Review: Is every week going to see Coulson’s past come back on ‘Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.’?

With the announcement that Marvel has four more dramatic series and a mini-series that it is developing, it is clear that television is the next beachhead for them. They are planning to make a major impact, and so it is fair to look at “Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.” as a first indication of how they think about TV.

One of the main complaints so far is that it feels like a TV show from the ’80s, before the recent push towards a greater sense of realism and character writing, and it’s true… no one is going to mistake this for HBO’s version of a Marvel Comics show, but it seems like they’re trying to build something that fits, in terms of tone, neatly alongside the movies. That can’t be easy when you realize how much less money they have in general. So far, it is a conventional TV show with just a bit of sass to it, and if they can turn it into something even better than that, I’ll be excited. So far, it doesn’t transcend that description at all, but I’m not sure I expected it would.

The fourth episode, called “Eye-Spy,” kicks off in Sergel’s Square in Stockholm, Sweden, when a group of men in red featureless masks and identical suits calmly march into the square, all carrying briefcases. A young woman wearing headphones seems to get some sort of read off of them when they walk by, and she falls in behind them as they head for the subways. When they all file onto a train, she gets on after them. She’s openly watching them by this point, and slowly, they all seem to become aware of her.

She smashes the lights and goes off on them, beating all of them senseless in the dark, escaping once the train stops. We see her with the briefcases she stole from them, and we see that they’re filled with diamonds. As another train passes, she’s gone. By far, the most comic-book like opening so far.

I like how The Bus comes soaring out of the title, and we find Coulson and May (Clark Gregg and Ming Na-Wen) talking about the peace of flying. She’s in no mood. Meanwhile, Fitz and Simmons seem to be driving Ward crazy. Coulson finds Skye (Chloe Bennet) sitting in a car in the cargo hold of The Bus, working on her computer, and he asks her for some help figuring out the heist we saw in the opening scene.

The explanation of the opening is that the guys were all private security, dressed alike so they could frustrate any possible heist. Only one of them actually had the diamonds, and it was him lying on the floor of that subway car, hand missing. Skye posits the idea that the thief might have some sort of psychic ability, and that she’s using it to get past all the security measures. I like that the explanation is something else, and that it’s not just “let’s pile on the superpowers as fast as we can.” Skye seems open to the idea, and at this point in the Marvel Universe, that’s enough.

Akela Amador (Pascale Armand) is picked out of the photos taken during the incident, and I like that they’re acknowledging how people would behave if social media existed in these worlds. Once again, someone from Coulson’s past. Coulson seems to know some shady people. This time, he says he trained her, throwing out to the first commercial. I’m curious to see how many times they can go to this well. He knew the Peruvian double-agent. Fitz/Simmons were taught by Dr. Franklin. Coulson trained Akela. It’s already a fairly small world they’re building.

She disappeared after a disastrous raid, and Coulson admits that he thought it was her after he heard the description of the diamond heists. So far, Coulson hasn’t told S.H.I.E.L.D. higher-ups that Akela is still alive, and he tells May not to send her name into HQ. Skye tries to tease Coulson a bit, but he’s not kidding around when he talks about his disappointment in the way Akela’s choices led her away from S.H.I.E.L.D. Seeing her in action, she can definitely read people, and she’s incredibly-paranoid. She makes a deal to sell the diamonds, and we see the way she transported them. She’s not looking for money, though. She’s looking for information, some sort of codes.

“Zloda, Belarus.” Fitz/Simmons are having a bit of a nerd fight this week. Ward has a problem with code names. Coulson is all business as they get close to Akela’s last known location. When Skye and Fitz/Simmons are alone in the van (or the “Short Bus,” as Ward called it), they talk about Skye’s suspicions about Akela’s powers. They also end up annoying Ward by calling him about how to use the bathroom while they’re on stakeouts.

Coulson talks to a local woman about Akela, and he’s surprised when the woman describes her as “my angel.” She says that Akela alerted her to the fact that she has cancer, and as a result, she caught it early enough to do something about it. She tells Coulson that Akela no doubt knows they’re coming, and sure enough, she drives a giant truck right into the surveillance van, flipping them into a ditch.

Here’s where I assume the people who are irritated by the show are coming from. In four weeks, we’re already seeing a very basic shape for each episode start to assert itself. Bad guys are rarely who they originally appear to be. Traitors normally aren’t. So as we watch someone scrap with S.H.I.E.L.D. in the first half of an episode, it’s safe to assume there’s a reverse coming, and it’s hard to invest in someone as a threat if we’re just waiting for them to reveal their real nature. Much of the television that people freak out for these days is based on surprising people, which is something that serialized storytelling can do better than almost anything else.

Everyone makes it back, though. May watches them all file in, and Ward and Coulson talk about how they consider the mission a failure. Skye’s excited about possibly hacking the video feed that Akela was using to hold them under surveillance. When they do it, though, they are shocked to realize they’re hacking directly into Akela’s eyes, which have actual camera implants now. May wants to destroy Akela. She considers her a weapon. Coulson thinks Akela is not trying to kill them, and as they watch further, they realize that Akela is in fact being controlled by remote. She has to ask permission to sleep. Coulson orders around the clock surveillance on her.

Skye explains that she trusts Coulson because he has faith in her, something that not many people have ever expressed, and she believes that makes him an excellent judge of character.

Meanwhile, May has jumped ship. She went to see Akela in her room, which turns out to be not such a great idea, since Akela has a failsafe in place when confronted with S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. Either she has to kill May, or May has to kill her. There is no third choice.

We see that they’re evenly matched during the fight until Akela takes out the lights so she can use her specially modified eyes to “see” in the dark via backscatter. She almost shoots May, but Coulson bursts in and takes her out. They find a way to hack the feed that was controlling Akela, and they send the S.H.I.E.L.D. team out to work in her place while they find a way to remove the implant from her eye.

Coulson explains what happened, and she is furious with him. She thinks of him as a know-it-all, a huge jerk. She tells him that he was also right, and she reveals how she ended up under their control. Skye and Ward arrive at the site where her mission is supposed to take place. As they work to complete her mission, Coulson debriefs Akela to try and figure out who her handlers are. There’s a fine line between focused and hyper-competent and robotic and dull, and Clark Gregg threatens to explore that fine line with much of his work this week. The more emotion you ask of Coulson, the more I’m not sure it works.

Fitz and Simmons are tasked with removing the failsafe in Akela’s eye as Coulson goes to figure out who her handlers are. May is tracking him down using each of his transmissions, and she volunteers to head out and handle it herself. Coulson wants to do it personally, though. Watching Akela administer her own local anesthetic to her eyeball is pretty much all you need to know about her as a badass.

Best laugh in the episode… and in fact, probably the best laugh in the show so far… Ward’s order that comes in when he finally finds the target. “Seduce him.” Excellent twist before throwing to the final big commercial break, and say what you will about the series as a whole, but it’s beats like that which give me hope that they’ll evolve into something richer and better.

“MISSION COMPLETE. GOOD LUCK.” Ward sort of screws it all up. He completes the mission through sheer brute force, and then sets off an alarm as he tries to get out. Fitz/Simmons continue to work to set Akela free. Ward does get some benefit out of using the backscatter technique, but unfortunately, he looks directly into a mirror as he does so. The back-and-forth as the episode builds is well-handled, as are the glimpses that finally reveal her handler.

And as soon as Coulson confronts him, his own failsafe goes off.

Nice ending. The equation that was stolen by Ward during the heist gets S.H.I.E.L.D.’s attention, and Akela is sent off to face trial. Before she goes, she asks May what happened to Coulson. She can tell that he’s not the same person he was before, and May tries selling the story that he “almost” died before the events of “The Avengers.” Akela’s not buying it, though.

Akelah’s in jail, and we see her go to sleep for the first time without asking permission in what must have been years, a small, subtle final bit that shows that no matter what, she’s free. It’ll be interesting to see if she’s the first of many people part of the same enemy team, and I’d like to know if we’re going to see more failsafes in the future. If we do see her again, I think it’s safe to say she’s on Coulson’s side from now on.

A decent episode. I still think last week’s is the best of the series so far, but we’re talking about a matter of degrees right now. I feel comfortable at this point letting my kids catch up and start watching this, because even when they do hint at adult things, it’s handled with a light touch. I’m guessing they’re going to be bigger fans than I am, which may actually be the point.

Nice idea keeping the backscatter glasses around, too.

“Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.” airs Tuesday nights at 8:00 PM on ABC.