So! It’s here at last: Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., one of those pieces of programming that both thrills and terrifies me. Obviously, like probably everyone else, I entered into this whole affair with a deep concern that this whole enterprise was going to be a failure and would diminish the fine work that has been done in recent Marvel films like, of course, The Avengers. Through three episodes, it doesn’t look like this is going to be a problem.
So, let’s talk about “The Asset”. The cold open has a semi trailer making its way down the highway as part of a convoy with two totally inconspicuous matching black SUVs with dark tinted windows. The driver communicates with his escort and says all is well. Of course, things immediately go awry, as the inconspicuous escorts begin to be inexplicably hurled into the air. The semi’s driver, an average trucker type, immediately reveals his allegiance by reporting in to a S.H.I.E.L.D. comptroller. Ah-hah! Not long after, the truck and trailer are both hurled skyward and come back to earth, the truck now in flames. Immediately, a large excavator emerges from the woods with a small detachment of armed men. The excavator rips open the trailer and the armed squad boards. Cutting their way through a security door in the trailer, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s mystery cargo proves to… a balding, glasses-wearing gentleman. “Are we there yet?”
Joss Whedon this mysterious man asks. Opening title!
Skye is late to her workout with Ward. She is not enjoying the strength building regimen that is part of becoming a S.H.I.E.L.D. field agent. She’s working a bag in the plane’s cargo space under Ward’s supervision, wondering why she needs this kind of training in order to be a useful member of the team. Ward isn’t ready to budge on this, she needs to be able to pull herself up if she’s hanging off the side of a building, damnit! She needs to at least have a basic idea of how to defend herself, damnit! Skye argues that Fitz-Simmons don’t have to do any strength training, but Ward points out that they do brain-training instead, and she won’t like that any better. She has to either dedicate herself to being a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, or she needs to go crawl back into a hole somewhere. That’s a choice she can make, but something tells me Ward doesn’t recommend it. Oh, and, in a nod to the pilot? S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t have a truth serum. You can even ask Coulson!
Briefing time. Coulson explains that Canadian Physicist Franklin Hall was being transported by S.H.I.E.L.D. when he was kidnapped by apparently invisible attackers. Fitz-Simmons are devastated at the news – Hall was their mentor. Skye is intrigued by the idea of invisible attackers. With this being a top priority, the team deploys immediately to the location of the attack, on I-76 near Sterling in eastern Colorado. On the way, Coulson explains that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been hiding key scientists and other “assets” from enemies who desperately want to get hold of them by moving them around between secure locations. On site, the truck driver has received some medical attention and reports on what happened to Coulson. He also speculates that there had to be a mole – the attack came at a vulnerable spot right on their route. Someone knew they were coming! Fitz-Simmons have the hi-tech gear out and use it to determine the device that made the attack possible – a tiny little metal device of unknown provenance. Time to get back to the lab everyone! This episode definitely keeps moving, these scenes have my typing fingers cramping up already.
On the plane, the team has analyzed the tread data of the excavator to identify its model and year, then researched all such equipment in private ownership in a 500 mile radius, then cross-referenced that to… anyway, Skye was going to do that, but they’ve already done it, they’ve found the guy. We gotta go talk to him. Better luck next time, Skye! She tells Coulson that she knows there’s no truth serum. He responds cryptically. I’m stunned. May takes a break from standing around in stoic silence to drop off the communication logs of every outbound transmission since Hall was taken into productive custody. Skye, you can go through these! We’ve got to find out if there’s a mole! Coulson and Ward need to talk to tractor guy. We’re off!
Coulson stops a generic cowboy type (you might actually find some out by Sterling, I suppose) who is riding his horse at sunset. Coulson explains that he’s from a powerful organization that is keeping our cowboy under constant surveillance. When our excavator salesman explains that he’s done nothing wrong, Coulson points out that while that’s true, he did sell his excavator to people who did something bad with it, he knows it, and he’s hiding out until it all blows over. So who paid him? Someone who doesn’t want him answering questions, damnit! Shotgun barrel in his face, Coulson remains cool, as Ward steps in from off-camera to take the situation into hand. The cowboy, gun barrel now in his direction, explains that he never saw a face, never heard a name. But it turns out that he was paid… in gold? “It feels like the old west!” Ward quips. Probably the episode’s worst line. Let’s move on, shall we?
The gold bars are unusual. They’re not refined bars of pure gold, but rather bars produced in the mine. Only 92% pure! Of course, these are the most traceable bars of all time, so Fitz-Simmons report that they’re from a mine in Tanzania. Does Coulson know who owns that mine? Oh yes. Oh yes, he does. He was on the cover of Forbes! His name is Ian Quinn, and he’s quite the CEO. As Coulson action-walks out of the room, we zip away again!
The Republic of Malta, in the world of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., apparently a haven for people who want beautiful beaches, pleasant tax laws, and to be outside of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s jurisdiction. Our man Ian Quinn (played by a saucy David Conrad) has, in fact, kidnapped Dr. Franklin Hall (Ian Hart)… but, what’s this? They’re not enemies! They’re old college buddies! Hall is concerned that Quinn has committed outright theft of his ideas, but Quinn counters that information wants to be free (yo). Hall is perplexed; hasn’t Quinn made eleventy billion dollars off these free ideas? Well, nevermind that, says Quinn. Yes, he was able to buy a supercomplex with underground research facilities – presumably at a tax auction. Oh that Quinn! – in Malta, but much more importantly, he’s actually found the theoretical element that Hall postulated back at Cambridge – Gravitonium!
On the plane, Fitz-Simmons give us the exposition on how all of this works. Gravitonium distorts gravity fields. On its own, it’s just a curiousity. But if you apply an electric current, you can use gravitonium to change how gravity behaves around it. Now imagine you’re operating a semi going 100 kph… Oh. Quinn has this stuff now! Skye argues that Quinn is a notorious philanthropist, donating billions to charity. Yes, but he’s an ecological menace! Anyway, he’s a jerk, trust us.
In Malta, Quinn and Hall are still chatting. Quinn had to search six continents, open a dozen mines, and invest all this time to find the gravitonium they need, but he’s managed it. Now, finally, the work they began so long ago can be made reality. They can build a giant and obviously benevolent machine that controls unfathomably powerful gravitational waves! Well, skip the ‘can build’ part. Replace it with ‘I already built this crazy machine and here’s the thing I totally did steal your idea and I don’t know how it works so please help me operate it ole buddy’. Quinn knows that Hall wants this thing done right, or not at all. You can thank him later.
On the plane, the team discusses the impossibility of assaulting Quinn’s compound. Malta will never allow S.H.I.E.L.D. to make a large scale assault under normal circumstances, let alone this weekend when Quinn’s shareholders conference will be taking place on his estate. What about a small infiltration team? Level 7 doesn’t even officially exist, it would be easy for S.H.I.E.L.D. to disavow them if they were caught. Forget it, guys. Quinn’s compound is defended by twenty foot high laser fences that will kill on contact. Fitz straightfacedly – to Simmons’ despair – suggests that they employ the services of a small monkey which could get through the laser fencing then disable it on the inside. Skye could go in, but nobody is listening to her. Ward wants them to drop him in the hills outside the city and let him go to ground, spend a few weeks developing a cover identity, establishing a backtrail… Coulson is worried that Hall doesn’t have that kind of time. Simmons adds that any Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. caught on Maltese soil can be executed (what is it with Malta, anyway?) Skye says that won’t happen to her, she can go in. Ward dismisses her, saying this is a serious situation…but Coulson wants to hear her out. Skye points out that she is not, in fact, an Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.. She can legally be in Malta without trouble. Early on, May said that they might be able to pull the rescue off with an inside man, right? Well, Skye says, Fitz-Simmons love Dr. Hall, and for all they know, he could be being tortured, right? Ward is skeptical – she doesn’t have any training, no background, no clearance (why does she need clearance to infiltrate this guy’s shareholder’s meeting? Your guess is as good as mine). No, Skye agrees, but she did manage to secure an invitation to the party on her phone while everyone was talking.
I get that Skye’s outsider status is A Thing, and that we can’t even be sure that she’s sure about her loyalties to S.H.I.E.L.D.. But this schtick is already wearing a little thin after the last episode, where, as TSL’s own Leonard Wilson pointed out Skye’s desire to help the team and being rebuffed was sort of already explored in detail. This is a minor point, especially since television, by its nature, feels comfortable making changes in characters and attitudes in a way that a film certainly can’t. It’s probably because I just happen to really like Skye as a character (my favourite, or perhaps tied with the delightful Agent Coulson so far) and I wanted to champion her. Anyway, there’s so many scene changes, we can’t waste time on my innermost thoughts!
Coulson is selecting new suits or something. He understands Ward’s concerns, but doesn’t see any other options. Ward was obviously impressed by Skye’s ability to wrangle an invite to an exclusive shareholder’s meeting in five minutes or less, but Skye is not ready for something like this. She violated protocols! That’s her job, Coulson points out, that’s why he brought her on in the first place. She can see things the others don’t, because she doesn’t think the way they do, damnit! Ward is concerned about her lack of commitment. She won’t dedicate herself to doing what she needs to do to become a real agent. He’s frustrated, and asks for Coulson’s advice. Coulson suggests that she might relate better to the person, Ward (does he have a first name? I think I missed it), than to Agent Ward Of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Ward is training Skye again. He takes Coulson’s advice, and tries to relate to Skye as a person. She actually seems to respond! This time, there’s no snarky one liner! He’s drilling her on how to get a gun away from someone who’s got one pulled on her. I believe this is a device called ‘Chekhov’s Gun’… but I could be mistaken about that. Nah, I must be. I’m sure this won’t come up later.
Now we’re nailing down the plan. It’s simple – unless the fence comes down, the rescue is hopeless. Luckily, Fitz-Simmons have put all the electronic gear needed into a compact. It has some lights on it. It will blink red until Fitz-Simmons work their remote magic and bring the field down. Then it goes green, and the team has a three second window. It will have to be enough. May is concerned about how much combat she’s already seen; she would rather hang out on the plane and be stoic than see more action. Luckily, Coulson explains, she’s not going: he is. May is concerned that Coulson is about as combat ready as a damp towel. When was the last time he shot someone? Well, not that long ago. He shot at Loki! May points out that it didn’t turn out too well, but Coulson’s not listening.
In Malta, the party is going on. Shareholders everywhere. Chloe Bennet is stunning in pink. Fitz-Simmons are in her ear supplying her with information on who she’s talking to, allowing her to socialize unimpeded. Surprisingly, she seems to be kind of a natural at this. She’s charming, flattering an important architect from Dubai, and introducing herself to Ian Quinn. Quinn is big into that whole information wants to be free deal (remember?). He knows Skye is a hacker, that she has no official business being at this shareholder’s meeting, but he’s not mad. Instead, he’s impressed by her skills, and he sympathizes to an extent with the Rising Tide. Oh, and he wants to offer her a job! He needs people that have both her skills and her ability to think creatively. He didn’t know she was a beautiful woman, but that IS a bonus. Quinn makes a big speech about de-regulation and progress, while Coulson and Ward make beachfall. So far, everything is falling in to place. Quinn is ready to announce his gravity control machine to the shareholders. Imagine being able to pull oil up from the ground, or move cargo with just the swipe of a hand? Well, soon, we can! It sounds magical.
After the speech, Skye is wandering unescorted around Quinn’s place, trying to gain access to his office. She’s talking to Fitz-Simmons when, abruptly, a question she asks her contacts back home is answered by a voice from behind. It’s Quinn! Annnnnnnd he wants to know what she’s doing there. She attempts to prevaricate, but he’s not buying. So Skye using some suggestive (not like that, people) terminology to imply to Quinn that S.H.I.E.L.D. has gotten to her. And sure enough, back on the plane, after a terse, stoic question from May, Skye’s connection goes dead. She explains to Quinn that S.H.I.E.L.D. picked her up in LA, forced her to help them out, and bunked her on their plane. Now, however, she managed to talk her way into this covert mission. Why would they trust her? Quinn demands to know. Well, because she’s not part of S.H.I.E.L.D., silly! Didn’t we establish that? Her being in Malta isn’t creating an incident. But now that this opportunity has presented itself, she likes to keep her options open. Quinn talks about how she’s an obvious candidate to be targeted by S.H.I.E.L.D. for recruitment: skills, competence, no family. Quinn is totally willing to make her a better deal but she has to tell him exactly what S.H.I.E.L.D. wants. Well, she says, flourishing her rigged compact. She was supposed to bat her eyelashes… annnnnd… fence is down!
Coulson and Ward demonstrate their cred by managing to traverse several feet of open ground in a three second window!
Quinn is pissed. Security has been breached! He draws a gun on Skye!
We’re in the lab! Coulson is here! He’s ready to rescue Dr. Hall! … But Dr. Hall doesn’t want to be rescued. Coulson is taken aback. This was the one answer he wasn’t ready for. But Hall is frightened of the technology that Quinn has created. Not only can Quinn not be trusted with it… no one can. He’s going to set the gravity generator to maximum and sink… well… the whole island. At least. May points out, helpfully, that Hall must have leaked his own location so that Quinn would kidnap him. Yes, I think we’re all arriving at that conclusion. Well, what do we do now? The gravity becomes erratic, and Coulson is thrown into the next commercial break!
Headquarters wants to know how big the gravity generator is. Fitz-Simmons are concerned that the whole island will sink. At least. Coulson wants a solution, but Hall says there’s nothing to be done now. He’s a Bond villain, so he gets the bottle of scotch and pours himself a glass as he explains both that the generator is about to reach exponential badnewsness, and his motivations for doing so. For the good of all mankind…
Quinn is stunned that Skye would side with S.H.I.E.L.D.. S.H.I.E.L.D. is jerks! Skye points out that they’re more on the benevolent side. He’s still got that gun out, and he wants to know S.H.I.E.L.D.’s plan. The gravity’s going a bit wonky, but they haven’t realized that’s the problem, yet. Just seems like explosions… or something. Anyway, as Quinn staggers, he gets too close, and Skye immediately uses the move Ward was drilling her on to disarm him! I am stunned! Quinn calls her bluff, asking if she’s got the resolve to pull the trigger. “Nope!” Skye confirms, hurling the gun and diving out the window into the pool. Quinn sends security in pursuit, but then, as he sees his pen acting … bizarrely… he realizes the true danger: Hall has engaged the gravity machine. He immediately orders evacuation.
Back in the lab, Coulson tries to talk Hall down. Hall’s not having any of it. S.H.I.E.L.D. is guilty of this same kind of nonsense; producing technologies without any regard for the consequences. Remember how they were researching an infinite power source? What happened then? Oh yeah. Alien invasion. Coulson can’t really come up with a counter. It simply doesn’t look like Dr. Hall can be reasoned with.
Skye is nearly captured by security. She hasn’t taken her self-defence training very seriously, so she stands no chance against Quinn’s goons. But Ward does! He knocks out four guys and saves her. She’s okay, but glad to see Ward. Time to find Coulson! He’s in the lab, of course, showing down with Hall. Fitz-Simmons chime in (in time, no less) that what he needs to do is provide a catalyst to create a reaction inside the gravity generator after disabling the power. Coulson slowly lowers his gun, telling Hall that he understands: He had to make a hard call. A lot of these lines are callbacks. You won’t miss any of them. Finally, Coulson shoots the window that, because of the wonkiness, Hall is now standing on, sending the good doctor tumbling down into the core of his machine. Phew, disaster averted!
Aboard the plane, Coulson orders Top Men to secure the gravitonium core someplace no one will ever be able to find it again. Ever. Or else. May feels like she may have been hasty in her judgment that she wants to stay on the plane and utter as few lines as possible. Instead, she’s going to be on combat duty. Also, Coulson is rusty. He shouldn’t have taken the risk. In the cargo bay, Skye is now furiously attending to the drills Ward tried to get her to commit to at the beginning. It’s all cyclical, you see? And Skye is transforming, slowly, as a character, and also gaining the respect of others around her. She tells Ward a little about her struggles as an orphan, and with foster families. She’s finally made her decision: She wants this.
On the whole, I really enjoyed this episode. I know I poked fun at a bunch of stuff in it (especially May, who is just wallpaper flat the entire time) but it was a great Skye episode. She’s a good character, and I want to continue along with her. Ward’s grown on me too. And we all knew that Coulson was going to be great. Here’s the thing I enjoyed most about this episode, however: It did not draw on the movie mythology for its story, and it didn’t rely on a big guest star to propel it. Not that I mind Ron Glass appearing in anything, mind you, and the show will be more credible if Samuel L. Jackson makes a couple small cameos here and there… but this episode (which actually draws on a comic book story for its script, though not one I’ve read) stands pretty well on its own. Our Level 7 team seems more competent here, working mostly as an integrated unit, with Skye finally beginning to find her place among the others. I think the stage is set to tell some pretty good stories from here on out. I’m looking forward to them!
Oh, and there’s a creepy hand trying to claw its way out of the gravitonium core. I’m sure that’s not a sign we’re all screwed.