‘Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ pushes Skye’s family mystery to the forefront this week

Considering last week’s return from hiatus, “The Magical Place,” was the hyped episode where we were promised important answers, it seems odd that this week’s episode “Seeds” was far more persuasive at convincing me that there is actually something interesting happening in “Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.” at this point.

After all, last week pulled the typical “replace the question with more questions” move, but I think it did it through a sort of ham-handed ineptitude more than careful engineering. I think they felt like the end of that episode would be duly shocking and carry more weight than it did. While I think the image of the thing working on Coulson’s brain was interesting, I don’t think it was explained in a way that made it particularly compelling. If all it took to bring him back to life was Nick Fury demanding that they do even more surgeries on him than normal, that doesn’t seem like a secret worth hiding. I get that they were worried about him recalling the massive traumatic pain and horror, and I know that there are surgeries that they are forced to do at times where the patient has to be awake, and that the accounts of those events can be horrifying. But it still just doesn’t feel like it’s enough of an answer or an interesting enough twist on the question.

On the other hand, this week’s episode promised to delve more fully into Skye’s background, and it more than delivered on that promise while also managing to bring a comic character into the series and also tying in another recurring bad guy with the overall Centipede conspiracy that’s been driving the season. They pull so much off this week and actually still find time for some character stuff that it threw me at first. This week actually made it look fairly easy.

They helped flesh out S.H.I.E.L.D. in terms of both infrastructure and history this week. We learned that there are three different academies, one for Sci-Tech, one for Operations, and one for Communications. We also learned that most S.H.I.E.L.D. facilities have a Wall Of Valor with the names of fallen agents on it. We heard that the creation of the organization was in part due to encounters with HYDRA, AIM, and Centipede. The tensions between Sci-Tech and Operations were played for some laughs between Ward and Fitz/Simmons, but they didn’t go overboard with it like they did on the week with the practical jokes. They used it to inform the way Fitz and Simmons are treated on campus, and they used it to make Ward feel like he didn’t really fit in with the trainees they’re dealing with in the episode. I liked the reference to Bucky Barnes that was on the Wall Of Valor, and it’s interesting to see how he’s still a well-known figure for Skye and Ward. When he returns in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” it’s not just going to be a shock to Cap. I like that they handled that with a feather touch in the episode, too. It’s a quick passing reference that they don’t lean on too much.

Two different students are seemingly attacked using a device that creates instant ice out of any water in an environment. In the end, Seth Dormer (Daniel Zovatto) and Donnie Gill (Dylan Minnette) turn out to be the students behind the attacks as well as the supposed victims, and the attacks are staged in order to get Fitz to visit the campus so he can help Donnie solve one particular piece of his technical problems. Donnie is a supervillain in the comics, originally introduced in “Iron Man” as one of the many bad guys backed by Justin Hammer over the years. He went by the name Blizzard, and his powers were generated by technology. This episode serves as a sort of origin story for this world’s version of Donnie Gill, and as we see in one of the last scenes of the episode, it appears that he ends up with actual superpowers that no longer require a suit or a machine.

I wasn’t sure I liked anything about the Coulson story this week until the very end of it, and now I’m onboard. I thought the decision to have him still brooding after last week was the right impulse, but because the last episode didn’t quite work for me, I didn’t really buy what I was watching this week, either. He’s brooding, but over what? There’s so little information for him that I’m not really sure what he’s upset or outraged about. He mentions at one point that he’s concerned they might have changed more than his memory, but I don’t see that as being a thread they’ll really play out. He seems to be the same general Coulson we’ve seen in the films, and he hasn’t shown any large-scale loss of memory as he’s encountered various faces from the past on the series so far.

They handled the Mexican digression pretty quickly, and Richard Lumley (Boyd Kestner) turns out to be a huge exposition delivery system. He tells them that he was the partner to the agent who delivered Skye to the orphanage in the first place. He explains that there was a full S.H.I.E.L.D. team that was sent into China to take possession of an “084,” code for an object of unknown origin. When they actually found it, “it” was Skye. She was found covered in blood, and the implication was that she had exhibited powers of some sort. Lumley and his partner arranged to get Skye into the foster care system where she’d be moved around constantly so no one would be able to track her down. It’s such a huge chunk of information that lends a very concrete answer to one of the show’s central mysteries that I was a little surprised.

The other major moment of the series involved Ian Quinn (David Conrad), who we’ve seen once before. He’s revealed to be the guy behind the plot by Seth and Donnie, the financing, and when things go south, he leaves the kids to sort it out by themselves. His final line to Coulson this week connects him directly to Centipede, and it also guarantees that we’ll see him again as Coulson and his team dig further into the identity and the whereabouts of The Clairvoyant.

I thought the FX team this week had probably their largest sequence to handle so far, and I’m always intrigued by the way you have to spend FX money on a TV series like this. They have to build those scenes with just exactly enough shots to sell the ideas they’re trying to portray. You don’t get to just keep ladling on the spectacle. There are a few key images, like the Bus approaching the eye of the storm from above or the shots of them escaping the storm at the end, that you have to have, and it felt like they stretched the budget as far as they’ve had to do it in any episode of the series yet.

Now that Coulson’s decided no more secrets and May’s confessed that she’s been sleeping with Agent Ward, there’s no excuse for any more “Three’s Company” style plots where the team is divided because people don’t just tell each other things, and that means they’re going to have to push a little harder than they have in the past. I thought they wrapped up so many things in this one episode that it’s surprising this isn’t a season finale. I like the idea that Skye’s reaction to the truth about her own past is what helped Coulson get past what had been done to him. The tag at the very end promised that on the next episode, Stan Lee will show up for a cameo and, more significantly, there is an “astonishing series-changing final act.” Big words, and seeing how much they’ve hyped other moments that have been decidedly less than astonishing, I’m not sure I buy the hype anymore.

Regardless, I’ll see you back here for that one when “Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.” returns on February 4th.