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Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 1 Recap, Episode 13: ‘T.R.A.C.K.S.’

Welcome, fellow traveller, to the ComicsAlliance recap of the February episode of Agents of SHIELD. Yes, we’re only getting one episode this month. Weep or cheer, depending on your established bias.

The title of this month’s episode is T.R.A.C.K.S., which doesn’t appear to stand for anything, and if you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for anything, which reminds me, maybe this is the episode when everything turns around? Spoilers follow!

Back in January’s episode, the audience got re-acquainted with dastardly Ian Quinn (David Conrad). He’s not the evil supervillain industrialist we want, but the one we… get. Quinn previously failed to buy a weather machine, which ought to be supervillain 101. This time he’s ordered a package from Cybertek, the supervillain version of Amazon, which gives our heroes a chance to go undercover on an Italian train to intercept him.

The setup hints at some elaborate farce with everyone trying to maintain cover in increasingly absurd circumstances, but that’s not really where the episode is going. It has other plans. In fact, the most fun cover identity is May (Ming-Na Wen) as a wealthy vamp in a giant fur coat, but she immediately ditches the coat for a catsuit so she can go up on the roof. Usually that would be cool, but I was digging the fur coat.

Skye (Chloe Bennett) and Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) play a backpacking couple. Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) play an emotionally distant father and daughter transporting their wife/mother’s ashes. There are some comedy bits. Simmons shouts something about prostitutes. Stan Lee shows up with young women on each arm. Uh… ?

 

 

I suppose a Stan Lee cameo was bound to happen at some point. This is sadly not a great example of the art. The best Staneos place him in an unexpected role or an unexpected place — Willie Lumpkin, Hugh Hefner, a trucker, a general, a librarian, or a patient in a care home. The best ones poke fun at Lee himself. Here, he’s just “Stan Lee on a train with some women,” which is how Stan wants to be seen. It’s not even a surprise, so we’re robbed of the charm of discovery. Marvel promoted the episode by telling us he was in it!

Anyway, that takes care of all the fun-and-games business of the agents undercover. Skye and Fitz set up a communications center in the baggage car. Coulson shadows some Cybertek delivery men. Ward appears in a conductor’s uniform, pursued by goons, and the two agents are forced to leap off the train. A grenade goes off, and the train disappears.

And here’s where we discover that this isn’t a straightforward episode. The action jumps back a few minutes to show us how Ward got here in his conductor’s uniform. It turns out his cover was immediately blown and he got into a fight with some assassins. He tells Simmons to lock herself in the baggage car with the other agents, and then goes looking for Coulson. Leap off train. Grenade. Train disappears.

So we’re doing a non-linear thing. It’s not a Rashomon; everything we see is objectively true and consistent. It’s really just a device to set up mini mysteries and immediately answer them by showing another point of view. I applaud the decision to do something different. I’m not convinced it was especially interesting. It didn’t really serve the story.

Next mystery; where is May? Ward and Coulson find her goggles in the dust, along with the remains of the grenade. Fleeing more goons, they find a hot-wired truck with its engine running. They drive back to the wingycarrier, which apparently isn’t too far away. I suppose that makes sense given that the train was travelling slowly enough that two people could jump off it without hurting themselves.

 

 

There is more clown-comedy as Ward and Coulson try to use the holo-table to analyse the grenade fragment, and Coulson gives Ward a talking to about his agents-with-benefits arrangement with May. If he messes up he’ll be sent to Barrow, Alaska, to watch over Emil Blonsky (and the vampires). (Oh, wrong comic universe.)

At this point their Italian contact Russo shows up, only to get stabbed in the back by a disheveled May. Hey, there’s May!

Rrrrrrrewind.

We scroll back to the moment May falls off the roof of the train (goons were shooting at her; she had a parachute; it’s fine), and landed to find Coulson and Ward mysteriously frozen in time. She goes for help, hot-wires a truck — look, it all makes sense! — and gets captured by Russo, who is actually in league with the baddies.

Russo takes May to a nice villa and asks her where Ward and Coulson are (they should maybe have checked by the train tracks — the tracks where the train goes — because that is in fact where they were). He stabs her, which in traditional bad-ass terms means she now has a knife. May cuts herself free, kills everyone except Russo, and trails Russo to then wingycarrier, where she kills him as well. Agent May doesn’t get a lot of character moments, but she does kill a lot of people, and that’s the next best thing.

Coulson patches up May’s stab wound (not that she’s bothered), and Ward walks in on this intimate moment of field medicine. Everyone stares icily at everyone else. Uh-oh, it’s an awkward love triangle. No, wait, do any of these people love each other? Is it a sex triangle? Is this television’s first friends-with-benefits triangle?

The train has been located, and the agents find Simmons in the baggage car — when she unfreezes and starts shooting wildly.

 

 

Rrrrrrrewind.

While everyone else is falling off the train, Skye and Fitz have a nice chat about dangerous 0-8-4s (objects of unknown origin), with Fitz unaware that Skye is one. A goon interrupts and pulls a grenade. Simmons arrives in time to jump on it, and gets frozen in time, so her fellow agents stash her in an overhead compartment or something, with a gun, and that’s how that happened.

These grenades that freeze people in time are a neat idea — we’re told they’re based on the ever-present night-night gun — but I’m not quite sure why the goons are using them. Non-lethal bombs? That doesn’t seem enormously villainous. Next week: Hydra attacks with enormous tickle-swords made of ostrich feathers?

Skye and Fitz leave the train to follow the Cybertek delivery guys to a villa, where Fitz sets about sabotaging the cars, and Skye sneaks inside. She finds a big glass box containing blown-up Centipede super-soldier and treacherous SHIELD trainee agent Mike Peterson, who has lost a leg but gained a Centipede brain bomb eye camera. Skye is discovered by Ian Quinn, who says the Clairvoyant warned him to expect her.

 

 

Quinn unwraps his present from Cybertek. It’s a metal thingy! He puts the metal thingy on Mike Peterson’s stump and it turns into a cyborg leg. Apparently making cyborgs is a super-easy plug-and-play operation.

Quinn tells Peterson to kill Skye; he says he’s here to fulfil the Clairvoyant’s orders, and goes off to kill the Cybertek delivery goons because, ugh, evil, I guess?

So Quinn shoots Skye himself. Twice. In the gut. This is not something one bounces back from. Someone’s going to need superpowers.

The agents arrive in time to catch Quinn and shove the pretty-much-dead Skye in a hyperbaric chamber, which… freezes her, maybe? I don’t know a lot about hyperbaric chambers. I suspect I’m not meant to, and that makes it easier for them to convince me that they can be used to freeze dying people and keep them not-dead fresh. Science!

The team returns to the wingycarrier, with Skye still in the hyperbaric chamber and the clock ticking on her life. Simmons has a good cry. Ward punches a van. May… I think if you slow May down to a frame-by-frame analysis, you can see her considering and then disregarding an emotion.

 

 

In the kicker, Peterson goes to a playground. He requests permission from his controller to talk to his son, and is refused. The camera tracks down to his cyborg leg and we see that he’s labelled “Project: Deathlok,” which, again, is a big Stan-Lee-size surprise if you haven’t seen any advance publicity. Isn’t it a little odd that Cybertek puts these proprietary labels on its assassin tech? Maybe it’s meant to be nice and helpful, this… “Deathlok” technology? Yeah, that sounds right.

So, look, we have a superhuman Marvel comic character in Agents of SHIELD, using a Marvel comics codename, and it only took thirteen episodes! It only took more than half the first season!

Let me reiterate a familiar point here, because the people involved in making Agents of SHIELD just love to present critics as loony “loser” extremists who will only be satisfied by this show if it offers up a weekly Iron Man movie. I’ve never seen anyone make that criticism. If you can find those people, send them to me and I will tell them why they’re wrong. That strangely straw-like, oddly man-shaped criticism is not why people are disappointed in this show. It doesn’t need to be an Iron Man movie. It just needs to be better, faster, wilder, and bigger than it is. Right now it’s a small, modest, unambitious show that’s getting schooled by Arrow.

The next episode of Agents of SHIELD is in a month, after Vladimir Putin’s “Gays Are Icky” Sporting Spectacular aka the Winter Olympics. Hopefully this slow-down in production – only four episodes between November and March — has finally given the showrunners the opportunity to make this show as amazing as–

Yeah, even I’m bored of hearing myself say that.

This episode was alright. It should have been episode four, after “Eye Spy,” “F.Z.Z.T.” and “The Well.” That would have been a promising start to the season. Instead, we’re halfway to done, and most of the episodes have been saggy, slow, and pedestrian.

But, hey, probably I’m just mad because Iron Man wasn’t in them.

Credit where it’s due:

“T.R.A.C.K.S.” was directed by Paul Edwards and written by Lauren LeFranc and Rafe Judkins.

SHIELD was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Asgard was created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby, based on Norse mythology. Emil Blonsky was created by Stan Lee and Gil Kane. Deathlok was created by Doug Moench and Rich Buckler. Cybertek was created by Dwayne McDuffie, Gregory Wright and Butch Guice. Phil Coulson was created by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway.

Stan Lee was created by Stanley Lieber, based on the work of Jack and Celia Lieber.

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