23rd Oct2013

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Recap: ‘Eye-Spy’

by Mark Allen

Written by Jeffrey Bell | Directed by Roxann Dawson | Created by Joss Whedon, Jed Whedon & Maurissa Tancharoen

Agents

This is the stuff I’ve been waiting for: the batshit-crazy superspy technology and straight-laced insanity that was promised at the end of the pilot with Lola, Coulson’s flying car, taking off into the camera and causing mass fanboy hysteria/incredulous guffaws (depends on who you ask) the world over. Sure, we had a radioactive explodeybox in ’0-8-4′ and gravity-warping shenanigans in ‘The Asset’, but neither of those were implemented in particularly exciting ways or had the op-art, Jim Steranko escapism feel of exploding eyeballs and cool-as-fuck eye patches.

In the cold open 50 masked men with handcuff briefcases making their way through the centre of Stockholm, only to have three of their number relieved of their luggage – and the hands holding them – by a mysterious, possibly psychic assassin that Coulson reveals he was responsible for training. Gasp!

The plot breaks fairly neatly into two halves after this point: the first sees the team tracking said assassin, Akela, down to sunny Belarus (which Fitz/Simmons get into a thoroughly unbelievable nerd-off about, just in case you forgot they like science) where they hack into her implanted eye-camera (cue a thousand groans at the episode title’s true meaning) and discover she’s getting orders from an unknown source; in the second half, after learning that Akela’s implant has a kill switch that will detonate if she tries to escape or deviate from her masters’ plan, the team switch her feed to a pair of glasses worn by Ward so that he can carry out her next mission while Coulson interrogates her about her handlers and Fitz/Simmons come up with a way to remove the device from her skull without resulting in grey matter on the laboratory ceiling.

The series is still finding its feet, but the crazy stuff in ‘Eye-Spy’ more than makes up for a few teething problems, from Fitz & Simmons performing ludicrous eye surgery on a conscious (but fearless) Akela to the horrifying idea of having your every waking moment monitored and controlled through your own body, not to mention a neat twist on the ‘rogue agent’ trope.

The mission Ward embarks on in Akela’s stead feels ripped straight from the N64 Goldeneye game, albeit without hip watch lasers or exploding barrels. Indeed, Ward – being the most conventional of all the leads – could easily be a gamer surrogate, being controlled by Skye in cement-grey environments and given arbitrary objectives (“SEDUCE HIM” was really something of a wasted joke). As a result nothing in the sequence feels quite like it matters and the peril toward the end doesn’t sink in because we’re less interested in Ward meeting his objectives than Akela’s face not exploding.

…that said, I would kind of like to know what those funky symbols that even S.H.I.E.L.D. couldn’t translate were all about.

The videogame parallels surface again any time we see things from Akela’s perspective, especially when she uses her x-ray vision, although when she raises her gun during her fight with Agent May there’s a whiff of uncanny valley about the angle of her arm. Though it could just be me and all the CoD fans out there who feel this way.

Melinda May doesn’t do a single interesting thing all episode, instead being relegated to speaking aloud plot points (“It’s her eye. The camera’s her eye”) and watching a computer track down Akela’s handler. She  barely even leaves the plane except for . It’s troubling for an ensemble drama when it can’t find anything for a character to do as it suggests not a great deal of thought has gone into their being around. Hell, Xander always had something to do on Buffy and he was consistently the least capable character (an argument could be made for Dawn, but that’s really forum fodder) – something’s definitely rotten in Denmark when the most capable member of her team is benched so often, especially after signing back on for ass-kicking duty in the last episode.

Coulson’s relationships with his mentees, both former (Akela, who he feels he failed) and current (Skye, who he’s trying not to), form the emotional backbone of the episode which works pretty effectively in fleshing out A.C.’s backstory, deepening his connection with Skye and adding more conspiratorial fuel to the fire of his mysterious resurrection when Akela asks some disconcerting questions about what happened to him.

[The end of the episode - plotwise - also throws up a nice red herring in the form of the Englishman and offers a stark counterpoint to Coulson's belief that, because he himself was saved, everyone can be.]

The scenes with Skye in the back seat of the team’s car (no, not like that – she just misses her van) are especially effective as they give the two most compelling and complex leads more screen time together and they make inventive use of the deceptively small set, something that was done exquisitely on Firefly.

The central conceit of the show makes it seem easy to compare the Agents to the crew of Serenity, but the crucial difference is that Firefly was about a makeshift family trying to hold itself (and its ship) together, whereas AoS is about someone trying to make a family out of spare parts – and while Coulson is certainly a father figure to much of the cast, Skye’s assertion that May is their mother feels incredibly forced when the fact that she spends all her time in the cockpit is made a point of. That’s not a perfect analogy, but it establishes the point that it doesn’t feel like there’s as much connective tissue between Coulson’s team as Mal’s crew just yet, and sometimes those gaps feel pretty damn wide.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.Dairs Tuesdays on ABC in the U.S. and Fridays on Channel 4 in the U.K.

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