Oliver: Now that’s a bit more like what I expected from this series. Hopefully the title of this week’s episode means that this is the type of storytelling we’ll be getting more of in the future, because “Seeds” does stronger work strengthening character relationships and progressing different storylines while also including shout-outs to the larger Marvel universe. Iron Man villain Donald “Blizzard” Gill makes his first appearance in tonight’s episode, reimagined as a brilliant, morally conflicted 18-year-old S.H.I.E.L.D. Academy recruit, and his origin gives the writers the opportunity to expand on the series’ mythology as a quartet of agents visit Gill’s campus.
This show’s Donnie (Lost’s Dylan Minnette) may not be anything like the Blizzard in the comics, but his story makes for an entertaining hour of television that has a stronger element of comic-book fantasy than past episodes. I know I complained about giant tweezers and tow truck logistics last week as if this show was supposed to be some sort of paean of realism, but those criticisms are mostly born out a frustration that this show isn’t willing to have more fun with its concept and think outside the box. A secret nightclub in the boiler room of S.H.I.E.LD. Academy is a ludicrous idea—especially considering this is the world’s top espionage and surveillance organization—but it works for me in a silly comic-book way. How could those students get a pool table and a bunch of furniture in the boiler room without the administration knowing? Or install the flashy lighting system? Do they get regular deliveries for the bar? The answer to all these questions: “Who cares?”
Part of the foundation of superhero stories is establishing a basic absurdity that allows for the suspension of disbelief. It’s why Superman can throw on a suit and a pair of glasses and disappear into the identity of Clark Kent without the reader constantly pointing out that it’s a lousy disguise. The secret identity is feasible because you’re reading about an immigrant alien that can fly and shoot lasers out of his eyes and freeze things with his breath, so clearly reality works differently in this environment. S.H.I.E.L.D. takes place in a world of alien gods and flying cars and super soldiers, so a campus nightclub built by some aspiring superspies isn’t that ridiculous.
Last week, I wrote about how bland so much of this show is, and it brings me great pleasure to say that this episode finally brought some flavor. The one hand-to-hand combat sequence between May and a former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent actually showcases dynamic choreography and camerawork, and the dialogue contains laugh out loud moments while creating a much better sense of who these characters are and how they relate to each other. Jed Whedon co-wrote this episode with Monica Owusu-Breen, and the spirit of Jed’s brother Joss seems to be guiding the two writers. The banter is the best it’s been, with Fitz delivering one particularly gut-busting line that plays like classic Whedon: After Skye comments that Fitz looks younger than the rest of the team, he responds, “Time will come when you won’t make fun of me for that. You’ll be jealous. You’ll be jealous wrinkly old hags.”
Fitz is best when he’s bitchy, and that character direction sets him apart from his goody-good lab mate while putting him in a more antagonistic position with the other members of the team. The show has hinted at a rivalry between Ward’s academy and Fitz and Simmons’ alma mater, and putting the scientists back on their home turf gives them the opportunity to make Ward feel inferior, which is something they both clearly enjoy. It also gives the viewers a much stronger idea of the world Fitz and Simmons are coming from and helps us understand why they’re so valuable to Coulson’s team. Their brains made them legends on campus (and the youngest graduates of the Academy), which is a nice contrast to their role as the nerdy sidekicks on The Bus, and seeing how revered Fitz and Simmons are on campus lends some added mystique to the characters that makes them better fits for a special S.H.I.E.L.D. taskforce.
While Ward, Skye, Fitz, and Simmons investigate the string of icy incidents on campus, Coulson and May head to Mexico City to investigate a lead on Skye’s past, which not only leads to some solid bonding time between Clark Gregg and Ming-Na Wen, but more importantly, provides some legitimate justification for why Skye is on this show. An air of mystery is what Skye’s character has needed the entire season, and “Seeds” finally gives her that by attaching her to three numbers: 084. That’s S.H.I.E.L.D. code for “object of unknown origin,” usually used for things like hammers that fall from the sky. Baby Skye was an 084 whose parents were killed, along with the group of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents that saved her life, and a foreboding warning that death follows her everywhere has me more interested in Skye than ever before. There’s now a whole new set of questions surrounding Skye that goes beyond the identity of her birth parents, and I find myself developing an interest in finding out the answers.
Coulson was already the best part of this show because of Clark Gregg’s performance, but there’s a new fire behind the character since last week’s reveal that his memories were manipulated so that he wouldn’t remember the horrific process that brought him back to life. His experience is forcing him to reconsider the standard S.H.I.E.L.D. protocol of secrets and manipulation, sending him down a path of righteousness that presents some very intriguing narrative opportunities moving forward. The trailer for Captain America: The Winter Soldier suggests that there are going to be some major changes for S.H.I.E.L.D. in the future, and this series is the perfect place to spotlight the unethical activity that puts the organization in conflict with Captain America.
David, did you also find this episode to be an upswing in quality? How do you feel about the new Coulson and his “no secrets” stance? And what do you think of the second established Marvel supervillain to appear on the series?
David: Honestly, Oliver, I kinda wish this had been the pilot episode of the show. Sure, we’ve had so much fun dragging out the mystery of Tahiti (not) and Skye’s parentage (not) but this was an episode that laid out a lot of the show’s conflicts, gave us some vital background and detail about the S.H.I.E.L.D. organization, and, like you said, was pretty fun! It wasn’t quite the rollicking time I might have hoped for from a Joss Whedon show but it at least had some life in it.
And it gives us some nice material to move forward with. What’s frustrating is that it took us so long to get here. The mystery of Coulson’s resurrection, which is now leading him to cut the bullshit and just be straightforward with Skye and everyone else, has barely developed at all since the pilot. Why couldn’t we have started here? The audience is smart enough to know that something troubling happened, and since Coulson began the show as a bit of a renegade, the increase in bluntness isn’t really a massive surprise. Either way, it’s nice to have it and I hope we get more of it in future weeks.
Skye, as well, should have started right here. She’s weirdly a character with two dark pasts, both the mystery orphan angle and her time mixing it up with the bad guys. Since, again, the audience is smart enough to know Skye’s not going to turn traitor, it’s too bad we wasted week after week with that angle. This is what makes sense for her. She’s special in some way (we don’t know specifically what, but that’s fine), she’s searching through S.H.I.E.L.D.’s secrets for facts about her past, and she’s found somewhat of a father figure in Coulson. Cool. I have (mild) hope for the future now, but we could have gotten here far sooner.
The best thing about this episode, though, was absolutely that it was not set on a plane. The plane setting seemed like a cool idea initially, but it’s rough to have your limited cast of characters get very few chances to interact with anyone who’s not, say, the villain of the week. Going to S.H.I.E.L.D. Academy was the brightest idea the writers have had in a while. Sure, it was a total ripoff of Starfleet Academy and the like, but who cares? Solid model to follow, and gives us some context into what makes the organization tick. Even in the comics, S.H.I.E.L.D. has this catch-all quality: extra-governmental, possessing every technology imaginable, fingers in every pie, no specific mission or focus. The show needs to bring a little more focus to ground things in reality, even if it’s superhero reality.
What do I think of Blizzard? Hey, at least he’s not a guy in a suit talking about how he used to do Asgardian shit! I imagine we’ll get a lot of these technology-powered villains through the course of the show, since the Marvel Cinematic Universe has that slightly realistic edge to it. The “awkward teen” angle didn’t interest me at first, but I at least admired the effort to make his scene with Fitz more than just a distraction. I felt I had some idea of what was driving him after watching that.
I can’t say I’m excited for what the future of the show holds. It’s burned me too much in these opening weeks for me to just do a 180. But at the same time, this was a halfway decent hour that reminded me of the positivity I had towards this project in its early days. It still suffers from a depressing lack of scale and maddeningly slow plot development (it’s based on superhero comics, for crying out loud! There should be crazy cliffhangers every five minutes!). But give me a few more of these, and I’ll change my tune. I’m always ready to like S.H.I.E.L.D. as long as it gives me something to hold on to.
- O: In casting news, Bill Paxton will be in four episodes playing Agent John Garrett, a character that debuted in Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz’s Elektra: Assassin and has the exact type of attitude this show could use. I believe a commenter specifically mentioned bringing this character to the show, and Paxton and Gregg should work very well together.
- O: I didn’t catch on to the possibility that last week’s cliffhanger could be setting up Mike Petersen as Deathlok, but if that happens I will be a very happy viewer.
- O: Here’s hoping that passing A.I.M. mention means that it is going to appear eventually. I really want to see those yellow beehive suits on screen!
- O: What if Donnie had broken into a bunch of tiny pieces when Fitz tries to chisel him out, like a Subzero Fatality? That would have been an amazingly dark twist.
- O: “‘Bad seed’ isn’t a S.H.I.E.L.D. term, Ward. Just a term.”
- O: “Huh. Bucky Barnes.” FUN!!!
- O: Coulson: “We need to root out all the secrets.” May: “Agent Ward and I have been having sex.”