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“He’s acting like a robot version of himself.”

My question about Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s erratic early episodes was never really “will this get better?” Almost any series is going to get better as it goes on if given sufficient room to grow, and there was never any real doubt that the TV-spinoff of the biggest movie franchise on the planet right now was going to at least get a full season order. No, my question was “will this get better… in a way that retroactively makes the earlier stuff better as well?” As of this episode, that answer is trending toward a solid “maybe.”

If I had to summarize the less-good parts of this shows first few episodes, it would be the apparent lack of scale (why are we following just six people in a plane and not the huge organization in the giant Helicarrier?) and the overreliance on the gimmick of everyone having some kind of dark/terrible secret backstory they’re keeping from everyone else. What’s been encouraging of late is the growing sense that these seeming concessions to budget (re: scale) and cheap dramatic shortcuts (re: withholding information to artificially-generate “mystery”) have actually been part of a bigger thematic arc built into the series.

But, first…

As a change of pace, the Agents are actually part of the pre-credits action beat as a man in a hood being tortured by a pair of burly guards somewhere underground turns out to be Coulson. Furthermore, his interrogator turns out to be an undercover S.H.I.E.L.D operative whom Coulson and Agent May have come to extract – oh, and they’re apparently somewhere under the arctic. Or maybe Siberia. If there was a subtitle, I missed it.

Undercover Guy was carrying a data-recorder in one of those Total Recall (good version) nose pod things, and whatever is inside is for the eyes of Agents with at least Level 8 clearance only; meaning that only Coulson and May qualify and that our meta-plot for the week will be our familiar, friendly flying co-op brushing up against the more rigidly-structured main version of S.H.I.E.L.D itself. Hence The Hub, a sprawling facility that appears to serve as S.H.I.E.L.D’s war room – but not, explains Simmons, its headquarters. That would be The Triskelion, making this the first time we’ve ever heard anyone mention it by name in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (it may or may not be the strange-looking D.C. building in the trailer for Captain America: The Winter Soldier.) Speaking of which, The Hub is an impressive (and expensive) enough looking arrangement of interior sets that I wouldn’t be surprised to see it reappear in that film (it goes without saying we’ll see more happen here on Agents.)

At The Hub, S.H.I.E.L.D’s shot-callers do what we’ll soon learn they do they best: Instigate division. Coulson, Ward and May get pulled into a grownups-only briefing with the apparently infamous Victoria Hand (Saffron Burrows, a dead-ringer for the character’s comic-book counterpart,), Fitz/Simmons scurry off to geek out over the latest Agency tech toys and Skye… pretty much has to wait in the lobby owing to that “Girl You Done F*cked UP!” bracelet she’s being made to wear now. Even before that, she’s already back to raising a stink about all the extra secrecy; prompting Simmons to explain that S.H.I.E.L.D’s whole operation is based on “a hierarchy of information” – everyone and everything operates on a level-separated need-to-know basis – which reminds us of one of the show’s more bizarre plot conceits: Technically, since they’re allowed to know that Coulson is alive, all of our main Agents (even Skye!) have a higher security clearance than The Avengers.

Speaking of Skye, she’d really like to take a look at The Hub’s database for information on those S.H.I.E.L.D-redacted “who are my real parents?” documents that we now know has been her primary motivation the whole time. Coulson says he’ll look into it. Had you forgotten this plot point? Don’t worry, they’re going to bring it up three or four more times this episode. Also coming up several times, the omnipresent “something is different about Phil,” most notably when Hand asks him about his Tahitian rehab stint and he catches himself stumbling amid his standard “it’s a magical place” response. Hm…

The important data in the nose-pod, incidentally, involves “Ossetian Separatists” building some kind of sonic-superweapon to use in revolt against Russia and Georgia in a bid for… eh, y’know what? Say one thing for this show: It’s really good at telegraphing when the spycraft-babble is actually important to the plot and when it’s just so much white noise to hang a character-based plot on. This is the second kind. Short version: S.H.I.E.L.D wants Ward and Fitz to slip across enemy lines and disable the weapon, and something about the mission feels “off” to Skye and Simmons prompting them to investigate.

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Yeah, that’s this week’s scenario: Team Sexy and Team Nerdy buddy-swapping for parallel adventures. It’s a cute but pretty obvious setup, with the expected cute but obvious payoffs: Fitz is annoying but resourceful (he saves Ward and himself from Russian bar thugs by fixing their TVs – which he himself disabled with an EMP charge) while Ward is a stony jerk but not incapable of sympathy, Skye is impulsive but determined while Simmons is nervous but brave, you get the idea. Picture them in their respective adventures (Ward/Fitz have to break into a compound and disable a weapon, Skye/Simmons have to hack The Hub’s database) and you could probably write the scenes out yourself.

But that’s basically okay, because this one isn’t about the MacGuffin of The Week, it’s about character pair-offs that haven’t really been seen yet getting some alone time to hash things out and deepen their characterizations. Sample bit: Ward intuits (probably not without reason) that Fitz is over-eager to prove himself as a field agent because it was Ward who saved Simmons’ life in the previous episode instead of him. Simmons and Skye, on the other hand don’t have nearly as much to chat about: The Simmons Show was last week, anyway, and their complication is whether Skye can hack the Secret Info without being tempted away by potential access to those files she’s been looking for.

“Secret Info” turns out to be that Fitz and Ward were lied to about there being a team waiting to extract them after their mission: Once the weapon is down, they’ll have to fend for themselves while S.H.I.E.L.D is bombing the crap out of the place. Coulson reads her the riot act for… well, doing the stuff she’s been doing since the first episode; but then he heads off to read a longer, louder riot act to Hand – evidently he was lied to on this one as well. Long story short: The team is back on the same page in time to rescue Ward and Fitz themselves (fun new thing: The Bus can hover like a giant Harrier. Probably makes no physical sense, but it looks cool.)

Back on the plane, we get not one, not two, but three mystery-tease wrap-up scenes:

First? Coulson tells Sky he found and decrypted her file: It’s not specifically about her, but rather about the person who left her at the orphanage as a baby. Name? Unknown, but she was a woman… and a S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent. Second? Not so fast: May, chilling out in Coulson’s office, asks if he told Skye the whole truth. He did not – partially because he wants May and him to suss out the complete story whether S.H.I.E.L.D. wants it known or not. In May’s hands we briefly see what appears to be some of the truth being withheld from Skye: A crime scene photo of a young woman, dead, face-down in a pool of blood. Finally? Now alone, Coulson makes a call “upstairs” to access information which we’re to understand is probably the full report on his near-death and resurrection… only to be shocked when informed that said info is actually classified above his level; something the audience has known since the pilot but is news to him.

And so, in the margins of what would otherwise be a pretty average episode, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. makes a canny, dramatic shift in theme: After 7 episodes of The Agents methodically winning Skye over to the side of “espionage and secret-keeping are for your protection,” now even quintessential company-man Coulson is feeling like maybe the rest of S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t to be trusted. Couple that with the fact that the series will be wrapping its first season in-tandem with Captain America: The Winter Soldier – where at least a portion of the plot appears to involve S.H.I.E.L.D. becoming something more like villains – and it suddenly makes a lot more sense why our focus has been on a rogue sub-team rather than the bigger Agency.

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FINAL THOUGHTS

The quote at the top is from Skye, referencing Coulson’s behavior while under Hand’s orders at The Hub. I’d be curious to know is foreshadowing like that doesn’t read as ham-handed to non-fans who haven’t been assuming he was coming back as an LMD since before the credits rolled on The Avengers.

It’s kind of disappointing that the whole point of this episode was to establish what the relationships between Ward/Fitz and Skye/Simmons are and the pairings don’t really pan out to be that interesting. In reality, that’s how it works – not everyone becomes pals with their coworkers – but on TV you’d think someone in the writer’s room would’ve said “Can we at least find out Simmons and Skye both always thought Heathcliff was better than Garfield or something?”

Best scene: Coulson’s conversation with May, which is actually a conversation with himself while May feigns ignoring him during Tai-Chi exercises. Funny stuff, but eventually they need to find at least one Asian Lady stock-stereotype for her to not fit into. Ming Na-Wen plays it to the hilt, but they can do better than this.

There cannot be enough room on that plane for Simmons’ evidently thousands-strong wardrobe of “adorkable” sweater-vests. Producers? Just get the obligatory “Whoa! We’d never have guessed Simmons would clean-up so good for this undercover mission at the fancy dress ball!” episode out of the way, and don’t act like you’re not going to do one.

I doubt it’s an accident that Coulson very likely starting to move against his superiors comes up in the same episode introducing Victoria Hand, who in the comics was best known for becoming the right-hand woman of Norman “Green Goblin” Osborn when he took over S.H.I.E.L.D and rebranded it as H.A.M.M.E.R. If she becomes a “heavy” for the series, I wonder if they were at any point intending that role for Colbie Smulder’s Maria Hill, who was running a different “bad S.H.I.E.L.D” incarnation during the Civil War event.

So. The bizarrely prominent fan-theory that Skye would turn out to be Coulson and May’s lovechild can apparently be discarded. At least for now, we’re to assume that her mother was a S.H.I.E.L.D Agent who was killed not long after leaving her to the orphanage. Was she a good guy? A traitor? Killed by enemies? Taken out by S.H.I.E.L.D? The most “classically Marvel” answer would be that mom was a good-but-compromised Agent while dad is a still-active supervillain of some repute. At this point, still too vague to guess. On the other hand…

CRAZY FAN-THEORY OF THE WEEK:

I will pass a solid gold brick if Skye is actually somehow SINTHEA SCHMIDT.

NEXT WEEK:

Big movie tie-in doings in the offing in The Well, as The Agents encounter dangerous otherworldly objects somehow scattered on Earth after the events of Thor: The Dark World.

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. Aside from his work at The Escapist, he wrote a book and does a videogame criticism show.

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