Agents of SHIELD Recap: The Pilot

Recap
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I trust you all watched Agents of SHIELD last night? Enjoyed that extended Thor promo? Caught the brief second of Heimdall kicking butt because, yeah, if you have Idris Elba in your movie you better freakin’ use him? Good. Lets get down to business. Just one more thing:

For the duration of these recaps this recappper will be spelling S.H.I.E.L.D. “SHIELD.” Because it is not National Punctuation day any more.

Ladies and gentlemen, may I discuss for a moment the silly thrill I experienced at seeing the animated Marvel logo come up on television? Okay, that’s enough of a moment.

Skye, voiceovering Anonymous-like, pulls us into the post-Avengers universe (remember The Avengers? it feels so long ago, and yet, the only thing standing between it and this show is Iron Man 3) where heroes and monsters are among us and SHIELD can’t keep it secret any more.
We come down to earth to find Mike Peterson (though we won’t find out his name for a bit) and son, buying a hot dog. The show establishes quickly that they’ve got a lot of love but no money and then a building explodes. Mike quickly moves into hero mode, finding a concealed alley, throwing his hoodie up, punching and kicking handholds into the bricks, rescuing a pretty, fainting white lady from the blast just like a nice photo op. Cell phones are out all over the street, but only one of the bystanders manages to get a look at his face before he sneaks out of there with his son, and that’s our hacker, online movement leader, Skye.

The title screen of the show takes us to Paris, where Agent Ward is attempting to recover a piece of Chitauri technology, using some fancy technology of his own. Also beating plenty of people up as the implied hired escort of the guy who was going to sell the thing rolls her eyes at the chaos, puts normal clothes on, and leaves calmly. He eventually beats up everybody and the entire kitchen and then hitches a ride on that helicopter from all the trailers.

Next stop, Maria Hill’s debriefing room, where she asks him all kinds of questions about what he recovered and about the mission of SHIELD because a discussion of such things is vital to setting up the themes of the episode. “We’re the line between the world and the much weirder world,” implied is that the world is not ready for the weirder world or its technology, since it is having enough trouble adjusting from a world with Tony Stark in it to a world with a resurrected legendary World War II hero, a giant green monster, and a literal god.

“I don’t think Thor is technically a god.” “Mm, you haven’t been near his arms.”

Some time is spent in concern for the Rising Tide, a troublesome hacker group and then we get the Coulson Reveal! He was never dead in the first place, Director Fury faked his death to motivate the Avengers and sent him on vacation to Tahiti with a physical therapist. He wants Ward for his new team.

Right now, that team’s first job is to find Mike Peterson, now known only as the Hooded Hero. Right now, the people with the best intel on him are the Rising Tide, which is pretty unusual, because SHIELD is SHIELD and they have serving platters that can see through walls. Coulson wants to use them to get Peterson. Ward expresses that he’s a poor guy for the job due to his social skills. Coulson agrees, adding, significantly, “Given your family history I’m surprised it’s not worse.” But then Shepard mother loving Book walks on screen and I become unstuck in time.

Ron Glass’ character is actually Dr. Streiten and he’s cleared all of Coulson’s team for action, so Ward doesn’t have a choice. Ward and Coulson leave so that Hill and Dr. “Shepard Book” Streiten can drop the big plot bomb: they know something Coulson doesn’t know about his “death.” He was definitely not in Tahiti, and he can “never know” what really happened.

GUYS WHAT IF BUDAPEST IS LIKE TAHITI AND THAT’S WHY THEY REMEMBER IT DIFFERENTLY?

Meanwhile, Skye has tracked down Mike Peterson to a diner where he’s going through the want ads and watching news footage of the nice lady he saved asking the police where her rescuer went. Skye slides into the booth with him and does a terrible job of concealing how excited she is to be talking to somebody with superpowers. Mike is very weirded out by this enthusiastic girl telling him all about how he’s in danger of shady government people coming to “clean” him up so he should let her erase his current identity so he can go public with a superheroic one. SHIELD cleaned up the Battle of New York overnight, she says, it won’t take them long to reach him. “With great power,” she says, “comes a ton of weird crap.” Nice dodge of a licensing violation there, Marvel Entertainment. Mike’s out of this conversation as soon she admits that she’s an internet weirdo who lives in a van (“by choice”), but not before Skye pick pockets his ID.

Coulson’s next stop is Melinda. “I’m not going back in the field,” she maintains, because that’s what all the stoic retired-due-to-a-deep-dark-secret Agent Badasses who are almost always, but not in this case, men say. Coulson assures her that she’s just driving The Bus, but she only really appears to start paying attention when he mentions that there won’t be a lot of red tape, but it doesn’t matter anyway because she’s in the military and he’s ordering her onto his team.

On The Bus, the massive, incredibly noticeable plane veritably covered in the SHIELD logo (real subtle) Ward acquaints himself with Fitz (the man) and Simmons (the woman) who are yelling science at each other and play the nerds who never have time to explain anything to anyone who isn’t on their level quite well. Two notable lines stand out here, “I’m not Hermione, I can’t create instant paralysis with that,” and “Excited to be going on our journey into mystery?” Coulson drives up in Lola, Melinda announces their departure time like a good captain, and the gang’s all here. Ward questions Melinda’s place on the team… or perhaps her suspiciously tertiary place on the team, but essentially we know Melinda has a very serious reputation of some kind. Our gallant heroes adventure off to…

…find Skye in the middle of recording a manifesto and shove a black bag over her head. She’s taken to an interrogation room where Coulson attempts to get her to admit that she knows who the Hooded Hero is. Even though he graciously allows her to continue to go by a pseudonym, she doesn’t trust that he’ll use that information to actually help Peterson, and I feel like the episode has done a pretty good job establishing, through Skye, that public perception of SHIELD is not the greatest. And Ward, even considering stated personal problems with social skills, is still treating this case of finding and helping an unemployed single parent like stealing alien technology back from a rich, escort hiring, international criminal.

Ward accuses her of blowing up the building at the beginning of the episode in order to draw Peterson out for footage. Skye retorts that it’s typical that they’d want to cover up “Project Centipede” and quickly realizes that she’s the only person in the room who knows what that is. Turns out she was in the neighborhood because she’d traced various scientific expenditures to that building. She and Ward get in an argument about the necessity of secrets where he calls her a “sweaty cosplay girl” (Ooh, Grant, that is not how one goes about making friends in this fandom) and I love that that’s the point at which Coulson thinks his junior agent has gone to far, and pulls him aside for a time out.

Coulson and Ward argue briefly about whether she’s annoying or an asset, and how it’s going to be very difficult to get her to trust them, until Phil points out that they don’t know anything about her, and they’re SHIELD. Then he pulls out a Noisy Cricket. I’m just saying, that’s what it looked like. The Noisy Cricket is full of very serious truth serum and after explaining that to Skye, he injects Ward with it. “It did hurt a little. I was masking my pain in front of a beautiful woman so as not to seem unmasculine. Damn, that works quickly.” Coulson invites Skye to ask Ward anything she likes, and locks them in. And let me just say: If you’re going to have a female character make her cleavage more obvious and invade the personal space of someone in order to distract them during interrogation, I will thank you for establishing first that that female character has just been told very explicitly that this is an effective way of enhancing her questioning for this particular subject. And not, you know, implying that all men are crippled by their own libidos or that sex appeal is the female substitute for intimidation. Thank you.

While all this is going on, Melinda, Fitz, and Simmons have been going over the scene of the explosion. They discover that the floor that detonated was a highly secure scientific laboratory. Between Simmons plucking at a charred corpse and Fitz deploying his collection of forensic drones (adorably named after the Seven Dwarves), they discover a security camera that may still have footage of what happened just before the blast, and a strange, alien compound.

While both of those things are going on, Mike is arguing with a mysterious doctor on the phone, about how he needs to lay low, and not reveal the doctor’s “work,” visualized in the form of a centipede-like alien implant on his arm. The next we see of him, he’s returned to his old job at “the factory” where he was fired without workman’s comp. His boss refuses to rehire him, no matter how many times he says he’s stronger now, and Peterson throws a tantrum as only a guy with superstrength and limited invulnerability can. “I’m not the bad guy,” protests his boss. “It’s simple now,” Peterson answers, a good man buckling under stress and a failed last resort plan, “you’re the bad guy, and I’m the hero.”

When we return from commercial, Agent Coulson’s gesture of non-consensually drugging his coworker has convinced Skye to trust him, so she hands over the ID he snatched. Michael Peterson was injured on the job, laid off, and his wife left. Project Centipede must have given him his superpowers. Simmon’s alien compound turns out to be dripping with gamma radiation. The footage that Fitz collected from the lab is corrupted and without sound, but Skye had a mic pointed at one of it windows for the same time period: if they can merge the two, they can get a good picture of what happened. Skye’s encryption is linked to GPS, she has to get her van back to that alley before she can access the files, so Melinda takes her.

Meanwhile, Mike Peterson walks into the hospital room to visit the pretty lady he rescued. Has he had an attack of conscience after beating up his boss? NO THE PRETTY BLANK VICTIM LADY IS ACTUALLY THE SCIENTIST WHO GAVE HIM HIS POWERS, the show’s strongest use of misdirection by genre convention so far. She’s very angry that he exposed the program by saving her and then blowing up at his boss. Some very scary people gave her the technology she used to enhance him and the others, and they don’t want it generally known. He needs to disappear. “This is a disaster,” she spits. “No,” he responds, “it’s an origin story,” and leaves through the window.

I’m pretty sure this version of the Marvel Universe has fictional Captain America comics, but I’m curious what else, if the genre convention of “origin story” is widespread enough for characters to cite it.

Skye and Melinda have transmitted the audio back to Fitz and Simmons, who use it to create a hologram of the whole scene in the laboratory, with SCIENCE. They depict another implant equipped patient arguing with another doctor (presumably the corpse found in the lab) and then exploding violently. Between that and Simmons’ study of materials, they now know that Project Centipede is an attempt to combine Chitauri tech, gamma radiation, the best research on Captain America’s super soldier serum, and Extremis (Coulson: “It’s new.”)into one package. It’s imperative to find Peterson before he explodes and takes innocent people with him, and Coulson orders Fitz and Simmons to do what Tony Stark couldn’t do in garage with a box of scraps: find a cure for Extremis so that Ward doesn’t have to shoot him.

At this point, Mike Peterson and son find Skye’s van. He subdues Melinda, and hijacks Skye, presuming that he’s just saved her from scary government people, so that he can take her up on her offer of erasing him so he and his son can start a new life. His skin is also flashing extremis red. Under the cover of erasing Peterson’s identity (it’s implied that Skye has done this before, for herself), Skye takes the first opportunity to cause an electronic security breach on the Bus, complete with the current gps coordinates of her van, so that Coulson et al. know where she and Peterson are.

And I think that’s all the set up for our final action sequence of the episode. Evil Science Doctor arrives on the scene with a shotgun toting lackey, it’s left unclear how they found the place, whether Peterson told them he’d be leaving, if they’ve got a GPS device in his implant, or if they were just listening to police scanners. Shotgun guy definitely wants to kill Peterson, who assumes that shotgun guy, Ward, and Coulson are all part of the same black-clad government entity (maybe SHIELD should consider a color change?) despite their efforts to talk to him.

The upshot of all the train station mayhem (excepting a brief humorous moment where Skye manipulates one of those multi-ethnic street gangs that only seem to appear in comic books into getting into a fight with Peterson), is that the SHIELD team manages to separate Peterson from his son, neutralize shot gun guy, and get him to talk relatively calmly to Coulson as Ward draws a bead on him with his scary sniper rifle. Oh, and Fitz and Simmons have been doing some science, you know.

It’s in this moment that the show lays out the themes that it’ll be playing with (or maybe not, but this is the pilot, so if these aren’t the themes of the show there’s some serious miscommunication going on). Sure, Peterson says “If I’m a good person. If I’m strong. It matters,” when Coulson tells him about the effects of Extremis, and this is only a slight reframing of the way Extremis actually works, as set up in Iron Man 3, where only people with great willpower could become stable Extremis addicts.

More importantly, he also talks about societal promises and hard work (“If we worked hard, if we did right, we’d have a place”) rendered meaningless in the face of the existence of real superhumans, but by making him a character of color it’s impossible to ignore the shade that’s being thrown here on the racial income gap in America or the insistence by some politicians that social safety net programs simply encourage people to be lazy. And Coulson’s answer continues that implication, actually using the word “privilege” to describe the superheroes he’s walked alongside.

I’m not trying to imply that Agents of SHIELD is delivering the expert political commentary of our day, but it’s good for a show that is about the human world’s reaction to the superhuman wholeheartedly embrace political allegory. It’s very good, because frankly to do otherwise is, in my opinion, somewhat contrary to the entire idea of superheroes.

Anyway, Coulson wraps up his pep talk with the usual explanation of the real strength of superheroes that mainstream adaptations like to stand by: “It’s not what they have, but what they do with it. It matters what you are.” and then Ward shoots Peterson with a SCIENCE BULLET. Simmons and Fitz pulled through with their Extremis cure and everybody gets really relieved in slow motion.

In the episode’s denouement, Coulson report to Hill, and he and Skye go to drop off Peterson’s son with his aunt and cousin, letting them know “his father is coming home” soon. Coulson offers Skye a place at SHIELD which she is cautious about but we know she’ll take it because she’s a main cast member, and we end with the standard “we got a new assignment” end cap, and the nonstandard flying car. I love how when Lola goes to flight mode her hood ornament flips to a SHILED logo, because clandestine spy organization? What are spies?

Overall, SHIELD’s pilot is a good set up for the themes and plot content of the show, but very light on character development. As it stands, everybody is a bit archetypal at this point: the stoic secret agent with no personal skills, the stoic secret agent dragged out of retirement (albeit gender swapped), the chittering tech nerds, and the stoically quipping experienced leader. This leaves Skye as the only character who gets to have much of a personality, which means her personality dominates the episode. But the pilot is a good place for bang and flash, putting the team together and laying down your basic plot elements. I expect the series will follow up on fleshing out its core characters soon, and if it doesn’t, well, then we may have some problems, but it’s a bit early to call now.

Lingering Questions:

Is Skye the only member of the Rising Tide? Does she have a following? What happens to her following if she’s inside the SHIELD loop? Overall the Rising Tide as an internet movement was not really well explained here. It’s the Rising Tide! They put videos on the internet! *sinisterly* You all know what THAT means…

Coulson Deathwatch:

I’m proud of the show for throwing Occam’s razor out the window by taking the easiest explanation for Coulson’s return and immediately lampshading it and then shelving it. Beyond that, Coulson believes that he was never dead. Will he show resentment that Fury lied to the Avengers about him? After all, he was close enough to Natasha to know that mentioning that Hawkeye was in trouble would get her out of any mission she was invested in, he seemed to have a nice friendship going with Pepper and Tony, and he would probably hate to think that Captain America would think that he was part of such a manipulation. Or does he see it as a worthy (if nonconsensual) sacrifice to save the entire world?


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Susana Polo
Susana Polo thought she'd get her Creative Writing degree from Oberlin, work a crap job, and fake it until she made it into comics. Instead she stumbled into a great job: founding and running this very website (she's Editor at Large now, very fancy). She's spoken at events like Geek Girl Con, New York Comic Con, and Comic Book City Con, wants to get a Batwoman tattoo and write a graphic novel, and one of her canine teeth is in backwards.