Last night's episode of Agents of SHIELD was the first time this show really felt like it was "clicking," in terms of the characters and the storytelling. And I think it's a matter of this show finding its proper genre: It's not a superhero show, it's a spy show.
There was a lot of spying in the first few episodes, of course, but there were also a lot more attempts to tie in the action with the Marvel universe and build the storytelling around widgets more than characters. "Eye Spy" was the first episode that didn't feel as though it was shoe-horning in a ton of Marvel references and superhero bits, and it was also the first episode that kept me in suspense the whole time — and I think the two things might be related.
Agents of SHIELD is probably going to work best when it's a superhero show the same way Person of Interest is a show about artificial intelligence — in other words, that stuff shouldn't necessarily overwhelm the storytelling most of the time, just once in a while.
Whatever the reason, this was the first episode where I was actually on the edge of my seat the whole time, thanks to a taut script by showrunner (and former Alias producer) Jeffrey Bell and some really stylish direction by Star Trek: Voyager's Roxann Dawson.
One problem with a show like SHIELD is that the team is so well-equipped, it's hard to put them in situations where they're behind the eight-ball, without them seeming incompetent or weak — but this time around, the team seemed competent and they were at a disadvantage, because they were up against a properly formidable enemy.
So in this episode, there's a series of heists in Europe, and Coulson correctly suspects his former protégé (and former SHIELD agent) Akela Amador is behind them. He takes his team in to deal with her, instead of alerting SHIELD — and then it turns out she has an eye implant that's monitoring her every move, and there's a kill switch in her eye that will kill her unless she follows the orders she receives via text. So after the team captures Amador, Ward has to impersonate her using fancy glasses and complete her mission — while Fitz and Simmons get the eye implant out of her. (A Faraday Cage not being an option for some reason.)
There are a number of neat twists in this episode that actually are surprising — the weird masked dudes aren't the threat, they're the robbery victims. The video feed that Fitz, Simmons and Skye are hacking is showing the van they're in, about to get rammed. Melinda May disobeys Coulson's orders and goes to capture Amador herself. And then, when Mr. Grant is impersonating Amador, he receives an order to seduce a stocky Belarusian man. And finally, Amador's "handler" is just another eyeball-puppet. None of those felt telegraphed, or random.
And the character interaction had a much lighter touch in this episode, as though the writers have started trusting us to follow along without having our hands held. Coulson's feeling of responsibility for Amador — and the fact that he's taken on another protégé in Skye — are both noted without being run into the ground, and the conflict between Coulson and Melinda May is also given some emotional weight without being leaned on like a truck horn. Mr. Grant is also given more of a chance to be funny — and his apparently sincere respect and deference towards Coulson makes him a lot more likable.
This episode gave the whole team a chance to shine, instead of just Skye the sexxay hacker, and both Skye and Ward were feeling a bit more likable. The dynamic is starting to settle down. The whole thing is way less cute, but still cute enough. This was the first episode where I didn't feel as though the show was winking at me with both eyes, alternating.
Oh, and there was a theme of surveillance — introduced at the start when Coulson is scanning Facebook and Instagram and commenting that people are surveilling themselves now — which runs through the whole story of the woman with the camera in her eye, who can never have any privacy. The notion that she longs for her cage, and she's happy to be in a cell at the end of the episode, because those things are freedom compared to constant surveillance, is a powerful one — and again, handled lightly.
And finally, yay for an ongoing mystery — who was handling Amador's handler? What was that equation that they wanted her to photograph on the wall of that secret room? Why was it worth $30 million? Where did they get the eyeball technology, that's 10 years ahead of what Fitz and Simmons have?
All in all, the fourth episode of SHIELD is the first one that feels as though the show's starting to find its potential. And a lot of that has to do with working really well as a spy show — including giving the team some counterspies to cope with, who apparently have tricks of their own. Bring on the Alias-style secret missions and wigs, please.