Last night's Agents of SHIELD was entertaining, high-energy, action-packed, fun and a little bit bonkers — basically, everything we've always wanted from this show. It didn't hurt that the Marvel Universe elements felt colorful and awesome, without making the main characters less grounded. All in all, more like this please.
Lorelei, an Asgardian villain created by Walt Simonson in the comics, has escaped from Asgard during the Dark Elves' attack, and winds up on Earth seeking to use her mind-control powers to amass an army to take over the world. Our heroes team up with Lady Sif to stop her, and immediately prove that Lady Sif ought to join the team permanently. (Seriously. It would be perfect.) Grant Ward gets taken over, and winds up taking over the team's super-plane.
The notion of a villain who can control minds isn't anything new — Alphas had this exact same character, for example — but Lorelei has a lot going for her besides. Including the gender-specific power and the fact that she seems to get a kick on stealing other women's menfolk, and the gleefully over-the-top way she schemes to take over the world, Pinky and the Brain-style.
The rivalry between Sif and Lorelei is also great, including the fact that Lorelei stole Sif's man.
So why does this episode work so well? A few things suggest themselves.
There's the pacing, for one thing. The story hits the ground running, and we've already seen Lorelei's powers in action at the end of the previous week's episode. Lorelei is a straight-up baddie, and there's no need for mystery or poking around. Our team meets up with Sif early on, figures out how to track down Lorelei, and gets to her pretty early in the episode. (And then doesn't send in an all-female team, or temporarily deafen the male team-members, the way any sensible organization would. But oh well.)
For another thing, the humor really works this time, partly because of the grounded characters up against a less-bland villain. The whole "Benjamin Franklin" routine was great, and so was Rooster's biker gang in general. Lorelei thinking a Vegas casino is the perfect spot for her to sit in glory was also a neat touch, and a cute dig at the glitzy look of Asgard in general.
But most of all, it was the fact that the characters always felt pretty believable, even when some of them were mind-controlled. This show has gotten way more of a handle on who these people are — in particular, mind-controlled Grant Ward was handled very deftly. I feel like at one point, this show might have gone for more broad comedy with Ward under Lorelei's spell (similar to his "truth serum" routine in the pilot), but instead, the show was very matter-of-fact about it. Ward telling Lorelei he knows she's just using him but doesn't care is note-perfect, and so is Ward's plan to take over the jet.
And bonus points for managing the Ward-May relationship, and the ramifications of Ward being taken over, with both subtlety and impact. Melinda May is clearly pissed that Lorelei stole her lover, but she's too smart to let Lorelei get under her skin, and her fight scenes with both Lorelei and Ward are terrific. And then, when Melinda learns that Grant actually has the hots for someone else on the team (please not Skye, please not Skye), THAT's when she gets really pissed. Her delivery of "We're done here" was spot on and got itself stuck in my brain afterwards.
But in general, this show may be getting a smidge better at balancing the fantastical with its cast of regular human (except for Skye) characters. That seemed to be the thing this show struggled with from the beginning, but now there seems to be a bit more confidence about tossing in a somewhat over-the-top villain and letting the team cope with her.
But again, having Sif join the team, or just be a recurring guest star, would be fantastic. She had pretty great chemistry with Coulson, as well as most of the rest of the gang, and you have to love her sniffing at their user interfaces and smashing her way through stuff. She brings the same old-timey-Viking-warrior-in-the-modern-world fun as Thor, but without having to hire Chris Hemsworth. And it's not like Jaimie Alexander hasn't done weekly TV before.
In the episode's "B" story, Coulson is still obsessed by the fact that an alien's bodily fluids brought him back from the dead and healed Skye. He keeps trying to track down Nick Fury, and in one cute scene he pesters a fellow top SHIELD agent while they sit in their cars facing opposite directions. But Nick Fury is busy. (Love Coulson saying Tahiti "sucked.")
Coulson also has Simmons collecting blood samples from Skye to try and identify the mysterious goop, but he's not willing to let her share the samples with the SHIELD HQ. Because two men died to protect that secret — and no, Coulson's apparently not facing any consequences for busting in and killing them.
In the end, Coulson confesses to Skye that the miracle drug that saved them both was actually alien bodily fluids, and Skye reacts with total aplomb. Which I have to say, I agree with Skye — after everything else they've seen and experienced, why is that suddenly the worst thing in the universe? Coulson's had the alien goop for ages, with no ill effects. Obviously there's one last reveal waiting to drop here, but so far I'm not seeing the big scandal. Coulson is pissed that he was lied to and mind-wiped, and I get that, but I don't get why the alien goop, in itself, is so terrible. So yes — in words I never thought I would write — I agree with Skye.
But Coulson decides that he and Skye, as the only two people who got the alien goop injection, should go rogue and take down
Nick Fury the Clairvoyant. [Update: I guess he was saying they would take down the Clairvoyant, although it was unclear, since he was just saying that he's pissed at Nick Fury for all the coverups, and then this segued into going rogue and taking "him" down.]
And adding to the sense that there's still a big reveal waiting to unspool, we discover that May has been spying on them, and she notifies a shadowy voice somewhere that Coulson "knows."
In any case, this show has seemed as though it was A) waiting until Captain America 2 came out, so it could tell the obvious stories about going rogue and breaking away from SHIELD* and B) trying to figure out how to balance "regular humans" with "larger-than-life universe." I'm still waiting to see how the "going rogue" thing plays out, but at least the larger-than-life thing is showing signs of working better.
* - This is not a spoiler. I'm just going based on the trailers which have hinted for months that SHIELD is kind of evil. I was asking the showrunner, Jeffrey Bell, about this back in October.