Marvel's Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode 2 review: 0-8-4
James sees a marked improvement between this week's S.H.I.E.L.D. and the pilot. Here's his review of 0-8-4...
This review contains spoilers.
With the introductions out of the way, episode two of Agents of SHIELD (or to give it its full name, Marvel's A.G.E.N.T.S of S.H.I.E.L.D.) had a chance to show us what it can really do with forty minutes. And despite the lack of Whedon's name on the writing team, it was a decidedly more confident outing all around. The characters were still quipping, the plot was undercutting its tropes and then undercutting the undercuts, but this time the story had a lot more time to breathe in general.
The titular 0-8-4 refers to an old Hydra weapon, stumbled upon by Peruvian farmers and the subject of much attention by both SHIELD and the Peruvian authorities, including Reyes, a woman from Coulson's past. But the story itself wasn't about that so much as it was about Skye's place in the team. Everyone else has a neatly defined role, while she – a computer hacker – seems to be of little value particularly in a set of jungle ruins, when there aren't computers to be hacked.
Suffice to say she works it out over the course of the episode, although not in the way you might expect. Thankfully, the show's not so facile as to suggest that being useful once isn't enough to convince her that she's useful in general. Skye was, after all, working for the enemies of SHIELD not so long ago, and doubts remain around her loyalties as well as the team's general cohesion and her place in it.
One thing this episode did highlight, though, is that SHIELD is going to be unapologetically episodic television. In a world where the best shows often treat broadcast as a stepping stone to a box set, SHIELD is an attempt to do weekly event television. This is strongly evidenced by the decision to give us the Nick Fury cameo we had been denied by the pilot just before the credits rolled.
Whether this was simply a late opportunity or a deliberate attempt to extend the series' launch buzz isn't clear, but it was far and away the best scene in the episode and the first hint that this series is at least trying to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Marvel's movie canon. Unfortunately, having Clark Gregg and Samuel L. Jackson bounce jokes off one another does serve to highlight the main hurdle the series has yet to clear, and that's the utter lack of chemistry between the cast members.
They're not completely duff, it's fair to say. As Skye, Chloe Bennett has a similar cool, approachable charm to Clark Gregg, and Ming-Na Wen has slipped effortlessly into her role as a terse, headstrong and yet somewhat reluctant field agent Melinda May. The problem is that the other three - Ward, Fitz and Simmons - actively suck the energy out of their scenes. They can improve. They probably will. But at the moment, the more we see of them, the less we want to see.
The problems of the pilot weren't completely dispelled, either. There's still a tendency to over-reference the movies without expanding on their general mythology, and while it was nice to see a character from Coulson's past it's impossible to shake the disappointment that with thousands of Marvel characters to choose from, they'd rather create a new one – or more worryingly, that they have no choice but to do so, because for a show built around its ability to provide easter eggs to fans, things will get old fast if they can't show any.
One thing that definitely helps the overall tone of the show, however, was various characters – Reyes in particular – criticising Coulson for drafting so many young and inexperienced agents onto the team. Intellectually, we know it's more to do with network demographics than anything, but having the characters address the situation head on helps us resolve the inherent logical conflicts of assembling a team of secret agents who don't know how to work together and have little-to-no experience. It was Coulson's deliberate choice, and everyone else in-universe thinks it's crazy too.
The episode's action was definitely better this time around as well, and it looks decidedly more cinematic with its locations. Less reliance on CGI helped the more outlandish moments work, and the final act made great use of the "bus" – the SHIELD mobile command centre/jumbo jet the team operates in. It's difficult to forgive the fact that they put the team in a room with a flying car and then DIDN'T let them use it (don't they know about Chekov's flying car?) but the resolution was strong enough without it.
So an improvement all around. Last week, SHIELD felt like a cheap TV show. This week it felt like an expensive TV show. It's still not firing on all cylinders, but if the upward trend remains this steep, who knows where its quality might end up? It can – and hopefully will – get better.
Read James' review of the previous episode, Pilot, here.
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