Let me be upfront and say anyone expecting "The Hub" to be as epic as all its "Level 8 Clearance" promos implied it was going to be was surely disappointed. But despite my early misgivings, I ended up liking the episode a lot, although probably not for the reasons the showrunners hoped. But what most strikes me most is that this episode illustrates why Agents of SHIELD still feels… off.
But first, the plot: Some evil dudes in Ossetania (I think? whatever) have developed a Doomsday Machine (even Ward makes fun of the name, thank god) that sets off enemy munitions from afar. Obviously, that's bad juju. So SHIELD — not just Agent Coulson, but SHIELD itself — sends in the elite team of Ward and Fitz, an agent who's never been on a field mission, but will know how to disable the device.
Shenanigans ensue. Of course Fitz is nervous and talks too much but shows unexpected resourcefulness in tough situations, surprising Ward; while back at the SHIELD HQ called the Hub, of course Skye hacks into the most secure computers in the world in three minutes and discovers that Ward and Fitz have no extraction planned because it's a suicide mission. And of course Skye tells Agent Coulson about this, and Agent Coulson is pissed at SHIELD even after saying "Trust the system!" all episode, and makes his own extraction plan. It's not hard to see where the story is going, and it follows the requisite steps exactly.
So the overarching plot isn't anything special, but what this episode does do exceptionally well is illustrate Agents of SHIELD's biggest problems. Now, remember, I liked "The Hub" overall, so keep this is mind while I do a bit of criticizing:
1) The plots are very straightforward.
Obviously, I just mentioned this, but this is SHIELD's biggest problem. The writing team is playing it safe — using all the old hour-long action-drama tropes with virtually no deviation. I assume this is because the showrunners (and ABC) were terrified that this show, based on Marvel's kajillion-dollar-grossing movie universe, would somehow be too weird for TV viewers, and thus wanted to keep it simple. Now that SHIELD is a success, I expect — or at least hope — for this to improve considerably next season.
2) It tries to have too many things both ways.
Agents of SHIELD really wants SHIELD to be this awesome, crusading force for peace and justice in the world, but occasionally, like tonight, it also wants it to be a slightly sinister bureaucracy capable of throwing away lives for its goals. It wants Coulson to be to consummate company man, but it also wants him to angst about… something. It wants Coulson's team to be the best of the best, an elite squad among elites, but it also wants four of the members to be young and shockingly inexperienced with pretty much everything SHIELD does. There's this weird contradiction in the show's fundamentals, and it's very offputting — especially when you're supposed to pretend the most powerful and resourced organization in the world would one send two guys to destroy a doomsday device without any resources whatsoever.
3) It's trying too hard.
Speaking of limitations, by trying so hard to be a mini-Marvel movie, I think Agents of SHIELD does itself more harm than good. Specifically: Obviously the show has a certain amount of money; it needs those to make sets, do effects and add CG — and the show wants to add a lot of all of these, because it wants to be exciting and it wants to feel as epic as movie. But there's just not enough money. So we'll get awesome sets like The Hub, but then horrible CG like Smmons fishing the data capsule out of that agent's nose at the beginning of the episode. It can do a pretty good effect, like Fitz's "window" into the warehouse, but then there's a glaringly obvious greenscreen in the tundra in the coldmopen. Look, I don't have a solution for this, other than for ABC to give them more money (which it may do, now that the show has proven itself to not be a debacle). All I know if that sometimes the show looks so good it makes the not-good parts really stand out.
4) There are no real stakes.
If I had one complaint about this show, it's that despite the team ostensibly saving the world every week, it still feels small. We're firmly in case-of-the-week territory here, not unusual for a season one of any TV show, but it's hard to feel like these guys are doing any real good when they're relegated to investigating floating firefighters or sneaking into warehouses each week. The show needs an overarching plot, and most of all, it needs some real bad guys. I know there's the Project Centipede people, but they've been such a non-factor I had to look up their name when typing this, because I had forgotten it, because they've done almost nothing. Give the team something substantial to fight against — something they can't clear up in a week. It'll help considerably.
None of these problems are unfixable, and generally, many of these things get solved over time as showrunners get better at their jobs, people discover what works and what doesn't, and a show builds its relationships and mythology. Right now, I actually am not that worried that this is as good as Agents of SHIELD is going to get.
And besides, in the end, I did actually like the episode, and here's why: for the first time ever, Agents of SHIELD made me laugh. I chuckled at Fitz's rage about his lost sandwich, I chuckled again at Fitz's freaking out when watching the "guard" attack the other guards through his window thing even though the joke was completely obvious, and I laughed out loud at Simmons' attempt to bamboozle Agent Sitwell, as well as Skye's futile attempts to coach her. The show is still trying too hard to be funny, but more jokes hit tonight and not, and it carried the episode for me. Hell, I'm even starting to like Ward now that he's not a total ass and was pretty understanding with Fitz even when Fitz was being a liability. He and Fitz made an unexpectedly good pairing, too. and I think that's a very good sign.
Obviously, Agents of SHIELD still has a lot of room for improvement, but despite the ho-hum plot in "The Hub," I still think this episode is proof that the show is getting better… slowly, but better. The tragedy is that Agents of SHIELD could add AIM and MODOK next week, and instantly be the greatest show in television, even if half of it was devoted to Skye talking to herself out loud at a computer.
- Next week is set after the events of Thor: The Dark World. Y'all best see the movie before then.
- I forgot to mention that apparently there's a big mystery with Skye's parents and we learned that a SHIELD agent dropped her off at an orphanage when she was a baby, but also whatever the deal is Coulson is still keeping it a secret even after the "let's share information with friends" moral of the episode. I failed to mention this because I don't care.
- Seriously, the show has done nothing to make me care about Skye's mystery at all. Oh, she was dropped off by a SHIELD agent who was murdered? Do I know the agent? Do I know how she died or who killed her? No? Then I don't care. The only person interested in this mystery is Skye, and Skye still isn't likable enough for the audience to give a shit about her back-story.
- Speaking of the "Why does SHIELD seem kind of crappy at its job sometimes?" thing, was there a reason the gigantic agency known as SHIELD needed to drop off Ward and Fitz in a different county? With no vehicle to cross the border?
- I was getting ready to savage the episode when I thought the Ward and Fitz had been saved — and thus the world — by the lights in the Russian bar going out at just the right second. When I learned Fitz had triggered a mini-EMP to cause it, I knew it was going to be okay, and he wasn't going to be pure bumbling comic relief for the episode.
- Hey, it's Agent Sitwell from the "Item 47" short!
- "He's acting like a robot version of himself!" Okay, sports fans: Is Agents of SHIELD dropping things like this as subtle hints about the secret of Agent Coulson's resurrection for mass audiences who have no idea what an LMD is, or are they putting them in there just to fuck with nerds? Discuss.
- In Fitz's defense, that sandwich sounds fucking delicious.