Last week I said betrayal is a fact of life in the kind of spy world Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is crafting. And I stand by that. But it makes trust and loyalty into treasured commodities. And that’s what makes losing them hit so hard; when it’s your job to not trust anyone, being betrayed by the people you do trust doesn’t just hurt, it makes you start to doubt all your other decisions.
Skye winds up on both ends of betrayal in the latest episode of Agents, and it hurts coming and going. When the mysterious Project: Centipede sets its sights on a Chinese street-performing pyrokineticist (“human flamethrower” for those of you uninitiated in ridiculous comic book science), they have Skye’s former paramour and hacktivist mentor, Miles, to thank for the insider information stolen from S.H.I.E.L.D.’s database. Though Skye is technically innocent in the crime, she aids and abets Miles all the way to his bed for some illicit nookie, only to be caught post-coitus and red-handed by May.
I’ve had my doubts about Chloe Bennet as our quasi-protagonist, but this episode made me break out the condiments, because I think I’m going to have to eat those words. A lot of credit goes to the writing team in accelerating the revelation of Skye’s impending “betrayal,” which on another show could easily have been dragged out until Sweeps. Instead, Coulson forces her to come clean, and it jumps her character forward leaps and bounds: she’s chasing her past, the only link to which she’s found being an old form from her orphanage that’s been redacted by S.H.I.E.L.D. But Bennet performs admirably, bouncing between passion and heartache, outrage and betrayal, as her illusions about Rising Tide’s altruism is shattered when she finds out Miles sold S.H.I.E.L.D. secrets for a cool million. She wants to stay on the Bus, but Bennet’s quiet desperation at being chewed out by Coulson lets us know that she’s not just after information anymore; in spilling her guts, she places a new, deeper trust with her team even as she loses their trust.
And that Coulson lecture was a doozy! Slowly but surely Clark Gregg is getting the chance to fill in the gaps of the mystery that is Phil Coulson. He knows the ins and outs of superhuman containment, sure, but we’ve seen that before. More interesting is how he builds relationships inside his own eclectic team. When he goes to bat for Skye, it means something to him, and only her newfound honesty saves her from being booted off the Bus. Even still, she’s been neutered, the same as her (ex)boyfriend: Miles and Skye are given ill-defined technobabble bracelets that will, among other things, prohibit them from operating complex electronics. Miles is left in Hong Kong to fend for himself, but he may be the lucky one. He doesn’t have to deal with the stony, disappointed looks of a bunch of betrayed secret agents.
On the darker side of things, we see much deeper into one of Agents’ running plot threads, the mysterious Project: Centipede from the pilot. Not satisfied with super-strength, the project is looking to branch out its superpowers and, more importantly, improve on an existing formula. Earlier the mention of Extremis felt like a simple callout to tie the show to its larger cinematic universe, but here we see the fiery macguffin from Iron Man 3 become a major plot development. I’m glad to see the writers using movie fodder as more than just fun references for fans to spot, and I’m excited to see where the Project’s super-soldier efforts take them. Judging by the titular Lady’s conversation with her equally-mysterious prison contact at the end of the episode, the Project is in the business of selling “gifteds.” It’s a lucrative and insanely dangerous business, as Scorch demonstrates when he murders the scientist who stole his platelets to stabilize their Extremis. They’ll need to start turning a profit before they lose too many other test subjects.
Scorch, despite possessing a name that falls flat with everyone he pitches it to, had a great story arc here. Nobody’s hungrier for the spotlight than creative types—magicians, performers, TV/movie internet critics—and when Chan Ho Yin talks about his gift being stifled, Louis Ozawa Changchien lays a deep sense of longing beneath his lines. When Project: Centipede twists his hunger for fame to secure his cooperation, it doesn’t feel like a stupid decision on his behalf, like the decisions of so many victims of mad scientists have before him. Instead, we see a man who can actually do something amazing and just wants the world to know him for it. Betrayal takes its toll on him as well, forcing Coulson to make another hard choice, forcibly detonating him with an overdose of Extremis rather than let him continue rampaging.
With this return to the pilot’s plot, Agents is beginning to feel like the serialized dynamo I hope it becomes. Its characterization is coming along more slowly than the obvious Whedon comparison, Firefly, but it’s unfair to compare the two shows, which have different aims entirely. Agents should take its time to develop itself. After seeing this episode, I’m willing to wait.
- Never trust a beautiful foreigner who agrees to go home with you to your crappy apartment. It may not always be a trick, but it is always a bad idea.
- Skye sank Ward’s battleship. Truly her treachery knows no bounds!
- “I come as a friend.” “English isn’t my first language, but that word means something different than you think!”
- Magic phones: for all your vehicular escape needs.
- How long was May waiting behind that door? Did she stand there the whole time Miles and Skye were banging?
- “So are you guys just gonna destroy all my stuff?” “Yes.” Classic May.
- Scorch’s fire effects are excellent. I love the lighting on his face as he cradles the flames.
- “Runs a mob” on Minecraft? No, Agents. Computer game reference fail. Try again.
- They’re removing his blood platelets? Doesn’t he need those to live? Like, if they remove enough to de-fireproof him, would his blood still be able to carry oxygen?
- The lockpick bomb makes its first return since Iron Man! Coulson really is a sentimentalist.
- Agent Kwan, no! You were the forgettable background agent we deserved, but not the one we needed.
- “His file say anything about him being homicidal?” “Just said he was kind of a tool.”
- “Oh, crap, They gave him a name.” Coulson’s seen this before.
- For a show on a network owned by Disney, the doctor’s fiery death is pretty goddamn gruesome.
- Extremis: the cause of, and solution to, all of Marvel’s fire-based villains. At least thus far.
- “You’ve changed. I mean, you’re not who you used to be.” That’s what changed means, idiot.
- “Make it a double.” “Is there any other kind?”