Agent May’s past plays a big part in this week’s creepy new ‘Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.’

We’re nine episodes into the season now. At this point, there’s really no point in saying things like “Wait for it to find its voice” or “they’re still figuring it out.” Sure, things can continue to change, but this is “Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.”, and it’s time to stop grading on a curve. Besides, this episode is written by Maurissa Tancharoen & Jed Whedon, the creators of the series, so this is a chance for them to demonstrate what the show they think they’re making really is.

Heading into the episode, my first question is whether or not they’re really going to give us Agent May’s full backstory and the explanation of her nickname “The Cavalry” already. If so, then I think it’s clear the paradigm in serialized television has changed and become more season oriented than ever before, with set-ups and pay-offs coming closer together, presumably to avoid pulling a “Red John” or a “Lost” or a whatever you want to call the sort of home-stretch fumble that’s making “How I Met Your Mother” such a chore as it tries to wrap things up.

Considering how well “Blade” and “Blade II” worked as movies, I do wonder if we’re going to start seeing more and more of the spooky side of Marvel. A universe full of people who can do extraordinary things would be pretty scary, especially in the early days as we’re all trying to get our heads around whatever’s happening. I don’t necessarily want them to try to do a horror show, but acknowledging that things are freaky seems like a great idea to me.

I’m just not sure this is how you do it.

I took some crap over the last couple of weeks for liking the way the show’s been going, but it’s felt to me like they were starting to find a particular tone, and I liked the way they’ve been texturing in the Marvel universe around the characters. Liked. Not loved. This week, though, it felt to me like they just couldn’t make it work, and considering how pivotal some of the material covered is supposed to be for these characters, it’s sort of a critical fumble.

The opening of the episode and the first big scene at the home of Hannah (Laura Seay) are both meant to be scary, and they play somewhere between a soft episode of “X-Files” and Gavin Hood’s “X-Men” movie. It’s not particularly scary, which seems like a missed opportunity more than anything. Then there’s the entire subplot with Skye and Fitz/Simmons and the prank war, and if the A-story looks like a missed opportunity, then the B-story feels positively pissed away. I’m not sure how you have a running thread in your episode about pranks and you manage to make them seem both dull and deadly unfunny, but they pulled it off here.

Really, the only part of the episode that I thought worked as a whole was the back and forth between Skye and Coulson about the “Index Asset Evaluation and Intake” process. I don’t think it’s entirely consistent with everything we’ve seen about Skye so far, but if the role they’re going to start to carve out for her on the team is the one who sees people for who they really are, someone who can profile accurately and quickly, that’s cool. That’s a strong choice, and they just need to make sure they play that out in future episodes as well. Of all of the characters, Skye is the one who is allowed to be the least fully-formed at this point. Ward, May, Fitz and Simmons… they’ve all had formal S.H.I.E.L.D. training that should see them more comfortable with their roles on the team. Since the entire idea of the Index is still fairly new to this Universe, it makes sense that they are still experimenting with protocol, and that they’re figuring out the best way to approach super-powered people.

Is it the nature of TV in general now that when there’s a first theory about something like the incidents involving Hannah that we know immediately that the theory can’t be correct? Let’s call it “House Syndrome.” No matter what, the first diagnosis is wrong. It’s never Lupus. When they talk about Hannah being telekinetic in the first section of the episode, discussing whether or not the particle accelerator could have helped give her the powers, it’s pretty clear that Hannah is not going to turn out to be telekinetic. I’m glad they never show the team just accepting that as fact. From the moment they get her on the Bus, they’re testing to see if there’s any proof to support that idea.

I don’t want to run through every beat of the show or what I thought went wrong from moment to moment. I think the big problems were that the humor wasn’t funny and the scares weren’t scary. I just didn’t think they managed to get any of it working in terms of tone. And when the reveal of how May got her nickname is finally revealed, it’s a fairly mundane incident. Basically, she’s very good at killing people and it bums her out. It feels like they’re leaning on it pretty hard considering she’s a trained field agent who presumably knows that lethal force is part of the job. Sure, it changes people who have to live with daily violence. I’m not downplaying that. But the writing here can’t really support the weight of what they’re trying to convey.

It doesn’t help that they introduce a fairly awkward running conversation about God and demons and Hell, trying to invest the events with more weight than they deserve. If a network show wants to grapple with issues of faith, that’s great, but again… this is as deep as they go with it? This sort of lip service before they move on? It feels like they had a place-holder in the script for a better conversation that no one ever actually went back to write. There was a way to do this without religion being involved. It’s far more important that we see how Coulson’s words helped her once and then helped her in a different way this time than it is to grapple with a platitude like “God is love.”

Robert Baker as Tobias Ford, the “ghost,” is probably the weakest villain yet on the series. They could have had more fun with the idea of how you fight someone who you can’t hit, but the staging is pretty pedestrian. And once his motivation is revealed, he’s basically just a creep with a crush. That doesn’t seem like a good enough reason for May to end up having some major catharsis. Even when the episode seems like it does something fun like introducing ‘The Golden Retrievers,’ whatever they are, it doesn’t explain, and it doesn’t fully engage. I thought there was exactly one good gag in the entire episode, when Fitz ends up falling for his own prank and shrieking like a girl, but that’s it, and that’s not exactly the big moment you want to hang a whole episode on.

Overall, consider me barely whelmed by this as an episode. I’m not angry about it or railing against it, but if this is how the actual creators of the show handle a big turning point for one of their main characters, I’m not sure they really will find the bigger and better show that it could be. Here’s hoping this one crumbled under the weight of the ambition behind it, and that it’s not a sign of an overall lack of clear vision for what the show is.

“Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.” will return December 10th with the first of a two-part episode.