‘Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ starts to come into focus in its second week

Last week, Alan Sepinwall wrote about the premiere episode of Marvel’s first foray into weekly television, but tonight, he passes the torch to me. I’m going to be writing the recaps for the series each week here on HitFix, and I’m curious to see if this becomes can’t-miss television for me the way previous Whedon shows have been.

The pilot episode probably had more expectations placed on it than any other TV show in recent memory, at least from the fans who you would expect to be the target audience. I’m not sure exactly what anyone else expected from a Marvel TV show, but looking at the first episode, it’s about what I thought it would be. The stories have to be smaller scale than the things we’ve seen in the movies so far, and it’s a procedural, so they need to try to create self-contained plots that drive the show while they parcel out bits and pieces of information for the larger mythology.

I liked the gadgetry in the first episode, and I think the cast is solid. Brett Dalton’s got the sort of character to play that is going to be hard to make interesting, only because someone has to be the straight man while everyone else gets to be quirky or eccentric. I’m curious to see how they fill in the backstory for Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen), and I already enjoy the chemistry for Fitz/Simmons (Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge).

The three major throughlines this season, based on the pilot, would appear to be, in order (1) who or what created the Centipede? (2) How did Agent Coulson really return from the dead and (3) Is Skye (Chloe Bennet) actually who she claims to be?

I’m good with those. Certainly seems like a strong place to start things. As an actual stand-alone episode, I thought the pilot was okay. I liked the fight choreography because it looks like it hurts, and Agent Ward isn’t a superhero, just a very well-trained human agent. I thought Maria Hill’s appearance was okay. You get the feeling she’s there specifically because they can’t have anyone bigger show up. I did like the line, “The battle of New York was the end of the world. This is the new world.” I’m sure it would feel that way if you actually lived through the events of “The Avengers.”

The return of Coulson is interesting. At least they acknowledge the improbability of it in the dialogue, and I found his description of his recuperation very interesting. His description of Tahiti is how I imagine Heaven. “Mai Tais. Travis McGee novels. And a physical therapist whose command of English was irrelevant.” I guess the Cellist is no longer part of his life, eh? When he walks out of a room and Hill and Ron Glass talk, it’s obvious there’s something big brewing.

“He really doesn’t know,” Glass says.
“He can never know,” Hill answers.

Okay… why? I assume it’s no accident that Coulson keeps referring to Tahiti as a “magical place.” Marvel’s slowly but surely building to the introduction of pure magic in the Marvel movie universe, and it sounds like this could be part of that push.

It’s smart that we’re seeing tech from the entire Marvel movie universe show up, like the Chitauri neural link they recover. The Centipede is an interesting creation, a mash-up of Chitauri metal, Erskine’s original supersoldier serum, gamma radiation, and the Extremis tech from “Iron Man 3.”

I thought the interrogation between Sky and Ward after he got shot with the truth drug was pretty great. Smart way to riff on a scene that’s been done a billion times. It also reminds us that Coulson will do anything to get the reaction he wants.

It very much feels like a Whedon show. It does not feel like it’s aiming for the same sort of cultural space as something like “Mad Men” or “Breaking Bad.” This is popcorn, designed to keep you tuning in week after week.

And after the first episode, I’m willing to give it a try. I’ll hang for at least a season (provide the show lasts that long) and I’ll be here to discuss it with you each week.

And as far as setting a challenge for characters, I love this one: “Something impossible just happened. What are you going to do about it?”

Also, Lola is badass. I want one.

So last week ended with the team getting a call to investigate an “0-8-4.” Since that’s the title of this week’s episode, it’s safe to assume we’ll get the answer.

It’s obvious that there is still a fair amount of fear and uncertainty about having Skye join the team. She may be on the Bus with everyone else, but do they fully trust her? Should they?

The episode opens with a moment that seems to directly call back one of the big set pieces from “Iron Man 3,” and then it does one of the biggest tricks in TV writing, flashing back 19 hours earlier.

Coulson sees something in Skye that Ward doesn’t, and I have a feeling Coulson is a very good judge of which broken toys to add to his island. And very quickly, we learn that an “0-8-4” is an unidentified object that has been unearthed. They have to go look at it and find out if it’s something they can use. Coulson mentions Thor’s hammer as the last one they were called in on, so that sort of sets the stage for what sort of thing we might expect.

I thought Fitz/Simmons were more than just a professional team, but it doesn’t seem to be the case based on Fitz’s interest in Skye.

“Llactapata, Peru
Incan Archeological Site”

“Remember the panic when that anti-matter meteor splashed down off the coast of Miami and almost devoured the city?”


That appears to be one of the most important jobs that S.H.I.E.L.D. does, the containment of knowledge. It’s obviously very high tech, but it’s been there for 1500 years at least. Could it be alien?

Ward and May are going to make a nice physical team. I worked with Ming Na-Wen one time on a stage play, and I never would have thought to cast her as a badass like this. I’m glad they did, though. I like this sort of casting, where someone changes the way you typically think of them, and I think she handles herself quite credibly.

One of the skills that any TV show has to perfect if it’s going to be a success on network TV is the art of picking their act breaks. You have to create a great fun cliffhanger that will leave people waiting for the four minutes that commercials play. It helps when you’re showing new footage from “Thor: The Dark World,” but you still need to find the right beat.

A Mexican standoff is a very good example. And the resolution is very funny. Coulson knows everyone, doesn’t he? Leonor Varela is just as stunning as you’d expect a badass military police official to be in a Joss Whedon show, and I have no doubt that will be a running trend in the show.

As they discuss the political situation in Peru, I thought Ward scored a solid point against Skye, who seems to be an all-purpose techno-anarchist, against “The Man” no matter what. He immediately turns around and makes a very stupid move in removing the artifact from the wall where it was embedded, though.

That thing that sent out the blue blast that knocked all the rebels down? Spiffy.

The device they found turns out to be connected to the Tesseract, the Macguffin that drove “The Avengers,” and this ties “Captain America” and “Thor” directly to the series now. By twenty minutes into the episode, they’ve covered a lot of ground, and it definitely seems like this is a big discovery.

But just because it’s fueled by the Tesseract fuel doesn’t mean it’s a weapon. Whatever happened in May’s past, she seems bound and determined not to be drawn back into a combat role. They’re going to keep hinting at it for a while, I’m sure, but it gives her something interesting to play even when she drops a whipping on some bad guys.

It’s going to be interesting to see if Skye ends up as a conscience to the team, or if she’s an agitator who has something more diabolic at heart. Her scene with Ward where she talks about the beauty of people connecting via social media for positive change is solid, and it seems completely genuine.

Right around the time Coulson is telling Commandant Reyes about what he’s been doing, and right around the time she’s making her move on him, things started to stink. Obviously these people are not who they claim to be, and they have an agenda that you can tell is about to erupt into violence. Ward is attuned to this, and thankfully, he swings into action just as the rest of the team does. It’s too late, though, and Reyes and her team take The Bus, and that push-in on Coulson as he realizes that they fell for it is exactly why I think Marvel got lucky when they cast Clark Gregg in what must have originally seemed like a very small role.

“The Cavalry.” That’s the nickname they use for May, and it obviously refers to something that she is uncomfortable with. The moment with all five of them tied up together in the cargo hold is a chance to start to see the team come together. And then when May does finally show them what she can do, it’s obvious that she’s not just good… she’s the best.

The device that S.H.I.E.L.D. found turns out to have been commissioned by the Peruvians, and they plan to use it to destroy the rebellion that has divided their country. Reyes nails Coulson on some of the things that see to be driving him, but he tells her what her big mistake was: giving his team a common enemy. It was true in “The Avengers,” and it’s true here. Piss off the entire team at once, and you pay the price.

The real trick of writing a show like this is paying off each of these characters and making them all feel like essential parts of the puzzle. Obviously, this is still early days for the series, but they’re already starting to try to pull it all together. And when we finally loop back to the start of the episode and see what caused the hull breach, it’s a satisfying wrap-up. How they fix the hull breach? Well, I’d love to know the physics behind that one. Could that really work, or is this some “Temple Of Doom” airplane physics?

I like that the last scene is a quiet one, and Skye’s phone message about Rising Tide is enough to suggest that she’s going to find herself torn in two directions over the course of the season. Will she betray S.H.I.E.L.D., or will they win her over and prove that the work they’re doing is important?

And I have to say… that Nick Fury cameo at the end? Solid gold. “Do you know how much this plane costs? IT HAS A BAR. A really nice one.” This is exactly the right way to use Fury, and if the show is going to stand on its own, it has to do so without a constant parade of movie stars.

So far? Enjoyable. I don’t feel manic about it, but I’m certainly willing to come back for more. See you guys back here next Tuesday for another recap.