Welcome to “T.R.A.C.K.S.,” where nonlinear storytelling is put to good use and all the SHIELD babies have a sad. But I’m getting ahead of myself!
We’re on the bus, and Coulson has a mad on for Ian Quinn, the guy who talks to the guy (or entity) who tortured him. Quinn just bought a very expensive MacGuffin from a company called Cybertek Inc. (a more redundant fictional corporation name I have not heard in a while), and now the two parties in the transaction have to transport the MacGuffin and make a hand off. SHIELD knows how it is being transported: by train through the rural Italian countryside, because Cybertek knows how to plan a fucking op for maximum luxury. And Coulson has hardballed the civilian Italian authorities, represented by an agent/officer named Russo, to hand the case over to his team. Because of how serious Cybertek’s combat ready transport team is, everybody will be boarding the train undercover. The goal is to get in and tag Quinn’s MacGuffin before Cybertek even knows SHIELD is there, so they can use it to track him.
So, Fitz and Skye are an adorable American couple backpacking across Europe. Simmons, recognizing that she’s not good at improvisation, has become that one player in your D&D game that has a backstory one single-spaced page longer than everybody else so that she and Coulson can play dad and daughter transporting mom’s ashes. Ward and May, who says she hates undercover work, are playing the part of a aloof lady and her hot younger boy toy, so nothing like their actual relationship. As soon as they hit “their” private cabin, she pulls off the fur coat to reveal her Black Widow suit.
Ward engages her in talk about how Coulson and Skye have changed, how they seem more driven, and May, who cannot tell anybody anything without making it a conversation bomb, tells him that she told Coulson they’re banging just before she climbs out the window to get on top of the train.
Skye palms a key from a conductor, and she and Fitz sneak into the baggage car to set up their part of the operation. He admits that he could have built a machine to pick the lock, but likes to do things by hand occasionally. Skye needles him about this and he cries that she’s “the least supportive pretend girlfriend I’ve ever had!” The banter this episode really stands out. For those keeping track, it was brought to us by the same writing credits as “The Hub.”
For their part, Simmons starts to loudly and unusually specifically berate Coulson about being a bad husband to her pretend dead mother, but the scene she causes only attracts a Stan Lee cameo, so she keeps at it until a Cybertek guard comes by, and “accidentally” spills her pretend mom’s ashes all over their shoes. The ash left by their subsequent footfalls is a tracking guide for May, who follows on top of the train, and locates the package in the dining car.
Then Coulson and Simmon’s coms go down just as the train slows to take a turn, and a pleasant feminine voice tells all the passengers about the natural feature they’ll be passing soon. Coulson senses something is up and goes to investigate, but finds an empty dining car. Until Ward dashes in, dressed as a conductor, Cybertek nasties on his tail, and tells Coulson they’ve been made. The guys are chased off the back of the train, and the last Cybertek fellow chucks a grenade at them. It explodes in a puff of blue gas, and the train disappears.
And now the episode does the first of its jumps back in time to the moment that the train slowed and announced a sightseeing feature. This was a recurring motif in the episode, and it worked great. More inventive storytelling structures, please! It’s okay for the show itself to make jokes about everybody standing around the holotable talking over the mission after the show logo fades, but it should also subvert that expectation from time to time.
What Happened to Ward
So, as the train slows, Ward, newly dressed as a conductor, heads to the revealed location of the package to tag it with a tracker, even though coms are down. He gets waylaid by a couple Cybertek goons and they fight. Hooray for female henchmen who aren’t a villain’s girlfriend! He defeats them but knows they’ve been made, so he goes to find Coulson, only to find Simmons and an empty seat. He gives her the bad news that Cybertek is on to them, and tells her to go hide in the baggage car with Fitz and Skye, then he meets up with Coulson, they dive off the train, and we’re back to the present.
Mystified by the vanishing train (a cloak? portals?), they reassure themselves that at least May is with the kids, until Ward finds her tracking goggles on the ground near them. Cybertek has taken out their phones, too, so they must have known they were coming, but they can’t figure how. Cue some guys rolling up in black SUVs (A. impressive for somewhere in rural Europe, and B. how did they know they weren’t SHIELD black SUVs? C. because SHIELD puts their freakin logo on everything, how could I forget), and Ward and Coulson book it out of there, finding a suspicious/fortuitous truck that’s already hot-wired and running in the nearby vineyard and making it back to the Bus.
Yeah, it’s pretty obvious that the truck has something to do with May, but I was entertained by the eventual explanation.
Coulson calls his Italian contact Russo, who has had his own bad day. He says that Cybertek (man, it is so difficult for me to type Cybertek and not Cyberdyne) caught him and his men at that station. He’ll look for where the train could have ended up. Coulson hands Ward the remains of the grenade that made the train vanish, and tells him to figure out what it is.
Cut to a scene of Ward, and then Ward and Coulson, being completely, hilariously unable to make the holotable work. Eventually they give up and just upload the specs to headquarters. Ward decides that this is a good moment to tell Coulson that if it had been up to him, Coulson wouldn’t know about his extracurricular activities with Agent May.
Digression: I just want to say, despite the next few paragraphs, it is understandable, even right, for Ward to be annoyed that May told Coulson without talking to him about it first. When you’re in a relationship that’s on the DL so that you don’t make life awkward for folks around you (awkward, that is, not, you know, grounds for destroying your other relationships. Cheating is a whole ‘nother bag of nonsense), it is reasonable to expect your partner to communicate when they want to tell someone outside your relationship that it exists, especially if it’s somebody you would reasonably be nervous about telling. That said, the person Ward needs to talk to about his annoyance isn’t Coulson, it’s May, which brings me back to the scene:
Coulson says, Well, it’s happening on my Bus, Ward, so it’s kind of respectful that I know. Ward gets all “well, technically we didn’t actually do it on the Bus, so…” and Coulson gives him a big fat are-you-my-combat-agent-or-are-you-a-dumbass-teenager look. Then he lays down the law.
See, Ward hasn’t just expressed that he would totally do something against SHIELD protocol under his superior officer’s nose, he is also banging his superior’s best friend. Coulson, who told May that she and Ward are adults who can make their own decisions, tells Ward that if he cocks this up, he will send him to Alaska to scrub toilets, basically. And then he makes my favorite point in the whole episode: “And if it’s really just sex, Ward, you should get more comfortable using the word.” SING IT, COULSON.
Then Russo shows up, a battle damaged May shows up behind him, STABS HIM IN THE BACK, and tells the boys that they are leaving in five minutes.
What Happened to May
While the train begins to slow, the Cybertek guys in the dining car start to move with the package. One of them pops out of the car behind May and starts shooting at her. With no cover, she pulls a parachute cord and peaces off the train like a passenger with no ticket, and I don’t even care that her combat outfit includes heels, that’s how much of a badass she is in this episode. Following the tracks, she locates Coulson and Ward, who are unconscious, unresponsive, and frozen in place where they fell after jumping from the train.
Dropping her goggles, she searches the vineyard for a way to get all three of them out of the area, finding and hot-wiring the little flatbed truck from earlier, only to be found by Russo and a bunch of bad guys in black SUVs. He knocks her out and she wakes up strung up in the winery. Turns out Russo is Cybertek’s inside guy in the Italian authorities: he makes sure that their deliveries make it through, and he wants to know where Coulson and Ward are.
And just when I think that I’m getting a really nice Xena vibe off of May this episode, Russo stabs her in the shoulder and twists, by way of torturing her. Her response: “That’s just what I needed.” He turns away and she does a flipping pull-up to get the knife in her to her hands, takes out EVERYBODY, follows Russo to the Bus, and murders the everliving fuck out of him in front of her coworkers.
Then she explains that he was a betraying fuckhead and goes to take a shower.
She shuts down Ward when he offers to stitch her up, but when Coulson finds her doing it herself with out anesthesia, he makes her sit down and let him take care of what looks like a really fake wound to me that does not correspond with how she was stabbed, but I’m the furthest thing from an expert here, so I’ll let it slide. Coulson doesn’t even wind up stitching it, he just puts some topical anesthetic on it and then covers it with a bandage. Is this magical SHIELD wound technology?
Anyway, this scene does two other things: Coulson establishes that the train, which just switched tracks while he and Ward were under the effects of the weird grenade, has been found by SHIELD satellites. Also, Ward walks in on Coulson “stitching” May up and it’s framed like he walked in on them being intimate. Is Ward seriously jealous that May is okay with one of her oldest friends stitching her up when he insists, but not okay with, say, being vulnerable with her non-romantic fling and subordinate?
Patched up and reunited, the grown ups head out to the train, which is empty, no sign of the kids, until they enter the baggage car and are nearly Nite Nite-ed by Simmons.
What Happened to the Kids
In the baggage car, as the train slows, Skye asks Fitz several specific questions about 084s, like, “can they be a person.” He hasn’t heard of any, but says that the thing 084s all have in common is that they’re dangerous. Then their coms go down and their laptops scramble, and a Cybertek guard busts in. They fight, until Simmons reaches the baggage car (sent their by Ward earlier), and the guard pulls out another blue gas grenade. Simmons grabs the mercenary so that they both functionally fall on the grenade, knocking them both unconscious.
Fitz confirms that the grenade technology is based on their own Nite Nite tech. He and Skye know that they two of them have to get out of there, but take the time to lock the mercenary in a box, and leave Simmons with a spare NN gun. Then the train stops completely, and they spy the MacGuffin being transferred to a car. They know they’re not full combat agents with no way to contact HQ, but since they have a spare tracker, they decide to follow.
No explanation of how they followed a car on foot, but eh.
They are lead to a lovely Italian mansion, just as Quinn and his entourage show up. They activate the tracker, to clue SHIELD in, and then decide that they have to go in, the two of them, to a building full of mercenaries that just successfully stymied their entire team, because “we can’t let Quinn get away again.” Guys, he’s in the building. He’s definitely got to leave in that car. It’s unclear why this is so so urgent, but again, eh. Fitz goes to disable the cars and Skye heads into the building.
Seems like if she actually succeeds in taking Quinn hostage, a working car would be a nice thing to have; or conversely they could just both disable all the cars to give SHIELD more time to show up, but it’s just really important to the plot that Skye go in there alone, I guess. This would make more sense if they didn’t have a tracker and so knew there was no backup coming, but then the writers would have had to come up with another way for the rest of the team to know where they are a few scenes from now. But I digress.
Skye manages to sneak into the wine cellar, to find the MacGuffin unattended on a table, next to what I referred to in my notes as “some kinda iron lung looking thing.” I’m just saying, I wasn’t far off and I’m proud of that. Inside the barometric chamber lies Mike Peterson. Then Quinn, tipped off by the Clairvoyant somehow, shows up to ruin everything.
He disarms Skye, and lets Peterson out of his box, telling him “You have your orders. I brought you something that’s going to help you complete them.” Turns out this episode’s MacGuffin was a bionic leg to replace Peterson’s lost one, and it’s horribly painful to apply, because it’s evil science. Because Ian Quinn is the kind of villain who asks pretty ladies to freshen his drink while he sits on his private plane, he now starts to test the limits of Peterson’s obedience.
So yes, Ian, the Clairvoyant’s orders mean that Peterson can’t hurt you, even if you try to hurt him. And no, he won’t kill Skye because he hasn’t been ordered to, so he leaves. Then Skye tries to give Quinn a taste of some famous last moral words from a good guy to a bad guy, and he shoots her. Twice. On the orders of the Clairvoyant. He leaves her to die slowly.
And the show really wants us to take the idea of Skye dying seriously. This isn’t May’s badass but frankly ludicrous feats of strength and dexterity after being stabbed in the shoulder. This is pretty visceral and sad.
Meanwhile, Mike Peterson deals with mutiny among the Cybertek mercenaries: he’s wearing their leg but they still haven’t seen their money and they want to talk to Quinn. But the Clairvoyant isn’t happy that they led SHIELD to this operation, so he beats all of them up. The sound of a man being tossed through a window alerts Fitz, but before he can dash in alone, the rest of the team arrives.
Quinn seems resigned to this, perhaps, and even Peterson is ordered to get out of there rather than engaging the team. In apprehending him, Coulson sees the blood on Quinn’s hands, and, in good villain form, Quinn taunts him about Skye. Coulson pistol whips him like a good stressed out military dad, and goes to find his dying SHIELD daughter so that Clark Gregg can make me feel real sad. Ow, my dad feels.
Skye is very, very close to death, and they’re nominally in the middle of nowhere, so they load her into Peterson’s barometric chamber, temporarily stabilize her, and drag it and Quinn back to the Bus. Simmons says Skye will need to be out of stasis inside an advanced medical facility in four hours or she will certainly die. And then everybody has an end of episode cliffhanger sad: Simmons and Fitz cling to each other, Coulson won’t leave Skye’s side, and Ward stomps away from the science bay just like in FZZT because he can’t deal with not being able to protect people.
May goes out to give him the “it’s not your fault” talk, even touching his hand, and he looks her in the eye and goes “ha ha, no, this is totally Coulson’s fault.” So that’s some good growth, yes, Ward, but maybe not expressed in the right way.
Stinger: Peterson watches a playground, writes on a notepad for his bionic eye “Can I please see my son?.” “Not yet” is the answer, as the camera zooms in on his leg to where it is branded “Project Deathlok” and the music gets dramatic for reasons only comics readers will get genuinely excited about.
SHIELD has certainly taken a while to get to a point where I could say it had two really decent episodes in a row, but now that it’s happened, I’m not complaining. This episode was full of tight dialogue, and while moving all of the show’s overall plot elements forward, it also seems like it’s laid the groundwork for new ones.
Let’s move on to a couple nitpicks: it’d have been nice if the episode had lampshaded why Peterson needed a barometric chamber. We saw him wake up in a regular room just a few episodes ago. Presumably this is how the Clairvoyant ships him from place to place, as his extensive facial scarring (the Clairvoyants own fault, really) makes him pretty memorable even if he does hide the bionic leg.
At no point in this episode did I really feel like the train was traveling through the middle of nowhere. Maybe I’m wrong and thriving Italian vineyards (as opposed to the California one where this episode was undoubtedly filmed) are always a million miles from anywhere, but I never really believed it and it sort of undercut some of the drama.
As my final point of criticism, lets talk about Deathlok. Seriously? Your only recurring POC guest star, and they wind up with their life ruined, full of cybernetic parts, being used as a tool of the ultimate bad guy? It’s a fine plot twist, or would be, if your show was generally more diverse.
(Also, just so everybody’s on the same page, with Skye unconscious, it is left unclear whether the rest of the team is aware that Peterson was even there or that the MacGuffin was a leg. Unless Quinn tells them, which is not a likely enough event to just assume it’s happened.)
I’ve said previously that I was fine with May/Ward if it didn’t get full of drama, but now that it seems like they’re beginning to head down that path, I’m not so sure there aren’t some exceptions to that rule. For starters: Ward spends this episode being upset about things that are reasonable to be upset about. May, characteristically for her non-communicative history, betrayed his trust by telling someone outside their relationship, a man he respects, and his superior officer about his sex life, something that he clearly considers very private. He’s got a right to be unhappy about that. What the writers seem to have him doing, however, is projecting his unhappiness further then he actually needs to, which is also in character.
May has betrayed his trust. He’s also recently noticed that Coulson and Skye appear to have fundamentally changed in ways that he doesn’t understand. Then when he tries to explain himself and his relationship and how careful he’s been about it to Coulson, Coulson tries to get Ward to understand that his reluctance to reveal his relationship with May does not actually come from a place of practicality or professional behavior, but one of insecurity. Ward doesn’t get what Coulson is really trying to say, and just sees it as being shut down and disapproved of. Then, May shuts down his attempt to be kind (and protective, remember Ward’s feelings about protecting everybody) to her. Then he finds her accepting the same kindness from Coulson. It’s no wonder that he’s so cranky by the end of “T.R.A.C.K.S.” He’s misinterpreting the actions of his colleagues, of course, but he’s still cranky.
Though he’s come out of his shell a bit, remember that Ward is ultimately described as someone who doesn’t “play well with others.” Put that together with May, who doesn’t communicate, and you might have a non-romantic sexual relationship that can descend into drama because of a clearly presented incompatibility between partners, thus demonstrating the wrong way to have a non-romantic sexual relationship, rather than demonizing them as a whole. If the show can actually manage to do that, my hat is off to it.
Also are we moving towards a May/Coulson pairing here? That smile when she realized Coulson wasn’t dead by the train tracks did not go unnoticed by me. Don’t do it SHIELD I was joking when I called them SHIELD Mom and SHIELD Dad they are much better as friends okay?