Alex Parrish might be beautiful, smart, and incredibly good at her job, but she is impossible to know. She is a spy — a double agent at that — so every laugh, every cry, and every kiss could be disingenuous. That mystery, the toss-up of whether Alex is following her heart or just an order, has always been the crux of Quantico’s drama. But now more than ever, her allegiances are becoming impossible to follow. It’s almost as difficult to keep up with her allegiances as it is to keep up with the plot.
For the first season of Quantico, and most of the second, Alex always seemed to be one step ahead of the viewer. The show was set up so that while I couldn’t figure out the twists before they happened, once a character revealed the truth, it seemed like the answer was there all along. (The first few episodes reminded me a lot of another female-driven spy drama with a ton of twists: Alias.) But now we know when the twists are coming because characters announce them in what feels like every single scene. It’s really hard to tell which twists are worth paying attention to, and which ones will be walked back in the next 15 minutes. This week’s episode, “JMPALM,” is a lesson in overvaluing a good surprise — or, in my case, assuming a twist would stick before it set.
After last week’s mid-season premiere gave us whiplash through three very complicated timelines, this week’s dueling storylines feel almost subdued by comparison. (In case you need a quick refresher: The second half of season two takes place in either: 1) the present day, where Alex is battling a terrorist organization holding hundreds of people hostage, or 2) the past, where she is training on “the Farm” to become a CIA agent. The timelines are strung loosely together by a theme that the show explicitly lays out in the Farm storyline. Got it? Okay.)
This week, Owen Hall (Blair Underwood) tells the agents that their lesson will be in “operating an asset.” Guess we’ve got our theme! This, Hall explains, means getting a target to betray themselves, their country, or their family to do what you want them to do. The agents are then asked to “operate an asset” in order to get some files off the computer of the Venezuelan consul Gabriel Carrera (Javier Muñoz).
The agents plow right ahead with this mission, but it brings into the foreground the more complicated relationship issues between our true lovers Alex and Ryan Booth (Jake McLaughlin). Manipulated throughout the episode by Harry Doyle (Russell Tovey), a former MI6 operative, Alex and Ryan must choose whether or not to betray each other to continue on their missions. Betrayal is the name of the game. Which one of them will give up the love of their life for their career? Which one of them isn’t full of goodness, but full of deceit? The episode leaves that question hanging. At several points, Alex and Ryan take subtle shots at each other, return to one another’s arms, and wind up betraying each other once again.
But as the episode ended, I realized that all of Alex and Ryan’s betrayal nonsense was actually a distraction from a potentially more vital betrayal.
With the exception of (maybe) Scandal, primetime dramas do a pretty terrible job making subtle commentary on real-life events. When a show decides it has something to say about the world we live in, it pulls out its proclaimed truth and beats you over the head with it. That kind of preaching is always obvious, and in this episode the bearer of the gospel is the newly sworn-in president Claire Haas (Marcia Cross). After the president and his wife were assassinated by terrorists, Haas has become America’s first female president. In case you forgot that a woman recently lost the presidential election, Haas is here to make sure to you remember.
President Haas arrives at the FBI headquarters to have a little chat with Shelby Wyatt (Johanna Braddy), who is somehow in charge of everything now. During her visit, she says things like, “Men don’t like to admit that glass ceilings exist because they are the glass ceiling,” and “It’s not getting the job that’s going to change the way American’s feel about women; it’s what I do with it,” and “I believed in the American dream, but now I know better,” and “’We the people’ means ‘we the corporations,’ and justice still depends on the color of one’s skin.”
To which Shelby responds, “What is the point in a woman being elected if she’s just going to do the same thing?”
Shelby and President Haas are having this conversation because a proposed airstrike would kill not only the terrorists, but the 100 or so hostages who are being held captive, including many FBI agents. Haas thinks she has to allow the airstrikes to go forward to maintain her position and prestige, but Shelby encourages her to follow her humanity — to listen to her gut instinct to call off the strikes.
Near the close of the episode, President Haas does call off the strikes, and it was in that moment that I realized I’d been paying close attention to the wrong twist throughout the entire episode. It was a diversion of attention that worked wonders. Instead of assuming the biggest betrayal would happen between Ryan and Alex, I should have been looking at Haas and Shelby.
As we learned on the Farm, the best ways to “operate an asset” are money, ideology, coercion, ego, and doubt. Shelby used three of those five to get President Haas to make the decision she wanted her to make. She’s successfully manipulated the new commander-in-chief. The question, then, is whether or not Shelby turned her asset for good or for evil. What is her endgame here? Much like every other mystery at the end of every other episode, that question will only get harder and harder to answer.