he programs, pinging to locate himself in an obvious manner (Mexico City). Sydney and Dixon volunteer for the extraction team, forcing Sloane to commit assets to actually extracting him. Finally Irina locates the overlapping access point, and the CIA shuts the satellite down, and shuts SD-6 out of Echelon. As a result, however, there is no need to pull Marshall out of SD-6. Analysis . . . For the first time, Jack fought for Irina’s participation, arguing that in this instance he thought that she would not attempt to manipulate or circumvent the CIA. Why? Is it simply that he is coming to trust Irina more? I think there may well be an element of that, but he also has good reason to believe that she is against Cuvee (since she turned on him) and does not want him to have access to Echelon. Further, whether she is in league with Sark (who has an alliance with Sloane) or not, it’s unlikely that she would be in favor of Sloane’s access to Echelon either. However, the more frequently he finds himself on Irina’s side, the easier it will be for him to argue her case. Sydney seemed a little surprised that Irina’s information about the backdoor into Echelon came from Jack (not Vaughn)--meaning that Jack and Irina were actually having a conversation--one initiated by Jack. (Don’cha just love these subtle touches?) “Dad fought for you on this. Don’t make him regret it.” Again, Sydney serves as an uneasy interface between her parents. For once, Sydney isn’t the lone voice speaking up for her mother. And for once, she discovers that her father had made a surprising move--speaking to her mother--that indicates a softening of his attitude toward her. She doesn’t want to see this trend reversed. But does this indicate that Sydney simply wants to see her parents get along, or that she harbors a subconscious wish to see her parents together? Irina and pressure situations: no problem. With dozens of eyes staring at her and Kendall breathing down her neck, she gracefully and steadily tracked down the access point. Random thoughts . . . It’s always with a hint of sadness that I note the midway point of the season. Psychologically, I note that there will be fewer episodes to look forward to than to look back on as we go forward. But that’s life! We can’t enjoy it without experiencing it, after all! And writing this column is part of how I enjoy Alias (many thanks to those who share it with me!). So if Alias be a harmony in the music of life, play on! Has anyone even let Sydney know what’s going on with her dad? Is Vaughn keeping this from her thinking that he’s protecting her? I think she’ll be a little miffed when she finds out she’s been kept in the dark, don’t you? A couple of episodes ago Sloane attacked Sark for sneering at his unsuspecting employees, but this episode he showed what he thought of his employees when he was willing to sacrifice someone as valuable as Marshall so easily. Marshall participated ably in his own escape and demonstrated courage and humor simultaneously. What more can we ask of our adorable techno-geek friend? Discuss . . . How do you read Irina’s enigmatic smile after Sydney tells her that Jack fought for her with Kendall? Is it simply an expression of happiness that Jack is beginning to trust her again, or is it a more sinister expression of joy that the pieces are starting to fall into place? Do you think Sydney has a subconscious wish to see her parents get back together? Should Vaughn have told Sydney about Jack’s problems with Kane? Should Jack have? Next: A scene from “Truth Be Told” is turned inside out as Sydney stops her car, Jack swivels, pointing a gun at her head, as she shouts, “Dad, get in!” Instead of Sydney on the run from SD-6, this time it’s Jack.