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“We don’t want to hurt you. But we have to.”

Oh, good. Last week’s really good episode wasn’t a fluke – Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. seems to have found it’s groove, and that groove is quick-moving spy business infused with sci-fi fantasy elements cribbed from the Marvel Universe. I think I had more fun with Eye-Spy, but that may be because it’s spy-genre point of origin felt close to the (other) Avengers and I happen to dig that vibe. This week lives much more in the realm of Jason Bourne and Jack Ryan techno-thriller, which feels a little less distinctive, but the trade-off is a virtual info-dump of series-mythology and worldbuilding.

And on top of all that, it was pretty damn entertaining, too.

As is by now customary, we cold-open on Something Unusual; in this case a Hong Kong street magician named Chan Ho Yin (Louis Ozawa Changchien, last widely seen as the Yakuza hitman in Predators) whose fire-throwing tricks aren’t tricks at all – he has pyrokinetic super-powers, possibly developed due to growing up near a nuclear meltdown site. Said powers earn him the attention of Raina (Ruth Negga), the titular “Girl” of the title; but instead of showing him a good time she introduces him to two guys in shiny hazmat suits who abduct him.

Yes, fans, I also jumped a little bit when those guys popped into frame, since in the comics such suits are the signature uniform of A.I.M, but let’s remember that we’ve already met the Earth-199999 version of A.I.M as Aldrich Kilian’s outfit from Iron Man 3. That’s not to say they aren’t involved here (in fact, since Extremis comes up again it’s probably a given) just that the suits wouldn’t be the clue.

As it turns out, Chan is already on S.H.I.E.L.D’s watch-list; as the first of the episodes big reveals is that the agency actually has a working list of known superhumans, the more “interesting” of which are contacted by the agency and assigned caseworkers (Tzi Ma as Agent Kwan in Chan’s case.) All this listmaking and secrecy reflexively-unnerves former hacktivist Skye, and it gets rougher for her once Kwan informs the team that Chan’s existence was likely outed by a hacker from The Rising Tide – the WikiLeaks-like hacker collective with which she was formerly (and, as far as the audience has been led to believe) still is connected with.

Meanwhile, Skye isn’t the only one not feeling overly fond of S.H.I.E.L.D’s broad reach and info-suppression: Chan wakes up somewhere unknown, with Raina informing him that she works for an organization that wants to help super-people like him become super-heroes like The Avengers. She even suggests a code-name, Scorch. As it turns out, Chan is extremely receptive to the idea – his dream was to be famous like his idol Harry Houdini, and he feels cheated by S.H.I.E.L.D’s insistence on superhumans keeping low profiles.

The hack is traced to a Texan Rising Tide big-shot named Miles, who manages to give even Coulson the slip thanks to an anonymous tip… from Skye. Surprise! Miles is her long-term boyfriend, and is apparently the guy she’s been ominously texting while “undercover” in S.H.I.E.L.D. Technically, she’s come to tell him to back off because messes like outing Chan are making her own, still unstated, agenda on the inside more difficult; but it’s now clear that her loyalties remain quite divided.

On the plus side, this is both a good mid-episode curveball and good development for Skye, whose role as audience-surrogate has often threatened to render her bland (and Agent Ward is already more than enough bland for one show.) On the downside, it feels distressingly like the show writing itself a license to drag the already somewhat played-out “who’s side is she on???” mystery out even longer…

…which is why it’s all the more awesome when Agent May turns up busts the both of them. Gotcha! The other reason that’s awesome? Good writing: Even if it would make good drama, there’s just no buying that an organization that cracks the secret identities of superheroes as its day job isn’t going to be able to run down a pair of code-monkey lovebirds shacking up in a crappy Austin apartment. So now Miles is S.H.I.E.L.D’s prisoner and so is Skye, along with having all or most of her work making friends with the team shot to hell.

Chan’s/Scorch’s story is still playing out in the midst of all this, of course: Raina’s people have an expectedly suspicious-looking mad science lab, where they give him injections that increase the amount of CGI fire his body is able to render onscreen. (All kidding aside, the fire effects are pretty great as TV shows go. Is this why the show has often looked so cheap – did they spend all the money on yet-untelevised super powers?) I like the way his character is pitched in this; the idea that post-Avengers people want to have nicknames and costumed identities is so much for fun (and economical) than the convoluted hoops series like the miserable Arrow leap through going half-way to the same place.

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But, to be frank, his story isn’t as immediately compelling as watching Coulson etc. re-asses Skye while Skye re-asseses her opinion of Miles, whose repertoire of high-minded Assange-isms is sounding a lot less alluring to her now that she’s seen what S.H.I.E.L.D. is actually up against in the world – and more recently how the information Miles “set free” has put an innocent man’s life in danger. And in case the S.H.I.E.L.D. = NSA, Rising Tide = WikiLeaks/Anonymous inching up toward newsworthy relevance wasn’t explicit enough, Miles self-righteously name-drops hacktivist martyred saints Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Aaron Schwartz as his heroes.

Whoa.

Just like that, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s ideological metaphor would appear to have dropped the “metaphor” part. Unless there’s a major misdirection being set up, thus far the arc of the series’ first five episodes re: Rising Tide is essentially about the idealism of free-information hacktivist zealots being dangerously naïve, and the attempt to help someone from that world (Skye) “grow up,” see the light and join the good guys. I don’t really take an issue with this (a show where spies are the good guys kind of has to fall on this side, doesn’t it?) but I imagine a lot of people will.

In any case, as if to put the cherry on top, it turns out Miles isn’t (only) an obnoxious idealist – he’s a phony. He didn’t leak S.H.I.E.L.D secrets for some ideal of transparency… he did it for a million dollar payday! Skye is appalled by this, though you have to wonder if she’s really just worried that her Obvious Douchebag Detector has been broken for this long (seriously, they might as well have gone all the way and given Miles a K-Mart fedora.) But where did the money come from?

Centipede! You remember, right? No? The vaguely alluded-to bad guys from the first episode? Well, they’re some kind of super-science shadow outfit (like I said, A.I.M. has to come back into this picture at some point) evidently trying to brew up its own superhumans using a grab bag of borrowed technology from the various Marvel Movies. In fact, turns out Shannon Lucio’s Debbie – the redhead scientist who was experimenting on Michael from the pilot – is working with (for?) Raina, and what they really want from Chan is to extract his genetically fire-proof blood platelets to improve on Extremis (the serum treatment from Iron Man 3 than turns you into a superhuman but also makes you overheat and explode.) The process leaves Chan still able to use his powers, but now they burn him – and the effect is pretty nasty-looking for a family hour network show.

With all that out of the way, we wrap on a big action sequence as S.H.I.E.L.D raids the facility where Chan is being held; backed up by a redemption-seeking Skye on “somehow open doors and windows with keystrokes” Movie Hacker duty. They’re expecting to fight whoever/whatever Centipede is, but instead the Final Boss is a now quite mad Chan; who murders Kwan and declares that he dislikes S.H.I.E.L.D suppressing his powers just as much as he dislikes Centipede’s machinations. He’d now rather just go all Trogdor on everybody as Scorch. “Oh no. They gave him a name.” sighs Coulson in the episode’s best line. He uses those ever more impressive-looking fire powers to incinerate Debbie (Raina escapes) and neutralize Coulson’s knock-out gun; ultimately forcing May to kill him via an overdose of Extremis.

Geez. Re-typing it, this episode was pretty damn dark, right?

Back on The Bus, Miles gets unceremoniously dumped in Hong Kong, fitted with S.H.I.E.L.D’s version of a parolee monitor bracelet, and Skye gets called into Coulson’s office for the big dressing-down. He’s pissed (the episode makes great use of how jarring Clark Gregg breaking his monotone calm reserve can be) but just because of her near-betrayal. Actually… The Agents as a whole don’t really seem that put out about it, basically treating Skye like they’re all in High School and she just totally narc’d on a wicked awesome keg party. Coulson, though, is upset that, since Skye wasn’t Miles’ mole but was lying, it means there’s still something she’s hiding – and he’s not going to let her stay unless she tells the truth.

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And so, sooner than I would’ve expected, we wrap up The Mystery of What Skye’s “Deal” Is” with… another mystery: She’s no idealist either when it comes to her hacking – she learned her skills in a quest to find out the identity of her birth parents (it was previously established that she’s an orphan) and hooked up with Rising Tide because her last good lead was a document whose details have been redacted – by S.H.I.E.L.D. Coulson decides she can stay on and keep looking (hell, maybe they’ll even help her!) provided she stops lying… and agrees to wear one of those bracelets, too.

As for the customary teaser: Raina turns up talking to a mysterious inmate at an unnamed prison (The Vault?) who knows about Centipede and its “toy soldiers.” She passes on instructions for him to speak to “The Clairvoyant” – which is eyebrow-raising, since just a week ago we were informed that clairvoyance isn’t something S.H.I.E.L.D has identified as a “real” super-power.

PARTING OBSERVATIONS:

Coulson and Melinda May seem to have had some kind of flirtatious (maybe more) thing going, apparently more so back when they were both younger. Okay, S.H.I.E.L.D.? The whole “Coulson is the coolest guy in the room” thing is fun because Clark Gregg is clearly not the coolest guy in the room. If you add too much stuff that makes him actually cool, it dilutes the gag – and this is twice now in five episodes that “Phil Coulson: Seducer of Action Babes” has turned up.

Said flirtation comes up during a discussion about Coulson waking up crazy early, which maybe checks the “remind everyone Coulson probably isn’t human” box for this week. I imagine the follow-up to this reveal is that he actually doesn’t sleep at all.

If I’m right in my supposition that Fitz/Simmons, Skye and Ward are heading for awkward/tragic love-rectangle territory is correct, they’re being gradual about it: the docs don’t have much to do in this one, but Fitz now saddles up next to Skye during the team briefings and gets stuttery reaction-shots when Miles enters the picture.

May trying to talk “Scorch” down in Chinese is a nice touch, doubly so for (evidently non-Chinese-speaking) Coulson deadpanning “So we’re good, right?”

Speaking of Scorch, the name appears to be the only association the character has/had with the obscure Tommy Ng character from the comics. His nuclear-mutation origin is similar enough to that of Sunfire that I wouldn’t be surprised if he was original written as such and then swapped-out – since Sunfire is an X-Men character, there’s probably some debate as to where/when he can appear (too bad, since I want to see someone try to make that outfit work.)

I checked – there are (somehow unsurprisingly) too many prominent orphans in the Marvel Universe to work out whether or not Skye’s mystery-parents might be somebody important.

CRAZY FANBOY THEORY FOR THE WEEK:

Keep in mind: Not all of these will end up being things I consider remotely plausible or even especially good ideas, and this is one of those times. But anyway…

There actually is an existing minor character named Raina in The 616. She’s a mutant from a race called Saurids who are humanoids evolved from reptiles who generally hang out in The Savage Land – Marvel’s “borrowed” version of Doyle’s Lost World. (Confusingly, there’s also a Marvel alien race called Saurids, but they don’t appear to be the same people.)

Okay, this is about to get weird so try and keep up: “Saurid” is also sometimes used, along with “Saurian,” “Sauroid,” “Dinosauroid” and “Reptiloid” as the name for the creatures who feature prominently in the Reptilian Agenda conspiracy theories popularized by professional crazy-person David Icke.

If you’re not familiar with Icke (whose insane ramblings are still amusingly popular in the same spaces where the terminally nervous and daylight-deprived mutter ominously to one another about Rothchilds, Bliderbergs, Illuminati Pyramids and New World Orders) his proposition is that humanity has been (and is still being) controlled by outwardly human-looking reptile-like higher beings, the descendants of either aliens from the Draco Constellation or parallel-evolved dinosaurs (yes, like in the Super Mario Bros movie) who live among us as prominent politicians, celebrities, members of the British Royal Family, etc. Even today, video clips pointing to digital-video artificating as “evidence” of Reptiloid shape-shifting are a popular YouTube fixture.

Complete rubbish, to be certain, but rubbish that’s been repurposed as a cheeky reference by scifi, fantasy and comic authors many times since Icke started spewing it – exactly the sort of reference point a conspiracy-themed series like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. might be expected to appropriate for itself. Make of that what you will.

NEXT WEEK:

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. takes a break to re-run its pilot in the wake of being picked up for a full season, but will return the week after with FZZT, in which the Agents are faced with a killer who leaves his victims somehow suspended in mid-air. Previews for the episode have revealed actor Titus Welliver reprising his role as Agent Blake from the Item 47 short film and featured brief glimpses of a damaged Chitauri battle-helmet.

Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet. Recently, he wrote a book.

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