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Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Review: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., "Making Friends and Influencing People"

With this third episode of the second season of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the focus is all on Simmons, the real one that is. We get a in-depth look at what she's been up to under Coulson's orders and at the same time, we get a teeny-bit of advancement of Skye's arc and how Ward plays into it. We also saw the return of a character from last season and how his presence dovetails into both story-threads. Let's dig in:

- Simmons was the central focus point and a fairly welcome one. The opening sequence, with Simmons working out and doing other mundane activities before work recalls a couple of the opening sequences from Lost, where Desmond and Juliet respectively went through their normal routines, set to music, before embarking on something more sinister. The same is true here (scored to Belle & Sebastian no less) and its one of the best scenes of the series yet. It's funny how something fairly simple can work so well, but this is the first example I can recall of this show displaying anything resembling a sense of style. This eventual set-up to her status quo as a HYDRA scientist (albeit one that is undercover) also was a nice breakaway from the somewhat monotonous feel of the goings-on with Coulson and crew. Was the HYDRA logo painted on the side of their lab walls a bit much? For sure, but I'm willing to accept them as the Marvel version of Get Smart's KAOS. Despite a little bit of silliness (and a supervisor played by Adam Kulbersh that I don't think I quite buy), I was rather taken with the idea that the higher you go in the building, the scarier things get; to the point where Dr. Whitehall is torturing people at the top level. This will make me think twice the next time I enter a big office building. All kidding aside, if Whitehall is resorting to these tactics, I can't imagine what Von Strucker is doing down in that underwater base of his.

- Skye's arc I found a bit more cloying, particularly the really shoe-horned in FitBit references, which were clearly sponsorship driven. That's not to say there weren't a couple of scenes that were worth watching. While her issues with having to take a life in the line of duty were pretty dull, her interactions with Ward were a bit stronger. At first, I started to find myself really annoyed that it looked as if the writers were headed towards some sort of redemptive track for the character, but his final lines to Skye, indicating that he is aware of where her father is and will take her to him, is a nice twist. If Ward continues to be this series' version of Angelus (from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, though many of you probably know that already), subtly continuing to tear the team apart despite being stuck in a glass cage, I could finally get on board with Ward. I won't hold my breath though.

- Donny, the cold producing scientist returned this episode. I can't even recall when he appeared last season, he made so little an impression and last night the only qualifier I could attribute to him was "Poor Man's Logan Lerman". The freezing effects whenever he used his powers were pretty strong, and I understand his function in the plot as a part of super-powered acquisitions for HYDRA. Yet, the return to characters that we simply don't care about from the first season is a real drag on the show. If it flopped the first time, is going back to the well really all that wise a move? The one saving grace is that he was a pathway to connect Skye and Simmons' storylines, though I hope that this is the only time that happens. Unlike the quick reveal of Simmons in Fitz's head that I really appreciated in the premiere, the "crossing of streams" between Simmons and the rest of her old team should be done sparingly and given more room to breathe. If they keep meeting on a regular basis, or coming a hair's breadth away from one another (as the case was this episode), the danger of Simmons' situation in HYDRA won't quite feel as perilous as it should.

- Fitz got another nice scene this week, this time basically threatening Ward with death. Let's be honest, Iain De Caestecker is the best actor on this show, bar none. I'm pretty sure I said that last week, but it's true. The pained looks, the nuance he gives to every line in his interactions with Ward, his struggles to be of use during the intel meetings with Coulson and co; he's doing tremendous work. Having Mac play his go-to support structure was another keen move on the part of the writers. We only got a touch of his Simmons hallucination this go-round, which makes sense given the extent to which actual Simmons was the lead this episode, but the fact that the writers trusted the audience enough to be able to tell the difference between the two is very promising.

- As for the rest of the crew, Lance got nothing to do this episode, but I somewhat figured he'd take a back-seat until Mockingbird appears (my guess anyway), but May was at her advice-giving worst this episode. But at least she played SOME role in the story, I don't even know why Triplett is even on the show anymore except to "bring the funk" as he says. That guy has red-shirt written all over him, and frankly, the cast could use a little paring down anyway. Clark Gregg, on the other hand, continues to excel in his role of behind the scenes mentor for everyone. I said it last week, but I'll say it again, this is right usage of Coulson; keep him off the field and behind a desk for as much as possible, then when breaks away and cooks dinner for Simmons, it's a welcome character beat, rather than Coulson over-exposure.

- For what it's worth, I quite like "Anti-Coulson", Sunil Bakshi, who exudes an appropriate amount of menace as Dr. Whitehall's right hand man. The fact that he wears his gray suit at all times, even on missions, is not lost on me.

- Next week's preview looks like my worst nightmare though, Coulson and May go undercover. Maybe it'll be funny at least. God, I hope so.

- Some level of concern for fans of the series, last week's episode cracked a 1.8 demo rating, just barely, this week's dropped to 1.6 per TVByTheNumbers. That's dangerous territory for the series to be in given that it wasn't a guarantee there would even be a second season given the iffy ratings last year. To put this in perspective, last night's premiere of The Flash (on The CW) hit a 1.8. If a CW program is outperforming an ABC one, it's time to panic a bit. I imagine some tricks will be turned soon, but I can't help but wonder if we're at the point of no return with most viewers.

On balance, this week's episode continued a steady and slow upward trend for the series, there's marks of cleverness throughout between the blander moments that seem to be fading as the arc comes into place. Hopefully, next week won't be the step-back I fear.
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