Week three, and what started as a recap/review series is turning into an inquest. Why isn't this show working, and can the cast and creators turn it around?

This was the first episode to introduce an established comics character to the Marvel movieverse, and it felt like a slight improvement, but I said that last week as well. The show is improving by such tiny increments that (a) it'll take forever to get to where it needs to be to sustain interest, and (b) it may not be improving at all -- I may just be acclimating.


I'm worried that it's the latter. Expectations for this show were stratospheric -- the movies have been spectacular crowd pleasers -- but not unfairly high. Marvel, and Avengers writer/director Joss Whedon, set that expectation. The clear consensus is that SHIELD falls well short, and given how important the show is to Marvel's small screen ambitions and the reputation of its brand, it seems extraordinary that it stumbled so badly. It's not an outright turkey, but it's Marvel's first serious disappointment since Iron Man 2.

What went wrong? Well, first the cast just isn't very dynamic. Some of the characters have vague mysteries stapled to their coat tails, but none of them have anything more to offer than that. We don't know what they want or where they come from, or -- with one exception -- why they work for SHIELD.


Agents Of SHIELD Skye

The one exception is Skye, forced to be the show's most interesting character because everyone else took a step back when personalities were being assigned. In her case we know that she's working for SHIELD as a ploy, and that it goes against her principles -- but those principles are crumbling pretty quickly as she comes to accept her new co-workers as heroic and virtuous (even without particularly strong evidence that they're the good guys).

Skye's secret agenda also serves to make everyone else look stupid, especially Coulson, because they're at best skeptical and at worst accepting of someone they probably shouldn't have let in the door. Sure, this will all play out in the long run as either an act of faith rewarded, or as Coulson holding a better hand than he's letting on, but in the meantime it undermines everyone's values, and those broad stroke values -- "secret agent," "hacker," -- are just about all the character detail we have.

The nebulousness of Skye's agenda also goes to the show's other major flaw. It lacks a clear arc. That seems truly bizarre in an age when arc is king, and even genre procedurals like Sleepy Hollow and The Blacklist offer a strong sense of an over-arcing narrative. Yes, there are hints at a bigger story in Skye's secret network, The Rising Tide, but we don't know who they are or what they want either, nor do we know their alignment.

We saw enemy agents in the pilot, which hinted at the possibility of an AIM or Hydra presence, but those agents weren't tied in to the treacherous soldiers in episode two or to the antagonist in episode three. There's no sense that SHIELD is involved in a chess game with an equally competent (ha!) opponent, or that they're on the front line of a war. They're just chasing the macguffin of the week. It's as narratively compelling as Whack-A-Mole. (Unless those moles are agents of The Mole Man, in which case, Whack-A-Mole is better.)

This show needs a villain. And this episode, "The Asset," actually introduces one. But it only really gets there in the very last scene of the episode. And I suppose before I get to that, I should discuss the very first scene of the episode.

"The Asset" opens with a trucker on the open road, some gee-tar music, and the show's first really dramatic display of extraordinary superpowers, as SHIELD's secret trucker agent (named, of course, "Agent Mack") gets hijacked by invisible forces that flip his escort cars. It's a breakout; some goons want his cargo, which turns out to be a nebbish professorial fellow in a containment vessel.

Perhaps in some earlier draft of the script, this made more sense than it does here. Maybe this is a spoiler for the TV show, but if you're a Marvel fan this won't come as a huge surprise: This chap in the back of the truck is Franklin Hall (Ian Hart), a man who, in the comics, has phenomenal gravitational powers as the supervillain Graviton. Presumably that's what this whole episode is setting up.



It would make a lot of sense to have a guy like Graviton covertly transported around the country in a containment vessel, because he's very very dangerous. It makes a lot less sense when Hall's value is just that he's very smart, yet we're told that's exactly what's happening here; Hall is such a genius that SHIELD just shuttles him around in a truck so no-one else can get to him. So... maybe keep him on a Helicarrier, in that case?

We cut from Hall's abduction to the wingy-carrier, where Agent Ward (Brett Dalton) is teaching Not-An-Agent Skye (Chloe Bennet) to box. Both actors seem to be finding their rhythm with the characters, but again, I may just be getting used to them. Judging from online reaction, Ward is a particularly difficult character for fans to get to grips with. He's very vanilla. If he's meant to be dangerous or sexy, he's lacking an edge. I can see why people think he's the most thinly drawn character on the show, but I suspect people are just completely forgetting about... the other characters on the show.

This boxing scene gives us Agents of SHIELD's first retcon -- congrats, guys! -- as they undo (or render ambiguous) the truth serum scene from the pilot. Ward claims there is no truth serum; he was faking it. I sort of approve of this, because the truth serum scene was terribly dumb, but it doesn't show much confidence that the show is contorting to make itself make sense on only its third episode, even if it is played for humor.

Our mission for the week -- obviously -- is the recovery of Franklin Hall, who it turns out was a teacher to Fitz (Iain de Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge). If you think this personal touch will open doorways of understanding into the private lives of those characters... yeeeeeah, no. Tweedlecrick and Tweedlefranklin are still just a two-headed chorus of incomprehensible gibberish with occasional moments of comedy naiveté.

Tire tracks lead to a cowboy leads to gold leads to Ian Quinn, a businessman. In retrospect, I'm not sure why they felt having the breadcrumb trail lead through a cowboy was important. Is it thematic? Did someone win a prize to play a cowboy on TV?

It turns out Ian Quinn (David Conrad) abducted Franklin Hall to help him perfect their gravity control technology using the rare (fictional) element Gravitonium! -- which Quinn intends to monetize.

Quinn has taken Hall to the lawless hinterland that is Malta, which apparently is a Randian utopia of lax regulation and vagabond corporate excess, where law enforcement agents can be shot on sight. I've never been to Malta, but I'm fairly sure this is an inaccurate portrait. I don't think any of the people on the show have ever been to Malta either, but they have been to a nice house in LA, which we shall henceforth call "Malta."


Agents Of SHIELD Skye Quinn

Our little coterie of SHIELD agent decides to go in to "Malta" on their own so that SHIELD can disavow all knowledge of the op if they get caught. I sense we're going to see this excuse come up a lot as a way to justify why SHIELD only seems to have six active agents.

Skye leads the criminal insurgency into Malta by getting an e-vite to Quinn's party, claiming she can go in safely because she's not a SHIELD agent. Isn't she? What's she doing living on a SHIELD plane, getting trained by SHIELD, getting debriefed by SHIELD, using SHIELD data and resources, and going on operations on behalf of SHIELD, if she's not a SHIELD agent? How does SHIELD define "SHIELD agent"?

Ward quite rightly still does not trust Skye, but he doesn't seem to see that as a good reason not to keep training her to be a better fighter, so he teaches her how to disarm an assailant and confides some details of his mysterious family. Apparently he and his little brother were beaten up by his older brother. Guys, he's Cyclops! The older brother is Vulcan, the younger brother is Havok! That's why he's such a sanctimonious douche!

He's probably not Cyclops.

Because this SHIELD unit is hopelessly undermanned for field operations (one guy! One!), Coulson leaps back into action, which prompts May to issue her weekly reminder that she does not want to go back in the field, for reasons that she can't discuss. This time, thankfully, it's just set-up so she can later say that she does want to go back in the field. Glad that got resolved.

Skye goes to a swank party at Quinn's compound, armed only with a tech-hijacking make-up compact (desert rose, to flatter her coloration) and a nice dress (magenta, which does nothing for her). She gets a job offer from Quinn and gets to play around with the idea that she might betray SHIELD -- indeed she goes so far as to blow her own cover -- but given that she's our lead character, it's not much of a threat. I suspect she won't take the job that involves her not being an Agent of SHIELD and not being on the show any more.

I'm really not sure how much mileage the show can get out of Skye's is-she-isn't-she loyalty question, but I sense they plan to stretch it thin. Prove me wrong, show.

While Skye flirts with betrayal (and Evil Ian Quinn, who is quite the dapper chap), Coulson and Ward get to do their getting-shot-at acting on a beach, and it's honestly like an A-Team throwback. (Coulson wears a suit to go into the field, which I thought would be so he could fit in at the party, but, nope, he just really likes wearing suits.)




Skye uses the disarm-an-assailant moves that Ward taught her. +1 feminism, I think? Skye gets damselled by goons and Ward comes to her rescue. -1 feminism, for sure. Meanwhile, Coulson tracks down Franklin Hall and discovers that he set up his own abduction so that he could sabotage Quinn's experiments and prevent his technology falling into the wrong hands, even if it means killing everyone around them.

The Gravitonium kicks in and everything gets spun on its head, which could have been an excuse for an amazingly innovative fight scene if this show had a budget, but it doesn't, so Coulson just shoots a window and drops Hall into some gravity goop.



The end.

World saved.

It sort of makes sense in context. And it serves to establish that Coulson is the sort of guy who'll kill a dude to save the day, which feels consistent with the Coulson we came to know in the movies, but a lot colder than the guy we've come to know on this show.

Coulson consigns Hall's gravity goop to a vault, insisting that it not be propelled into space like last week's macguffin. This seems to be for reasons of plot expediency rather than sense, given that this week's macguffin seems much more dangerous than last week's.

The closing scenes also give us a hint that all is not right with Coulson's muscle memory -- because he's a life model decoy, you guys -- and it gives Skye a chance to complain about her childhood in foster care. Were you fostered out of Mister Sinister's orphanage, Skye? No? Then we don't care. Go get a superhero plot!

That leaves one more piece of business for the week: the kicker, the scene at the very end of the episode that the PR people really want us to pay attention to. This week the kicker reveals that Franklin Hall is still alive inside his gravity goop. Yes, he's Graviton! From the comics!

Well, not yet. Not in this episode. But in some future episode he may come back and be Graviton.

This show is so hesitant about committing to the superhero stuff that I'm beginning to think it's a Christopher Nolan joint. Get on with it, Agents of SHIELD.

Credit where it’s due:

"The Asset" was directed by David Solomon and written by Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen.

SHIELD and The Avengers were created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Phil Coulson was created by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway for the movie Iron Man. Franklin Hall was created by Jim Shooter and Sal Buscema.

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