Another solid episode of ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ puts Fitz and Ward in harm’s way

“Trust the system.”

Right away, this episode felt different to me. The opening sequence, in which Coulson (Clark Gregg) and the rest of his team rescue an Agent Shaw from an underground base in Siberia in order to retrieve whatever information Shaw has managed to steal, felt to me like an episode of “Alias,” and that’s high praise if we’re talking about spy TV. I like starting shows like this in media res. I’m not sure about those dodgy hover-sled effects, but I like the energy and the ambition of the way this episode kicked off.

Saffron Burrows is introduced this week as Agent Victoria Hand in a major classified base called The Hub. We haven’t had many looks so far at the larger infrastructure of S.H.I.E.L.D., and for Skye, this is her first look at it as well. I like how Simmons references the Triskelion in passing, and there are a few other passing nods to the larger world that feel like they would have actually happened instead of just being fanservice. That’s hard to pull off, but they’re getting better at it. Bonus points for even getting the hair coloring right on Hand. Longtime comic fans are going to be pleased to see that sort of detail included.

One thing that has to happen for me to think this show is really working across the board is that they have to deliver fully-realized episodes that have more on their mind than just spy antics. By using Skye’s story and the mission storyline this week to both examine the same idea, the show is starting to exhibit some sense of thematic unity, and that’s exciting. That’s what I want. I would love it if the show was about something. The reason “Buffy” remains a high watermark for genre television is because they knew how to write to theme exceptionally well, and they could use the basic trappings of the show to examine almost anything about their characters.

They power through the tech speak gobbledygook upfront during the briefing that Agent Hand gives, and all that you really need to know is that there’s something called The Overkill Device, and it’s bad. There’s no way to run a full assault on it because it can destroy the weapons that you’re using, so it has to be a small low-tech team that goes in. It’s a classic action movie set-up, and in classic action movie style, the two guys that get sent in are the most mis-matched possible, Fitz and Ward.

I like that we’re seeing continuity in these characters each week now. They aren’t pretending last week didn’t happen. When Gemma has to say goodbye to Fitz before the mission and he makes a reference to her jumping out of a plane, the reaction between them is very real, and the connection they’ve been denying so far appears to be out in the open now.

A big part of this episode seems to be about learning how to trust that S.H.I.E.L.D. has things under control. “Trust the system” is a mantra for anyone who works for S.H.I.E.L.D., but is it really an edict to live by at this point? That conversation with Hand and Coulson at the base in which he realizes that he responds with the same phrase every time he hears the trigger term “Tahiti” was handled with a single glance, but it sets up so many things for Coulson for the future. When Skye says, “He’s acting like a robot version of himself right now,” they’re screwing with us. You know that, right?

What makes the Ward/Fitz teaming work for the episode is that they’re both genuinely good at different things, and they don’t just make Fitz a joke. They’re not just doing the easy version of the show, but they’re starting to push a little deeper each week. There are some good jokes, but not at the expense of either of them. Instead, they’re just letting us see more of the characters at work. Agent Ward is, by far, still the cipher of the group, and while I don’t think this changes things for him completely, it shows that he can play well off of more of his teammates than just Skye.

Coulson is chafing against the boundaries of the system even as he tries to tell Skye to play by the rules. His “conversation” with May is sold by the way Ming Na Wen plays it. We’re starting to see certain teams establish themselves within the larger team, and I’m curious to see how that plays out as the show progresses. Ming Na Wen holds her cards close as May, and the writers seem to know that they have a lot of storytelling latitude with her as long as they keep her mysterious.

Overall, everyone seems to get a chance to shine this week, or maybe they’re just getting more settled into their roles. Simmons and Skye are a good team, and Henstridge is finding more and more nuance as the goody-goody. When she finally freaks out and uses the Night-Night Gun, it’s both inevitable and very funny. She’s basically Jennifer Garner’s younger nerdier sister, and that’s always a fun role to play, especially when you start to see the character step outside their comfort zone.

Skye gets close to her own secrets, so she knows they exist, and then makes the choice that is better for the team. Good for S.H.I.E.L.D. as a whole? Not so much, but then again, the show’s starting to make the case that maybe the team is trustworthy in a way that S.H.I.E.L.D. is not. I feel like all of this is leading up to what happens in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” where I feel like the system is going to crumble to some extent, and Coulson’s team may find itself working somewhat autonomously.

When Hand references Barton and Romanov, it’s not just a nod for the sake of making fanboys squeal. It’s also a nice way of showing how high the bar is set within S.H.I.E.L.D. Ward may be a solid spy, but he’s not a superhero. The real tension that is brewing between Ward and Fitz during the episode is over Fitz’s fear that he’s not a “real” agent and that he couldn’t have saved Simmons by himself. Playing that out between them during a mission could have been very cheesy, but the episode doesn’t oversell it.

Agent Sitwell and Agent Hand are definitely going to be people we see again. Could Burrows end up in future films? Seems distinctly possible.

Skye’s past started to snap into focus, and I’m glad to see they didn’t just leave this dangling for the entire series. We’re seeing this subtle shift in television shows realizing that they can’t just milk the same dangling threads forever. By giving us just enough information to get a picture of what Skye’s secret could be, they keep us engaged without making it all seem like a stall. What we know is that Skye was delivered to the orphanage by a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, and there was apparently a reason. Coulson tells Skye enough to satisfy her but not everything. His decision not to tell her everything, or at least not yet, seems to me to be a nice way of underlining that even within a small team like this, secrets are part of this culture, ingrained so deeply that they’re impossible to avoid. You might learn to trust the system, but it will never fully trust you.

Hell, I’ll say it. I was impressed this week. This episode and last week’s episode are starting to look like the show I hoped this could be. It’s not great yet, but that thing that you hope will happen as a show starts to pick up steam appears to be happening. It’s getting a voice. The characters are starting to become characters and not just types. By writing to theme, the show is starting to become something worth watching each week. I’m going to recap the show as long as it’s on the air, but so far, it’s been more out of a sense of obligation and curiosity to see if Marvel can do for TV what they’ve done with movies. If they can start putting together more episodes like the last few, this could actually turn into a pleasure.

Final thought: did Agent May just invent plane fu?

“Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.” airs every week at 8:00 PM EST/PST on Tuesday on ABC.