Agents of SHIELD returned from a week off last night with a new episode that finally put the focus on one of its least developed characters. Obviously we're grading on a curve, there.

This being the sixth episode, I feel like I ought to now have a decent grasp on what drives all six of the show's main characters. Even with this episode, which puts the spotlight on Gemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), I still feel like I'm in the company of strangers. Spoilers follow.

Episode seven, inelegantly named 'FZZT', follows a similar structure to episode two. First the agents retrieve a mysterious macguffin; then the macguffin incites a problem that threatens to destroy the SHIELD plane mid-transit.

Episode two started with gunfire and an exotic... well, a backlot dressed up as an exotic locale, but ended up being a rather boring bottle episode. Episode seven seems to go the other way. The set-up is dullsville, but the action on the plane went some way to redeeming the episode.

'FZZT' opens with some scouts out in the woods, telling scary stories. The scout leader hears hissing, wanders off, and an electromagnetic pulse terrifies the kids. The SHIELD agents find the scout leader's body floating in mid-air, the victim of an electromagnetic pulse. Agent Simmons unwisely gets close enough to get a shock just before the body falls. It seems a little soon after the Graviton episode (sorry, the "Graviton" episode) to do weird gravity stuff again, but, here we are.


Shield team


The agents detect a second flare up and rush to the location to find a dead body suspended in a barn. There was an early episode of Hannibal where agents found a dead body suspended in a barn, and it was... different. Rather more striking.

The two victims were members of the same firehouse, and both first responders following the events of Avengers, i.e., the failed Chitauri invasion of New York. The agents find a third infected firefighter at the firehouse, and the Chitauri helmet that they took as a souvenir, and learn that the helmet carried an alien virus that killed the men. Agent Coulson has a heart-to-heart with the doomed firefighter, in which he either reveals he went to some afterlife or lies about the existence of an afterlife -- I'm not sure which.

The firefighter dies and the agents hop on a plane to take the macguffin to The Sandbox, which is not the slingshot from episode two as that wouldn't fit the dramatic needs of the story. No, they have to take this artifact across the Atlantic to SHIELD's North African division. (The H stands for Homeland, but they take a very broad interpretation of the word.)

All of that fol-de-rol takes us through the first half of the episode. The good stuff is in the second half. While Simmons works on a cure for the virus, Coulson realizes she's become infected and quarantines her. Because they're half-way across the Atlantic, the only people who can hope to develop a cure in time to save her are Simmons and Fitz (Iain de Caestecker). If she dies on the plane, the plane will be blown out of the sky. Drama!




It's a nice scenario, and Elizabeth Henstridge does by far the best work anyone has done on the show thus far, displaying a range that convincingly covers hope, fear, desperation and false bravado. There's a very nice scene in which Simmons and Fitz bicker about whether or not they should ever have gone into the field and placed themselves in danger. Henstridge usually comes across as a slightly tense Keira Knightley doing an impression of Hermione, but it's clear she's capable of more when the writing allows it.

The science twins swab a helmet, stun some mice, operate a centrifuge. It's not a resoundingly exciting dramatization, so they ramp it up a bit; Simmons knocks Fitz out, lowers the rear door and leaps to her death. (As a medical doctor she should perhaps know better than to hit someone on the head to knock them out, given how easy it is to kill someone that way, but hey, it's a trope.)

I think people tend to overstate the level of Joss Whedon's involvement in this show -- it surely occupies less of his time than his previous shows ever did -- but this is one time that the show uses that association to great effect. Joss Whedon is known for killing off characters. We've all done the mental arithmetic to determine which character is the most likely to die, and my money was always on Simmons. She's not the one I'd choose to kill, but she's the one I thought they'd kill. So, yes, I was prepared to believe that this might actually be the end for her.

But it was not to be. Fitz realizes the last cure they developed together actually works and grabs a parachute to plummet after her. To everyone's great relief, Agent Ward takes both the cure and the parachute away from him and leaps in his place. Simmons is saved. Everyone is happy. Coulson gives her a dressing down in a reassuringly gruff way. She maybe flirts with Ward? And then gets intercepted with a hug from Skye. The end.

The kicker scene shows Coulson getting a dressing down in turn from a substitute Nick Fury, Titus Welliver's Agent Blake, last seen in the Marvel one-shot film 'Item 47'.



It's an underwhelming kicker, but I'm hopeful that it's setting Welliver up as an internal antagonist for our team, because (1) they desperately need one both to increase the tension and to make sense of their continued going-it-alone nonsense, and (2) it's Titus Welliver. Awesome name, awesome actor. His inclusion in the cast is perhaps the best thing that has happened to the show thus far, though I'm also excited to see what Saffron Burrows brings to the show. (She was recently announced as taking the role of a SHIELD agent from the comics.) Making SHIELD more of a presence in the show can only help round out the universe.

At the end of this hour I felt like I knew Agent Simmons a little better, but not as well as I should after six hours of television. The show's other breeding pairs got their moments in as well; Ward (Brett Dalton) revealed that he's angry about stuff he can't punch and says he'd rather face a super villain -- feeling you there, brother. Coulson (Clark Gregg) faced up to the knowledge that something has changed since he came back from the dead, even though his medical test results show he's fine. Skye (Chloe Bennett) and May (Ming-Na Wen) listened to their man-pain and sympathized. There was no making out.

Giving Simmons an episode (well, half an episode) does not nearly begin to fix this show's character problem, sadly. It should be abundantly clear that the show needs fixing. During the week off I spent some time wondering what it would take to turn this show around, and I started by wondering which characters the show would have to keep in the event of a major retooling.

The answer I came up with was, "none of them." I couldn't think of a single character who's sufficiently well-rounded as to be an asset to the show. Not even Coulson, given that the soft, paternal TV version is different enough from the weary, sardonic movie version that he no longer benefits from the character work established by the movies. This is a show where they could kill off the entire cast and it would only make me optimistic for the show's future.

But before the show considers such drastic measures, it could try just scaling back the glibness and the patter and doing the work to make us care about the cast we have. The characters are still faintly drawn. We don't know their ambitions, and we know very little of their fears.  Their biographies are vacuums. Their relationships to each other read like accidents of proximity. They spend more time talking about a gun (episode after episode after episode) and fighting the music cues for control of the mood than they do fleshing out their personalities. Introduce yourselves, already!

I want to like this show, and it stubbornly refuses to give me a reason to.

Credit where it's due:

'FZZT' was directed by Vincent Misiano and written by Paul Zbyszewski. SHIELD was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Captain America was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Iron Man was created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Don Heck and Jack Kirby. The Chitauri were created by Bryan Hitch and Mark Millar, based on the Skrulls created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Phil Coulson was created by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway. Agent Blake was created by Eric Pearson.


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