And no, I'm not talking about the shocking event at the end of last night's episode. I'm talking about what transpires in this clip from earlier in "The Tracks." This feels like a decent step forward for a show that has struggled to make people connect with its characters. Spoilers ahead...
At last, we're getting more hints that Agent Coulson may not be the total paragon the show tried to sell us on, in its early installments. The whole theme of the first batch of SHIELD stories was that Coulson was the wise and noble patriarch of this ragtag crew of spies and ubergeeks, in spite of the lingering mystery of his resurrection.
So the hint that Coulson may have flaws, and that his leadership isn't perfect, is pretty welcome. In general, the more actual flaws these people start to display, the easier it is to care about what happens to them.
In the clip above, Grant Ward is raising the possibility that Coulson's fixation with tracking down the mysterious Clairvoyant has gotten "personal," since the Clairvoyant had Coulson captured and tortured for information about Coulson's resurrection.
And we also learn that since Coulson told Skye that when she was a baby, everybody thought she was a dangerous artifact and a whole village and some SHIELD agents died to protect her, Skye has been extra driven and obsessive about trying to prove herself and be helpful, and find Ian Quinn so they can track down the Clairvoyant.
So the episode neatly sets up the possibility that Coulson's vendetta, combined with his decision to share info with Skye, is responsible for her decision to go into a house full of thugs at the end of the episode and get herself shot a couple times.
If Skye does die, then it's on Coulson. Of course, the preview for the very next episode shows the gang tracking down a "cure" for her. Plus it would seem weird for us to have been told "OMG SKYE HAS SUPERPOWERS" in such a blatant way, only to have her randomly die of a gunshot. What do you want to bet her superpower has something to do with getting shot in the stomach and not dying?
But even assuming Skye lives, this is an interesting indictment of Coulson, whose genius is supposed to be motivating (or maybe manipulating) people. The notion that he's gotten either ruthless or sloppy is a fascinating one. The bit at the end of the episode where Grant says he doesn't blame himself, he blames Coulson, is a nice final gutpunch.
And meanwhile, the "Grant sleeping with Melinda" storyline continues to simmer nicely, with Grant finding out that Coulson knows about them. I loved the scene where Grant brings this up with Coulson, who first threatens to send Grant to the icy base where they're keeping the Abomination if his personal attachments get in the way, and then chides Grant for insisting it's just sex but being unable to say the word "sex." Nice stuff.
The rest of the episode is pretty much a by-the-numbers "operation gone wrong" story. They're trying to track down Ian Quinn, who is connected to the Clairvoyant, by following a shipment of super-tech from Cyber-Tech, and they get pwned by the Cyber-Tech goons. The whole thing is told in a quasi-Rashomon style where we see the op from the point of view of almost every person, which adds to the suspense but also feels a bit repetitive.
In the end, the McGuffin turns out to be a cyborg leg for Mike Peterson, who's now well on his way to becoming the cyborg Deathlok, under the direct control of the Clairvoyant. He's either brainwashed or just cowed by the threat of an exploding eyeball, so he follows orders without question — though he seems perturbed at the idea of killing Skye, which luckily isn't in his orders. Nobody except for Skye sees Mike at Ian Quinn's evil compound.
Oh, and since we're talking about things that are working on Agents of SHIELD — principally, characters like Coulson, Ward and May starting to develop real character flaws and complexity — here's one thing that still isn't quite working: the humor. A lot of the humor in last night's episode revolved around the team "going undercover" on the train, including stuff like Simmons coming up with an elaborate backstory about Coulson being her neglectful, sex-worker-visiting banker father. It wasn't terrible, but there weren't any bits that really stuck in my mind as especially funny.
That said, I'm way more invested in these characters than I was a while ago. I even hope Skye makes it in one piece.