Can a TV series set in a superhero universe survive and flourish without any recognizable costumed characters in the cast? It’s one of the most common questions I’ve seen regarding Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., and frankly it’s a concern that confuses me. Of course it can survive and flourish, as long as it does the things a successful TV show should do: create well-defined characters and relationships, tell a story with a clear point of view, and keep the audience entertained the entire time. For examples of great S.H.I.E.L.D. stories that didn’t rely on superheroes, there are plenty of Silver Age comic books detailing the exploits of Nick Fury and his fellow agents. What these books offer is a different perspective to a world where superpowered individuals are becoming more prevalent, telling grounded tales of international intrigue within a setting that is considerably more fantastic than the usual spy story. It’s a viewpoint that works especially well on a television budget, which can handle secret agents better than superheroes.
Like David, I found last week’s episode an improvement over the week before, and “Eye Spy” builds even more upward momentum as it delves into Agent Coulson’s past. By exploring Coulson’s history with a presumed dead S.H.I.E.L.D. agent that he trained, the series begins to clarify the reasoning for Coulson’s current ragtag group. There’s a clear divide between the seasoned field agents and the rookies, with Coulson serving as the bridge between the two groups that incites both to action. Why exactly does he help these people? This episode suggests that it may be Coulson’s way of making up for past mistakes like Akela Amador (Pascale Armand), an agent who disappeared in the field four years ago and has resurfaced as a thief with seemingly psychic abilities.
ABC is putting a lot of money into this series to make it look as close to cinema quality as possible, which includes filming on location in Sweden for this episode’s opening sequence in Sergel’s Square. The episode switches to generic sets when the action moves to Belarus, and being on location heightens the impact of the tense opening sequence. Akela lurks around the square as a group of masked men handcuffed to briefcases make their way to the subway, following them to a train car where she knocks out the lights, beats the men up, and steals the one briefcase containing a cache of diamonds. The scene is shot to make the audience think that this is going to be some sort of terrorist attack, but the theatrics are intended to draw out Akela, who is responsible for a string of recent robberies.
Because Disney and Marvel Studios don’t own the rights to the X-Men film characters, the Marvel cinematic universe (MCU) doesn’t have any mutants (hence the “registered gifted” terminology), which means no psychics like Charles Xavier or Jean Grey. There may not be any psychics discovered in the MCU, but that doesn’t mean it’s not utterly ridiculous for the non-Skye agents to completely ignore the possibility of Akela having mental superpowers. Skye says that precognitive/telepathic/telekinetic abilities aren’t that far-fetched in a world of aliens and magic portals, and while she’s ultimately proven wrong when they find Akela, she has the right frame of mind for this kind of work. Things are only going to get stranger from here on out, so unorthodox thinking is increasingly valuable.
Though not a psychic, Akela does have a robotic eye in her skull, allowing her to see across different spectrums while also providing a camera for her handler. Those shots of her standing in place using her psychic powers are actually her scanning the area with her X-ray vision and retrieving mission objectives through her eyeball, and that technology makes it possible for S.H.I.E.L.D. to track her down and bring her in. A newly active Melinda goes off the reservation to retrieve Akela, and once she’s back in S.H.I.E.L.D. custody, Coulson breaks S.H.I.E.L.D. protocol and goes after Akela’s enslavers with his own team so that he can exorcise his personal demons.
After four episodes, it’s becoming clear that the series will be built around three primary relationships: Coulson and Skye, Coulson and Mae, and Skye and Ward. It’s easy to see the influence of past Whedon shows on this series, not only in tone and dialogue style, but in these relationships. Coulson is the Giles to Skye’s Buffy and the Mal to Mae’s Zoe, a father figure for his newest recruit and a witty war buddy for the teammate he knows best. Skye and Ward are in the flirtation stage of Buffy and Riley’s plot, with Ward playing a sexy S.O. instead of a T.A. As someone with little affinity for Riley, I do find Ward to be a more appealing character (as long as he’s not talking about getting beat up by his older brother), largely because of Brett Dalton’s chemistry with Chloe Bennett.
By syncing the feed to Akela’s robotic eye with a pair of glasses, Skye and Ward are able to continue Akela’s mission for her handler while Fitz and Simmons remove the ocular tech before the kill switch detonates in her skull. Skye and Ward’s task is a great opportunity for flirtation (the moment where Skye pulls a cord out of Ward’s glasses and finds out he’s ticklish is adorable), but more importantly it puts Ward in a position where he needs his partner’s help if he’s going to successfully complete his objective. Everything’s going well for Ward and his Clark Kent glasses until he’s ordered to seduce a male security guard, putting him in a vulnerable position that is the exact type of story development he needs to become a more personable character. He awkwardly flirts to no avail, then just decides to knock out the security and finish the mission, which concludes when he walks into a room with walls covered in writing and two men sitting at typewriters.
While Skye and Ward are off doing their thing, Fitz and Simmons help turn Akela into the female Nick Fury by removing her cybernetic right eyeball. Once those muscles are snipped, Akela’s chains are broken and she’s free to live her own life again, even if she has to begin in prison. Armand does impressive work depicting the mental toll of Akela’s experience, and her intensity early in the episode makes for a poignant final moment when she lays down in her prison cell, finally at peace after years of torment. Thematically, Akela’s presence is tied most to Coulson and Skye, but in terms of plot progression, she’s integral to the Coulson-Mae storyline. Akela asks Melinda what happened to Coulson, but she’s not talking about a change in personality after a near-death experience. She wants to know what S.H.I.E.L.D. did to her former mentor, because that’s not the same man she knew. Now that Mae has the seeds planted in her head, it looks like she’s going to be the person investigating what happened to Coulson when he was revived after the Battle of New York, adding a sharper focus to her relationship with the team leader.
Coulson’s bond with Skye is at the forefront of this episode as he confronts his former female protégé and realizes that sometimes teaching isn’t about total authority but calculated compromise. The chummy, goofy Skye isn’t the type of recruit Coulson is used to, and he has to alter his tactics if he’s going to get her on his side. She has immense potential but right now she’s caught between two conflicting forces, and if he’s too aggressive he risks scaring her away and compromising his entry point into Rising Tide. It’s unclear just how much Coulson suspects about Skye’s true loyalties, but his eagerness to befriend her makes me think that he’s grooming her to be a triple agent.
The entire cast is getting a stronger handle on the rhythm and flow of the dialogue, and the banter is less forced as the actors become more confident in their characters’ shoes, with nonverbal reactions playing an important part in filling out the conversations and making them feel real. Skye’s reaction when Coulson says to her, “I live outside the box,” is a perfect look of impressed incredulity; she can’t believe he actually said that cheesy line, but she also admires the passion with which he spouts clichés. While their purpose is still primarily comic relief, Fitz and Simmons are starting to build a sibling-like dynamic that is loving but antagonistic. Their small argument in the unfortunately named Short Bus is one of the comic highlights of the episode, particularly the relief on Fitz’s face when he finds out that he won’t have to leave the van for this mission (accompanied by a fist pump for added emphasis).
I can’t recall who wrote it, but I read on Twitter last week that Joss Whedon’s TV series improve when the writing catches up with airing, giving the creative team the opportunity to gauge audience reactions and adjust the series accordingly. S.H.I.E.L.D. is already getting better with each new episode, and now that it’s has been picked up for a full season, I’m genuinely excited to see where the show goes from here. “Eye Spy” is a big step in the right direction, delving further into the history of these characters while laying groundwork for future stories. S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t need superheroes to be a captivating TV series, and making sure the human elements are developed is the best way to guarantee the show’s success.
- S.H.I.E.L.D. news out of New York Comic-Con: Titus Welliver (Deadwood, Lost) will reprise his role from the “Item 47” short film in the sixth episode, which will also be the next time David and I team up to talk about the show. Writer Ales Kot and artist Michael Walsh, the creative team behind the fantastic action espionage story in Zero #1, will be taking over the Agent Coulson-starring Secret Avengers comic. IDW will be publishing two Jim Steranko Artist’s Edition hardcovers, reprinting his Nick Fury and Captain America comics with high-resolution scans of the original artwork printed at the original size.
- I saw Pascale Armand on stage in The Convert at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre last year, a play by Danai Gurira (The Walking Dead’s Michonne) about Christian colonialists in southern Africa during the late 19th century. Armand was phenomenal in the emotionally exhausting three-hour production, and she brought those skills to her role as Akela.
- The set used for the Belarusian city street looks a lot like Wee Britain from Arrested Development. I really hope it’s the same sound stage or something.
- You want danger? Pretend to be gay in the real Belarus.
- “She still say ‘bang’ when she pulls the trigger?”
- “Next time I decide what we’re going to call ourselves.”
- “A.C.’s just way cooler.” Get it? A.C.? Cool?