by Paul Montgomery
Though much of the federal government remains in shutdown, "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." soldiers on unabated, the most essential of essential agencies. In this second outing, Skye joins Coulson's fledgling field team for a taste of the adventure she previously dismissed as Big Brother meddling (from the safety of her blog van).
We open on the Bus -- call sign for the group's jet black not-a-helicarrier -- as the hull gives way and somebody tastes stratosphere. Of course, that's getting ahead of ourselves because it won't happen for another nineteen hours, "Alias" style (That's Sid Bristow now, not Marvel's Jessica Jones, mind you). What leads the team to this treacherous point?
It all starts with an Easter egg hunt.
The eponymous "0-8-4" refers to a curious blip on S.H.I.E.L.D.'s radar, a bogey in this brave new world of alien invasion and thunder gods. In fact, the last 0-8-4 came in the form of a mystic hammer, plunk down in New Mexico. The Son of Coul remembers it well.
This time, the otherworldly anomaly pops up in Peru, a Tesseract node just a bit too old for the Incan ruins that house it. Our heroes hightail it to modest jungle locale (the show's still at its best, visually, on that Bus, not on the ruin set). There, they discover an object with that telltale blue crackle of HYDRA nasty. As with J. August Richard's guinea pig super soldier character last week, the thing is infused with gamma radiation, and packs the same wallop as the Tesseract scepter central to "Marvel's The Avengers." In fact, once it's on the Bus, the object seems to spur the same anxiety and resentfulness from those around it as the Avengers exhibited when they were all gathered around its predecessor in the form of Loki's staff. The fun of that scene in the film was wondering just how much of that hostility was genuinely felt and how much was fueled by the arcane device. Here, it's less explicit, though a scene shift to another floor where the Peruvian soldiers laugh in stark contrast to the S.H.I.E.L.D. crew could point to a mystical heightening of the resentments we know are felt between the show's stars. It's a rare instance of subtlety in a fairly broad action adventure hour.
So who are those soldiers in the other part of the plane? Back on the ground, Coulson's expedition is interrupted by the arrival of an armed group led by Comandante Camilla Reyes, a former flame of our dashing "Phillip" Coulson. They want that HYDRA device, yet another Nazi relic that made it to South America in the wake of Second World War. Initially committed to ending the in-fighting in the region, Reyes' designs for the weapon have eclipsed humanitarian motives. As she and her team join S.H.I.E.L.D. in their flight to pin the object to a so-called slingshot rocket aimed squarely at the sun, it's soon apparent that Reyes has no intention of letting it go. Even if it means turning on Coulson.
Hours later, I'm still coming to terms with the revelation that Agent Coulson yields a nuanced sexual history. It's not that Clark Gregg registered as especially virginal in his various appearances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but didn't Coulson feel to you like the chaste, anxious C-3PO in the ensemble? Then, the protocol droid of legend also answered to "Goldenrod."
Of course, we already knew Coulson had an ear, maybe more, for the cello.
Maybe the sense of surprise stems less from the notion of Coulson out of his suit, taming the B.E.A.S.T. with two B.A.C.K.S. in the cabin of a cramped S.H.I.E.L.D. surveillance vehicle, than the concept of the agent even removing that suit at all. From his first appearance in the original "Iron Man", Coulson stood as an avatar for the alphabet soup bureaus so relentlessly acronymed in Washington and the Marvel Universe itself. On the page, he could well have been labeled a nameless 'Suit', but such was Gregg's charm, the role became so much more colorful, instantly endearing himself to audiences and demanding the reprisals that ultimately formed the... aorta of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? The superior vena cava? Something connective, essential to the beating heart of these movies.
Phil Coulson bleeds S.H.I.E.L.D., breathes S.H.I.E.L.D., lives S.H.I.E.L.D., to the extent that he probably poops Morse code. Affable as he is, it's a new sensation to consider his life beyond the manual, when the necktie lassos the banister and the...let's stop right there. This is like talking about my parents, who 100% didn't do, ya know, that. Ever. Despite my being here. If it's gotta be Midi-chlorians, that's just how it's gonna be.
I supposed it's only inevitable that Coulson should become more human in his new role at the center of a weekly drama, even if human doesn't quite cover what he's become, something so dark that Maria Hill won't even whisper the truth.
Ah, that Tahitian breeze. It's a throwaway, but Coulson counters Camilla's accusation that he's entertaining a midlife crisis -- the collectibles, the bright young team, the car -- by suggesting it's an "afterlife crisis." Does he know more than he's letting on, or is it just the gallows humor of a man who believes he only flirted with death, no more?
It's clear that Tahiti and the sacrifice that brought him there changed Coulson. Whether the catalytic crisis came with the onset of age or the slingshot ride from death's door, the resolution is clear: fight the good fight with even greater verve than before. That means adopting this scrappy young band of pups and ushering Melinda "Don't Call Me Cavalry" May back from retirement. Coulson smartly affords them the space to work through their problems and become something closer to a team.
The teamwork on display here is vital, not just for their own survival, but to help define them after a scattered, amorphous pilot left little to latch onto. While Skye starts as what I realized as a carbon copy of "Community"'s Britta Perry -- stunning, hopelessly unhip, unable to land a joke, eager to festoon herself with every crunchy, granola cause -- the character actually defends her politics and sincerity in another hopeful scene with Ward. Once again, these two take their strongest stance together with undeniable chemistry. And yes, Ward remains the series' woefully boring Riley Finn, a reference that "Buffy" fans recognize as not that high of praise, but the episode thoughtfully expounds on his admittedly lily-white struggles to become a team player when he's been trained to serve as anything but. Even Fitzsimmons is gradually establishing themselves as Fitz and Simmons, two independent characters bound to break our hearts some day. Meanwhile, Ming-Na Wen continues to imbue the mysterious Melinda May with a largely silent performance, simultaneously stoic and expressive. In less capable hands, that character might be a cliche of Eastern mysticism and cold "ninja" wrath, but the actress imparts something more.
The series is mostly successful as a throwback to the weekend action-adventure outings, those kooky "Tarzan" and "Beastmaster" and "Mutant X" dramas of the late 90s and early 2000s. But it shows glimmers of something a little more complex, a little more toward Whedon's best. That I find it necessary to make apologies for the show may be problematic, but knowing I'm conscious of that and willing to persist in this forgiving view of these hokey first hours, hopefully means there's something here actually worth apologizing for, and that one day I won't have to.
We can't end without that coda. Fans wondering why Whedon couldn't wrangle Sam Jackson to join Cobie Smulders in last week's cameo when he was perfectly willing to hop on a couch for an episode of AMC's "Talking Bad" can rest easy knowing that they were merely spreading out the love. Nick Fury returns for the young series' most amusing gag yet, though hopefully not its last. Gregg and Jackson enjoy a wonderful dynamic, accentuated by what must be Joss' hand in the dialogue. Right now "S.H.I.E.L.D." needs the push from such stunt casting, but if tonight's installment is any indication, the cast will soon be able to support their own weight, make Coulson proud, and audiences sit up and pay attention.
What did you think of this week's "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D."? Let us know in the comments below or hit us up on Twitter!