Last night's Agents of SHIELD focused on the newest member of the team. Skye is the Gwen Cooper to this show's Torchwood, having joined the organization in the very first episode, and last night's episode was all about whether she was SHIELD material. Sadly, the episode served to highlight some of this show's pitfalls.
There's nothing wrong, in theory, with the material that SHIELD tried to serve up last night. Skye, the supertough hacker, volunteers for a solo mission into the evil Ian Quinn's secret compound to rescue kidnapped scientist Franklin Hall. There are two big questions in that scenario: 1) Can Skye really be trusted to be loyal to SHIELD? 2) Is she ready for fieldwork, when she's not taking her training with Mr. Grant seriously?
(Sidenote: I've just decided to start calling Grant Ward "Mr. Grant" — because this show is so much better if I imagine Ed Asner giving Chloe Bennett boxing training and snarling at her about how he hates spunk.)
And in the end of the episode, the show offers us the same answer to both questions: Skye is loyal to SHIELD because they've proved that they care about her safety with all of Mr. Grant's scolding. And because Mr. Grant was so tough on her, she's able to disarm Ian Quinn when he pulls a gun on her, and make her escape.
The material is fine, it's just the execution that's lacking — and a lot of the problems have to do with the character of Skye, who (thus far) has been the main person we've seen changing and growing among this crew. So Skye, as a character, is doing almost all the heavy lifting on this show, and arguably the series is about her journey from outsider to agent. And at this point, her range is basically from "smirk" to "pout." I don't think that's actor Chloe Bennett's fault — I think that's how the character is being written.
(To be fair, other characters are changing as well. Coulson is also learning to be a team leader, and is probably a LMD given that his "muscle memory" is shot. Mr. Grant is learning to be more sensitive. And Melinda May announces out of the blue that she wants to be back on combat duty, the thing she adamantly didn't want in the two and a half previous episodes.)
It's kind of sad, but the character I liked the most in this episode was the truck driver in the opening moments, who turned out to be a SHIELD agent named Agent Mack. (Because he drives a truck?) He has a world-weary "underdog" feel to him, and just in his brief scenes you get a sense that it must suck to be the guy who drives the covert truck instead of flying around in the fancy jet. More of him, please.
So why doesn't this material work? A few reasons suggest themselves:
1) The show doesn't want to admit Quinn may be right
The crux of the episode really depends on us thinking that Skye might be about to defect to the side of Ian Quinn, the sexypants libertarian quadrillionaire who owns Malta. Quinn makes a strong case that governmental entities like SHIELD shouldn't be keeping super-awesome discoveries a secret, and the private sector could do a lot more with Chitauri technology.
The problem is, the show's writers clearly don't believe Quinn's point of view is valid — even though it's not that different from Skye's viewpoint in the first episode — and thus he very quickly seems to turn into standard Ranty McVillain. He also has a really weirdly scary hairpiece, which makes it hard to take anything he says seriously. And meanwhile, the episode's big plot twist (more on that in a minute) hinges on Franklin Hall believing Ian Quinn is too evil to be trusted.
2) The character development is very weak tea
Agents of SHIELD has the misfortune to be trying to flog a "Skye is emotionally scarred because she was an orphan" storyline in the same week that Sleepy Hollow and Once Upon a Time did similar stories — and both of those shows leaned on theirs way harder, with arguably better effect. In Sleepy Hollow, we actually see the horrible foster care where Jenny Mills was trapped. It's possible that Skye is making up the story about how she was living with a foster family, and called the foster mom "Mom" and then was sent away — but it almost doesn't matter, since it's the only piece of character development we get for her.
Meanwhile, Mr. Grant says his defining moment as a SHIELD agent was when he was a little kid and his big brother tried to beat up him and his little brother for taking a piece of birthday cake. (I need an animated GIF of Mary Tyler Moore saying, "Ohhhh, Mr. Grant.")
Oh, and this episode made a big point of stepping on one of the coolest bits from the pilot — the scene where Coulson gives Mr. Grant the truth serum instead of Skye, so she can interrogate him and find out that SHIELD is to be trusted, after all. Now Mr. Grant is claiming that SHIELD has no truth serum, and Coulson chooses to be quirky and cryptic instead of just offering to let Skye try the truth serum for herself.
3) I am losing a bit of respect for SHIELD as a secret organization
Both because their logo is being used in corporate power-point presentations, and because they seem kind of incompetent in this episode. In particular, their plan to get Franklin Hall out of Malta is kind of nuts, even with the over-reliance on someone who just joined the organization a week or two ago. The bit where Phil Coulson says that they have no option to abort the mission seems weird. Their plan was to go up to the deadly radiation fence and hope that Skye gets it lowered — and if that failed, they were just going to stand around with no hope of abort? Also, how were they going to get out again, if the deadly fence was put back up while they were in the compound?
The thing is, I do like Phil Coulson's "zen leadership" act, with his sunny disposition and his habit of dispensing nuggets of wisdom like, "Don't think like an operative, think like a human being," so that Skye can, in turn, learn to think like an operative. Coulson's efforts to wrangle his troubled team would be great television, if the troubled team didn't feel so much like a collection of clichés at this point.
And meanwhile, there's the big Franklin Hall reveal — it turns out he deliberately leaked his own secret transport route so that Quinn would come and find him, because he'd heard rumors that Quinn was building a giant reactor that uses a secret ultra-rare element with anti-gravity properties. Instead of notifying his superiors and encouraging them to take out Quinn's facility, Hall gets himself captured so he can work on the Graviton machine, and sabotage it, driving it into the center of the Earth.
That actually seems like a really good plan, even if it requires Hall to sacrifice himself. Because of SHIELD's meddling, however, Hall himself winds up being fused with the Graviton goop, and locked in a SHIELD vault — until he reemerges as a supervillain, probably in time for sweeps week.
All in all, an episode that works really well in theory but totally doesn't gel as an actual piece of television. On Joss Whedon's previous show, Firefly, we rooted for the crew of the Serenity, in part, because they were scrappy underdogs who had fought a big war and lost. The SHIELD crew, meanwhile, are flying around in a shiny jet and constantly reminding us that they helped win the Battle of New York.
Honestly, if this show has a "Coulson's team goes rogue and has to fight against SHIELD" storyline up its sleeve — and I'd be surprised if it didn't — then the sooner we get to that stuff, the better, really.
To be fair, though, when you compare the first few episodes of this show with the teething troubles that Whedon's Dollhouse had in its opening five or six episodes, it's really not that bad.