Welcome to the second episode of Agents of SHIELD, where the show really needs to get its butt out of the fire on character development and interaction. The creators of the show themselves have admitted (in a quote that I can’t find at the moment): the second episode of the series is more frightening to make than the first. You’ve already laid out your pieces, now you have to show everyone the game. The SHIELD pilot laid out its pieces, and established its themes (perhaps themes are the board in this metaphor?), but as I mentioned in my last recap, as it stands its characters are mostly flat. The couple of laudable gender swapped tropes should not go without mention, but still, so far all we’ve gotten are tropes, with hints that there’s more to the eye. How is Coulson still alive? What’s Melinda May’s dark secret? How does Skye afford those clothes and that tech when she lives out of a van?
(Personally, I think when she said she lives out of a van by choice, she really meant it, and we’ll eventually get some explanation there, these show runners are simply too smart to assume otherwise.)
Last episode, Agents of SHIELD has showed us all of its toys. Now it’s time for the show to play with them, and well, or risk being the most boring thing of all: a weekly one hour commercial for Marvel Entertainment movies. Now, having written all this before the episode started, lets see what happens.
We open with a teaser: the Bus plows through the
Skye sky, and Coulson says it’s “blue skies from here on out” just before a hole is blown in the side of the plane and a camo-dressed person is sucked out of it.
19 hours earlier Skye is cleaning out her van, which will be placed in SHIELD custody, while Ward and May try to argue Coulson out of letting her tag along as a consultant. She’s a member of the Rising Tide, after all (given her speeches, I’d assumed she was the leader). Coulson points out that she hacked all their stuff, imagine what she could do if she were hacking with their stuff. He’ll accept no arguments to the contrary.
Skye is greeted by the Science Sibs (they can’t be bros because Simmons is a lady, so I’m calling them Siblings). They’re excited to see her at least. There’s only one bunk left and its right next to Fitz. It’s still hard for me to tell if he’s a bit of a puppy around everyone or just Skye. It’s very difficult to see where the shipping lanes are in this character ocean, but I can’t tell if that’s because no love interests are being set up or because we just haven’t gotten around to it yet.
Coulson welcomes Skye to her new home, briefly explaining that it was a gift from Nick Fury after he died at the Battle of New York, who had it retrofitted from the ground up. Their new mission is investigating an 084, an object of unknown origin, just like Skye, he says. The last one he investigated was Thor’s hammer, and I think this is the only joke the episode makes that depends on knowing that it’s a direct reference to any of the movies, which is good because, while I understand why they were there, they were just on the edge of tiring in the first episode.
To Peru, where I am distracted by an aerial view of a totally CGI forest by MELINDA MAY IN TOTALLY BADASS SHADES. They touch down on a dirt runway, roll out in their black as evil SUV, and arrive in an Incan archeological site. Skye brings up one of the episode’s central themes for her character: she doesn’t really have anything to do in the field. She knows about the political situation in the area better than most of the team, but Coulson only wants her there in the event that something terrible happens, so that she can run false information to the public if he needs the area evacuated. Naturally, as a Wikileaker of the Marvel universe, she’s not a big fan of that.
The dig is centered on a ziggurat where the head archeologist has found pre-Incan artifacts, one of which is “impossible.” In fact, I’m glad he’s found any other artifacts at all, since the actual 084 is literally ten feet inside the ziggurat, embedded in a wall. Doesn’t take a specialist to uncover that. Coulson has the guy evac his team, so that we don’t have to worry about them for the rest of the episode. The Science Sibs go to work, noting that the object predates the temple by a millennia.
Ward tries to get May to open up about her combat heavy past as “The Cavalry,” and she has just enough time to tell him not to call her that before they get jumped by a ton of guys in camoflage. Their leader, a badass lady with a scar on her lip, rolls up, and guns get lowered as it turns out she and Coulson know each other from way back in the day. By which I mean they know each other. Phil, you dog. Camila Reyes, of the Peruvian national police, and Phil walk off to have a friendly conversation about jurisdiction: Coulson says that an 084 supersedes all international claims, which is a very interesting hint at the global politics of Marvel’s cinematic universe. The Avengers left it unclear whether SHIELD was a national or multi-national organization. Everybody on it seemed to be American or at least American-nationalized, except for how it could just flounce right into German airspace and stuff.
Anyway, back in the ziggurat (Look, when the world hands you an excuse to use the word ziggurat, you take it), the SSibs have discovered that the 084 has a functioning power source, while Ward needles Skye about being all excited about rebels fighting the government’s mining policies in this area when she’s seen no combat herself, just sat in a van typing all day. He also points out that she doesn’t have a job on the team. TYPING ON THE INTERNET IS A JOB SOME PEOPLE HAVE, WARD, GOD.
Camila and Coulson chat about how she’d like to take the 084 with her, but it’s not his to give, which seems to imply that it is somebody’s to give, but they are interrupted by rebels showing up and just straight up exploding a building. This throws everybody into a “get back to the plane” panic. Ward just grabs the 084 out of the wall, much to the consternation of the SSibs, then he gets them all out of the ziggurat and to the cars by deploying some kind of crazy pulse weapon. Coulson and Camila become a badass whirling ball of firing pistols and everybody drives to the airfield, SHIELD and government police alike, with Fitz, Simmons, and Skye (a grouping I will hereafter collectively refer to as The Kids) jabbering in the backseat about how the object is going to overheat or something. It’s in the Peruvian jungle and a millennia old, you’d think that it’d be better insulated.
Once back on the plane and in the air, somebody finally gets the Science Sibs to explain their stress: the 084 is fueled by tesseract technology, the same stuff that Hydra used in WWII, full of lethal amounts of gamma radiation. They’re all sitting on a plane with something more destructive than a nuclear bomb.
After the commercial break, everybody settles in for the ride to the safe SHIELD containment facility where they can drop the 084 off, though Camila Reyes does her best to recommend a nearby airfield belonging to her people. The first thing Coulson does is apologize to Melinda, “I know you didn’t want to see combat I apologize for that.” Seems like he should have apologized last episode. Then he invites Reyes and her men up to the Bus’ mess for the duration of the flight.
The Science Siblings say the 084 is stable but could explode at any minute. Ward and Fitz have an argument about vocabulary that Coulson has to shut down. Skye guesses that this is their first mission together, and starts throwing shade on their coordination, which is pretty legitimate. She ends by sarcastically saying that she’s as qualified to be team captain as any of them, to which Coulson responds with huge stink eye. Even after his death glare, everybody goes back to sniping at each other until he lays down the law verbally. “You’re all smart, so work it out.”
Next, everybody either broods or socializes, with the Kids all variably freaked out about getting their first dose of combat. The Science Sibs are at least brooding productively, as they figure out that the 084 is a very powerful ray weapon.
Skye also attempts to be productive by mending bridges with Ward. To his credit, he seems to have taken Coulson’s reaction to his annoyance with the gaps in the team members’ specialized lingo gaps to heart, and he explains some of his own to Skye. In turn, Skye explains why she seems excited by the rebels in Peru in a way that seems superficial to him: like the Rising Tide, they are a group that the internet (Twitter, specifically) has brought together. Many people given the ability to collaborate on an old problem by new technology. Ward agrees that their argument was a matter of perspective: he was trained to be a solution unto himself, which leads him to instinctively view the rest of the team as variables rather than collaborators.
Coulson is adorably hosting Camila in his suite at the top of the Bus, showing her his antique retrofuturistic spy equipment. Camila starts coming on to him, and to the show’s credit he immediately recognizes this as out of character for her, and I have to thank the show again for framing “lady using sexy to get something” as something other than typical, stupidly effective, or applicable in every situation. Just… don’t let another female character try to distract a male character by coming on to him next episode, or this is going to look like a trend and I’m going to have to bring out the side eye.
While Coulson’s suspicions are being raised, so are Ward’s, when he notices that none of Reyes’ men have been drinking the drinks they’ve poured. Coulson was counting on this, and as Reyes’ trap springs shut, Ward goes into action. Unfortunately he’s not completely effective in reaching the cockpit and warning Melinda before the Peruvian soldiers gas her unconscious, highjack the Bus, and subdue the SHIELD team. Coulson asks Camila when she decided to betray him and she answers “As soon as I saw your team.”
We return from the commercial break with Reyes softening Coulson up in the mess. She needs him alive to verify their course correction with SHIELD when she turns the Bus towards a Peruvian landing strip. She needs the rest of the team alive to use as leverage against him, so she’s tied them up in the cargo bay and has her finger on the button that will jettison them.
It seems as though even in the SHIELD universe Nazi/Hydra scientists fled to South America after World War II. Camila says the 084 is Hydra work, commissioned by the Peruvian government (which is odd because I thought the SSibs said it was a millennia older than the ziggurat? maybe I misheard that?), and it belongs with them. Coulson tries to Camila the old “it’s a new world, aliens don’t care about national boundaries” talk, but doesn’t get very far. Then Camila starts digging into his handpicked team of babies.
She says that he’s surrounding himself with younger agents because he’s having a midlife crisis (“or afterlife” he mutters) and wants to feel relevant and needed. And I really with that Coulson actually seemed affected by this accusation. Agents of SHIELD has inverted the usual power dynamic that Coulson occupies. Instead of the normal human corralling a series of very powerful people into cooperation with SHIELD, now he’s not only completely in control, rank-wise, of the rest of the main characters, he’s also the closest thing they have to a superhuman: he’s come back from the dead. He’s also not made a single mistake or false judgement in these two episodes and he’s also been uniformly friendly and kind to everybody, unless they’re messing up and then he’s just the right amount of stern. He’s coming off a little invincible and flawless, flattening his character. The central question of Coulson right now is “how did he come back and not know it,” and that doesn’t have anything to do with character exposition or growth, making him actually less interesting than the rest of the team. That’s not something I would have guessed that I’d be saying, given my affection for the character, so I hope it changes soon.
Anyway, in the cargo bay, everybody argues about whose fault it is that they are tied up in the cargo bay, except Melinda, who is still drugged. It comes out that the Science Sibs just think that May is from Administrative, and when Ward explains that she’s “the Cavalry” their expressions turn to awe. Ward and a newly awakened May turn to the Kids to help them figure out a way to retake the Bus, with using some of the new ideas about collaboration he’s learned from Skye. All together now: awwwwwwww.
While everybody argues about method, Melinda dislocates her wrist to get out of the zipties and subdues the guard who’s watching them. Ward gives everyone a pep talk until an impatient Melinda drives the SUV into the locked science bay. Above, even Coulson looks surprised. All of his ducklings go to work, unscrewing hatches, sending Fitz’s drones up them, grabbing harnesses, rope, chains. Naturally this is the moment that SHIELD chooses to ask for confirmation of their course. As one of Fitz’s seven dwarves quietly infiltrates the mess and positions itself next to the 084, Coulson grabs the pillar he’s been tied to and confirms their correction, “repeating” the first line of the episode.
Then Fitz punches the 084, blowing a hole in the side of the Bus, causing the catastrophic decompression that will cause all the doors in the Bus to automatically unlock.
Now Ward goes after the soldiers, Melinda goes to retake the cockpit, and the Kids, lashed together so their lack of combat training makes it harder for them to tumble out into the atmosphere, scramble for the 084. The end result, after a bit of improvisation from Skye, is that Melinda retakes the cockpit, the SSibs secure the 084, Coulson subdues Camila, and Ward, having shut down all the other soldiers, has his life saved by Skye, as she plugs the hole in the Bus with an inflatable life raft. And the episode makes an excellent callback joke with a coaster.
The mission’s all over except for the wrap up, and don’t worry, Lola’s okay. The Bus will get fixed up, Reyes and her men will be taken into SHIELD custody for Peru to negotiate their release, and the 084 will be shot into the sun because it’s too dangerous for any one person or country to have. (This, it has been pointed out to me, is far more efficient than the usual solution: a horrifyingly large warehouse full of terrifying objects.) So yes, I still have questions about whether SHIELD is a national or international organization and if the latter how any country actually agreed to give an international organization decision making power over alien technology finds. I mean, I suppose you could draw a parallel between that sort of agreement and the ones we currently have regarding chemical weapons, but we certainly don’t enforce those agreements with the efficacy or organization of a program like SHIELD.
Anyway, Ward is now optimistic about Skye, and May suggests he train her to be more effective in field missions with innuendo written all over her face, to which Ward is oblivious. Fitz and Simmons invite everybody to drink beers and watch the 084 be SHOT INTO THE SUN. There’s a communal admission to Coulson that blowing a hole in the Bus was everybody’s idea, cementing the idea that this was the episode in which everybody learned to work as a team.
Then Skye gets a secret text message (because apparently unlike Agent Ward her cell phone doesn’t have to get smashed with a hammer) from the Rising Tide asking if they should go dark. So yeah, Skye is definitely not “just a member” of the Rising Tide. She replies “I’m in.” and we go to credits.
This raises a number of questions in my mind, no doubt as intended. Does Skye have money because she’s backed by an evil organization? IS SKYE’s SHTICK ABOUT PEOPLE COMING TOGETHER COVER FOR, LIKE, HYDRA OR AIM?
I’m just saying if there are going to be yellow beekeeper suits on this show, I want advance notice so I can cackle about it.
I also can’t help but wonder if Coulson knows about her backing, and that’s why he was so adamant about her being on the team? I mean, I know I was just asking for a more fallible Coulson, but I’m also into the idea that he’s decided to convert her or use her to get a sense of her organization.
So how do we stand on character exposition this episode? I’m feeling good about Sky and Ward, and to a certain extent May. We let them interact, we let them try to draw out the other characters from their agent badass facades, and I’m happy with the preliminary results. I’d like to see more of that from Coulson as a character, and also I’d like to see more of that from the Science Siblings. I know the whole joke of Fitz and Simmons is that they’re interchangeable, but that’s not actually good character writing for a cast of this size. They need to be more complimentary to each other as characters, not indistinguishable. I hope to see the show continuing to dig more depth into its characters as the season goes on.
(The episode’s “stinger” was, as teased, a visit from Commander Fury himself, frustrated to exhaustion that his One Good Eye Coulson managed to completely bang up his favorite plane when he’d only had it for six days. It’s a cute scene, one that Samuel L. Jackson completely steals, but then, he is Samuel L. Jackson.)
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