It's still not perfect, but I'm starting to see how Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. could be sustainable as an ongoing weekly TV series. This week's "The Asset" is an improvement on last week's "0-8-4" in virtually every way. The dialogue is sharper; the effects look better; the stand-alone plot is more interesting, and the overarching story is interwoven much more cleanly into the action of the episode. "The Asset" even manages to strike a balance between its goofy, pulpy comic-book origins and the conventions of a more sustainable mainstream procedural.
But most important, "The Asset" introduces a few new elements that fill in some formerly blank spots on the overall road map of what Marvel and ABC want this series to be. Let's start with Franklin Hall (Ian Hart) — better known in Marvel lore as Graviton — who has the distinction of being the first true comic book supervillain to pop up in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. "The Asset" cleverly disguises Hall's true identity by treating it as a kind of backdoor origin story; his shift from benevolent scientist to gravity-manipulating box-dweller happens largely in the background of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s more immediate mission.
"The Asset" begins with a genuinely impressive action sequence in which Ian Hall is kidnapped after his S.H.I.E.L.D. transports are propelled into the sky by a mysterious force. The culprit is Quinn (David Conrad), a successful businessman and former colleague who whisks Hall off to Malta to work on a large-scale machine that can reverse gravity. S.H.I.E.L.D. can't risk a conflict with the Maltese government, but Skye — who's still technically an independent operator and not a licensed agent — agrees to infiltrate Quinn's conveniently scheduled party to rescue Hall and return him to his well-compensated babysitters at S.H.I.E.L.D. In the end, Agent Coulson discovers that Hall leaked the information that would lead to his own kidnapping, gaining access to the gravity machine that he fears could eventually be used to kill millions.
But while Hall's transformation into Graviton makes him the splashier of the episode's two villains, it's Quinn that really intrigues me. Over the past two weeks, one of my biggest gripes about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been its lack of sustainable supporting characters. Looking beyond our core group of heroes — who come with their own set of problems — the series has offered pretty thin gruel. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has alternated between episode-of-the-week villains like Mike Peterson and Camilla Reyes and fun (but brief and unsustainable) cameos by movie characters like Maria Hill and Nick Fury.
Unlike those one-off characters, it's not hard to imagine a future episode in which Quinn reemerges as a threat — or reluctant ally — to square off against our heroes again. Quinn's introduction broadens the scope of the series because he offers something different: a plausible (and arguably superior) alternative to S.H.I.E.L.D.'s heavy-handed, Team America–style of world policing. "I've been known to turn a few black hats into white hats," says Quinn to Skye as he offers her a job working on his side.
But there's a larger question at play: Who are the black hats and white hats in this show, anyway? In his conversations with Skye, Quinn repeatedly compares S.H.I.E.L.D. to Big Brother — and while he clearly has his own motives, he's not exactly wrong, either. As an organization, S.H.I.E.L.D. is still fairly ill-defined, but the most intriguing thing about it by far is its unchecked murkiness; while our heroes' motives seem to be pure, there are plenty of troubling signs that S.H.I.E.L.D.'s numerous skeptics are right to skeptical about it. In tonight's episode, Skye learns that Coulson and Ward faked the truth serum routine they used to earn her trust in the pilot. But it's not just outsiders S.H.I.E.L.D. keeps in the dark: Ward, a highly decorated field agent, wasn't told that Coulson was alive until he was promoted to Level 7 — and who knows how high those levels go? Even Coulson, our team's fearless leader, doesn't fully understand the circumstances behind his own death and resurrection, and Maria Hill has insisted that he can never know. (Fortunately, it's far easier for us to piece the clues together; head down to the bullets to read the latest evidence).
While Skye is busy escaping Quinn's grasp, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. pivots over to Coulson, who discovers that Hall has turned on the gravity machine. It's a decision that leads to a nifty fight that plays like an action version of Lionel Richie's "Dancing on the Ceiling" video, as the two men square off while they rotate around the room. "We have to live with the choices we make, but sometimes we have to die with them too," says Hall as he refuses to surrender. "I understand. You made a hard call. And now I have to make mine," replies Coulson, shooting the glass that drops Hall's body directly into the gravity machine.
It also means that Coulson has unwittingly turned him into a far more powerful enemy than he was before, and one that will surely retaliate against him before the season ends. The title of "The Asset" is a reference to Hall, who was one of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s top scientists before he turned his cloak — but it also shows exactly how much of a cog Hall was in S.H.I.E.L.D.'s grander schemes. We've only had a half-dozen movies and a few Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episodes, but it's clear that S.H.I.E.L.D., whatever its motives, has a knack for turning its allies into enemies. How long will it be until one of our main characters switches sides for real?
Let's hit this week's S.H.I.E.L.D. points:
- Skye and Ward are becoming more interesting characters in their own right, but I'm hoping the show has the wisdom to put the brakes on their contrived and unconvincing romantic tension. They're far more interesting as uneasy allies than potential lovers.
- "How about a monkey?" suggests Fitz, repeatedly, to a group that totally ignores him as they plan the rescue mission. What, the Marvel Apes were too busy to lend a hand?
- In regards to Coulson's "death": His troubling lack of muscle memory, which briefly puts the mission in danger, is easily the best clue we've been given. At the very least, it seems clear that he's no longer occupying his old body — right now, I'd lay down a Tony Stark–size bet that he turns out to be a Life Model Decoy — but we'll see what new clues Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. drops in the weeks to come.
- Even if top-tier villains like Loki, Thanos, or Ultron were on the table, I think Graviton is a smarter baddie for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to introduce. He's both interesting and underutilized, and his powers are relatively easy to re-create on a TV budget.
- Last week's episode was disappointing on its own terms, but it seems even weaker in contrast to "The Asset." Aside from the episode-ending revelation that Skye was still in contact with the Rising Tide, none of the plot points of "0-8-4" had any significant bearing on the show's overarching story anyway. If you missed "0-8-4" last week, my advice is to watch the Nick Fury cameo on YouTube and skip straight to tonight's episode.
- Don't forget to check back in for next week's recap, when our heroes square off against a rogue S.H.I.E.L.D. agent in "Eye-Spy."
Scott Meslow is the entertainment editor for TheWeek.com.