This past weekend I was fortunate enough to get a preview of this week's episode of Agents of SHIELD at New York Comic Con, alongside several hundred passionate fans of the show. My impression at the time was that episode 4, 'Eye-Spy', was easily the best episode yet.

However, I had to wonder if seeing the show on the big screen, surrounded by a cheering, hollering crowd, made me more forgiving than I would usually be. I was curious to see how the episode would hold up on a second viewing.

I still think it was the best episode, and the first episode I would actually describe as "good". The threat-of-the-week felt original and compelling, and the character interplay felt less forced than before. The episode even made some interesting stylistic choices rather than succumb to the limits of its budget.

The best example of that was the opening scene, filmed on location in Sergel's Square in Stockholm, presumably by a second unit. A group of red-masked men marched through the square and into the subway, each cuffed to suitcases. I assumed this was going to be the Rising Tide version of Anonymous, but it was less predictable than that; all but one of the masked men were decoys for a diamond courier.

You might think there are easier ways to covertly transport diamonds across town than to very conspicuously draw attention to yourself with an army of theatrical goons, and you'd be right. But for my money this was the right kind of crazy. This is the sort of ambitious lunacy I want to see from this show. This, and more than this.

The masked men are stalked by a mystery woman with the mad skills to kill them all in the dark, cut the right suitcase off the right hand, and steal the diamonds. It's a nice scene that sets up a good mystery -- this sounds like a case for those six seriously under-trained guys on a plane who never tell their bosses what they're up to!

Cut to the Shieldettes (the Shieldbugs? The Shcooby Gang? What are we calling these people?), who are finally starting to sound sufficiently natural around each other to manage to land more than one joke in a scene. It's progress.

Coulson (Clark Gregg), Skye (Chloe Bennett) and May (Ming-Na Wen) go to Stockholm and bounce some theories around about how the heist was pulled off, and we're told that precognition, telepathy and extra-sensory perception do not exist in this Marvel universe, which is somewhat disappointing news, but I'm sure we'll get to it. (And if Loki's mind control doesn't suggest the possibility of telepathy in the movieverse, we're working from different definitions.)

Skye uses her phone to call up images of the attacker on Instagram, which prompts Coulson to note that "Facebook, Instagram and Flickr" have made surveillance much easier. Fair point, and I'm grateful they didn't go the usual obnoxious TV route of making up fake tech companies with terrible names like Noseplace and Moggledork, but having a secret agent say "Facebook, Instagram and Flickr" will always sound cringey and awful. There is no good way to talk about Nascar and MySpace in genre fiction.


Skye Agents Of SHIELD


The thief is Akela Amador (Pascale Armand), a former SHIELD agent and a protégé of Coulson's, which is this week's reason for not letting the rest of the vast intelligence network get involved in the case of the week. There's a nice line where Coulson notes Amador and Skye are nothing alike and then reels off a list of complements, but he goes on to imply that what made Amador different was that she was bad at team work, which... seems pretty true of Skye the lonesome hacker as well.

The trail takes the... Shieldbearers... to Belarus, where the three wise monkeys (Skye, Fitz and Simmons) stay in the van while the men in black (Ward and Coulson) go poking around in a picturesque town square. May, despite agreeing last episode that she would go back in the field, is still playing Oracle back at the plane.

Jeph Loeb revealed at the NYCC Agents of SHIELD panel that the show is doing a lot of shooting in foreign locations, like this episode's opening scene in Stockholm and the pilot's exteriors in Paris. I'm not sure if this is all second unit stuff or if they're actually sending the actors around the world. It does give the show some real-world context, but I'm not convinced it's the best use of their budget. I didn't really come to Agents of SHIELD for vérité.

While Ward (Brett Dalton) and Coulson learn that Amador's powers extend to finding tumors in nice Belarussian innkeepers, the Nerd Herd get driven into a ditch by their prey. The team regroups on the plane and we get the first really plausible signs of conflict within the team, with both Ward and May calling for a tougher approach to Coulson's former protégé.

We also get three new pieces of information from hacking into an information stream that turns out to be a camera in Amador's eye. The first piece of information is, Amador has a camera in her eye. Two, the camera has x-ray capabilities. ("Backscatter", but I had to look up what that means on Wikipedia, so let's just call it x-ray, okay, kids?) Three, Amador is receiving orders from an unidentified third party.

This leads to maybe the best scene in the episode, in which May goes after Amador solo. It's the first time we've really seen rather than been told that May is fearless, headstrong and tough. Amador gets an advantage by turning out the lights, but Coulson steps in.


Amador Ming Agents Of SHIELD

The scene between Coulson and Amador that explains how SHIELD has hijacked her feed to keep her safe is a nicely humanizing moment for both characters, and it contains a much-needed acknowledgement that Coulson is a changed man since he returned from the dead.

Ward and Skye go into the field to go through the motions of Amador's latest assignment using high-tech spectacles (presumably with built-in blinking?), while Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) work to remove the bomb that Amador's controllers put in her head. I'm going to assume the sequence with Amador jabbing a needle in her own eye is a reference to Dr Frederic Wertham's "injury-to-the-eye" motif, which he cited as an example of the depravity inherent in comics. Frustratingly, it's as close as we get to a comics reference in the episode!

Ward receives instructions to seduce a guard, and I will give the show its due here; they sidestepped the exhaustingly homophobic "gay panic" trope. Sure, Ward was uncomfortable and ill-prepared, but neither he nor Skye showed disgust, and they ultimately didn't go through with it because they didn't think it would work. That meant they had to profile the guy, and they could easily have called it wrong, but it's not the sort of thing they'd get two cracks at. Also, it meant that Ward had to lean on his people skills, which is a character moment for him, because he doesn't have any. Sure, I'd have been happier watching him try to seduce the guy, but this worked for what they wanted to establish.

"Bromancing" doesn't work for Ward any better than seduction would have (actually, less well, because his cheekbones are on point), but Ward fights his way in to the secret room to photograph a secret equation, and then has to fight his way out again.

In the middle of the action, Ward sees his own reflection and gives the game away to Amador's handler. Fitz and Simmons remove the bomb from her head just in time to save her life. Coulson tracks the handler's signal to its source and discovers -- twist! -- that the handler is also being controlled by a device in his eye. Which goes boom, rather unpleasantly.

So we don't know who was controlling Amador. We don't know why they wanted the equation, which Coulson speculates is alien in origin. (Alien maths!) We still don't have ourselves an identifiable series villain, but I suppose we're getting closer.

Amador now has an eyepatch, so she has a bit of a Nick Fury thing going on. Sadly I don't think Marvel has the rights to Miss Fury any more, but I do hope Amador will be back, even without her superpowers. If she gets a bionic arm and changes her name to Misty Knight, I am okay with that, Marvel. I am very okay with that.

As Amador gets taken off to trial, she asks May, "What did they do to [Coulson]?" Her x-ray vision revealed something that the rest of us can't see. But she doesn't elaborate, so it could mean he's a life model decoy, or it could mean he's a hamster in a man suit. We just don't know.

The kicker this week is not the reveal of a villain or a scene with Nick Fury, but a gag about x-ray vision. I'd hoped the kicker was going to be a sacrosanct space, used only for true moments of awesome that hold up the promise that you have to stick around to the end. This episode makes it clear that, no, the kicker is just the end of the episode. If the show had a Snarf, this is where he'd fall over and everyone would laugh. Now we know. And knowing is half the battle.

'Eye-Spy' wasn't a breathtaking hour of television, but it was the best and most competently executed episode yet -- a strong storyline, some organic conflict, and the most comfortable dialogue thus far. I'd give a lot of credit to director Roxann Dawson, because this was the first episode to hide the low budget and present some memorable visuals. She's also directed strong episodes of The Good Wife and Scandal. (And, yes, she was also half-Klingon B'Elanna Torres in Star Trek: Voyager.) Hopefully she'll be back to direct again now that the show has a full season order. And fingers crossed this episode wasn't a blip, but a sign that the show has found its feet.

Credit where it's due:

“Eye-Spy” was directed by Roxann Dawson and written by Jeffrey Bell. 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.


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