A review of tonight's “Agents of SHIELD” coming up just as soon as it's a little early for Taco Tuesday…
“Love in the Time of Hydra” doesn't explain exactly who is funding Real SHIELD (to the point where they have their own helicarrier, which Coulson's group would kill for), what kind of authority they have within the U.S. government, how neither Coulson nor Talbot seems to know they exist, or any other pesky details. It does, however, explain why this group, led by Edward James Olmos' Robert Gonzales(*), feels the need to have their own group independent of Nick Fury's desires. And it presents them as good guys who just differ on certain philosophical issues from our heroes. That's a change from the Hydra arc introduced in “Winter Soldier,” and hero vs. hero conflicts can often be more interesting than hero vs. villain. (There's a reason one of the most durable elements of the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby formula involves two heroes meeting for the first time and fighting over some kind of misunderstanding.)
(*) Bill Adama, once again in command of a flying aircraft carrier means it's time to cue the “Sabotage” fan video!
The problem is that Real SHIELD is given the wrong reason to mistrust the actual real SHIELD(**). Gonzales doesn't like Coulson because of all the secrets that he keeps, and because of the alien DNA he was injected with to bring him back to life, when it's clear – from this episode, and from the series as a whole – that Coulson's team isn't to be trusted because they so often act not like professional spies, but like hormonal teenagers who have access to assault weapons and cloaking technology.
(**) I would actually love for there to be so many SHIELD splinter cells that it turns into the superhero espionage equivalent of all the Famous/Original Ray's pizzerias in New York. That, or Real SHIELD needs a theme song to the tune of “The Real Deal with Bill McNeal.” Or maybe some kind of homage to “Real Steel” that doesn't involve Hugh Jackman having to appear in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Back in season 1, when the team found out that Skye was secretly reporting on them to her fellow revolutionaries, their responses (Fitz's most vocally, but all of them on some level) were more about being betrayed by a friend than about realizing they had enabled a major security breach. Bobbi and Hunter often make decisions (including, here, her letting him escape Real SHIELD's clutches) based more on their feelings for each other than the good of some larger cause. When Fitz found out that Skye was hiding super powers, he helped her continue to hide them (after a jarring last-minute personality shift). Simmons then acts petulantly around Fitz because he kept that secret, while Fitz is petulant around her because she's concerned about people with powers. In this episode, May expresses legitimate concerns about Skye's status given the combination of powers and alien DNA, only for Coulson to dismiss those concerns by saying, “This isn't about categories on the index; we're talking about Skye.”
Everyone on that team has a blind spot for Skye, but they also have multiple blind spots for each other. These are the kinds of personal vulnerabilities a show about a team of superheroes, or vampire slayers, or any other loose collection of individuals can get away with. But it's problematic when this is a show about spies who are trained to put all this stuff behind them, and even the most battle-hardened vets like Coulson and May keep doing goofy things because they place their feelings over the mission. When Skye tells Coulson, “I just need you to be my friend right now,” the show desperately needed Clark Gregg to smile and say, “I may be your friend, but I have to act like your commanding officer here.” And he didn't.
And if the show actually seemed aware that it's our heroes who are coming across like the clown academy, and not Gonzales' group – if Real SHIELD's arrival was intended as a commentary on and corrective for some of the series' weaker elements – this could be a really interesting story. Instead, it's presented as Gonzales and his people getting all worked up about things we in the audience know they shouldn't really be worried about: that Fury wanted Coulson in charge of rebuilding the agency for a reason, that secrets in espionage are necessary, that the alien DNA isn't corrupting him, etc. So it's false conflict, setting up various strawmen arguments that our heroes will be able to easily knock down in the coming weeks.
At one point, Hunter jokingly refers to Real SHIELD as Hufflepuff – and feel free to sort all the regular characters into various Hogwarts houses, just like we did for “Parks and Rec” – when this is an episode that presents our heroes as the joke house. I don't know that Real SHIELD is Gryffindor, but for this week, at least, Coulson's team sure isn't.
Some other thoughts:
* The other big development this week involves Ward and Agent 33 (now with a properly functioning chameleon mask, but still with a scarred face underneath) breaking into Glenn Talbot's HQ to abduct Bakshi for their own purposes. On the one hand, I liked the acknowledgement that Ward tried and failed at being the meat and potatoes guy (aka, pre-“Winter Soldier” SquareJaw McBoring), and I think the show and Brett Dalton are doing a good job of not leaning too heavily on his current insanity; you can understand why someone like 33 (played well in May mode by the versatile Ming-Na Wen) would go along with whatever he wants. On the other, the show continues to have a weird idea of how much the mask could change her whole appearance; not only are Maya Stojan and Ming-Na Wen not built alike, but neither of them would likely pass as a man, even with a male face and uniform on.
* Also, if the mask is powerful enough to be able to copy magazine photos, and if nearly half of 33's face is unscarred, wouldn't an afternoon of Photoshop solve her whole identity crisis once and for all?
* In addition to Olmos, nice to see Kirk Acevedo – a sci-fi veteran at this point, between “Fringe” and now Syfy's “12 Monkeys” – as one of Gonzalez's deputies. (Also, take seven minutes and enjoy Acevedo and friends in the most harrowing scene from “Band of Brothers.”)
What did everybody else think?