The return of Agent Sitwell. The arrival of Agent Hand. These are the little things that make me happy, Agents of SHIELD. Was it really so hard to get to this place?

The seventh episode of Agents of SHIELD gave us our first real taste of SHIELD as a government agency since the pilot, and it was a better show because of it. It also developed the characters and pushed a couple of plots forward. Good job, Agents of SHIELD. We knew you had it in you.

Spoilers follow.

Episode 7, "The Hub", began in media res with a James Bond-style cold open. Coulson (Clark Gregg) is held for interrogation by South Ossetian soldiers, but it turns out his interrogator is an undercover SHIELD agent. Agents May (Ming-Na Wen) and Ward (Brett Dalton) come to the rescue and the four of them escape on rocket sleds. Solid low-budget spy stuff. I feel encouraged.

The information extracted from this op is taken to one of SHIELD's big operational centers, The Hub, which is presumably somewhere in the Caucasus. The information is classified above the clearance level of Fitz, Simmons and Skye, which causes Skye (Chloe Bennett) to have another of her Assangian tantrums that make one wonder why exactly she's allowed to be on a plane or in a building full of spies. "Boo, I hate spies. Everyone be friends with me. Boo spies."

The Hub turns out to be... well, it's an office building. It doesn't look very exciting. But it is full of nerdy stuff! Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) references the Triskelion (a SHIELD base from the Ultimates comics that will feature in Captain America: The Winter Soldier); a signpost mentions HAMMER (Norman Osborn's replacement for SHIELD in the comics); and we meet not one, but two comic book SHIELD agents; Sitwell and Hand.

Jasper Sitwell (Maximiliano Hernandez) has appeared a few times before in the Marvel cinematic universe. He debuted in the first Thor movie and cropped up in The Avengers and a couple of short films, but he originated in Stan and Jack's Strange Tales in 1966.

Victoria Hand is a much more recent addition to SHIELD mythology -- a SHIELD agent who first appeared in 2008 and was Norman Osborn's right hand in HAMMER. She's played here by Saffron Burrows, and broadly retains the character's look from the comics, including magenta stripes in her hair. She also retains the comic version's no-nonsense severity.

Agent Hand debriefs the senior agents (Coulson, May, Ward) on the next stage of the current operation. A two-agent team will be sent in to a rebel stronghold in South Ossetia to disarm the Overkill, a device that can remotely trigger other weapons. It'll require someone from SHIELD tech support, and that means little lowly goofy Agent Fitz (Iain DeCaestecker). Yes, after last week's Simmons ep, we're getting a Fitz ep! One day we may get an Agent May ep! One day.


Actually, this turns out to be an odd-couple ep as much as a Fitz ep. On the one hand we have Ward and Fitz running into trouble in a bar, getting involved in a brawl at the border, hiding from search teams, and sneaking their way into a rebel base with the help of a giant magnetic sleeping bag.

On the other hand we have Skye and Simmons teaming up (against Simmons' better judgement) to get background information on the fellas' operation by hacking SHIELD and shooting a senior agent with that damnable night-night gun. (I really hope the weekly reference to the night-night gun is leading up to something more important than this.)

The fellas' plot largely centers on Fitz's insecurity in the shadow of Ward's alpha dog behavior, especially after he leapt in to save Simmons the previous week. It's also a chance to prove that Fitz isn't useless. It's his engineering prowess that saves them at the bar (he sabtoages and restores the generator), and again when they reach the macguffin and he uses it against their attackers.

The ladies' plot doesn't tell us anything we didn't already know about those characters (Skye is nosy; Simmons secretly craves action), but it is another fine example of agents doing things that unquestionably ought to get them court-martialled but that inexplicably don't. The scene where Simmons fails to bluff Agent Sitwell was a lot of fun, but, come on! SHIELD has crazy-lax codes of conduct. Actual treason is deemed a minor offense. I think if Skye were to shoot Nick Fury in the head she'd get a week's paid leave and a caution.

With those four double-dating, that leaves Coulson and May without much to do, except have a "conversation" in which Coulson wrestles with his loyalty to SHIELD versus his loyalty to his team while May silently does t'ai chi. Good gag, maybe, but this show needs to move May beyond the "inscrutable Asian who knows martial arts" cliche, and this scene was exactly that thing.

Coulson's once-unwavering loyalty to SHIELD is in question because he's now mostly certain the organization did something weird to him to bring him back from the dead. Coulson isn't all the way to certain yet, because this isn't what the episode is about, but at this stage we really need to be within two episodes of a revelation.

Skye's hackery reveals that there is no extraction plan in place for Ward and Fitz, a revelation that is supposed to justify her insubordination, but is slightly tempered by the fact that before she looked into her fellow agents' safety she went digging for classified information about her own parents. Advances the plot? Yes. Makes Skye look horribly self-serving? Double yes.

Agent Hand defends the lack of an extraction plan by pointing out that Agents Romanov and Barton (Black Widow and Hawkeye) never need them. That actually wouldn't be a terrible explanation if it were only Ward out there. We were told in the pilot that Ward is close to Romanov's level. Given what we've seen, that comparison cheapens Black Widow more than it elevates Ward, but he's meant to be a super-spy.

Coulson gets mad at Hand and joins the three women in putting together their own extraction plan, and this gives us the episodes two clumsiest moments. First, this dialogue:

Hand: Tranquilizing an agent does not qualify as a misunderstanding.
Coulson: You're right. But being told there's an extraction plan in place when in fact there isn't? That does.

Uh... no it doesn't. You understood exactly what they wanted you to understand, buddy.


Second, the impromptu extraction plan involves flying the plane to Ward and Fitz and blasting people with the jets. It's not the elegant solution I was expecting. The episode had a set-up, but it didn't have a satisfying payoff.

Anyway, the good guys win, and everyone lives. Victoria Hand seems impressed by how Coulson's team handled themselves rather than alarmed by their insubordination, but maybe I'm misreading it. The show is at last setting up necessary tension between "our" agents and SHIELD (something it couldn't do before because we saw so little of SHIELD), and Hand seems like an able adversary if they take her in that direction.

Back on the plane, Coulson tells Skye that he dug up a file that reveals Skye was left at the orphanage by a female SHIELD agent who may have been her mother. Coulson also approaches May for her help getting to the bottom of this, and we see a photo of a woman with a fatal head wound.

I'm glad this story is progressing a lot quicker now, but all talk of Skye's parents makes me nervous. The actress is mixed race -- her father is Chinese -- and I'd prefer that the character be mixed race as well so that the show can claim to have two people of color in its core cast. I'm skeptically inclined to worry that we won't get there.

In the kicker, Coulson tries to access his own "death and recovery" report and is told he doens't have clearance. It is ironic, you see, because he has spent the whole episode talking about respecting the system! Ho, irony-burn! Yeah, it's a pretty underwhelming final scene.

But it was a decent episode, and much closer to the show I'd hoped Agents of SHIELD would be. Actually putting SHIELD in the show provides so much extra context. These agents aren't Charlie's Angels with a plane; they're not scrappy outsiders. They're part of a system, and if they're going to strain against it, we need to see what they're straining against.

I never expected this to be a superhero show, but I did expect it to be a SHIELD show, and I feel like it's only now getting there. If they'd aired this week's and last week's episodes as the second and third (and entirely dropped the second and third episodes they did air), I'd be feeling a lot more confident about the show's abilities.

Credit where it's due:

'The Hub' was directed by Bobby Roth and written by Rafe Judkins and Lauren LeFranc. SHIELD and Jasper Sitwell were created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Black Widow was created by Stan Lee, Don Rico and Don Heck. Hawkeye was created by Stan Lee and Don Heck. The Triskelion was created by Bryan Hitch and Mark Millar. Victoria Hand was created by Brian Michael Bendis and Mike Deodato. HAMMER was created by Brian Michael Bendis.