Oliver: “Trust the system.” It's a phrase repeated often in “The Hub,” a quick way to shut up anyone that asks too many questions about an organization that depends on secrets to achieve success. It's also something that the characters on this show are finding harder and harder to do with each episode as they realize the system isn't necessarily working in the best interests of the makeshift family being formed on The Bus. This week, S.H.I.E.L.D. sends Agents Ward and Fitz into the field to disable a device that can trigger weapons from a distance (oh-so-subtly nicknamed the Overkill Device), and when the rest of the team discovers that their friends have been sent on a suicide mission without any planned extraction, they break protocol to get the boys back safely.
Like every episode up to this point, “The Hub” is a mixed bag. The positives include mixing up the character combinations to complicate the interpersonal dynamics, building up the duplicitous nature of S.H.I.E.L.D., and instilling a sense of brevity in increasingly dire circumstances, but the negatives continue to prevent the series from becoming more than middle-of-the-road action adventure television. The long-term plots aren't as captivating as the writers think they are, the central mission is formulaic, even with a solid mid-episode twist, and Skye is becoming an increasingly problematic character.
Chloe Bennett isn't an obnoxious actress. She was perfectly acceptable playing a more subdued character on Nashville last year, but good lord is Skye getting more and more irritating with each episode. She doesn't seem to understand that the entire point of S.H.I.E.L.D. is secrecy, and her constant complaining about being kept in the dark is just making me wonder why Coulson is keeping her around in the first place. She's a computer genius. So what? There are probably dozens of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents that can do what she does, and if there aren't, then S.H.I.E.L.D. really sucks at picking agents. When Skye and Simmons team up to figure out the truth about Ward and Fitz's mission, the ease with which they bypass security makes S.H.I.E.L.D. look incredibly incompetent. These are the people protecting the Earth? No wonder it's always on the verge of destruction.
“The Hub” builds up more of the S.H.I.E.L.D. mythology, bringing Coulson's group to the titular location that serves as—you guessed it—a hub for the covert spy organization. Comic fans will recognize characters like Jasper Sitwell (Maximiliano Hernández, who has appeared in quite a few MCU projects) and new face Victoria Hand (Saffron Burrows, doing a horrible American accent), and while they're not huge comic-book players, at least the show is making an effort to incorporate more of the larger established Marvel Universe. That said, with there being so many comic-book S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and so little diversity on this show, it would have been nice to see someone like Gabriel Jones or Jimmy Woo instead of another white character. If the writers are worried about the similarities between the black Gabriel and Nick Fury, they could switch the character's gender, call her Gabrielle and introduce a recurring black female to the show.
With this episode, I am officially bored with the mystery of Coulson's resurrection. When Victoria Hand is talking to him and he mentions how Tahiti is “a magical…place,” it's hard not to groan, and the episode's tag, which shows Coulson being denied access to the file detailing his revival, is devoid of suspense. The hints being dropped suggest that he was either brought back to life via magic or is a Life Model Decoy, but the snail's pace of this storyline's progress is preventing me from giving a shit anymore. I have slightly more interest in the mystery of Skye's parents, although I was really hoping the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who brought Skye to the orphanage as a child would be Agent Coulson, explaining why he feels so responsible for her success.
David, are you similarly frustrated with the lack of forward movement regarding the show's overarching storylines? And how did you feel about this episode's Ward and Fitz team-up? Did the writers do a good job keeping the stakes high, or did the boys' adventure in South Osetia lose steam as it went along?
David: Man, Oliver, I am so in the bag for this show and what Marvel is trying to do with it. I am so in the bag for any show created by Joss Whedon, even one he doesn’t have much of a hand in running. But I am near the end of my tether with this show. Like you say, this episode is a mixed bag with some perfectly smart moments. I’d say there’s three big elements to every episode: the mission of the week, the longer arcs, and the inter-personal dynamics.
The missions of the week are the reason people are complaining about this show. You can do whatever you want with world-building and have the cutest, most charming cast on television but the episodes have to be watchable. Increasingly, they are not. Any action show is going to be a little slow to start—after a bombastic pilot, you won’t be able to match the energy for a couple episodes, blah blah. But we’re seven episodes in now, and the action still feels very, very cookie-cutter. Lots of bland sets and anonymous villains, not enough weird superpower stuff, and too many bland magic macguffin devices.
I liked the pairing of Ward and Fitz, and the show’s efforts to bring him and Simmons more into the action (last week wasn’t bad either), but… I like the idea of what’s happening more than what’s actually on the screen. You pinpointed it, Oliver, by asking if the stakes were high enough. No way! There’s no way this show is going to kill off one of its very few cast members so early on, and even if it did, what would I care? I barely care about them (particularly Ward, no matter how many times the series tries to do the “self-aware straight man” bit with him).
I’m more invested in the long-term plots, I suppose. There’s always an interesting tension to the fact that S.H.I.E.L.D. is, by necessity, an organization that makes moral compromises and considers its agents somewhat expendable. I’d be more intrigued by the mystery of Phil’s resurrection if the change for him was beyond a slight uptick in energy and recklessness, but whatever, I’m enough of a nerd that I want the question answered.
But lord, there’s so much more potential in the comic book universe S.H.I.E.L.D. is barely plumbing. Sure, there’s Victoria Hand, but that role could have been any stock character; the mere fan service of the name is not enough for me. Why isn’t this show world-building more? So far, outside of some brief winks and references to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this show could be ANY secret agent show. Shadowy organization, villains of the week, diverse group of operatives with different skills. I know this show exists in a comic book universe, but only because I’ve been told it does.
How bout the character interplay? I’m not quite as sour on Skye as you, Oliver, but I’ll admit her shtick is not evolving into anything specific. I could care less about Fitz and Simmons’ flirtation, or whatever’s motivating the tranquil Agent May. I don’t hate any of the actors (even Agent Ward is flat, but he’s not so dire) but outside of Coulson, if they all blew up in an accident and got replaced next week, I could deal. That’s not a good place for a show to be seven episodes in.
There’s still, still, still room for growth. There’s potential. I’m going to keep watching. But we’re giving this show a B-, which, unless there’s some change made, is pretty much the ceiling for this show at this point. I don’t know if humor, a change in stakes, or some dramatic shake-up, like having the team detach from the infrastructure of S.H.I.E.L.D. in some way, will prove to be the answer. But as it is, I don’t know how I could ever recommend this show to anyone but a Marvel completist.
- D: Man, Saffron Burrows looks more and more like Geena Davis every day.
- D: “Which non-expression is this?” Skye asks of Agent May’s grim face. Ya burnt, Ming-Na.
- D: I think the most fun was the opening scene, just because S.H.I.E.L.D. is always good when Coulson gets to be silly. Let him be silly more!
- O: Marvel Cinematic Universe firsts this week: First appearance of Victoria Hand, a regular player in Brian Michael Bendis' Dark Avengers and New Avengers series, and first mention of the Triskelion, the S.H.I.E.L.D. base that debuted in Mark Millar's The Ultimates and will be making an appearance in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
- O: Ward and Fitz's camouflage mag pouch is a very smart gadget, effective in the field and easily depicted on a TV budget. Also: It forces them to share a sleeping bag together.
- O: “I like men that are about my height but heavier than me.” Simmons under pressure is quite adorable. Elizabeth Henstridge is growing on me with each episode.
- O: “There are dogs tracking us, and you brought a prosciutto sandwich.”
- O: “I shot a superior officer in the chest.” Again: adorable. Also, I think I might be a FitzSimmons shipper.