Marvel's Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Season 1, Episode 13
Now that’s more like it. After spending its first half season spinning wheels, throwing out half-baked ideas and lackluster characterization, Agents of SHIELD is finally delivering the sort of episodes that are at the very least watchable, and potentially something more. “T.R.A.C.K.S.” begins, as a show like this should, with a premise that made me tilt my head and say “huh?” From there, it developed into a twisty, suspenseful actioner that played with structure and actually seemed to understand the potential of the world it takes place in. While it is still a fair way from me caring about the characters as much as it wants me to, if the show can keep delivering hours like this, that may begin to change, or at least matter less.
During a standard tag and track undercover mission on a train (aren’t missions on trains just the best?), the team is separated, and the episode flashes back to the same point to follow these various threads (or tracks, if you must) through the rest of the story. Coulson and Ward are forced to jump off the train, only to see it disappear before their eyes. May also disembarks from the roof, using an awesome parachute trick, and while the episode briefly teases us with the idea that she is unstuck in time from Coulson and Ward, the actual solution (which is probably less interesting, but still pretty fun) is a dendrotoxin that freezes people temporarily and without the awareness any time has passed when they come to.
The same fate befalls Simmons, which leaves Fitz and Skye to track Quinn back to an Italian villa where we are introduced to Mike Petersen’s new Deathlok (yay!) upgrade, and where Skye is twice gutshot. While this is played as incredibly dramatic, and did sort of work for me as an emotional beat, the episode’s greatest successes are from an action and suspense perspective. The structure keeps us in the dark alongside the characters for long stretches, and the fight choreography continues to display this show’s growing confidence in what it can do well—small, tight, close-quarters fight sequences.
The episode also attempts to introduce more comedy into the mix, something the show generally flails at, and a big marker in what is separating this from the Joss Whedon shows it is modeled on. The humor still falls largely flat here, mostly I think because this cast still can’t quite handle banter, but it is far less grating than it has been previously. Simmons’ obsessive attempts to get through her painstakingly prepared backstory and Fitz’s fawning over Skye are both, if not funny, then something much more closely approximating humor than what I’ve seen from the show in the past, and it is a welcome step in the right direction.
It is a mixed blessing that J. August Richards has, in some ways, become the emotional core of this show: good because this show desperately needs one, and bad because he is not a member of the regular cast. Of course, this wouldn’t be the first time Richards played a recurring role in season one of a Whedon show only to get upgraded to a regular in season two, and if Mike “Deathlok” Petersen is a member of the core cast going forward, that would make me a very happy camper. Richards has brought more emotional depth to his three episodes so far than anyone in the cast has in their thirteen, turning Petersen’s various troubles into traumatic events with real weight and making his transformation into the tortured pawn of The Clairvoyant all the more fascinating. Basically, I want more J. August Richards, and if the tag this week is any indication, this is far from the last time we’ll see Deathlok around these parts.
While I’m honestly not all that moved by Skye’s serious injury here, I at least buy that her teammates are. Simmons’ cold, curt instructions and then private breakdown is probably the best work Elizabeth Henstridge has done on the show to date, while Ward’s jealousy over Coulson’s emotional intimacy with May plays mostly like our cardboard soldier has a little bit of strained life in him yet.
“T.R.A.C.K.S.” is a smartly structured, well-paced hour of television. It’s got a cool comic-book premise, suspense, action, and even some attempts at comedy. Basically, it is one of the best episodes of Agents of SHIELD to date, and while it isn’t great television, it is at least light-years closer to watchable than most of this show to date.
-“You’re the least supportive pretend girlfriend I’ve ever had.”
-Oh look, Stan Lee is here…
-“If it’s really just sex, Ward, you should get more comfortable using the word.”