Check it out: In just one and a half minutes, here's everything that's working on Marvel's Agents of SHIELD, along with everything that's not. Just in time for the midseason break, which is a good moment to appraise this show's progress.
So in case videos are disabled where you are, the above clip features Melinda May having two confrontations: first with Grant Ward, the chisel-jawed agent that she's been sleeping with on the down-low. Grant took a punch for her in the recent battle, and she's worried his feelings are clouding his judgment — but he sets her straight, and then it appears that she has feelings of her own.
And then Skye shows up and has one of several confrontations in this episode with Melinda about Skye's search for her mysterious parents, which Melinda is supposed to be helping Skye with. Melinda is hiding something secret from Skye, and here she almost comes out and reveals the truth. But instead, she bitches Skye out about not focusing on the Mission, and Skye runs away in tears.
So this, then, is SHIELD at its best and at its worst: a crisp drama about professional spies who are uber-competent in the field but have torrid hookups and tawdry relationships. You could almost mistake it for a scene from The CW's Nikita. And then, a soap opera about people searching for secrets from their pasts, and unable to deal with the emotions and the lies and everything.
It's not just that Skye is still a character who feels oddly misplaced and unsympathetic — it's that none of the secrets the show keeps teasing us with are that fascinating. And they arguably don't mesh that well with the notion of "superspies on a plane fighting high-tech menaces."
In the meantime, this was also the episode that the season's over-arching plot kicked into high gear, and we discovered more about our big bad, in an adventure that I'm calling "The Deadly Menace of the Three Guys."
The Deadly Menace of the Three Guys
So basically, there are these three guys, who are supersoldiers with the centipede gear implantsed into their bodies, same as what Mike Peterson (J. August Richards) had in the pilot. They break into a prison, and break out an ex-marine tactical expert named Edison Poe, whom we met briefly in a previous episode. Poe is in league with Raina, the femme fatale who's been finding test subjects for the centipede implants and the Extremis tech. And they're both working for/with a mysterious guy named the Clairvoyant.
So the SHIELD gang recruits Mike, who has been training to work for SHIELD ever since he almost blew up a train station in the pilot. Mike feels really bad about his behavior when he was under the influence of the implants, so bad that he hasn't visited his own son since then. And the gang goes out of its way to make him feel worse — when they're not objectifying him weirdly in the lab.
Mike's arc in this episode is sort of weird — he wasn't in control of himself when he was being a "monster" in the first episode, so it's no different than someone being under the control of an alien artifact. But people keep scowling at him, and Coulson says he's getting a second chance but won't get a third one. And after Mike gets himself stabbed by one of the Three Guys, everybody exaggeratedly pats him on the back and says he's gone above and beyond. It's all a little weirdly condescending, especially considering Mike did nothing wrong.
It's actually a relief when Mike does go off the rails — the bad guys kidnap his son Ace, and demand Mike exchange himself for his son. But in fact, it's a trick and they actually want Coulson. And Mike goes along with this, for his son's sake, but then has second thoughts and runs after them once his son is safe. And then... he gets blown up and apparently killed. Which, I'll be really pissed if Mike is actually dead, especially after the way he was treated in this episode.
In any case, we learned a bit more about the conspiracy this time around — the centipede guys are also the same people who put the eye implant in that one SHIELD agent several episodes ago, and used it to control her. They've been experimenting with supersoldier tech, but also Extremis, and surveillance/control implants. And the key to their organization is the mysterious Clairvoyant, who doesn't like to be touched and who is so mysterious that women who see him have to lose their eyes.
Oh, and the secret organization behind the Centipede experiments is apparently not well equipped to be able to find a secret underground lair — they keep having to move their facilities every few weeks, when SHIELD busts up their latest laboratory. This is getting in the way of letting the Three Guys achieve their full potential.
Emerson Poe is a mildly creepy villain — I like him finishing his prison dinner while the Three Guys lay waste to the prison around him — and he makes more of an impression than Raina has thus far. But this Clairvoyant better be a heavy-hitter, is all I'm saying.
Steal from Nikita. Please.
People keep writing articles, over and over, about how this show needs to learn from Arrow. I've seen that headline a billion times lately. To that, I have two responses: 1) Agents of SHIELD isn't that bad, just a bit pedestrian.2) Really, this show should be stealing like a motherfucker from Nikita, The CW's spy show that's just wrapping up its final short season.
Nikita has done a great job of handling the theme of spy professionals who have tangled relationships, and secrets, and crazy missions, and spy-vs-spy, and all of that.
The problem with Agents of SHIELD goes beyond the fact that Skye is somewhat unenaging as a protagonist — I don't care about the secret of her parents. But I also don't care about whatever secret Melinda May is hiding, that's apparently related. Nor do I actually find myself caring that much about whatever secret about Coulson caused him to be kidnapped at the end of this episode.
Spending more time on developing the relationships between the characters in the here and now — such as May and Ward, or the curious tangle between Fitz and Simmons (which made "FZZZT" the best episode thus far) — would make us care more than dangling a dozen mysteries from the past.