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Well, look at that: Seems you guys liked the first Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D recap well enough that we’re giving this a shot as a recurring feature. Works for me! And not just because it now feels significantly less bizarre to feel somehow personally invested in the “survival” of a TV series that exists primarily to function as a marketing tool for multimillion dollar movies being made by the massive Hollywood studio that owns the massive TV network it airs on.

But yes, I’m rooting for this show. I’m a fan of the source material, I liked the movies, I think the cast and setup has potential and I think this multimedia-synergy angle has interesting storytelling possibilities. That said, do I think I’m backing a winning team yet? Well…

(As ever, SPOILERS FOLLOW)

Episode 2 is titled 0-8-4, which is apparently S.H.I.E.L.D’s coded designation for “weird object that’s probably in our jurisdiction” (the last one was “a hammer,” Coulson explains) and takes place primarily on The Bus – the plus-sized jet that Coulson’s team uses as transport and mobile command center. We probably should’ve figured that this would become the show’s central locale based on how much effort has clearly gone into its design.

Huh. Motley crew of misfits packed together in an aircraft bouncing from adventure to adventure? Okay, Joss. It’s not exactly more Firefly, but I’ll take it. In any case, now that the pilot has introduced our heroes – Coulson, strong/silent pilot Melinda May, wacky scientists Fitz and Simmons, hard-nosed Agent Ward and onetime anti-S.H.I.E.L.D hacktivist Skye – it’s time to start establishing relationships. Ward and Skye don’t get along (because they’re ideological opposites re: privacy vs. security), but have palpable sexual tension because it’s a TV show. May has something like PTSD and gets annoyed when she has to do action stuff even though she’s scary good at it and the others are in awe of her former combat history (she doesn’t like that, either.) Fitz and Simmons are alternately excited or uneasy about field work, and Fitz has a poorly-hidden crush on Skye. Everyone seems to feel that at least one or more of their teammates have no business being around, except for Coulson who “has his reasons” for having faith in each of his picks.

The 0-8-4 they’re off to investigate is a potentially alien artifact that’s turned up during the excavation of an Incan ruin in Peru. The location and the implications of alien technology immediately made my fan-tennae perk up, thinking we might be en route to an unexpected dip into Jack Kirby’s Eternals mythos, but it appears that the series is still more comfortable expanding on worldbuilding from the movies rather than adding new strains of its own accord: The device is a ray-gun built from 1940s German tech and infused with gamma-radiation from The Tesseract. Yup, it’s an old HYDRA weapon – the type last seen in Captain America: The First Avenger.

Some jurisdictional head-butting commences over whether the find belongs to S.H.I.E.L.D or a squad of Peruvian soldiers who turn up on-site, but they mellow a bit when it turns out their leader, Commandante Camilla Reyes, is an old pal (and, it’s implied, ex-lover) of Coulson’s. Amusingly, Gregg’s flat-yet-smug affect really does turn out to be perfect for selling the somewhat contradictory nature of Coulson’s personality; veering seamlessly between hyper-capable 007-analogue, starry-eyed fanboy acutely aware that he gets to live in the Marvel Universe, and oddly-askew packrat with a nostalgiac penchant for gizmos and memorabilia he doesn’t seem quite old enough to have genuine nostalgia for. Every once in a while, a character that gets made up as you go along ends up functionally-unique instead of just being a hodgepodge.

The reunion gets interrupted when both the Agents and Reye’s commandos are attacked by a group of nondescript rebel guerillas (credit where it’s due, the show does specifically namecheck Shining Path – though it’s unclear if these rebels are supposed to be official members of the movement.) Shining Path’s presence makes me briefly, irrationally hopeful that we’re about to get a surprise villain appearance from The Tarantula, Marvel’s resident South American Revolutionary baddie and the only supervillain I can recall whose threat-level is based entirely around having pointy shoes. It’s not to be, though, and everyone winds up on The Bus. New Mission: To transport the weapon to a S.H.I.E.L.D facility for safe-keeping. I’m assuming we’re just supposed to ignore that, if the movies are anything to go on, S.H.I.E.L.D isn’t really all that good at holding on to these things…

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But the point is moot, since it turns out Reyes and her crew aren’t really the good guys – they want the weapon so they can use it to wipe out the rebels. What they end up doing instead is separating The Agents from Coulson just long enough for them to overcome their bickering and pool their skill-sets against a common enemy, and in case you missed that this was happening, Coulson helpfully spells it out for us. Places like this are where the show suffers a bit from one of the repeating Joss Whedon Problems: Everybody is so darn glib and clever all the time that, when called on to say something earnest or direct, it doesn’t sound quite right. It might’ve been a good idea to designate at least one character as the default straight-man for moments like this, but instead even “the stiff” Ward is really just John Wayne Smartass on a team of Jon Stewart Smartasses.

Still, it all hangs together nicely in the end, and the big Act III action-beat feels appropriately flashy and cinematic – especially compared to the relatively subdued wrap-up of the pilot. It does still feel like a show unstuck in time in the modern TV landscape. It’s something better suited to running on Sunday afternoons in mid-1990s syndication in between Xena and Acapulco H.E.A.T, than a prime-time series living in the same 2013 as Scandal or Mad Men. Not necessarily in a bad way – the world needs its goofballs, too.

It must be said, though – if Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D has a significant problem still in need of work, it’s that the internal mythology of the show is just not as compelling as either the mythology it’s inherited from the movies or can potentially inherit from the comics. The MacGuffin for 0-8-4 is more interesting than the Reyes betrayal plot simply because it has Captain America to pull from. Taking place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the show’s gimmick, but it can’t be a crutch. Eventually, things like “What really happened to Melinda May?” have to be more compelling than “How much, if any, of this is setting the stage for Ultron?” and the show isn’t there yet.

PARTING OBSERVATIONS:

  • Yes, that was Samuel L. Jackson making a stopover as Nick Fury to chew Coulson out at the very end. Interesting that Colbie Smulders’ Maria Hill was our movie-person cameo in the pilot and he shows up for the second – if we’re staging these cameos in ascending order to star-power, Robert Downey Jr. will be here even sooner than people have been betting on.
  • It’s not a major issue yet, but I’m hoping that not every crisis-of-the-week ends up being a mystery of some kind, requiring a full cycle of fake-outs and red-herrings. The show is already chock full of unanswered questions, and the ones that would go a long way toward character-building might have more room to breathe if once in a while the Agents were up against a more straightforward “I am _____ and my diabolical plan is ______” heavy.
  • I’m actually a little more interested in the Rising Tide business than I thought I’d be after the first episode. Misdirection is one of the things the series seems to be doing really well right off the bat – in the pilot, the reveal seemed to be that Rising Tide was either really just Skye working out of her van or at least a much smaller threat than they seemed… but in the next-to-last scene of 0-8-4, it’s implied that they are not only is Rising Tide bigger than her, it’s apparently big enough to know that she’s thrown-in with S.H.I.E.L.D and to want her to play sleeper agent while there.
  • How hopeless a geek am I? Part of me really, sincerely hopes that Rising Tide’s name is actually super-literal and that Namor is somehow involved.
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  • Speaking of Rising Tide, are they the guys with the red plastic masks and berets seen prominently in the series’ advertisements? (Maybe a takeoff on Anonymous’ appropriation of V For Vendetta‘s Guy Fawkes mask?) Could very well be, though the berets and the their appearance in Switzerland has some folks speculating that they’ll be an incarnation of U.L.T.I.MA.T.U.M. – aka Underground Liberated Totally Integrated Mobile Army To Unite Mankind – an “anti-nationalist” terrorist outfit from the late Mark Gruenwald’s legendary Captain America run led by banker-turned-revolutionary Flag-Smasher.
  • Another interesting note about Flag-Smasher? In the comics, U.L.T.I.M.A.T.U.M. wear white masks with their black berets, not red ones like seen here. However, a key point in their story came when Flag-Smasher learned that “his” men had been co-opted from within by a secret benefactor… The Red Skull.
  • Coulson’s belief (apparently untrue, at least according to a few of his superiors) that he only “almost died” at Loki’s hand and spent a vague period of time recuperating in Tahiti comes up again, as does his stock description of it as “a magical place.” We’ll almost-certainly be waiting a good long while for this to pay off, but here’s something: Skye brings a box full of knick-knacks from her van with her when she boards The Bus. Displayed prominently (as in twice, in closeup) among them? A plastic dashboard statue of a Polynesian Dancing Girl.
  • Speaking of Skye, her more tangible connection to Coulson is that they’re both superhero fans turned pro and that she also has a blank past – or, at least, blank to everyone else, as it’s implied she erased her own past life. I’m hearing a lot of theories bandied about that peg her as a stealth introduction of a Marvel heroine, specifically Jessica Jones. That feels like a reach to me, but I wouldn’t be against it.

CRAZY THEORY FOR THE WEEK:

Do we know how old Coulson is supposed to be? His collectibles habit comes up again in this episode, and I wonder if it’s worth noting that he seems especially fixed on WWII and postwar-era material – Captain American most prominently. He’s also got “Lola” the hover-car that seems to be only a build or two removed from the one Howard Stark was showing off at the 40s Stark Expo in Captain America. Maybe he’s one of those guys who inherited the entirety of his pop-reference directly from his father?

Or maybe for him this stuff really is genuine nostalgia…

There certainly seems to be something out of the ordinary about post-Avengers Coulson, or at least the way he got to be up and walking around again. Is he a clone? Was he healed through some kind of sorcery? Is he a robot – the original Coulson’s mind downloaded into a Life Model Decoy?

Or do we have it backwards? What if he was never normal in the first place?

The most persistent theory about Coulson’s planned trajectory – originating back when everyone only assumed he would be killed or injured in Avengers – is that his resurrection will involve robotics and will eventually lead to him becoming The Vision. Interesting factoid about Vision: In the comics, his body was actually built from the chassis of another “deceased” hero, the original WWII-era Human Torch. He was an android that would burst into flames when his body made contact with oxygen. This character (or, at least, his body) has already been seen in the Marvel movies – locked up in a glass display (attributed to Professor Phineas T. Horton, Torch’s creator in the comics) at the Stark Expo in Captain America.

Wouldn’t it be something if “Horton’s Synthetic Man” was still up and walking around among us? If “Agent Coulson” was so oddly fixated on strange WWII-era marvels of science because he is one? If nothing else, it’d add a weird bit of poignancy to what right now seems like a more basic “car guy” attachment to “Lola” – one forgotten invention looking out for another.

NEXT WEEK:

Supposedly, Episode 3 (The Asset) will feature the Agents’ first encounter with a Marvel villain who hasn’t appeared in any of the movies yet, Graviton.

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