This week, we continue our ongoing coverage of Marvel's Agents of SHIELD. While my first review was mostly spoiler-free, this and future posts will discuss anything occurring on-screen in episodes aired to date. (So watch the episode first.)
"They just need time," Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) says this week of his newly assembled team of agents, and for now I'm inclined to agree with him.
"0-8-4," the second episode of Agents of SHIELD, is not a quantum leap forward for the series—I doubt anyone is proclaiming this a classic to rival the best of Joss Whedon's work yet—but I'm starting to see some encouraging signs. This week's episode actually seemed like it was inching towards being a show I could invest in.
The encouraging signs, it should be noted, were not really to found in the "A-plot," which—while not bad—was another fairly predictable, by-the-numbers, case-of-the-week storyline. SHIELD goes to investigate an "0-8-4," an unidentified but unusual object, discovered in the ruins of an Incan temple in Peru. Upon arrival, they discover a Hydra-designed, gamma-powered laser cannon—or something—from WWII days, and meet up with government forces led by Comandante Camilla Reyes (Leonor Varela), an old friend—and flame—of Coulson's.
Hmm, is it possible that the super-sexy super-spy with the hot accent and the armed minions might be a femme fatale who will end up double-crossing SHIELD? Nahhh….
So the basic plotline and "twists" of this episode were all obvious from the first ten minutes, and the MacGuffin turns out to be a not very interesting artifact that makes not a whole lot of sense. (What was the thing about it being there 1,500 years? Did that make sense to anyone?) But that's okay: this episode was more overall fun than the premiere, and anyway—as I discussed last week—we're still in user-friendly mode, courting new viewers and not making any strenuous demands on mainstream TV audience members who might not already be on the Whedon Wagon. Buffy, Angel, and Dollhouse all began their runs with a lot of fairly simple, self-contained episodes as well, providing easy places for new viewers to jump on board; it was only well into their runs that they ramped up the long-form storytelling that is Whedon's strong-suit. (Firefly, though it made more demands on its audience right from the start, didn't last that long.)
But this sophomore effort didn't need to blow our minds with original storytelling and radical ideas: let's save those for further down the line. What "0-8-4" did need to do was to make us bond with these characters a little bit, and it largely succeeded by making the B-plot all about the characters bonding with each other. For in between the predictable beats and fight scenes of this episode, we get a lot of talking, and a lot of (still introductory) character work. We learn a bit more about what makes Skye (Chloe Bennet) tick: she's a crusader for the freedom of information, and a believer in the power of many minds to do what one mind can't. (This character still doesn't work for me yet, but giving her some principles and depth is a step in the right direction.) We get teasing hints about the enigmatic Melinda May, and the dark mysteries in her past that have both made her legendary and driven her from field work. (Ming-Na Wen was not obvious casting for this role, but she turns out to be wonderful in it: she and Gregg are the most experienced actors in the show, and at this point they're still acting rings around the newbies.) Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) still haven't had much to do, but here we at least begin to be able to distinguish each of them from the other. (So far, Fitz seems to have a prickly temper and a touch of OCD, while Simmons is sweetness and light and nervous nerdy optimism: in Whedon shorthand, let's call him a "Topher" and her a "Fred" for now.) Even Ward (Brett Dalton) is starting to come into focus, though I'm going to need to see a little more emotional range, humor, and goofiness from him before I believe he's a "Mal" and not a "Riley." (Sorry: I'll stop with the Whedon comparisons soon, I promise.)
So I'm still not convinced about some of the actors or their characters, but that's okay: that's right where we'd expect to be about now, and the show knows this. As the team squabbles after the first firefight, Skye—who thought she was the new girl—realizes that this entire team is basically new, having never worked together before they met her. It's a clever, self-aware bit of audience manipulation that puts them (and us) all on the same footing. They don't know each other, and they don't trust each other, and they're all still deciding just what the hell kind of team this will be; at the same time, we're trying to get to know everyone, and get a feel for these characters, and figure out what the hell kind of show this will be.
It's not sophisticated, but it's still smart storytelling, and I give the writers (here Jeffrey Bell, Maurissa Tancharoen, and Jed Whedon) credit for essentially making this second episode an action-heavy crowd pleaser and a bottle episode at the same time. Once they get out of the jungle, the entire episode takes place on "The Bus," the souped-up plane that serves as the team's roving headquarters, and this, too, was necessary: every show needs a home set, and watching the characters hang around this one already made the show feel warmer and more grounded than it did in the pilot. Those of us who loved (and lamented the passing of) Firefly can perhaps be forgiven if we got a little nostalgic and wistful at the sight of team members lounging around the common areas of an aircraft, or bonding while they sit on the ramp leading out the cargo bay doors. "The Bus" isn't Serenity yet, but watching these crew members bicker and banter through these flying halls makes Agents of SHIELD feel more like a Joss Whedon show, and makes this feel like a place we might want to return week after week.
So I don't mind that the plots and devices are clunkily familiar at the moment: I know from past experience that that will change, and those things aren't that important anyway. Despite spending most of his career in sci-fi/fantasy worlds, Whedon's strength and passion has never been in fantastical plotting: it's in forging makeshift families. Here, we've got a lot of characters starting more or less from scratch, but "0-8-4" goes a long way towards convincing me that the executive producers Whedon, Whedon, and Tancharoen know exactly what they're doing. They just need a little time.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- Only my second review, and I'm already bagging all those damn periods: sorry, Marvel, but Agents of SHIELD looks much better.
- Skye's "betrayal" towards the end would seem like the most predictable act from a renegade hacker and freedom-of-information zealot: can we assume Coulson is actually using her to get inside the Rising Tide?
- Let's also assume Camilla will be a recurring character—especially since Coulson said the Peruvian government would no doubt negotiate for her release. (I'm fine with that: she was good here, and part of the job of creating a new series is populating it with antagonists and allies. I only wish Leonor Varela weren't so gosh-darned homely.)
- Agent Squarejaw does get a couple of nice lines this episode. Imagine what Skye can do with SHIELD resources, Coulson tells him. "I am. That's exactly what I'm imagining during this frown." ("I'm calling this," Coulson replies. "But your frown will be on record.")
- Oh yeah: and in case you didn't stick around to the very end, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) showed up to berate Coulson for damaging his plane. It's a pleasure to see him, but I'm glad they saved it for the coda and made it a throwaway scene: Jackson is a powerful, iconic presence, and the show can't—and shouldn't need to—rely on his dropping by.
- "Yeah, we're gonna have to kill the fish tank."