12th Nov2013

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Recap: ‘F.Z.Z.T.’

by Mark Allen

Written by Paul Zbyszewski | Directed by Vincent Misiano | Created by Joss Whedon, Jed Whedon & Maurissa Tancharoen

Agents

After five decidedly hit-and-miss episodes and a week off the air, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has come back with “F.Z.Z.T.”, possibly the strongest and definitely the most emotionally engaging entry to the series so far, though reminders of the limitations of bringing the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the small screen are still never far away , as evidenced in this week’s (relatively few) action sequences.

The central mystery of the episode has Coulson and his team trying to puzzle out how a camp leader and firefighter ended up dead and floating six feet off the ground.

The detective work from the agents is fairly rote and it’s quickly discovered that the culprit is not a murderer targeting members of a fireman team who were in New York during the Chitauri invasion in Avengers but a virus contracted by the men when they cleaned a recovered alien helmet (though that doesn’t stop us being fed a brief, all but negligible red herring about a serial killer). But that’s not a big deal as the real story of “F.Z.Z.T.” lies in Fitz/Simmons’ relationship and Coulson’s difficulty with his body post-Avengers; both welcome changes from the ongoing angst-ridden saga of Skye and constant non-teases of Melinda May’s past, though both crop up fleetingly.

The virus in question is actually pretty novel: making itself known to the victim through a buzzing only they can hear, they begin involuntarily sweating and making objects around them float before giving off a wide electromagnetic pulse that also inconveniently kills them. It’s almost a cliche in genre and action-based television – giving the ensemble an enemy that they can neither hit (as Ward laments later on) or defuse to solve the problem – but it’s for pretty good reason as those episodes tend to focus on characterisation and emotion rather than the more fleeting kick-punching of other installments.

About halfway through the episode Simmons shows symptoms of having the virus (contracted when she received a static shock from the first body) and the firemen are pretty swiftly forgotten, although Coulson’s palpable frustration at not having been able to save the last victim goes a long way towards reminding us that Agents really is trying to be a show about the people on the ground of the Marvel U, even if it does spend most of its time 30,000 feet above sea level.

This is where the episode kicks in, and there’s really not that much to say about it other than that Elizabeth Henstridge (Simmons) really does a tremendous job of stepping up to a central role after having been confined to technobabble and awkward nerdery for the bulk of the series so far. She and Fitz (Ian de Caestecker) are the emotional core of “F.Z.Z.T.”, and maybe even the whole show, because – as we learn through their variously panicked and heated discussions in and around Simmons’ quarantine area/lab – they’re the least qualified people to be on this team, just like us. Sure, they have specialist knowledge and are invaluable assets to Coulson and the rest, but they didn’t pass the field exams and are pretty sure that, although the experiences they’re having are once in a lifetime opportunities, that’s because people usually die from them and they’re ill-equipped to deal with that very concept, let alone the reality. Anyone who’s ever felt out of their depth can relate to that, and Fitz/Simmons’ constant reality checks ground us much more than Skye’s flippant attitude and one-liners.

If anything, this is probably the most ‘Joss Whedon’ episode of S.H.I.E.L.D. so far, possibly more by legacy than active involvement on his part. It’s been said many times by Buffy the Vampire Slayer writers that they discovered early on the best way to worry viewers or grab their attention was to put Willow in danger – she wasn’t a fighter, she was a nerd, and thus more inherently vulnerable, like many of that show’s viewers felt as a teenager. The parallels between Alyson Hannigan’s character (at least in the first few seasons) and Simmons are pretty obvious: both are tech-savvy, bright and enthusiastic but not on their social A-game. Judging by how big a following Buffy (and, in particular, Willow) developed, I’m taking this as a positive sign for S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s future.

But there’s another Whedon show – an exact episode, even – that’s had an even clearer influence on this episode: “A Hole in the World” from Angel‘s fifth season, in which Fred (that series’ heart and resident nerd – see a pattern emerging?) is exposed to an ancient disease that eventually hollows her out and replaces her with a god-like being, with no semblance of Fred present other than her appearance.

Clearly there’s a difference in context between the two episodes (“A Hole in the World” takes place seven episodes before the end of the series, while “F.Z.Z.T.” is too new an entry to have the same emotional heft or backstory), but the similarities are striking, especially in the other characters’ reactions to Simmons’ plight Most are upset and powerless to help, especially the group’s leader (Coulson/Angel), but the other nerd in the group with the strongest personal connection to the infected (Fitz/Wesley) does everything in his power to help, even when the person he’s helping has already resigned herself to her fate.

The crucial difference, however, is how it all ends.

Like Fred, Simmons gives up on finding a cure after her last lab rat is left floating in its cage, knocks out Fitz with a fire extinguisher (somewhat brutally for a woman of science, I thought) and throws herself from the plane’s hangar so that she doesn’t take everyone else with her when she blows. If only she’d waited for ten more seconds; then she would have seen that the rat was just knocked unconscious & the anti-serum worked.

Fitz makes a grand gesture in attempting to follow Simmons and save her life in mid-air, but the more capable (and likely pretty bored) Ward snatches the parachute away from him and does the honours pretty dependably in a slightly iffy – if brief – green-screen freefalling sequence.

So Simmons lives, much to the surprise of cynical television critics who expect characters in Whedon’s shows to be picked off fairly rapidly, and it really couldn’t have ended any other way; sure, there’s shock value to be had in killing off a character early in a series’ run (Revolution), but it rarely ever pays off because we hadn’t been given enough reason to care about them in the first place (Revolution).

Granted, I already care about Simmons enough that her death would matter to me, but we’ll let that slide on account of decent character work.

After the main events, we’re given little hints at where Agents might be heading next – Coulson stands up for himself and his team in front of Item 47‘s Agent Blake (Titus Welliver), much to the latter’s surprise, which suggests that they might be facing off against the head office at some point…which is another Whedon trope (Angel S5, Dollhouse). Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

I don’t need to detail the show’s issues – which are still present here, if muted – but after this latest episode I’m pretty confident that if I stick around and find out what direction we’re headed in, I’m going to enjoy the ride more than anything else.

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