Series showrunner Jeffrey Bell writes this episode solo (after co-writing episode two, “0-8-4”) and suddenly Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. begins living up to its potential, which makes me think that the problems with the first couple of post-pilot episodes may have been too many cooks in the kitchen. “Eye-Spy” still maintained that family-friendly feel, but Bell was able to work in some subtle elements that help to make it more fan-friendly as well.
Which basically means giving us an adventure that feels like part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe without pandering or overtly hammering that relationship home. Plus, as an added bonus, Bell keeps us guessing about just what is going on until the very end.
The basic story is this: somebody is pulling major heists across Europe and Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) thinks he knows who’s behind it. And he’s right. His old protégé Akela Amador (Pascale Armand), who went missing in action years earlier and was presumed dead, is their target, and while the rest of the team is determined to take her down, Coulson thinks she needs help and can be saved.
This is really the sort of thing that this show is built for; giving our heroes the opportunity to do some good while emphasizing compassion and hope over cynicism and clichés. It’s a difficult tightrope to walk without sliding either into camp silliness or cartoon-like simplicity, and Bell’s script does the trick. What makes it effective is that we get to contrast the reactions to Amador between Coulson and Agent May (Ming-Na Wen).
May plays the doubter this week, providing Wen with the opportunity to add a little more complexity to the character’s relationship with Coulson while also getting some action spotlight along the way. Whatever May went through that made her chain herself to a desk job, has also made her more cynical, so given the fact that Amador had been a troubled agent before she disappeared, May is only willing to give her the benefit of the doubt after she’s brought her in to stand trial, and even that is grudgingly after Amador’s attack on the team.
Coulson, however, has no doubt whatsoever that something is up. The dialogue ties this belief back to his own “death” experience and his desire to give Amador a second chance, but that’s only part of why it actually works. It really works because Coulson is being set up as an untarnished hero. He’s the ultimate good-guy. And I’ll be damned if Clark Gregg isn’t perfect for this role.
There’s a bit of an acknowledgment that in the past, before we ever met him in Iron Man, he was more of a hard-ass who maybe pushed Amador too hard to fit into the team. But his time involved with the superhero side of the Marvel Universe has tempered him, and since dying in the Battle of New York, he’s determined to be the best person, as well as agent, he can be.
And thanks to Gregg’s mad skilz, it works. He walks that cheesiness-tightrope like a boss every time he’s on-screen, elevating the weaker material and just plain shining when he’s got a strong script to work with.
What makes this episode even more effective, is that each character gets to play a part that doesn’t overwhelm any of the others. I was a little worried last week that Skye (Chloe Bennet) was going to really be our focus as the new set of eyes, but it looks like that won’t necessarily be the case. Coulson is the heart of the show and it looks like everyone will be given spotlight and the opportunity to develop based on their relation to him.
He’s their Strange Attractor, if you will.
But enough of my swooning over Clark Gregg.
This week’s script is the first since the pilot to effectively balance both the humor and the suspense while also managing to keep a few other narrative balls in the air. Not only do we have evidence of another mysterious organization (or possibly the same one behind the Caterpillar project), but they’ve got tech 10 years beyond anything S.H.I.E.L.D. has. They were using Amador to get access to a mysterious, possibly alien, equation also way beyond S.H.I.E.L.D.’s understanding, so we’re being introduced to an enemy that allows our heroes to be knocked back on their heels without appearing incompetent or dumbed-down.
At the same time, Bell’s script raises, almost in passing at first, concerns about the way surveillance has become commonplace in contemporary society. I don’t think it’s overreaching to say that this is a very serious commentary being made when paired up with Amador’s reality of being watched 24/7 and only finding comfort in sacrificing her eye and being locked in a cell. There’s something chilling about a person longing for imprisonment and finding freedom in a cage.
It’s the kind of thematic resonance that was missing from the last two episodes (and the pilot, too, really) and helps to provide a bit more gravity without overtly sacrificing the family-friendliness.
Plus there was a neat bit at the end where Amador asks what was done to Coulson to change him. The question was fuzzy enough to be about his change in attitude but could just as easily be acknowledgment that she saw something different about him with her high-tech spy eye. The Powers That Be are having fun playing with us, doling out hints that lean both toward the magical explanation for his resurrection or possibly the Life Model Decoy theory making the rounds.
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor/editor for Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is available at Amazon US & UK, along with his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation (US & UK). He recently contributed the 1989 chapter to The American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1980s (US & UK) and has kicked off Comics Bulletin Books with Mondo Marvel Volumes One (US & UK) and Two (US & UK). Paul is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy.