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How big of a nerd am I? When the third episode of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. opened with a highway assault by an unidentified paramilitary team – backed up by an unseen force that seems to yank large objects into the sky – on an 18-wheel truck that turns out to be a high-tech, kitted-out S.H.I.E.L.D. vehicle driven by one Agent Mack (heh); my mind immediately went to U.S. 1. (I wonder if any Atop The Fourth Wall fans had the same reaction?

But while the truck is not, sadly, carrying CB Radio telepath Ulysses Solomon Archer, it is carrying actor Ian Hart as one Dr. Franklin Hall – better known in the Marvel Universe as the gravity-warping supervillain Graviton. Three episodes in, we now have our first guest appearance from the comics who hasn’t previously appeared in the movies. Hall, we’re informed, was a mentor of FitzSimmons in addition to being a high-value S.H.I.E.L.D. asset, so now it’s up to the Agents to find out who took him and mount a rescue.

Up on “The Bus,” Ward (the hardcase) has taken over field-training for Skye (the hacker). It’s not going well, evidently because if Ward and Skye got along we’d lose opportunity for maudlin back-and-forth dialogue scenes that spell out the thematic arcs of the series and individual episodes: This time, Ward offers that every Agent will have a “defining moment” that determines whether they’re cut out for heroism or not; which may as well be a blinking sign reading “This is an important episode for Skye.” In the course of this particular session, we learn that Ward has two brothers: An older one who was violently abusive and a younger one who looked to him for protection. (His “family history” was grimly alluded to in the pilot episode.)

There’s also a bit more business about not even Skye knowing exactly what her “niche” on the team is yet, which is starting to feel like intrigue for intrigue’s sake but at least ties in with the emerging subtext that Coulson is as big believer in unorthodox motivation techniques as Nick Fury is. (He’s still annoyed about his trading cards, though.) To wit, Melinda May is still adamant that she doesn’t want to be in combat, and feels like she’s being nudged to get back in anyway. To make a point, Coulson opts to put himself in the field for this one.

“You forget, I have plenty of field experience. With The Avengers.”

“Yes. You died.”

Incidentally, it’s refreshing that this is really the only direct “Hey, remember those movies we’re sort-of connected to?” moment this time out, apart from a general reference to S.H.I.E.L.D.’s role in The Battle of New York towards the end. A little bit of that goes a long way.

The investigation, which involves gold bars, Ward and Coulson interrogating a cowboy and a super-rare element called “Gravitonium,” ultimately points to a billionaire geo/tech industrialist named Ian Quinn who’s kidnapped Dr. Hall to force him to complete a working version of a hypothetical machine that would allow Quinn’s company to bend the forces of gravity for profit. He’s hiding from international business-regulators in a Maltese compound, so Skye offers to hack herself an e-vite to his Bad Guy Cocktail Party so she can disable security for Coulson and Ward’s extraction team. The plan goes just slightly awry, however, when Quinn reveals that he let Skye hack her way into the event – he’s a big Rising Tide booster, and he wants to hire her.

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One of the more interesting things happening under the surface of this otherwise lighter than a Twinkie series is how enthusiastically it jumps at chances to engage the real-world political parallels conjured by its cloak-and-dagger setting, i.e. S.H.I.E.L.D. vs. Rising Tide as Earth-199999 stand-ins for The NSA vs. WikiLeaks. The Asset positions Quinn as, essentially, a right-wing/corporatist dark counterpart to Skye’s idealistic hacktivism; cross-cutting back to her pained reactions as she watches a guy who might as well be wearing an off the rack “Bond Villain” Halloween costume spout the same basic anti-government/anti-S.H.I.E.L.D. “free information” rhetoric she does… but as a defense of his circumventing U.S. and UN industry regulations and profit-at-any-cost unfettered greed. Later, she even calls back to Ward’s story about protecting his younger sibling when Quinn calls the agency Big Brother.

This running theme also ties back in to Dr. Hall, who reveals that he wanted Quinn to find and abduct him… so he could destroy the Gravitonium device. Seems he’s got a bit of a mad-on about overly-powerful technology in the hands of mere mortals, an obsession which he directly attributes to S.H.I.E.L.D.’s experiments with The Tesseract indirectly helping bring Loki to Earth. Problematically, he’s so obsessed with this goal that he’s fully prepared to go ahead with overloading the machine even though doing so will potentially kill a large number of people. (He deploys the classic “To save billions!” argument.)

In the first of these recaps, I called the show “an ‘X-Files’ for the Age of Obama,” and this installment feels like an even more deliberate step in that direction. An attempt to thread the needle of making a show where the government-backed snoops with the ominous black shades (and more ominous black bags) are the nominal good guys work for a media-savvy modern audience.

Skye is the stand-in for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s prospective Millenial/Gen-X youth-audience (i.e. reflexively progressive but also reflexively suspicious of The Man), and her arc of development in The Asset is pitched directly at their frame of reference: Aliens and supervillians as “external threats” (read: terrorism), evil oligarchs like Quinn as, well… Rupert Murdoch? Monsanto? The Koch Brothers? Take your pick. ( “Gee, kids. All that hacker/free-information stuff sounds oddly close to your crazy uncle’s Fox News facebook-spams in the right context, huh?” ) and S.H.I.E.L.D. (or this division of it) as the Big Government that can be the good guy – providing that the good guys are in charge of it. It’s subtly-edgy stuff (and, from the right angle, also a little creepy) and I want to see where they’re going with this.

In any case, Skye’s big “defining moment” seems to involve an easily-spotted but amusingly-played fake out at midpoint; pretending to sell S.H.I.E.L.D. out to Quinn but really just taking a long way around to opening the security systems like they’d planned. But the episode’s big Hero Moment once more falls to Coulson: Facing down the now quite mad Dr. Hall and realizing he can’t be talked out of his “blow everyone up to keep this invention out of the wrong hands” plan, he opts to shut the machine down by dropping the doctor into it. Causing him to be absorbed by the hovering mercury-like liquid Gravitonium at the center. So when he inevitably turns back up as something closer to Gravitron in future episodes, he now has a proper origin story and a nemesis to go after.

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As the episode wraps, Skye decides she wants to fully commit to becoming a S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent and Agent May decides to re-activate herself as a combat-ready operative. Curiously, there’s no final stamp put on FitzSimmons’ affection for Dr. Hall, despite that being the original impetus (or part of it) to go after him in the first place. Instead, we get a stinger of a human-like hand emerging from the Gravitonium sphere just after it’s locked up in a S.H.I.E.L.D. vault, so that anyone watching who has never heard of Graviton won’t be confused when Hall shows up again toward the end of the season.

PARTING OBSERVATIONS

  • Quinn’s plan for snatching Dr. Hall from the truck at the start? Bust-up the truck and its support-cars with gravity power, then send in a team of armed mercs to rip the thing open using a big yellow power-shovel which they rented from a cowboy using bars of Tanzanian gold. “Preposterous” seems to be the default direction for the series when it comes to action scenarios, which makes a certain amount of sense for a project that’s basically NCIS with superheroes by way of James Bond.
  • Borrowing the “good” stuff from comic-books means you inevitably end up borrowing some of the “dumb” stuff. Case in point? What TVTropes calls Reality Unless Otherwise Noted.” S.H.I.E.L.D. has flying cars, semi-sentient drones, alien/Asgardian technology and (maybe) robot duplicates; but meanwhile Skye’s official combat-training primarily involves hanging a punching-bag in The Bus’s cargo bay
  • Something I missed from last week: Apparently Melinda May’s nickname as a field operative was “The Cavalry.” In the comics universe that was the name of a short-lived D-list hero team consisting of (and I’m not making any of these up) Thor Girl, Crime Buster, Red 9, Ultra-Girl and Stunt Master. Things fell apart when Thor Girl turned out to be a Skrull imposter. So there’s that.
  • Ward says that standing up to his bad older brother was his defining moment. Since cryptic references to his family history were made as early as the pilot, it feels safe to assume that said brother was “mean” to more than just his brothers – and standing up to him probably involved more than just knocking him down on the playground. Thus, it also feels safe to assume that this brother will turn up as a baddie at some point.
  • Skye is an orphan, apparently, which means a family wasn’t part of whatever identity she implies that she erased from existence before. Which probably means she did something (or is hiding from something) on the not-good end of the spectrum.
  • A running “bit” for the second half of the episode is Coulson having difficulty reloading his gun, which confuses him. At least three characters (himself included) passingly refer to this specifically as Coulson being rusty. You don’t say.

NEXT WEEK:

In “Eye Spy,” the Agents will confront a rogue former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent (Pascale Armand) who is apparently a former trainee of Coulson’s.

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