‘Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ kicks off the second half of the season with a Stan Lee cameo

Now that Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon are giving interviews promising that the back nine episodes of this first season of “Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.” will be throwing big reveals and twists and payoffs at us nonstop, is it fair to judge the show based on how much forward momentum we get from each episode?

They’ve certainly made a case in the last two episodes for a new game plan in effect, and we’ve made some big strides in terms of getting answers to things that have been in play since the first episode of the year. I’m not sure what I think of the answers, but I can’t fault them for failing to deliver on the promise to get things moving and start to sort out this season’s secrets.

By far, the biggest thread that they’ve got to follow now involves The Clairvoyant, the shadowy figure behind everything. I’ve got to believe that they’re playing coy with this person’s identity so that when we do finally lay eyes on them, it will be a major moment of some sort. The other major thread has to do with Skye, who we now know is an “0-8-4,” an object of unknown origin. The “previously on” package this week mentioned both those threads and then also reminded us of Ian Quinn (David Conrad), who has popped up a few times this season, taunting Coulson openly in the last episode.

“T.R.A.C.K.S.” hits the ground running, with Coulson briefing his team on an op in Italy involving a train that is carrying a cargo destined for Quinn, in the hopes that Quinn is going to lead them to The Clairvoyant. Ward and May go undercover as a traveling couple, Skye and Fitz pose as a pair of students traveling together, while Coulson and Simmons pose as father and daughter. Ward hasn’t really been part of some of the big moments for the team over the last few episodes, and so his questioning of May seems fair.

They’re getting better these days at dropping in a ton of exposition while they’re also servicing characters and picking up the threads of their larger mythology. Stan Lee’s never had more lines than he does in his appearance here, and boy, he’s stiff. I know… he’s our beloved generalissimo, but they should not ask him to actually convey an emotion. He reads everything like it’s inside a caption box and punctuated with exclamation points.

The episode very quickly establishes how things are supposed to go, and then it immediately gets busy showing us how things go wrong, and I’ll say this… by the time the train vanishes and the main titles comes up, it’s done more and it’s done it better than most of the previous episodes of the show.

Even though we double back to see what happened to Ward, we still don’t get an answer about how their grenade made the train disappear or how their commas were destroyed or how Cybertech knew they were coming. Even as the show is frantic with activity, I have to laugh at them taking the time to show Ward try to figure out how to turn on the holotable and then showing Ward and Coulson try to figure out how to zoom in on things. And again, even as they’re having a very serious conversation about Ward’s relationship to May, they manage to drop in a provocative statement about where Emil Blonsky aka The Abomination is now being kept.

As bumps to commercials go, a blood-soaked May standing behind the dead body of a traitor is a pretty good one, I’d say.

Even better, though, is what happens when we double back again for another perspective shift, and we get a look at May’s point of view on the same incidents. That’s when things get extra-freaky. The grenade seems to have frozen Coulson and Ward in a sort of stasis. The train didn’t vanish; they just lost the time. The way May escapes from her captivity is way more brutal than your average TV fight, right down to May’s murder of Russo.

The best thing the episode does is create a sense of fear about what’s happening with Fitz, Simmons, and Skye on the train. None of them are combat specialists, and when we see how easily Coulson, Ward, and May were dispatched, it makes it seem like things probably went very badly for the rest of the team. When they find Simmons, it’s immediately apparent that she was frozen by another of those stasis grenades, and it looks like something terrible has happened to Fitz and Skye. By halfway into the episode, they’ve already shown us three full double-backs. It’s pretty apparent how the rest of the episode will be structured by that point, and it’s smart. They manage to make each time through it feel like it’s important, and like they did them in the exact right order.

The reference to the Night Night Gun is a nice call-back, and it sells the idea that all the tech in the world of the show is built on the back of things we’ve seen before. It’s also a really nice touch that Fitz and Skye end up being hyper-competent at this field work, pushing on and finishing things even when the rest of the team’s been disabled. They’ve come a long way from the early episodes, and I like that Fitz in particular continues to evolve so he’s more than just an easy tech nerd joke or a cheap copy of Simon Pegg’s character in the “Mission: Impossible” films.

If this show is going to have a long run, these characters have to become people that are important to us. It’s nice to hear that they’re going to start bringing in more and more Marvel continuity, but all that really matters to me is that these characters are compelling from week to week and that all these things that happen to them have a cumulative weight. That really does seem to be happening now, and while I think it’s been a shaky season overall, I like that it’s not necessarily becoming the show I would have predicted.

For example, Coulson in this series is a much more human character than he was in the films, and it’s not just about his screen time. We have seen the development of his attitude towards S.H.I.E.L.D. and his work. It’s also been interesting to see how they’ve handled the evolution of Mike (J. August Richards) over the course of the season so far. Quinn’s only too happy to let Skye see what they’re doing to Mike now. He wants S.H.I.E.L.D. to know how the game’s going to go. Mike’s new leg is amazing, and it seems like we’re about to see some big moment of Mike as a villain when Quinn does pretty much the last thing I expected, shooting Skye point-blank several times.

When that happened, I knew that we weren’t going to see her die, but that we were about to get our first glimpse at whatever her secret hidden talents are. She’s an “0-8-4,” and Quinn wouldn’t be told to just dispose of her without The Clairvoyant testing to see what can be learned about her abilities. But then, right when you expect her to heal up like Wolverine or somehow shrug off the gunshot wound… nope. It sure looks like it screwed her up. By the time they find her, she’s not breathing. They manage to stabilize her on the scene, but it sure doesn’t look like she’s a superhero at first glance.

The worst part of all of it is the goad that Quinn makes to Coulson on the scene about how Coulson keeps sending her into harm’s way and how odd that is considering how much he cares about her. It’s enough to really gut Coulson if things don’t shape up for Skye soon.

At this point, it appears that the show is the show. What they are doing at this point is refining and streamlining and trying to make it work better, but they haven’t dumped everything they’ve been setting up. This does not feel to me like a team trying desperately to course correct, but more like a story finally starting to pay off the things they’ve set up. While I’m still not sure what “T.R.A.C.K.S.” meant as an episode title, it felt like a solid and satisfying building block in the larger story, and I’m certainly curious to see what they pay off next week, especially with Mike out there on the loose like the Marvel Universe version of the Frankenstein monster, his “Deathlok” nickname finally revealed and Bill Paxton in the mix.