The man inside

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – “The Asset”

The Battle of New York had an incredible impact on the heroes involved. It also changed the world forever. The members of the Avengers have to deal with the fallout in their own ways, but the ripples are felt everywhere. This new uncertainty, a world where anything is possible, breaks down clear-cut morality. Good and bad still exist in extremes, but the space between has grown much larger, a vast wasteland of gray where people without superpowers have to make ever more complicated decisions with repercussions that could be far outside of their control. And that’s why S.H.I.E.L.D. exists.

After team-building, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. gets into the nitty-gritty of actually telling its story. Sure, at its core, it’s still a procedural, but with “The Asset” S.H.I.E.L.D. begins to really take shape. What impressed me was how many threads Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen are willing to let dangle off the show by only the third episode. There’s Skye’s journey towards becoming a field agent, the developing relationship between Skye and Ward, Skye working for both S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Rising Tide, and of course, the mystery of Coulson’s return. That’s not even to mention the smaller arcs unfolding with each member of the team. It’s ambitious, but “The Asset” does a commendatory job of at least glancing at each of them. (Tahiti is never mentioned, but I’m certain Coulson’s trouble with the guns is related.)

The pacing of this episode was also striking, and it reminded me vividly of NBC’s Hannibal. Hannibal was also a procedural, with highly serialized elements, and from week to week, the amount of time given over to various aspects of the episode’s specific case would fluctuate wildly. On a more standard procedural, every step in finding the clues and solving the case is played out in measure, but on Hannibal, entire steps would be glossed over, or only given a passing scene or mention. It wasn’t the actual procedure the show was interested in, it was the choices and consequences, and the toll these cases took on Will Graham, that were of the greatest concern. If “The Asset” is the model going forward, S.H.I.E.L.D. is taking a similar approach. The actual investigation into who kidnapped Dr. Hall only takes up approximately the first twenty minutes of the episode, with the rest given over to Skye’s infiltration of Ian Quinn’s Malta island paradise. S.H.I.E.L.D. seems to understand which parts of the procedure are important, and when to give other aspects more breathing room. For instance, the main action set-piece for this episode, Coulson’s confrontation with Dr. Hall in the underground lab, only works as well as it does because of how much time the show has to give an understanding of Dr. Hall’s moral conflict, the decision he has to make in order to save the world. It also isn’t going to let those awesome shots of the shifting gravity in the lab, where Coulson and Hall find themselves shifting from wall to ceiling to wall, get crowded out. It’s this breathing room that makes the scene of Hall falling into the gravitonium mass, the window having been shot out by Coulson as they stood on it, feel so earned. (It’s some downright awesome directing and a splash of good writing that makes the scene so affecting.)

While Clark Gregg is the ostensible lead of S.H.I.E.L.D., at least this first season seems dedicated to Skye’s story. At the end of last week’s episode, she received the mysterious message from the Rising Tide asking if she was still in, and she answered yes, and here we see the complicated shades of her character continue to come into focus. She’s begun training to become a S.H.I.E.L.D. field agent, and she steps up when the official agents can’t go into Malta without the risk of breaking international law. She even plays a long con on Ian Quinn, revealing that she’s working for S.H.I.E.L.D., but only so she can get into his office and complete her part of the mission. Well, “only” may be too strong. It’s difficult to tell how much of Skye was conning, and how much was seriously considering working for Quinn. His ideals matched up with the parts of hers that S.H.I.E.L.D.’s don’t, and Chloe Bennett plays the entire scene with a mysterious curiosity instead of a cliched coyness. For someone who appeared to be one of the shows weakest links in the pilot, Bennett is really growing into the role nicely and quickly, and Skye is becoming the kind of character a show like this can really build itself around (again, at least for a season). That Skye willingly returns to her field training by episode’s end is a step forward, but the specter of the Rising Tide and its influence on her still lurks around the margins.

“The Asset” was S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s strongest episode so far, and even Fitz, Simmons, and May, who don’t get as much to do in a field-heavy episode, have just enough going on to give the entire cast moments to shine. S.H.I.E.L.D. also has a much better idea of how to use visual effects than it did in the pilot, something that might save its ass in future installments. And it even ends on an ominous note: with the gravitonium having been locked away as deep and secret as S.H.I.E.L.D. can, we get one last peek as its undulating mass, and out stretches the arm of Dr. Hall, surely setting up for his return as Graviton later in the series. “The Asset” feels like S.H.I.E.L.D. shifting into high gear, and hopefully will the be gold standard moving forward. For the first time in the series, I’m excited to see what happens next, and they didn’t even have to bring in an Avengers cameo to do it.

Stray Observations:

  • The amount of FitzSimmons quirk was toned down substantially in this episode, a very smart choice, though I did love them both answering questions at the same time with different variations on the same answer.
  • May’s coming back into the field, which is awesome, since Ming-Na Wen is a certified badass.
  • That was Ian Hart as Dr. Hall, maybe best known to S.H.I.E.L.D. viewers as Professor Quirrell from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
  • Ward gets a little bit of backstory in this episode, and he’s Skye’s supervising officer, which means eventually he’ll get his own spotlight, especially if Skye’s remaining ties to the Rising Tide (try saying that five times fast) are truly sinister in nature.
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