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- Airdate: 2/4/2014
- Director: Paul Edwards (Lost, Fringe, Once Upon a Time)
- Writers: Lauren LeFranc & Rafe Judkins (producing/writing partners who previously wrote for Chuck, Hemlock Grove, and My Own Worst Enemy)
Coulson and Skye catch on to some kind of Quinn-related Cybertek delivery involving a mysterious object being transported and guarded by private security on a train in Italy. Coulson bullies a local Italian police figure into letting SHIELD get on that train to track and ultimately stop the delivery. What does this mean?
UNDERCOVER mission, y’all! Not sure why I felt the need to capitalize “undercover,” maybe just to emphasize that this means another episode in which the writers found a way to get our damn agents off the sterile, boring main sets comprising the interior of the Bus. The more this show does that the better off we’ll all be because the Bus=a deeply stupid main setting for a TV show. The gist is that the team is divided into pairs, Skye & Fitz and Ward & May each parading as couples while Coulson poses as Simmons’ American father. This set-up allows for moments of comedy for each pair before things go Mission Impossible on them when their cover is blown because the Clairvoyant warned the bad guys they were coming because he or she is, well, clairvoyant. We then see the events on and off the train from a different pair of or individual character’s perspective, going from Coulson and Ward to May to Fitz, Simmons, and Skye.
Ultimately, it ends up with Fitz and Skye following the package on the train to a mansion while everyone else tries to catch up with them. Skye is so laser-focused on getting Quinn she decides not to wait for back-up, heading into the mansion while Fitz sees to taking out the exterior security. Bad move, Skye. Quinn was waiting for her, and is all too happy to reveal that the mysterious package was actually a robotic extension for Mike Peterson’s severed leg. He has become the Clairvoyant’s mechanically souped-up assassin. After Mike sets off for his next mission, Quinn shoots Skye twice, who reacts as if she in no way considered her life to be in danger until that very moment. The SHIELD cavalry shows up just in time to apprehend Quinn but not Mike, and Simmons uses a handy dandy nearby hyperbaric chamber to at the very least keep Skye’s condition from getting any worse.
In our cliffhanger, we see Mike Peterson using the ocular implant through which he receives orders to request permission from the Clairvoyant to see his son. Request denied! The camera then zooms into Mike’s mechanical leg to reveal the project name for the leg was [pause for dramatic effect] Deathlock.
After all of the recent Batman Vs. Superman news and my related coverage of it on the site I turned to my sometime site contributor Julianne for her opinion on the latest, i.e., Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor, rumors of a Justice League film. Her response was a deep sigh, pause, and almost annoyed explanation that she simply doesn’t care because her investment in the Superman mythos is so minimal and her opinion of Man of Steel so low. I am reminded of that sentiment in response to “T.R.A.C.K.S” which I will immediately admit was a pretty darn good episode of Agents of SHIELD. However, as bizarre as this will sound coming from a guy who’s reviewed every single episode of the show SHIELD has become something I find perfectly watchable without inspiring any great enthusiasm or disappointment. It’s like a comic book show version of the factory line dramas and comedies clogging up the USA Network, which are entirely enjoyable empty calorie viewing.
It’s not stunning, then, to see just how often the directors and writers they use have backgrounds working on Chuck, NBC’s rather fluffy but enjoyable geeks and spies dramedy which could have easily fit in on USA. In fact, “T.R.A.C.K.S.”‘s credited screenwriters previously wrote an episode of Chuck (“Chuck Versus the Honeymooners”) which also placed the main characters on a train for a lot of initial fun before transitioning to melodrama. Chuck was also a show I watched without ever truly becoming deeply invested in any of the characters. Heck, “Chuck Versus the Honeymooners” is a pretty fun episode of Chuck just as “T.R.A.C.K.S.” is a surprisingly strong episode of SHIELD. However, “T.R.A.C.K.S.” ends with one of this show’s main characters life hanging in the balance and boy howdy could I not possibly care less. I cared more about Simmons crying over this news and being comforted by Fitz, mostly because Elizabeth Henstridge absolutely killed it in that scene with the way she struggled with simply cleaning her hands of Skye’s blood.
This is not to say they’re not trying. Ever since the calender turned over to 2014, SHIELD has clearly gone into show reboot mode, resolving Coulson and Skye’s respective season-long mysteries in their first (“The Magical Place”) and second (“Seeds”) episodes back from break and now using “T.R.A.C.K.S.” to cliffhang a potential death while finally paying off Mike Peterson’s story arc. They’ve also advanced the May-Grant romance in these new episodes, if ever so slightly. Clark Gregg himself recently reinforced the company line about requesting patience from the fans because while the first batch of episodes were like eating “the healthy stuff first” they’re “deep in dessert right now.”
Last episode, they got the characters off the Bus and at a Starfleet-like training headquarters for SHIELD, and this week they put everyone on a train.
Plus, they departed from series tradition and gave us a somewhat non-linear narrative which included several clever twists even if the twists meant us accepting Coulson making some rather dubious assumptions. This was a surprisingly solid move on the show’s part, playing out a bit like the first Mission Impossible movie where everything goes wrong at the beginning except they kept jumping back and forth to show each individual agent’s point of view. They also gave us brief bits of two under-explored character pairings, with Coulson being annoyed by Simmons over-prepared backstory and Skye and Fitz bickering over accents and believable pretend kisses. There was also Stan Lee whose advice to shape up seemed directed at the show in general, and even a funny scene with Ward and Coulson struggling with the holographic table.
Now, they have Deathlock in the weeds somewhere, Skye’s life hangs in the balance, and the post-Olympics episodes will bring with them even more comic book-based characters and storylines, most notably an appearance from Jaimie Alexander as Sif from Thor. The storytelling is beginning to structurally resemble season 5 of Angel or the first season of Dollhouse, both prior Whedon shows which in those particular seasons presented mostly standalone episodes that were actually slowly setting up a serialized season-long story arc. SHIELD finally has some forward momentum in the sense that actual meaningful stuff is starting to happen, and the universe of the show is being expanded. Now, if only I could truly start caring about it.
THE BOTTOM LINE
In somewhat of a backhanded compliment, in every way possible this was one of the best episode of Agents of SHIELD to date. Was it truly “SHOW-CHANGING” as the trailers hinted? Not really since they backed off from truly killing Skye or having her revive herself via some Asgardian power or something, thus revealing the truth behind her “0-8-4” status. However, they utilized a clever narrative structure, injected some welcome humor, paid off Mike Peterson’s story arc to this point, and even had Stan Lee around to wish them luck in their mad dash to right the ship if they are to have any chance at a second season. Is it too little too late? “T.R.A.C.K.S.” was good but necessarily an episode so good I’d be convinced to make an argument that anyone who gave up should give the show another chance.
1. Comic Book 101: Deathlock
- First Appearance: 1974
Multiple characters have taken the name Deathlock in the comics. Initially, it was Luther Manning, a dead American soldier revived via cybernetic enhancements in the future by an evil genius. Manning constantly battled his mechanic enhancements and programming to retain his humanity. However, the Deathlock technology was part of a larger project which has led to many subsequent versions of the character: John Kelly, who became his own mercenary character named Siege, Michael Collins, whose brain was placed into Kelly’s Deathlock after Kelly had been so much of a nuisance they removed his brain, and several others, including a female version named Death Locket. You can read more about the character’s convoluted history at Wikipedia.
2. Have You Looked at the Ratings Lately? According to THR, the overnight ratings for “T.R.A.C.K.S” (2.1 adults) came in a tenth of a point shy of the last original SHIELD episode on ABC. To put it another way, the ratings were ever so slightly down, and that’s after the last original episode (“Seeds”) was already down from its preceding episode (“The Magical Place”).
3. To be clear, my lack of investment in the potential death of Skye isn’t really due to any great dislike of the character or performance. It’s more that Agents of SHIELD is such a big, broad show done in the ABC factory style that I don’t really care about any of these characters, not even Coulson. In truth, I think Chloe Bennet has put forth some rather strong performances in the 2014 episodes. I will acknowledge, however, that I might be holding this particular story at arm’s length because I just don’t in any way buy that they will actually kill her off. I would have been more interested in her potentially revealing an alien “0-8-4” nature by inexplicably recovering by episode’s end.
Let us know what you thought of this episode in the comments section.
All of the pictures used in the above review, unless otherwise noted, came from ABC.GO.COM.
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- Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 1, Episode 13: “T.R.A.C.K.S.” Review (sidekickreviews.wordpress.com)
- Review-Agents of SHIELD, “T.R.A.C.K.S.” (livingthegeeklife.wordpress.com)