Half of last night’s Agents of SHIELD was its best episode yet

If you turned off Agents of SHIELD halfway through “F.Z.Z.T.”, I don’t blame you. The first half was spent watching this supposedly super-important team investigate the deaths of three volunteer firefighters (a good thing to do, but not exactly the highest stakes). But if you did turn it off, you missed the good part of SHIELD’s best episode yet.

(Editor’s Note: Sorry, Charlie Jane’s busy doing something awesome, so you have me running the Agents of SHIELD recaps for the next few weeks. Just so you know where I’m coming from: I love the Marvel movies, especially Avengers; I love Agent Coulson and Clark Gregg semi-carnally; and I really want to love Agents of SHIELD if it would just be truly good instead of merely okay.)

As I said, this episode begins with our super-funded elite SHIELD team investigates the mysterious death of a volunteer firefighter, whose corpse is found with a hole in its head and floating about six feet off the ground. Another freak electromagnetic pulse kills another volunteer firefighter te same way in his barn — he’s floating at least 10 feet — which allows Skye to make the volunteer firefighter connection. Coulson leads the team to a nearby firehouse, where he learns the firefighters were first responders at the Battle of New York (as seen in the Avengers) and kept a Chitauri helmet as trophy. Our two victims had cleaned the helmet recently, along with a third; as Simmons discovers the problem actually an alien virus transferred by the friction of the cleaning, Coulson gives a pep talk about dying and heaven to the last firefighter in his final moments.

This low stakes mystery takes up the first 30 minutes of the episode, but it feels a lot longer. But that’s when things get good. As the team transers the helmet to the Sandbox (where Graviton and his Ball o’ Gravity from an earlier episode are being kept) Coulson notices Simmons has contracted the virus as well. He quarantines her, and then the drama begins.

Half of last night’s Agents of SHIELD was its best episode yet

For starters, Simmons has two hours, but they’re above the Atlantic ocean and can’t land anywhere for three hours. Plus, when the firefighters died, the emitted a pulse that would definitely take out their plane. So Fitz and Simmons get busy and try to find an antiserum to the virus; Fitz handles the delivery device, Simmons uses her biochemistry to try and use the firefighters’ antibodies to synthesize a cure. There’s a montage or two, but generally this whole thing is very effective — Simmons hides her terror and anxiety by focusing on the research, Fitz deepens our understanding of their relationship by helping, arguing and joking with his partner. Everyone else is equally distressed, but in their unique ways: Melinda May is stoic as usually but clearly still bothered; Skye is understandably freaked at the idea of losing her first teammate; and even Ward is mad because he’s facing an enemy he can’t hit. Of all the dramatic moments the show has tried to put on so far, this is definitely the most interesting and the most effective.

The science continues, as Fitz and Simmons try their antidote ideas by more or less tasering rats; the first two die shortly, their bodies floating six inches about their cage. Simmons is about to give up until she and Fitz remember the Chitauri who wore the helmet obviously had the virus and was fine, so Fitz grabs the helment out of its secure location, and just brings it right into quarantine with the infected Simmons. It’s hardly a surprise, but Elizabeth Henstridge and Iain De Caestecker play the moment so well it still works. Meanwhile, Agent Blake — the SHIELD agent played by Titus Welliver, last seen in the “Item 47” short — reminds Coulson that protocol demands he dump all contaminated material before it can destroy the plane; Coulson is having none of it.

Fitz-Simmons create a third antidote using the Chitauri’s antibodies (because why on Earth would injecting oneself with alien cells be a problem, right?), and tase the third rat. It’s fine for a moment, but then floats like the others. Simmons asks to speak to Fitz alone, and then clocks him on his head with a fire extinguisher. When Fitz wakes up, he notices two things: 1) the third rat is suddenly well again, and 2) Simmons throwing herself out the plane’s cargo door.

Seriously, Simmons tosses herself out of the plane, Captain America-style (no parachute). And then Ward, alerted the second the cargo door started opening, has a genuinely badass moment. He runs through the plane, grabs a parachute and the antiserum-taser from the waiting Fitz, and jumps out of the plane too. Other than a few oddly horrible greenscreen shots, a lot of the scene is performed by stunt people, and the low-key, low-budget reasoning behind the first episode becomes apparent. The result is genuinely thrilling, moreso because these two people have no superpowers whatsoever. Of course, Ward catches up with Simmons, administers the antidote, pulls the chutes, and the next scene is of Coulson bitching out Simmons because only he gets to decide when his people get to sacrifice themselves to save the rest of the team.

All that’s left is a bunch of the overlong, schmaltzy scenes that SHIELD seems determined to use in the last 10 minutes of every episode; it’s a little better because this time they thought an agent was dead as opposed to, I don’t know, learning about friendship or some shit, but still, we don’t need to see everyone hug Simmons for 45 seconds each while violins play in the background. Of course, after this experience, Ward softens towards Skye a little, Fitz has a weird moment when he realizes Simmons may be in love with him, and Coulson — oh, Coulson. Coulson has been feeling funky, so he has a physical, and gives a weird speech about feeling like he died in Avengers for much longer than 8 seconds to the third fireman. In the end, Coulson opens up to Agent May, who forces him to reveal the scar on his chest, where Loki pierced it with his spear. May tells Coulson he feels different because he is different now, as anyone who was that close to death would be.

I’m not sure “F.Z.Z.T.” is a sign of greater things to come — for the first half of the episode, I was muttering “Worst. Episode. Ever” in my best Comic Book Guy voice — I find the fact that the show can be this dramatic at all gives me hope that the show can evolve into something greater. We need Ward to somehow become likable, we need better Whedon-esque dialogue (or just stop trying to be cute all together), we need adventures that actually feel like adventures as opposed to PG versions of X-Files episodes, and it needs to stop turning into an After School Special at the end. But this episode also revealed the show has the potential to be great. “F.Z.Z.T.” may not be a sign of greater things to come, but I certainly hope it is.

Half of last night’s Agents of SHIELD was its best episode yet

Assorted Musings:

• Man, Ward was such an asshole in this episode. Giving Skye shit, bitching about the weight of the awesome gun Fitz made, just generally being completely unlikable. He had a good moment when he was upset about Simmons, but his comments — about just wanting an enemy he can punch — reveal that all he’s good for is being straight-laced muscle. And Melinda May is already filling that role far more effectively.

• It should surprise no one that Fitz and Simmons have impressions of Ward that are, in fact, hilarious. It should surprise no one that Ward’s deprecating impression of himself still sucks.

• I didn’t mention that Fitz was trying to hit on Skye, albeit according to the laws of TV Nerd Romance Inefficiency. Mainly because it amounted to nothing, even when it appears that Simmons declared her love for Fitz even more obliquely when they were in quarantine. I’m sensing some unrequited love in the near future.

• Science annoyance: Simmons being unable to tell that the holes in the fireman’s heads were made internally, not externally. I feel like she should have figured that out immediately upon seeing them, if not sooner.

• POSSIBLE SPOILERS FROM THIS POINT ON!

• I want to talk more about Agent Coulson, but I want to make sure we’re all on the same page. The debate is whether Coulson died in Avengers and was resuscitated, as he’s clearly been told in Agents of SHIELD; or if he’s a Life Model Decoy, androids that look and act just like the people they replace; or some third, mysterious explanation. The reason the Life Model Decoy theory has a lot of credibility with fans is that SHIELD (especially Nick Fury) uses LMDs in the comics a lot; Peggy Carter retrieved the Zodiac in the Marvel short “Agent Carter,” a device in the Marvel comics used to make androids; and last but not least, that wound in Avengers looked awfully fatal.

• COULSON-WATCH: As long as I’m doing these recaps, I’ll be trying to find some kind of clues to figuring out what Coulson’s deal is. The whole subplot about Coulson feeling “different” points to the LMD theory; his comments to the fireman about dying for longer than 8 seconds implies that the original Coulson died and this new one has somehow taken his place without realizing it. But then there’s the business with the scar from Loki’s killing blow; I had always assumed a LMD would not have any scars at all, being based on a person’s original, uninjured DNA — I also thought this might explain why Coulson is in perfect health. Of course, SHIELD could easily have added a scar, but thematically, I think it would have made more sense not to… if he’s an LMD, that is. Any thoughts or theories in the comments, please mark them with a SPOILER WARNING! Thanks!