Ethically sketchy split-second decisions. A morally compromised but uncompromising, fearless leader. Young, vulnerable women turning out to be not so vulnerable.
Yep, it’s starting to look like a Whedon show all right, and while Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. might not quite be firing on all cylinders just yet, its third episode takes a huge step in the right direction.
The teaser starts us off in such spectacular fashion – an invisible force flipping a S.H.I.E.L.D. convoy through the air and breaking loose its cargo, one Dr. Franklin Hall – that the threat’s established enough for us to spend most of the opening fifteen minutes just hanging out with the main cast, all of whom are growing on me with each episode that goes by.
Taking front stage once more are Skye and Ward, whose relationship has gone from antagonistic to mentoring as Grant takes on a new role as supervising officer to his (snigger) ward and, surprisingly, it doesn’t seem terribly forced, despite the clichéd trope of using punching bag training as a bonding tool.
Writers of the episode Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon are likely to thank for this, as the push-pull back-and-forth between the pair seems so natural that it’s hardly surprising a married couple wrote their scenes. That was a compliment, not a dig, by the way. There’s a lot of stigma around marriage and bickering, and…yeah.
Another plus is the show making more use of its central conceit this time around by travelling to more than one quasi-exotic location as Coulson’s team track Hall’s kidnappers to the outside-intervention-shunning Republic of Malta via Colorado and hit something of an international law-sized roadblock.
They’re certain the good doctor is being held by wealthy villain and owner of weird hair Ian Quinn, who really makes a meal of ensuring we’re aware that S.H.I.E.L.D. has no authority to invade his peninsula paradise/secret weapons lab (the two go hand in hand so naturally) when trying to convince Hall to develop his technology to utilise the made-up element (wait for it) gravitonium.
Yeah, I know. The boffins in this episode have their work cut out for them, but Fitz/Simmons manage to get through a layman’s explanation of the element without seeming too ridiculous. It helps that the show’s not above ribbing itself: after going into great semi-detail about gravitonium, Fitz adds, “Now, you can imagine what would happen to a big rig at 100km per hour…Or you could just remember, because we saw it already.”
We really start to see how this team might realistically work once Skye’s sent in as a spy (and the only team member who can walk around Quinn’s villa without causing an international incident) with Ward & Coulson acting as backup and the rest talking at a glowing comms table and eating popcorn back at the plane (sudden plot hole thought: where did they park the monstrosity if they can’t touch Maltese soil? And if they haven’t landed anywhere, what’s Melinda May doing in the control room and WHO’S FLYING THE PLANE?).
Coulson’s given his first truly redundant line in response to Fitz’s explanation of the dangers of touching the deadly deadly lasers they need to get past, “You’ll be toast”: “Dead toast.” This kind of flew in the face of Coulson’s serious but self aware characterisation for me, which is what (along with the smarts and emotional heft he brings) separates him from being just another unironic G-Man. Thankfully, this seems to be a blip and, asFilm Crit Hulk tweeted the other day, Gregg continues to be a rock in every scene. I mean, he wears a suit for a beach landing that Ward’s in special forces duds for. Come on: Clark Gregg may be the only man outside of perfume ads that can get away with wearing a suit on the beach.
Skye’s clearly the most human character on the show and really shows it here; perfectly aware of her own limitations but initially reluctant to work on improving them, her early time spent training with Ward is put to good use when she disarms Quinn of his gun and immediately admits she isn’t willing to use it. She instead utilises the confusion to make her escape and the scene serves as an interesting moral contrast to a choice Coulson makes at the episode’s climax.
Almost being caught again but swiftly rescued by Ward, some might view Skye as a weak character who needs protecting by stronger people, but the scene – and episode – is an effective reflection of the show’s ethos: that nobody gets by on their own and, by spending more time with each other, its characters want to better themselves to better look after one another.
And it looks like some need more looking after than others. Coulson’s trouble taking apart a firearm in a fight seems like a hint at the central mystery of his resurrection and – from all the talk of ”muscle memory” from Ward and Coulson himself – suggests that he may well be a clone or Life Model Decoy, i.e. something with either new muscles incapable of remembering something that never happened to them or simply no muscles at all.
But that’s enough theorizing for now. Though Dr. Hall is a character taken from Marvel’s rich back catalogue of eccentric scientists-turned-villains, his origin story is ripped straight from the script of Spider-Man 2, in which Otto Octavius also created a spherical tool for progress that also (in)conveniently became a doomsday device with the slightest adjustment. While Alfred Molina had more opportunity to create a nuanced, believable character than Hall, guest star Ian Hart still manages to keep Franklin multi-dimensional and convince us that his willingness to kill hundreds of people comes from a place of utilitarianism – a belief that he’s doing this for the good of humankind – which, as we all know, is what makes a good villain in the first place, and it’s made abundantly clear that this is going to be far from the last we’ll see of Gravi–er, Franklin Hall. I found this element a nice touch – a slow-burn approach to origin stories that simply couldn’t happen on the big screen and would have been welcome in the occasionally rushed-feeling pilot.
It’s a very superhero movie ending, one that plays it slightly different to Doc Ock’s turn to sanity and redemptive sacrifice, and for the better; Hall was full of anger (mostly at himself) and complicated feelings, not least of which would be his failure to destroy his creation. Octavius was allowed to die at peace because it was the end of the movie, but this is just the beginning of Franklin Hall’s journey, and any good supervillain worth his salt needs a good back-up supply of angst to do them justice.
The actual physical solution to the problem is a bit of a headscratcher – there’s much made of returning a “catalyst” to the gravitonium machine, but Coulson takes an Occam’s Razor approach and throws Hall into its core, succeeding for plot reasons I’m still uncertain of after a second viewing. But it does the job, and if you don’t ask too many questions and you care more about emotional storytelling than logic we still come out ahead.
There’s a palpable catharsis to the resolution of Ward and Skye’s arc for the episode, with each giving the other something to work toward and a nice embellishing of background for both. The rest of the cast might have taken a back seat and that’s still a problem, but, again paraphrasing FCH, the show doesn’t quite know what it’s good at yet, so I’m confident the problems will get ironed out as we go on. Right now, for me, “The Asset” is easily the meatiest, best episode so far.