In the fight of good versus evil, it’s never quite clear which side Alex Parrish (Priyanka Chopra) is on. Thanks to her beautiful hair and constant self endangerment, we’re supposed to believe that she is a good person. But in much the same vein as Scandal’s Olivia Pope, Alex is someone who fights routinely for justice, and even more routinely for what she wants. It’s never completely clear whether or not she’s actually doing her job (in this case, as a CIA operative undercover as an FBI trainee) for the good of her country, or whether she’s performing for some kind on internal gratification.
Both are okay motivations for a person, but unclear motivations for a character. It’s not that Alex Parrish is a fatally flawed or intentionally bad character we’re meant to to identify with (like, say, Walter White in Breaking Bad or even Eleanor Shellstrop in The Good Place). Instead, her “goodness” is deployed as just another plot twist in a show that already has ten too many. Never has this been more clear than in last night’s winter premiere, “Cleopatra.”
The episode opens with Alex seated behind a desk in what appears to be a holding cell. She is not cuffed or tied down in any way. Hannah Wyland (Eliza Coupe), the ex-wife of her ex-boyfriend, is her interrogator. “Wrong place, right time, two years running,” she mutters across the table while Alex rubs her injured wrists.
The two women then engage in what is essentially a 15-minute recap of whatever the hell happened in the first eight episodes of Quantico’s second season before the plot can kick into motion. It’s a necessary tactic, both because the cast of this show is so large and because the plots diverge so widely. After a two-month break, the show couldn’t move forward without first going backward.
In case you also need a refresher: Quantico’s whole bit is that it follows Alex Parrish through multiple timelines in every episode. In the first season, present-day Alex was being accused of planting a bomb in Grand Central Station, while past Alex was only just being trained as a CIA operative. In this episode, like the ones before it, we see two dueling story lines: In the present, Alex is held in this locked room, trying to help solve a hostage situation she only recently escaped from; in the past, she’s still undercover, cross-training as an FBI agent.
As a trainee, Alex is still deeply in love with her fiancé and beefy hunk, Ryan Booth (Alex McLaughlin), who is also being cross-trained as an FBI agent. They are blissfully cuddled up on a mattress on the floor of a house they’ve decided to use for their secret rendezvous. It’s a sweet moment, and one that shines through despite the weak lines Priyanka Chopra has to read. She’s actually a pretty good actress!
Immediately, however, that flashback bubble is broken. Back in the present day, Hannah asks Alex why she should care about the hostage situation. Presumably, she would care because (1) caring about people is a good sign of humanity, and/or (2) she’s an intelligence official and it’s her job. But Alex simply gives her an out, saying, “Because every single one of them is a hostage, and at least one of them is a terrorist.”
Hannah presses on, throwing off a laundry lists of reasons why Alex is a bad agent, all of which are pretty much true. That’s when Alex butts in to reveal, “Ryan is a terrorist, Hannah.” Naturally, since this is Quantico, that’s when we finally get a commercial break to catch our breaths.
Again and again, this episode smacks us over the head with a pair of questions: What is morality? And can a person be moral? Alex, Hannah, and Shelby Wyatt (Johanna Braddy) pace around in the present-day timeline, strategizing and occasionally doling out little revelations that might mean something, but mostly don’t make a whole lot of sense. (“The AIC isn’t responsible for the attack; they’re the target!” Uh, okay?)
Thankfully, there is real, bona fide story line back in the past: Alex and Ryan are competing in weekly challenges to determine who is the best FBI agent. They and the other trainees are ranked on what’s called the “Murder Board,” which is a doozy of a name for this kind of thing. Spend too many weeks at the bottom of the board and you’re out. Early in the episode, however, Alex says that her time at the FBI might be almost over. As she tells Ryan, she’s “not a CIA operative posing as an FBI operative in training … a layer had been pulled off, still 20 more to go.”
Nevertheless, she still apparently has to perform in the weekly Murder Board competitions. This week’s lesson? Picking up numbers from people at a bar. “Any active recruitment must start with a seduction,” Owen Hall (Blair Underwood) tells his students. Alex does so easily, since she’s basically a national celebrity after being named the terrorist responsible for the attacks in seasons one, then later proved innocent. Somehow, no one still thinks she actually is a terrorist — her celebrity only involves taking selfies.
Meanwhile, Owen is having his own kind of confusing drama. The second challenge he gives the trainees is a bit more … immoral. They have to go to a wedding rehearsal-dinner party (which is, for some reason, held at a club), then seduce a member of the party and “wake up next to them.” Yes, that’s prime-time speak for sex. “Is it immoral?” Owen asks. Of course it is!
At the rehearsal dinner, Alex and Ryan have been assigned the bride and groom respectively, because of course. We get a subplot about Sebastian Chen (David Lim), a sad religious trainee who has to have sex even though it basically breaks him. There’s also a subplot about Shelby dating an FBI trainee who knows Ryan and Alex, and also another subplot about a different trainee beating up her target for the night. It’s … a lot. I would explain what is happening here, but I truly have no clue. It’s debatable whether Quantico knows what’s happening, either. In the end, Alex fails and Ryan succeeds, creating a break in their relationship just large enough for her to reveal she’s been lying — she is still a double agent.
Back in the present, Miranda Shaw (Aunjanue Ellis) — who is maybe bad now? — opens the door and lets Alex out of her holding cell while Hannah is out of the room. They escape together, and the episode ends with Miranda’s grave warning: “I am one of the terrorists, and after the conversation we are about to have, you will be too.” As with everything on Quantico, it’s completely unclear what that really means.