Agents of SHIELD made a big splash last week. Indeed, it was the biggest network drama debut in four years. This was no doubt in large part thanks to the good will generated by Marvel's blockbuster movies like Iron man and Thor. Unfortunately, despite the presence of Avengers writer/director Joss Whedon on the pilot, the episode could not match the confidence, charm or quality of the movies. We're now two episodes in and forced to ask; can a show set in a superhero universe work without superheroes?


The good news is, the second episode was an improvement over the first. The bad news is, it wasn't a huge improvement. The show is still coasting on the audience's affection for the movies rather than roaring on the strength of its own team. The characters are developing, but the Whedonesque dialogue still feels awkward on their lips, and aside from fan-favorite Coulson (Clark Gregg), none of them have the easy likeability of a Robert Downey, Jr.'s Tony Stark smirk or a Chris Hemsworth's Asgardian bicep.


Agents of Shield Marvel episode 2 screenshot


And the show's cheap look continues to be an obstacle. There's a shot in this episode of a plane landing that looks straight out of an episode of Gerry Anderson's 1960s models-and-marionettes show Thunderbirds. Maybe it's a tribute? Thunderbirds is this show's clear cultural ancestor, after all.

Most of this episode takes place on the SHIELD plane, which means we're going straight to a "bottle episode" -- an episode shot on limited sets with limited guest stars. These are famously used to keep a show's budget down, and one has to wonder if Agents of SHIELD's parsimony is a bad sign. Surely a show spinning out of one of Avengers, one of the most successful movies ever made, was as safe a bet as a show could be? Is Marvel/ABC saving the budget for guest stars, like the one that made a cameo appearance in this episode?

More on that later; for now, let's get to the recap proper.

"0-8-4" opens with a flash-forward to events later in the episode, which is usually a sure sign that the story will take its merry time establishing stakes. The SHIELD wingy-carrier is heading for something called "The Slingshot" when it gets a hole blown in the side. Someone falls out, and Coulson looks likely to follow. Anyone who has seen Iron Man 3 (so, everyone) probably crosses their fingers at this point and waits for Tony Stark to show up.

That is not what happens. What happens is, we go back nine hours earlier (or one week earlier), picking up largely where we left off at the end of last episode. Skye (Chloe Bennett), the information-must-be-free hacker who seems singularly unsuited to being part of a covert information-must-be-controlled organization, is joining up with her moving boxes of crap, while Agent Ward (Brett Dalton) pouts about how unsuited she is. People talk a lot about Ward's frowns in this episode, but those lips really only pout.


Agents of Shield Marvel episode 2 screenshot


His clingy T-shirts and razor cheekbones aside, Ward is shaping up to be a bit of a drag, so I'm sad to say I completely agree with his incomprehension at the made-for-TV contrivance of Skye's recruitment. Remember Coulson from the movies, who was the uptight foil to the likes of Iron Man and Thor? Whatever happened to him in magical Tahiti must have really made him relax, because that guy would surely never have brought Skye on-board.

Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen) also has objections to Skye's presence, largely founded in the fact that she's not combat-ready. This is a very good point, because May has pointedly said she doesn't want to go back into combat, and Coulson doesn't seem like he's there to throw punches, so this is a specialist team that's designed to only have one fighter. As we'll learn later, the only people on this plane are these six people -- they don't even have any redshirts. Add all of this to the list of Coulson's logistical implausibilities.

While Skye settles in to her tiny bunk in the beige-and-pleather student union decor of the wingy-carrier, the team flies to Peru to investigate an 0-8-4, "an object of unknown origin." Coulson notes that the last one was "a hammer," i.e. Thor's hammer from the first Thor movie. One suspects there were in fact others following the events of The Avengers, but Coulson was dead, so, what does he know?



Peru -- seen here as a dusty Los Angeles backlot and a green screen ziggarut -- is home to an anachronistic discovery, a box with some lights and dials glued to it. Cheerful female nerd Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) suggests the item has been here for 1,500 years, but don't expect an appearance by Kang the Conqueror. The capacious wide-beamed dig site looks like a storage locker rather than an ancient temple. If the agents are looking for anomalies, they might want to review the entire set.

Outside, Ward and May fight soldier dudes led by one Camilla Reyes (Leonor Varela), who appears to be one of Coulson's former colleagues-with-benefits. That leads to a swift détente, but their problems aren't over. There are rebels in the area, which Skye thinks is just awesome and Ward thinks is just terrible, and we all know this will lead them to make out at some point because nothing says sexual tension like disputes over Peruvian mining policies.

The rebels obediently show up when invoked, so Ward uses a fancy stick-in-the-ground device to knock the baddies off their feet. Aside from this one glimpse of flashy CGI, this is mostly an old-fashioned TV gun fight, with people standing back to back and going pew-pew-pew.

The SHIELD team and Camilla's police dudes retreat to the big plane with macguffin in tow, and at this point there is essentially no more conflict driving the story so we're told that the macguffin is very dangerous (and similar to the HYDRA tech from the Captain America movie) and everyone bickers. Sure, it's obvious that the Peruvians are going to try to take the macguffin, because what else could possibly happen? But otherwise we've entered a bit of a dead zone in the episode. We're really here to establish the interpersonal dynamics of the team, thus, everyone gets put in a box together.

Here are the interpersonal dynamics of the team: Ward is a hard-bitten loner who only looks like an underwear model, and he hates teams. Boo, teams! Fitz and Simmons are smart but insular nerds who don't like being shot at. Boo, being shot at! Skye is a rebel who speaks truth to power, and she doesn't like authority. Boo, the man! May is mysterious and doesn't like people pointing out that she can kick all their asses. Boo... competence?


Agents of Shield Marvel episode 2 screenshot


Skye and Ward try to work out their problems over booze. They talk some more about Peruvian social activism, which should obviously lead to hot rumpy-pumpy in an awkwardly small glass-walled bunk. A great day for "Skyward" fans (apparently that's what those viewers are calling their "ship." I'm on Tumblr. I know stuff.).

Coulson doesn't have to hook up in a capsule because he's lured Camille into his exotic boudoir of spy nostalgia. Sadly he doesn't get lucky, and not because she found his weird collection of blood-spattered inspirational trading cards. Instead it turns out that, for the third time this episode, there's a spontaneous outbreak of soldiers. Thus Camille's dudes take control of the plane and the macguffin. Coulson asks when she decided to betray him, and she says it was "the moment I saw your team." I'm not sure if she means that they're too incompetent to be trusted, or if they're just incompetent enough for her to take them down, but either way she thinks they're incompetent. Team building is the theme and purpose of the episode.

Camille throws the SHIELD agents to their deaths and shoots Coulson in the head.

No, she doesn't! That would be an extraordinary thing to do. She's a police officer, not a super villain. Don't get me wrong; the show could use a super villain. If Camille turned out to be Madame Hydra, I'd be doing backflips. Except, I wouldn't, because Leonor Varela is not a nuanced performer, and I'm not nearly nimble enough to do backflips. But I would love to have Madame Hydra on this show, or, indeed, any super anything.

Despite the fact that there is no reason we should expect Camille and her people to coldly execute everyone, we're given horrifically clunky expository dialogue to explain why she didn't coldly execute everyone. "The reason I'm still alive is because you need me to verify the change of routes for your pilot when HQ calls in any minute now," Coulson tells us, unprompted. Have we really reached the point where audiences can't conceive of a villain who isn't also gratuitously psychotic?

Meanwhile, in the cargo hold, the team bond over their imminent and unlikely demise. Agent Ward confronts his hatred of teamwork, Fitz and Simmons confront their fear of being shot at, and Agent May overcomes her hatred of... her own competence? It's all very tidy. Even Skye manages to resist the urge to decry everyone else as tools of military-industrial complex, which is quite generous considering that they actually are.

This brings us up-to-date with the opening scene, as we discover that the thing that created the hole in the side of the plane in the beginning of the episode was the macguffin, deployed by Fitz and Simmons and their Snow White-themed heli-droids. Considering the macguffin is supposed to be fearsomely powerful, it's a little sad that it's just a laser gun. It didn't even time travel! It just shot itself through a wall to get itself trapped in the ziggarut!


Agents of Shield Screencap episode 2 marvel


None of our heroes get sucked out of the hole in the side of the plane. Skye implausibly saves the day by blocking the hole with an inflatable life raft whose existence she discovered via the safety placard given to her before takeoff. This is the sort of solution that, even if Mythbusters told me it could work, even if Neil deGrasse Tyson assured me that the life raft wouldn't just get sucked out, it would still feel so ridiculous that I'd refuse to buy it.

In the aftermath, Ward decides to train Skye as an asset, which is surely a euphemism. SHIELD shoots the macguffin into the sun, and everyone has a beer. Teamwork!



But Skye gets a text message from her hacker buddies asking for an update, and she tells them she's "in," And she looks unhappy about it. Conflict. After last episode I'd sort of assumed the hacker group was just Skye and her van. Maybe the text message came from her van? Maybe her van is Ultron?

That's the end of the episode! But not really! The publicity has told us to stick around for the final scene of every episode (which is a thing I've been trained to do already by watching other television shows), and heavy hints were dropped that we should expect a Nick Fury cameo, because the whole point of a "surprise" like this is not actually to surprise us, but to ruin the surprise to stop us turning over.


Nick Fury Samuel Jackson Agents of Shield cameo


So, yeah, Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) shows up and cracks some jokes about how in the span of two episodes Coulson has destroyed a very expensive set aeroplane. It's pretty funny. It also serves to remind us that the show could be a whole lot bigger and broader and slicker. And assuming ABC/Marvel can't afford to get Jackson back regularly, the show may have shot that bolt too early. I'm not expecting any of the Avengers to make an appearance so this may be the biggest cameo they land. Mind you, getting Robert Downey, Jr. to voice-over a CGI Iron Man wouldn't be too tricky, and Jackson could come back. Anyone familiar with his IMDB page knows that he really does not discriminate against paychecks. Alternatively, appearances in Agents of SHIELD may already be covered by whatever existing deals these performers have made with Marvel, which would obviously be ideal.

Two episodes in, and Agents of SHIELD shows some signs of growth, but it's not there yet. Not slick enough. Not nerdy enough. The audience that's watching the show for the Avengers is going to shrink every week if the show can't convert them into people who just want to watch Agents of SHIELD on its own merits. Bluntly speaking, it needs more merits. It needs the confidence to be as big and bold as a show set in a superhero universe can be.

Maybe next week?

Credit where it’s due:

"0-8-4" was directed by David Straiton and written by Maurissa Tancharoen, Jed Whedon and Jeffrey Bell.

SHIELD, Nick Fury and HYDRA were 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 Leiber, Don Heck and Jack Kirby. The Marvel versions of Mjolnir and Asgard were created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby. The Chitauri were created by Bryan Hitch and Mark Millar, based on the Skrulls created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Tesseract technology is based on the Cosmic Cube, also 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.

Graphics by Dylan Todd.


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