Last night's episode of Agents of SHIELD was pretty solidly entertaining — and all of the members of Coulson's gang of misfits were both likable and good at their jobs. Unfortunately, their hyper-competence comes at the expense of the rest of their organization, which comes out looking kind of weak.
This isn't really a criticism of Agents of SHIELD, the TV show, mind you — huge faceless organizations on television often tend to be kind of bad at their jobs. But still, it was notable how much of last night's episode depended on everyone who wasn't one of our core heroes letting the ball drop.
In the episode's "A" plot, a pair of students at SHIELD's science academy basically build a WMD under SHIELD's nose. They then deploy miniature versions of that WMD on campus, pretending to target themselves, so that agents Fitz and Simmons will be brought to the Academy to help investigate (because it's partly based on Fitz's and Simmons' technology.) This is because they're still having trouble with the superbattery that powers the WMD, and they hope Fitz will glance at it and come up with a solution, which he does.
Nobody at SHIELD's academy thinks to try and trace where the rare and expensive parts for these WMDs (even the miniature versions) came from — and when our team does that, it takes them five seconds to figure out that the source is Ian Quinn, the evil billionaire who was experimenting with Gravitonium several episodes ago.
In the end, one of the two kids is killed, while the more troubled of the two, the sad loner Donnie Gill (played by Dylan Minnette) gets ice-based superpowers and is apparently becoming the supervillain Blizzard.
Especially since we're told over and over that the Academy is full of cameras and rules, and everybody is watched all the time — which is why the students need the semi-secret Boiler Room as a place to blow off steam without being watched all the time — it seems a bit bizarre that these two kids built a weapon that can create superstorms, and nobody noticed. But on the other hand, I like the idea of SHIELD's science academy as a place where people are constantly building insane shit in their dorms, and nobody bats an eye. I'm honestly more bothered by the fact that nobody tries to trace the materials after the mini-WMDs are used (apparently) to attack two students.
The thing is, the lack of basic competence on the part of anyone who's not a regular passenger on the plane is kind of clever — because it allows our core teammembers to shine by contrast. They ask the questions that nobody else thinks to ask, and we applaud them for it. Plus we get to see Fitz being a mentor to the troubled Donnie, Ward being charming and devious as he roots out the conspiracy, and Skye impersonating a computer student. Everybody gets cool stuff to do, and it's nice to see the team working as a team.
Meanwhile, in the episode's "B" plot, we also find out the secret backstory of Skye. Melinda May already knew that the agent who dropped Skye off at the orphanage, Linda Avery, was killed soon after. But now she and Coulson track down Avery's partner, Agent Lumley, who's been in hiding ever since Avery was killed. (And May is partly hoping this fact-finding mission will get Coulson's mind off the revelation that SHIELD did a ton of weird-science operations to bring him back from the dead.)
So they catch Lumley, and he delivers the nugget of exposition you can see above: he was part of a five-person support team for an operation to recover an 0-8-4 (an object of unknown origin) from Hunan Province in China. An entire village had already died to protect the 0-8-4, and then so did the two agents sent to recover her — because the 0-8-4 was a baby.
And here's the part I don't quite get: there's a baby that has unknown superpowers. As in, Lumley doesn't know what they were, and apparently neither did Avery. Dozens of people have already died because someone wants this baby, including seven or eight SHIELD agents. So they put the baby into the foster care system, with a nearly invisible protocol designed to keep the child moved around every few months.
What if this baby's superpower is that she spits out toxic gases every few months and kills everybody for a few miles around? What if she occasionally turns into a giant superbaby and stomps cities? We don't know, and neither did the agents who let her go. Also, the fact that they don't trust their own organization to keep this child safe, once they've got her back stateside, is kind of telling.
You begin to see why Coulson doesn't think SHIELD is the safest place for Lumley right now.
In any case, though, this was a pretty fun episode, in which everybody on the team got a chance to shine and the characters were actually cute as opposed to having forced cuteness. The cast is continuing to gel, which is a very good thing, and thecharacters are also being written in a less one-dimensional way — this time around, May gets to be talkative and caring, Ward gets to be concerned about the loner kid, Fitz gets to be charming, and Coulson gets to be kind of depressed. All of the main characters are opening out a bit.
And to the extent that this episode had a point, it was about what SHIELD means to these people — visiting the Academy lets us see where Fitz and Simmons come from, and how this organization formed them into the people they are. We see the wall commemorating the dead SHIELD agents, including Bucky Barnes. We hear vague stories about SHIELD fighting Hydra.
And when Skye hears the truth about her origins, she turns it into a story about how SHIELD sacrificed to protect her, given that a bunch of SHIELD agents died and this one guy gave up his life. And she feels more as though SHIELD is her real family. Which, okay.
So all in all, this show is coming along, and becoming steadily more watchable. I just hope at some point, we can see both the core team and the larger SHIELD organization being good at their jobs.
Oh, and there's a promo for the next episode, in which Stan Lee guest stars and apparently there's a series-changing event that seemingly involves someone dying: