The two intersecting storylines in last night's Agents of SHIELD both have to do with selling out — a computer hacker sells out for money, while a magician throws everything away for power that he can't handle. In the end, it looks as though working for the comic-book version of the NSA is actually the noble choice.
"The Girl in the Flower Dress" was more or less a straight-up recapitulation of the Agents of SHIELD pilot episode, just one month later. Except that instead of Mike Peterson being an ordinary guy who gets experimented on by the Centipede people, it's a magician named Chan Ho-Yin, who already has some rudimentary pyrokinetic powers. Like Mike Peterson, Chan Ho-Yin is attracted by the idea of being a superhero, but winds up becoming something closer to a supervillain because he can't control his powers and he's working with evil science fuckers.
Meanwhile, in the pilot Skye is a hacker who's stealing SHIELD secrets, only to be brought inside SHIELD. This time around, it's Skye's boyfriend, who goes through much the same arc but proves to be unworthy of SHIELD's trust — because unlike Skye, Miles is a money-grubbing dirtbag who sold some SHIELD secrets to the Centipede folks for $1 million.
And in the end, Miles is basically just there to make Skye look good by comparison. (Basically, he's Adam from "Dalek"/"The Long Game.") And to help Skye realize how much she actually cares about her new SHIELDy friends.
So, here's the actual plot of "Girl in the Flower Dress": The same folks from the pilot are up to their same tricks again, and this time it's masterminded by Reina, the titular flower girl. She tracks down Chan, who makes the mistake of showing his fire powers in public, and convinces him that her people can make him way more powerful, so he can start calling himself Scorch and become a superhero. (English not being Chan's first language, he possibly doesn't notice that "Scorch" is clearly a supervillain name, not a superhero name.)
The SHIELD crew jets off to Austin, where they figure the information about Chan was stolen, and they find Miles, who's actually Skye's ex-boyfriend who taught her haxxoring and stuff. Miles and Skye boink, only to be caught by SHIELD at almost exactly the same point in the episode as Skye was caught by SHIELD in the pilot. Cue lots of hand-wringing and recriminations, but soon enough our guys are off to Hong Kong — because they've figured out where Chan is, and he's probably going to be dead as soon as his usefulness as a guinea pig is over.
And the episode moves the overall plot arc forward, a smidge. Not only do we meet Reina, who's the boss of the scientist from the pilot, but we also meet Reina's associate, a mysterious man who's in jail and whose help she needs to contact "the Clairvoyant." There are more hints that the team is perfecting the Extremis serum (from Iron Man III) so it'll be stable and allow them to create super-soldiers, and Chan's blood apparently contains fire-proof platelets that will help them do that.
And meanwhile, the bits of the episode where the team is feeling betrayed by Skye and Coulson is confronting the fact that he may have screwed up royally, has a few moments that ring true. Like the bit where Grant refuses to go to Skye's meeting with Coulson, because he's off the clock and not being her S.O. And the bit where Coulson talks to Melinda May about his massive blind spot, and Melinda says "When someone breaks into my house, I don't usually invite them to stay." You can sort of buy, here and there, that these people have started to care about Skye, despite the nagging lack of chemistry. And the more we see of Melinda May, the better this show gets.
The biggest problem with the episode comes from our two sell-outs, especially Chan Ho-Yin. His turn from charming, down-on-his-luck street magician to victim to rampaging psycho feels even more sudden than it did with Mike Peterson. Maybe that's just how the Extremis serum works — but this time around, it's portrayed as "Scorch" making the wrong choice, like he didn't have to inject himself with a ton of that serum and go haywire. In fact, Coulson, who goes way out of his way to offer a second chance to Mike Peterson, basically tells Scorch that he's already used up all his chances.
Also somewhat abrupt: the team's decision to start trusting Skye again, when they decide Coulson is in trouble and they need someone to hack into the building's systems and end the lockdown. (Given that Fitz and Simmons are narrating all of Skye's hacking, you can't help but wonder if they couldn't have done it themselves.)
But the theme of "selling out" still has a few interesting nuggets — especially within the show's basic framework, where SHIELD agents are the good guys because they keep people like Chan Ho-Yin under wraps.
We're supposed to think Miles is the bad guy, not because he stole SHIELD information (Skye did that too) but because he sold them for cash money. (Even though if he'd leaked the information about Chan and hadn't taken any money, the same thing would have happened.) Miles compromised his own ideals of "information wants to be free," but from SHIELD's standpoint his crimes are only slightly different than Skye's.
And meanwhile, why shouldn't Chan use his power to help people? Why shouldn't he find ways to amplify his flame powers and eventually become something akin to the Human Torch? Sure, casting his lot with the first group of evil scientists he meets isn't super smart of him, but the idea isn't a bad one.
The usual rubric of the Marvel Universe, following on from Spider-Man, is that great power leads to great responsibility. The first episode of Agents of SHIELD, of course, tweaked that into "with great power comes a whole bunch of weird crap that you are not prepared to deal with." And in fact, the SHIELD ethos seems to be that it's better not to deal with the weird crap at all — but rather, to keep it suppressed by any means necessary.
In any case, by the end of the episode we finally find out what Skye has been hiding — she joined up with SHIELD to find her mysterious parents, because the only clue she has about them is a redacted SHIELD document. And Coulson promises to help.
I guess the real question that this episode touches on but doesn't really open up is, who's the sellout: Miles or Skye? Sure, he sells information, but she's already been privy to a lot of secrets that she's chosen to keep under wraps. She hasn't liveblogged the Gravitonium thing or whatever. If you judge them both as crusaders against secrecy, why are his transgressions worse than hers?