MARVEL’S AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.” is still on hiatus to make room for the Winter Olympics, so finding material for these recap slots is something of a challenge. Last week, we had a roster of hoped-for character appearances. This week? Well, we’ll go back to recapping – in this case, recapping the (roughly) half of a season that’s already gone by.
The rule of thumb with pilots for genre shows is that they quickly become unrecognizably lackluster, because nothing has really settled into it’s most functional form yet in terms of character. Most of this debut holds up, but the series’ early penchant for misdirection makes it feel even more sleight than the mid-90s syndicated TV cheeseball sensibility that future episodes often seem to aspire toward: No less than four of the major plot points established here (Coulson’s resurrection, Skye’s questionable loyalties, Ward/Skye as a potential couple and the true nature of The Rising Tide) have all now been unveiled as red herrings. Strongest stuff remains Clark Gregg’s reliable deadpan, Fitz/Simmons’ appealing dork-banter and J. August Richards’ affecting turn as hard-luck superhuman Mike Peterson.
“0-8-4,” in which The Agents go looking for an alien artifact but find an old HYDRA weapon instead, more or less provides the template for what “filler episodes” are going to be like on “AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.”, which is to say (in part) that it’s kind of disposable and not very good. For those of you too young to have known a world where 90% of television shows weren’t 20-hour movies broken up in pieces to be binge-watched on Netflix/DVR/etc, “filler episodes” are the ones that just kind of occupy-space without advancing the broader mythos or working a major ratings stunt.
The series here introduces its first new supervillain, which is to say it introduces a scientist with the same name as Graviton and ends with a tease that he’ll be Graviton at some future date. The real big-deal for this installment is the introduction of Ian Quinn, aka Evil Steve Jobs, a series-original recurring nemesis. Meeting Quinn was here framed as an eye-opening moment for Skye, i.e. hearing her “hacktivist” open-info idealism used to justify the actions of a corporatist crook, which feels vaguely like a missed opportunity now that Rising Tide turns out to have been so much misdirection. They were also still doing “maybe he’s a robot?” jokes about Coulson at this point, and we got our first reference to Ward’s evil(?), yet-unseen older brother.
At the time, I called “EYE SPY” “the first legitimately great episode of the series,” and I stand by that – this one really cooks. It builds the series mythos by introducing the titular eyeball implants that feed C.E.N.T.I.P.E.D.E.’s foot-soldiers information and commands (and fry their brains if they disobey,) it has The Agents all being useful and entertaining and I really like the nods to Marvel’s Sternako-era cloak and dagger weirdness like the (still unexplained) heavily-guarded vault containing two guys, two typewriters and a blackboard of equations.
Another good episode that holds up. The business about the titular “girl,” (recurring C.E.N.T.I.P.E.D.E. minion Raina) trying to steal fire-powers from a street-level superhuman by offering turn him into a superhero named Scorch is disposable but a lot of fun, while dropping the Rising Tide storyline in favor of revealing Skye’s true “infiltrate S.H.I.E.L.D. to find my lost birth parents” goals ultimately turned out to be among the series best voice-finding developments. Speaking of good worldbuilding, this episode also features the first mention of another still-running series mystery: The existence of an unseen master-villain called “The Clairvoyant” despite the other characters repeated insistence that psychic-powers aren’t something that’s yet been documented in the Marvel Universe.
Another filler episode, but an amusing one because it’s the first time the by-now fan-fave Fitz/Simmons duo got a feature story largely to themselves. The setup (a contagious electrocution-disease being spread by contact to discarded Chitauri helmet taken as a souvenir by Battle of New York first-responders) is a long way to go for a ticking-clock find the cure scenario, but payoff in terms of watching the bits and pieces of this silly, defiantly lightweight series reassemble for a tense bit of drama works.
Another not-great filler episode with a potentially nifty conceit (Ward/Skye and Fitz/Simmons swap pairings for a joint undercover mission) that doesn’t pay off. On the plus side, Saffron Burrows makes a nice ice-queen debut as Victoria Hand and the “Skye’s Parents” mystery proved to have real legs in terms of long-term dramatic tension.
This turned out to be a breaking-point episode for a lot of viewers when the much-publicized tie-in with “THOR: THE DARK WORLD” turned out to be largely incidental. That’s too bad, because it’s still one of the better episodes thus far. The always delightful Peter MacNicol’s turn as a blue-collar Asgardian happily wandering Earth as an under-the-radar immortal is a fun use of Marvel Universe resources and the berserker-magic fight sequences are a series highlight. Time will tell if the continued slow drip of backstory about Ward’s abused childhood will be worth the buildup, of course, but the big turn – May inviting Ward (who up to this point kept being positioned as eventual romantic partner of either Skye or Simmons) to be Friends With Benefits – remains the series’ most agreeable surprise development. Not that it should be a surprise for a TV series to position an actress in her 50s as capable of wooing and winning the Resident Hot Guy, but it is.
Another filler episode, frustratingly working in a bad version of the kind of “TWILIGHT ZONE”-esque one-off mysteries that should be the show’s strong suit: The Agents scoop up a young woman who appears to have destructive telekinetic powers, but it turns out she’s actually being stalked by the “ghost” of an infatuated (and possibly mentally-handicapped?) repairman who was dimensionally-displaced by an explosion at (basically) The Local Science Factory. Good setup, weak execution.
This was the series’ last new episode before the regular network TV winter break, so all the stops came out: Raina returns with a small army of C.E.N.T.I.P.E.D.E. commandos, The Agents brought in a newly S.H.I.E.L.D.-backed Mike Peterson for muscle, Coulson wound up kidnapped and Mike (apparently) died. Like a lot of schedule-mandated cliffhanger episodes in other series, “THE BRIDGE” is passably entertaining but doesn’t feel very vital now that it’s setups (mainly that the bad guys have been trying to get their hands on Coulson to steal the secret of his ressurection) have all paid off.
There’s no two ways about it: This was the big, anticipated “Here’s what happened to Coulson” reveal… and it was a letdown, somewhat in execution (it’s not one of the better episodes, really) but definitely in terms of the basic rule of mystery-writing that the truth has to be more interesting than the red herrings. I almost wonder if they’d already figured out awhile back that the (presumably early-decided) outcome wasn’t going to go over well and opted to minimize the backlash: In flashbacks to Coulson’s make-not-dead-anymore surgeries, we see him doing his best Johnny Got His Gun, but with a repeated plea of “Let me die…” instead of “Kill me.” The phrasing is oddly specific, and I wonder if we were at one point meant to see a redacted quote of this (“L__ M_ D__”) as one last bit of misdirection to make us think that the Robot Theory was true, and that perhaps they decided to nix that because fans would likely have been even more ticked off. It’s not a terrible episode, in the end, but there’s no denying that it did more than anything to cement “We thought _____ was going to be a cool thing from the comics and instead it was ____” as a reigning narrative for the show’s place in fandom chatter. From this point forward, if “AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.” is to succeed, it will be because it either bounced back from or found a way to transcend having hyped-up a (self-created) loose end from “THE AVENGERS” and failing to stick the landing.
This is the best episode of the entire series up to now. The setting (S.H.I.E.L.D’s version of Hogwarts for school-aged Agent prospects) is interesting, the backdoor-origin for another Marvel supervillain (Donald Gill, aka Blizzard) plays out well, the FX sequences are impressive, the new status quo (Coulson is mad at S.H.I.E.L.D.-proper for lying to him and wants to start breaking the rules) and the B-story (Coulson and May running down Skye’s still-hidden backstory) is compelling as hell. For a change, one of the series’ “big reveals” actually was a big, show-changing reveal: Skye is a human “0-8-4,” an undocumented/unknown (even to herself) superhuman who was protected in secret by S.H.I.E.L.D. Agents as a baby. If they can keep hitting this level of quality, the show has a real shot.
This was the most recent episode, so a summary feels less necessary. Ian Quinn is officially simpatico with C.E.N.T.I.P.E.D.E., who has also rebuilt Mike Peterson into “Deathlok” and Skye’s yet-untapped super powers evidently do not include being bulletproof – leaving her mortally wounded with saving her from death teased as the new mission for when the series returns in March. It’s a good episode, with good signs of a series finding proper/permanent footing now that the mission has changed from “live off The Avengers table scraps” to “set the pins for Captain America 2.”
Thus far, only the titles and details of two forthcoming episodes have been revealed: EPISODE 14: “TAHITI” will find The Agents going rogue to break into S.H.I.E.L.D.’s upper-echelons (a folder marked “Clearance Level 10” is seen in promos) looking for a way to heal Skye’s injuries from the previous adventure – likely on the assumption that if Coulson can come back so can she. This will also mark the debut of Bill Paxton, joining the series for a four-episode stint as a former superior of Agent Ward. After that is EPISODE 15: “YES MEN,” in which the team will encounter Thor comics nemesis Lorelei (model/actress Elena Satine) and Thor movie sidekick Lady Sif (Jamie Alexander). In the comics, Lorelei’s main gimmick is magical-seduction of any man, so this is probably a “girls have to save the boys” storyline – that should be fun.