One of the things I always find interesting is when a show that is bound by budget and time to one geographic location is written as a globetrotting adventure, requiring them to convince us that they’ve gone around the world despite the evidence of our eyes. “Alias” is a great recent example of this, a show that turned Burbank into every corner of the world.
This week opens in Hong Kong, where Renshu Tseng, a street magician (played by Louis Ozawa Changchien from “Predators”) is doing very basic tricks for a crowd. Only when he sees a particularly striking woman does he create real fire in the palm of his hand, freaking out the crowd. It seems to work, though. She is turned on enough by the trick to go home with him, and he talks to her about the difference between real magic and tricks. He seems nervous to show off the real thing up close, but he ends up giving in.
He tells her about how his gift started to manifest a few years ago, and her response seems like a rational one: she calls in backup to abduct him.
Meanwhile, on the Bus, Skye and Ward are playing “Battleship,” and it seems like Ward is starting to like Skye’s work and how she’s fitting into the team. Watching from a distance, Coulson feels the same way. He talks to May about how he has more energy lately, and he’s having to burn it off through extra work-outs. Could this be part of his return from the dead?
They introduce a major Marvel Universe idea this episode, the S.H.I.E.L.D. Index, a list of things and people who have manifested powers. Agent Quan (Tzi Ma) from Hong Kong conferences in to talk about what happened to Chen, sharing a clue with the team. He talks about how the Rising Tide hacked their datastream in order to learn about Tseng’s abilities. This understandably seems to cause an immediate tension between Skye and the rest of the team.
She explains to the rest of the team than the Rising Tide, like Anonymous, is a collective of hacktivists who are only loosely connected by ideology. She tells Coulson that she will work to track down whoever ran the hack.
Raina (Ruth Negga) is there to greet Tseng when he wakes up, and she explains that she has nothing to do with S.H.I.E.L.D. She wants to help him find a way to increase his power. She offers him a chance at international fame. She suggests the stage name “Scorch,” and explains that no one knows Steve Rogers, but everyone knows Captain America. Tseng resists. He doesn’t want to be a superhero, but she tells him that as Scorch, he can be a star.
There is a Scorch in Marvel continuity, but he’s an incredibly obscure character, and there’s nothing about him aside from control over fire that lines up with his appearance here.
As Skye works to trace the hack, Fitz/Simmons watch, enjoying the show enormously. They trace the hack to Austin, TX, and Skye immediately recognizes the suspect as Miles Lydon (Austin Nichols), who has a major reputation for causing trouble. Sure, he’s driving a Jetta, but it doesn’t matter once he starts using Austin’s traffic lights against Coulson. It’s the same basic idea as the big game mechanic in “Watch Dogs,” the game that Playstation 4 is putting out next year.
Once Miles gets away, he meets up with Skye, who is definitely still in cahoots with Rising Tide. The giveaway would be the spirited make-out session as soon as she calls him a dumbass.
When Skye gets busted by May, it’s a big deal, and I like that they didn’t drag this out for an entire episode. As soon as she betrays them, S.H.I.E.L.D. is on the case. Coulson is righteously angry, and it’s obvious that Ward is the most upset by the betrayal. May is left to interrogate Miles, and watching the way S.H.I.E.L.D. works, civil rights are not high on their list of favorite things. Skye ends up in cuffs as she is led out of his place.
So what did they inject Tseng with? Right away, his powers increase exponentially. He seems high from the injection, not just stronger. Meanwhile, Skye and Miles end up locked in a cell together, and it’s obvious that just in this short period of time, her philosophy has evolved a bit. Coulson talks to May about how he was wrong about Skye, and how he has to second-guess himself since he died in New York.
Miles turns out to be less innocent than he seemed, and Skye is furious when she realizes that he did exactly what they accused him of, selling information to whatever organization is backing Raina. Meanwhile, Raina’s tests of Miles seem to have gone well, and as she reports back to her boss, she mentions how it seems like the Extremis in the serum has finally been stabilized. It seems like Marvel is going to make Extremis a recurrent threat in the movie and TV universe now that “Iron Man 3” introduced it, and someone’s obviously still working to figure out how to make it better.
CENTIPEDE is rapidly emerging as the major opposition for S.H.I.E.L.D. this year, and they’re not interested in making Tseng a hero after all. Instead, they’re just looking to drain him completely. His blood platelets are what prevent him from burning when he uses his powers, and so they are looking to use them in helping stabilize the Extremis serum.
The one big piece of information we get from the Miles and Skye scenes is that she joined S.H.I.E.L.D. for access to their networks because there is something specific she’s looking for. I’m sure we won’t know what that something is for a while, but for now, it’s pretty apparent that while her motives aren’t totally pure, they also aren’t malicious.
Coulson leads a team into the place they’re holding Tseng hostage, and when they go to rescue him, he takes advantage of the moment, shooting himself up with a massive dose of the Extremis serum. He burns a hole through Agent Quan, then turns on Coulson, leading into the last stretch of events in the episode. They seem to be settling into a much looser and more enjoyable rhythm for the episodes. Yes, there’s a formula here, and yes, they’re still somewhat mechanical about the execution of the formula, but we can definitely see the learning curve starting to kick in now.
Tseng didn’t really think through his escape plan. Yes, the Extremis seems to have made him stronger, but it’s also torching him from the inside. May tries to talk him down, but he’s not having any. Ward tells Skye he’ll get her on-site so that they can hack in and rescue Coulson.
Best exchange of the week?
“Tseng may have believed your lies. But not Scorch.”
“Aw, crap. They gave him a name.”
Raina leaves the team leader to face Tseng, and he burns her to death in a startlingly graphic image. May uses the Exremis serum to overload Tseng and turn him into an incendiary device, giving the S.H.I.E.L.D. team just enough time to escape the building.
One of the ways the show feels like an older TV series is the way it names its theme each week explicitly. “You can’t save someone from themselves.” “You can if you get to them early enough.” When Coulson says that, he looks right at Skye, and it’s clear that she will continue to be his pet project. They leave Miles in Hong Kong, monitoring him, telling him that they will continue to watch.
Meanwhile, it seems Skye has burned down anything that existed between her and Ward or her and the rest of the team. When she goes to see Coulson, he lays into her. He is furious, and he demands that she spill the secret that’s driving her. He gives her once chance, or she’s out.
She reveals that the quest she’s on is to learn who she is. She barely exists, and the one piece of information she has ever been able to find on her parents is a single document issued by S.H.I.E.L.D. and heavily redacted. Seeing how honest she’s been, Coulson tells her that he might be able to help. He gives her the same sort of monitoring bracelet that they put on Miles before they turned him loose, an unspoken condition if she’s going to rebuild any trust with the rest of the team.
A solid episode, and once again, they seem to be seeding mysteries but also following up on them much faster than I would have expected. I thought they’d milk this Skye secret for a while, and here we are, all the cards already on the table. At this point, CENTIPEDE remains the largest unresolved ongoing issue, and we’ll see how long it takes S.H.I.E.L.D. to crack that one.
As always, “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” airs Tuesday nights on ABC.