Review – Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D: “T.R.A.C.K.S”

After a brief hiatus, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D is back. Can it keep up the upturn in quality that has marked it since the post-Christmas return? Will the ratings stabilise? Will Stan Lee’s trumpeted appearance just be a meaningless cameo like it always is? Thoughts:

-I couldn’t stop laughing at the episodes opening as Coulson outlined that he thought there was a way to nail Ian Quinn, before a crash cut to a roaring train without any explanation, then an equally fast crash cut back to the plane. Good thing I didn’t have the headphones in.

-Anyway, all aboard the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D railroad! We’ve had planes and automobiles, now it’s time for a train based episode, which inspires the dire choice of episode title. Train’s are a real favourite of western entertainment in terms of “exotic” locations that serve as little more than bottle episode sets (check and see how many Bond films have scenes on trains. It’s a lot). For me, I can’t watch anything set on a train anymore without hearing Archer in my head.

-Carlo Rota, once of 24, guest stars as an Italian police agent (or something). Hmm. Foreign. Antagonistic to Coulson in his opening scene. Vaguely creepy/threatening. Jeez, I wonder if this guy is going to be a problem later?

-The team must go undercover on the train to intercept the MacGuffin (or something). They need disguises, and in a moment that is almost certainly a nod/pisstake of DC’s Superman, Coulson and Simmons just put on some glasses. Later it turns out the security of Quinn was on to them the whole time. Shocking.

-The Skye retooling continues apace here. Her whineiness has all but vanished in “T.R.A.C.K.S”, and she’s actually proving herself useful. People are commenting on this. She has a new side of her character with the 0-8-4 thing and the annoyances of the past are being left behind. And there was much rejoicing.

-I’ll admit, I sort of liked the Skye/Fitz interaction early on, especially her God awful attempt at a Scottish accent, followed by his perfect American twang.

-Larger than that, it appears as if the production team has formulated some “cop-on” in regards the narrative, which appears to be become ever more over-arching: Ian Quinn, in his third episode, now seems to have been set-up as the proper “little bad” of the season. For anyone not in the know, its Whedon protocol to fill his TV seasons with “little” and “big bads”, with the lesser usually being some kind of subordinate to the first (seriously, every season of Buffy and Angel, even Dollhouse). Quinn, under the mysterious “clairvoyant” is filling the “little” role nicely. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D needs that kind of recurring villainy to improve itself and get the audience more invested in every episode.

-And there’s Stan Lee! Annnnnnnnd he’s gone. Meaningless fan service. Can we grow past this immature desire to see this old man pop up in every Marvel property?

-I also liked the Simmons/Coulson stuff, trying to sell their “cover”, even if it meant nothing in the wider context of the episodes plot. “Prostitutes? Plural!?” Thankfully the humour basically stopped there before it could become the distraction it has in previous episodes.

-Anyway, “T.R.A.C.K.S” goes down a narrative route I like to call “The Uruk-Hai” approach, after a chapter in The Lord of the Rings. That is, differing timelines focused on different characters, which interact at varying points in the larger narrative. Case in point, Coulson and Ward find May’s goggles in the dust, and then we skip back and see how she lost them. It’s a difficult enough thing to coordinate (especially since its covering four sub-plots here, briefly), but I think they pulled it off fairly well.

-Liked Ward’s fight in the train’s room. Ever since From Russia With Love, directors have been trying to recreate that feeling. And hey, women can fight too.

-Coulson and Ward get in contact with Italian agent man. He’s dishevelled, jumpy, distracted, eager to know their exact location. Hmm, hope he’s not planning on betraying them.

-Another thing that this episode gets right is the idea of putting characters outside of their comfort zones and seeing how they react. Coulson and Ward lose their normal control of operations, struggling over the holotable, May is tied up by a moron, Fitz and Simmons are forced into some combat and Skye has to do some covert work. It’s good (and interesting) to challenge characters, or at least put them in those situations, and see if they sink or swim.

-And hey, good to see an episode where Fitz and Simmons aren’t joined at the hip and get to interact with others without their opposite being present.

-Liked the Coulson/Ward conversation in the plane. The whole Ward/May still isn’t going anywhere entertaining in my estimation, but these little moments of tension at least make it somewhat useful. Interesting that Coulson seems more authoritarian with Ward when he talks about it than he is with May.

-And then a sudden mention of a lost part of the universe: Coulson threatens to send Ward to Barrow, Alaska (the most northerly urban settlement in the United States) to guard “Blonsky’s cyro-cell” if his dalliance with May ends up endangering someone. Blonsky of course, is Emil Blonsky, or rather, “the Abomination” of the tragically under-rated The Incredible Hulk. His fate was left unclear at the end of that film, but Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D took the time to clear it up a little. And, if we’re very, very lucky, leave the door open for Tim Roth and his character to make an appearance at some point. It’s not the craziest idea, is it?

-The Italian agent betrays them. Yup.

-We jump back to see the May timeline. Fighting on top of a train! It was alright.

-Clever little idea with the gas grenade, that causes some sort of physical and mental paralysis in the target, essentially making them think that time has skipped forward or, in this case, that things in front of them have vanished.

-May gets nabbed by the evil Italian, and gets strung up for some torture! This is scene was a bit odd, because Italian traitor wanted to know where Ward and Coulson were, so he stuck a knife in May, but then later just asks Ward and Coulson point blank and gets his answer. Well, it allowed May to be a bit of a badass in any event, and to subvert some damsel in distress stuff.

-There’s always been hints that May and Coulson had something in the past – maybe not unlike what she has with Ward now – and its telling that she allows Coulson to patch her up instead of Ward.

-Time skip! Skye and Fitz discuss 0-8-4’s, with Skye trying to hide her intense curiosity. Fitz doesn’t help too much, remarking that he wouldn’t want to meet a human 0-8-4. I like the build-up they’re doing here, and I hope the pay-off – the revealing of Skye’s powers/nature – will be worth it.

-Liked the fight in the train car. It’s nice to see that Fitz isn’t a total wimp, and that he’s willing to try and defend himself (and others). It was pure amateur stuff, but that was the point (and what was required).

-Biggest plot hole in the episode follows though, as Skye and Fitz are able to follow the bad guys on foot, even though they have a car, arriving at the mansion at the exact same time. What? Was the mansion right next to the rail? Why did they need a car in the first place then?

-Anyway, Skye decides to go all secret agent and infiltrate the mansion alone. I liked that, it had the right tinge of self-sacrifice and desperation. Skye was actually doing something unselfish for once!

-Meanwhile, Fitz scrambles underneath one of the cars for some reason. I think he was supposed to be disabling them, but it never really seemed to come up again.

-And Skye finds Mike Peterson, minus one leg and plus some nasty burns, in a hyperbaric chamber in the basement. Not exactly the biggest shocking twist, as J. August Richards’ name had been on the opening credits. I suppose that kind of thing is a SAG requirement, but it does sort of ruin any sense of surprise.

-Anyway, Mike gets a fancy new leg but appears to now be evil! It strikes me that the previous scenes of Mike in “The Magical Place” might have been a bit superfluous to what we’re seeing here. Anyway, the standard “proving loyalty by shooting someone” trope comes up here, but is expertly batted away by Peterson, who doesn’t want in on Ian Quinn’s games.

-And then Quinn shoots Skye. Twice. I’ll admit, I did not see that coming. Quinn’s always been a bit of a so-so villain up to this point, just a smarmy millionaire, but with this he passed into true menacing territory, planting two bullets in her stomach with hardly any kind of emotion on his face, just a look of somebody undertaking some trifling annoyance. And then he just leaves her there to bleed out.

-And it gets worse, as Skye drags herself to the door, scratches it opens, and calls out for help in a voice so low that no one can hear. Really gut wrenching and a real step-up in seriousness for this show. This kind of thing is worse than the doctor getting immolated in “Girl in the Flower Dress” because that was pure CGI and fantasy. This was way more real, and heart-breaking.

-Ward busts into the mansion and proceeds to take down every bad guy in sight with just a few pulls of the trigger, while Mike Peterson murders a load of others in the next room and escapes. Not the best climactic action scene it has to be said, but at least somewhat satisfying to see Ian Quinn get punched in the face.

-Coulson finds Skye, and discovers that she’s just about gone. The solution? To put her in the hyperbaric chamber which…apparently stops bleeding stomach wounds? What? My notes here simply say “Magic box” which is as good a description as any for how they kept her alive.

-Skye lives, but remains in a critical condition. Judging from the preview for the next episode, this will be the case for a while yet. I doubt they’ll actually kill Skye off – they’ve introduced that new plot element for her too recently for that to take place – even if I think that it would actually be a good move for the show. But there are interesting places to go here, not least a decision Coulson will likely have to make about letting somebody pass on peacefully or doing everything possible to keep them breathing. Did I mention the name of the next episode is “Tahiti”?

-One of the strongest endings that any episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D has had, taking the time to show the reaction of every team member to Skye’s circumstances, without so many words. Ward’s angry, Simmons is devastated, May is cautious, Fitz is comforting and Coulson…well, he’s probably already considering the implications of “the magical place.”

-And then we see Mike, spying on some playing children, denied the chance to see his son by “the clairvoyant”. The last shot is to show his new leg dubbed “Deathlok”, announcing Mike as an incarnation of a med-level Marvel villain/anti-hero. That character has gone through a lot of guises, so it’s OK for him to have a completely new one here, and it further adds to the greater embrace of the comic’s continuity that the show has been doing as of late. Which is all stuff that the show should be doing.

A good episode, and good news on the ratings front too: a slight increase, keeping Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D around the 6.5 million level. The show has been hovering, with a slight downwards trajectory, at that level for the last few episodes, but this increase is a potential sign of stability, of having found that core audience. It’s still just about half of what it started with, but if it can hold this crowd, then it should have no problems getting renewed. And judging by the increasing quality, that is not a bad thing. But now comes a month’s wait for the next episode, which could prove damaging, Time will tell.

To read my thoughts on other episodes of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.Dclick here to go to the index.

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2 Responses to Review – Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D: “T.R.A.C.K.S”

  1. Pingback: Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D Episode Review Index | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: Review: Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D – “T.R.A.C.K.S” | Never Felt Better

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