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AGENT COULSON: “I’m tired of secrets. So I’m glad we’re here. It’s time to root out all the secrets.”

AGENT MAY: (pause) “Agent Ward and I have been having se…”

And so we return to Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, a series which – if you’re coming in with no other context – is about Jennifer Grey’s husband as the proprietor of a swank party-plane which he fills with attractive college-aged interns so they can fly around having vague conversations about a series of popular action movies.

Last week’s episode could charitably be called a letdown, capping off the mystery of how Agent Coulson came back from the dead between The Avengers and here with a reveal that landed as more of a “Huh.” Than a “Whoa!” – he was actually dead several days, Frankenstein’d back to life with strange and painful super-science and implanted with fake memories so he wouldn’t remember that his first post-rebirth thoughts were that he’d rather remain dead. Interesting enough in that it solves one mystery with another (why would Nick Fury go to such extreme lengths to resurrect Coulson?), but not the Earth-shaker that casual audiences were promised and didn’t tie-in to any Marvel Universe obscura like fans had been hoping for. Apart from that, said reveal happened in the context of an otherwise forgettable, low-tech episode.

So, of course, the logical follow-up to that is for the next week’s episode to be probably the best one (certainly the most impressive-looking) thus far, featuring lots of interesting worldbuilding, character development, copious Marvel Universe connections including a known supervillain and a genuine bombshell reveal that changes a major character’s entire backstory… all jammed into an episode not nearly as hyped as the last one and landing before another two-week re-run break.

…Dang it, “AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D;” are you trying to be another Whedonverse one-season-wonder?

Anyway. Seeds opens with a group of college students sneaking into a gymnasium swimming pool after dark. Something strange happens to the water, causing it to flash-freeze and trap a male student named Seth by the leg. He’s freed by another student who’d been hanging out nearby named Donnie Gill – and if you’re a Marvel Comics fan, chances are that name spoils the rest of this story. Seth dons a jacket to warm up, and its logo reveals that this is no ordinary college – this is S.H.I.E.L.D Academy.

Up on The Bus (Team Coulson’s private jet, seemingly named so that there would be an excuse to call their minivan “The Shortbus,”) Skye, as the only Agent onhand pulled directly from civilian life, does her audience-surrogate duty getting filled in on The Academy. Apparently, S.H.I.E.L.D maintains three separate schools for science, information and operations (read: butt-kicking) specialists, and rivalries between the three often carry over in the field agent hierarchy. I’m already set to once again observe that this show keeps talking about tangential stuff that sounds more interesting than what actually happens onscreen…

…but no! Turns out this is the milieu Skye, Fitz/Simmons, and Ward will be jumping into to investigate the freezing-pool event, because it happened at the Science School where Fitz/Simmons are considered hometown heroes. Coulson and May aren’t coming, though. Having the leader and the top ass-kicker onhand would solve the mystery too quickly, after all, and besides they have to go to Mexico for some secret reason.

At The Academy, Fitz/Simmons head off to deliver a “With Great Power…” speech about super-science gone wrong to the worried science students, while Ward takes Skye to visit the “Wall of Valor,” a memorial where S.H.I.E.L.D inscribes the names of Agents killed in the line duty – which actually looks a little small considering the way background Agents got tossed around in the opening of The Avengers alone. She takes note of the name Bucky Barnes, confirming that Captain America’s teammates are also well known by reputation and marking Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s official mission-pivot from “remind people of The Avengers” to “start building up to Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Elsewhere, Ian Quinn, the evil CENTIPEDE-affiliated venture capitalist from Episode 3: The Asset, does some foreshadowing from his limo.

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Speaking of mission-pivots, now that “How is Phil alive?” has been mostly answered, it’s time for “Who is Skye, really?” to slide into the top mystery slot, and that’s why Coulson and May are in Mexico. In case you forgot: Skye is an orphan who became an anti-S.H.I.E.L.D hacker because she found out The Agency had redacted information about her real family. Earlier in the season, it was discovered that she was left at an orphanage as a baby by a female Agent named Avery, but Coulson kept the darker part of the story – Avery was later killed under mysterious circumstances – between just him and May. Now, Avery’s long-missing former partner Agent Lumley has been spotted in Mexico, and they’re tracking him down for answers. The exchange about secrets at the beginning of the recap? That’s part of their “stakeout banter.”

Back at The Academy, Fitz/Simmons’ ethics lecture (which namechecks HYDRA, A.I.M. and CENTIPEDE – seemingly confirming that in the Marvel Cinematic Universe at-present they’re thought of as separate entities) is interrupted when a second freeze-bomb goes off, momentarily encasing Donnie Gill in ice. He’s rescued by Fitz, who’s sent to look in on the kid at his dorm room while Ward and The Ladies go fishing for clues at a secret Science School underground hangout, “The Boiler Room,” and the audience does it’s best to play along and pretend not to have already figured out that Donnie (a 190-I.Q. lonely-genius with zero social skills) is the bad guy and froze himself as a distraction.

Down Mexico way, Agent Lumley is spotted and quickly snapped-up by the combined efforts of May’s fighting skills and Coulson’s flying car, Lola. Once he learns his captors are S.H.I.E.L.D and not… whoever he’s been hiding from, he’s more than happy to tell them about “The baby girl.”

…wait. Wait a second. We’re not gonna drag this out for the rest of the year? We’re going to get the truth about Skye’s origin now? Right up front??

Yup! 20 years ago, Lumley and Avery were sent to collect an 0-8-4 – S.H.I.E.L.D code for powerful objects of unidentified origin – from a village in China that had been slaughtered trying to protect it. Said object? A baby believed to possess unidentified super-powers. Skye is an undocumented superhuman (of still unknown parentage), and the childhood of constantly-changing foster homes she’d believed was evidence of being chronically-unloved were in fact an elaborate master-plan by associates of Agents Avery and Lumley designed to protect her from unnamed forces that were after her and killing anyone who got in the way. Upon this reveal, Coulson elects to let Lumley slip back into the shadows rather than return him to S.H.I.E.L.D-proper, effectively joining the Protect Skye Club himself.

Back at The Academy, the Boiler Room trio work out that Donnie did the freezing himself, but not fast enough to warn Fitz before he opts to bond with the troubled youth by helping him fix an invention… that turns out to be part of a supersized freeze-bomb. Oh, and he gets knocked-out by Seth, whose been in on the scheme with Donnie the whole time. In fact, they staged the attacks specifically to trick Fitz/Simmons into coming and then into helping them finish the device. It’s probably best not to try and work out how many coincidences and variables that plan is hinging on, I think.

Why build a giant freeze-bomb? Seth’s father is an associate of Ian Quinn, who wants to buy it from them – but not before they run a field-test that goes haywhire and by some logic whips up an instant hurricane directly over S.H.I.E.L.D Academy. Once Fitz is back with the others (and Coulson has a heart-to-heart with Skye as part of his new “no more secrets” policy) it’s time to vertical-land The Bus in the eye of the storm to rescue the two hapless/manipulated science brats; who’ve both just been knocked on their asses by the freeze-bomb exploding when they tried to shut it off. The effects, staging and music here are all yards ahead of the show’s typically lower-tech limitations, but it doesn’t hurt that the “There’s been a superhero among us all along” reveal infuses residual urgency to the rest of the episode.

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Post-rescue fallout? Seth is dead, Fitz feels guilty and Donnie is shipped off to The Sandbox – but not before discreetly realizing that the explosion has granted him ice powers. And so, we have our second Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D supervillain: Blizzard.

As for final stingers: Coulson reassures May that he trusts her not let her no-strings fling with Ward interfere with work, and reveals that Skye – far from being devastated – is actually pretty glad to learn that she was the opposite of hated by all those foster families. Plus, she’s now got like 10 more episodes left in the season to figure out what her crazy-important but undiscovered superpower is. Oh, and Coulson calls up Quinn to let him know that S.H.I.E.L.D is ready and willing to shoot him out of the sky the next time he crosses their jurisdiction (wait – S.H.I.E.L.D respects jurisdictional boundaries now? Since when!?) but he’s not concerned… he’s working for The Clairvoyant.

PARTING THOUGHTS

  • So, the million dollar question is now: Who or what is Skye, now that we know she is at least believed by S.H.I.E.L.D and somebody else to be “more than human” from birth? It’s pointless to speculate that she might be a known Marvel heroine (or villain!) until we’ve at least seen what her powers are, but a popular fan-theory that seemed to emerge immediately is that she’s one of “The Runaways” – a team of young characters estranged from their supervillain parents. If so, likeliest candidates would be Nico Minoru (witch) or Karolina Dean aka “Lucy In The Skye” (alien.)
  • Thus far, Ian Quinn has “accidentally” contributed to the creation of both Graviton and now Blizzard. If we’re going to find out it’s been a plan, it’s the most overcomplicated method of building a supervillain team I’ve ever heard of.
  • Baby Skye (or whatever her real name is) was found in a village in Hunan Province, China, but we don’t know if she was born there. Chloe Bennett (who plays the adult Skye) is of mixed Jewish and Chinese descent, speaks Mandarin and was briefly a pop-music singer in China. Marvel actually does have a notable catalogue of Asian female characters… but the bulk of them are related to the X-Men universe, so they’d be off-limits for Agents of S.H.I.E.LD.
  • Most of the Marvel Universe references in this episode (Bucky Barnes, HYDRA, “Lola,” S.H.I.E.L.D’s origins as the post-WWII reorganization of The Strategic Scientific Reserve) relate back to Captain America. Expect to see more of that, since S.H.I.E.L.D going bad is part of Captain America: The Winter Soldier‘s main plot and lines up nicely with Coulson inching up toward going rogue.
  • One more guess for Skye: Jessica Drew, Spider-Woman. She has one of the most absurdly convoluted, over-retconned backstories in all of Marvel (at one point, she believed that she was actually a common spider evolved-up into a humanoid-looking form by The High Evolutionary) but it usually involves receiving powers at a young age somewhere remote. She’s been both a S.H.I.E.L.D and HYDRA agent, and also has connections to The Skrulls (“Chitauri” in the movieverse.)

NEXT TIME:

Two weeks of re-runs in the near future, but the series will return with a new episode on February 4th which promises an undercover caper on a train, an extended Stan Lee cameo and an “astonishing, series-changing final act” that looks an awful lot like a main character death. It’s already been revealed that actor Bill Paxton will be joining the cast as a new (to the team) Agent for a four-episode arc soon after this, likely as part of water-testing for a retooling should they score a second season (it’d be necessitated anyway if Winter Soldier ends with S.H.I.E.L.D.-proper transformed into something sinister) so some deck-clearing wouldn’t be the biggest shock in the world. If I was placing bets, my money would be on Ward to buy it, since his original role as fight-scene guy has largely been usurped by May and, speaking of May, losing her secret-sexfriend (and maybe realizing she felt something stronger for him after all) would be strong character stuff to work with.

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.

Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.

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