At the end of its second episode, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. set a time bomb by revealing that Skye was still working for a mysterious hacker collective called the Rising Tide. That time bomb has ticked maddeningly through the past two episodes, with Skye's every action being cast into doubt amid questions about her larger goal. In last night's "Girl in the Flower Dress," that time bomb finally went off — and fortunately for Skye, the explosion was surprisingly easy to contain.
Skye's tie to the Rising Tide was the backbone of the episode, but it wasn't the only dangling thread resolved by Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in last night's episode. I complained last week about the lack of a clear, overarching villain, but "Girl in the Flower Dress" took care of that problem pretty neatly: The Rising Tide is revealed as a group of relatively altruistic (but ultimately misguided) hackers, and Centipede turns out to be a sinister group that's hell-bent on using the Extremis virus to create a super-solider. After five episodes, we finally have some clear answers: Skye isn't trying to destroy S.H.I.E.L.D. from the inside, and Centipede is the most earth-shattering of all the earth-shattering threats Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has thrown at us so far.
So with all those answers, why wasn't "Girl in the Flower Dress" more satisfying?
The episode opens in Hong Kong, where street performer Chan Ho-Yin (Louis Ozawa Changchien) is showing off some fire magic — a feat made easier by the fact that he can actually generate fire. He's eventually abducted by Raina (Ruth Negga), a young woman who dubs him "Scorch" and promises that she can ensure that he'll be remembered forever if he'll just consent to a few experiments. She totally couldn't be evil, right?
"Girl in the Flower Dress" had several key flaws, but I'm inclined to lay most of the blame for the episode's shakiness at Skye's feet. This was her episode to shine, and neither the writing nor Chloe Bennet's uneven performance managed to sell the major shift in her character the story required. In a regular cast that contains two genuinely interesting characters and a smattering of problematic ones, Skye stands out as the worst of the bunch. (The climax of the episode hinges almost entirely on Agent Coulson and Melinda May, which makes me wonder if the show's writers have already figured out who their best characters are, too.)
Skye betrays S.H.I.E.L.D.'s confidence to warn fellow Rising Tide hacker Miles Lydon (Austin Nichols) that he's under surveillance, but discovers that she's been tailed by Melinda May (who's nice enough to let Skye finish her tryst with Miles before arresting her). The agents punish Skye by making her share a room with the totally insufferable Miles and manage to infiltrate the Centipede lab where Chan is being held captive. Unfortunately, Chan has also acquired a taste for power, and our heroes are forced to put him down before he can unleash his great balls of fire on the world at large.
Unfortunately, it seems that my hopeful theory from last week was wrong: Skye wasn't lying about her painfully clichéd backstory. At the end of tonight's episode, she tearfully tells Coulson that her hacking was just an attempt to find out the truth about her parents, whose true identities lie in a document heavily redacted by S.H.I.E.L.D.
Really? You're taking the protagonist of the series — a badass hacker who singlehandedly infiltrated the highest level of the most secretive governmental agency — and giving her a motivation that would get thrown out in a freshman screenwriting class? In "Girl in the Flower Dress," Skye attacks Miles for selling out the purer motivations of the Rising Tide. But what makes her so much better, when her motivations for cybercrime are just as selfish as Miles's are? Isn't a general skepticism of S.H.I.E.L.D. motivation enough? It's certainly justified by what we've seen so far: a series of questionable choices that now includes Coulson's decision to let Skye stay on the team after a stern talking-to.
And while we're on the subject of politics: I don't want to nitpick, but I'm finding the logic of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s world very fuzzy. Recent episodes have referenced pop-culture staples like The Hunger Games and Minecraft and "Girl in the Flower Dress" featured nods to political figures like Vladimir Putin, Bradley Manning, and Aaron Swartz. I'm particularly thrown by the real-world political references, which are at odds with the fictional political regimes depicted in movies like Iron Man 3. It would be one thing if Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. were actually interested in grappling with the implications of the real-life political figures that it name-drops. That's a potentially fascinating story the show could tell — an actual critique of S.H.I.E.L.D., which seems to operate with total autonomy and an unlimited budget. There's nothing wrong with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. being a pulpy comic-book show — but if that's the case, the series should drop the political ramifications it occasionally teases, which hint at the far more subversive show this could be.
Despite the half-assed name-drops, it's clearer than ever that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has officially planted its flag on the pulpy side of the story. "Girl in the Flower Dress" sets up both Raina and Centipede as big bads without any apparent of gray. With the relative success of the experiment on Chan, it's clear that Centipede is ready to go into Full Sequence, and the cryptic prison sequence at the episode's end proves that there are even more sinister figures on the horizon — including a clairvoyant. Something tells me the Scarlet Witch is preparing for her arrival.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is about to take its first week off since the pilot aired, which makes this as good a time as any to take stock of the series so far. If you'll allow me to make a belabored metaphor, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has a little in common with the bracelet Coulson uses to restrict Skye at the end of the episode: Technologically impressive, but shackled in a way that prevents it from what it should be doing best. I'm hoping the show will take the cuffs off when it returns.
Let's hit this week's S.H.I.E.L.D. points:
- Since Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. insists on playing this game: Any theories about Skye's mysterious past? I'm guessing at least one of her parents will turn out to be a supervillain — and hoping that supervillain isn't someone as obvious as "mysterious prison guy" — but someone with a more comprehensive knowledge of Marvel lore might be able to come up with something better.
- How did Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. manage to get away with the surprisingly graphic scene of Debbie the Centipede scientist being burned alive by Scorch? Between the violence and Skye's sex scene with Miles, this was easily the most adult-oriented episode of the show yet.
- If Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is really committed to keeping both Fitz and Simmons totally undeveloped, it could probably have gotten away with just one of them. And after Fitz's plaintive "Why would Skye do this to us? I thought she was our friend," he's my vote to cast off the island.
- Extremely disappointed that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is skipping the chance to do a Halloween episode next week. How great would it be to see Coulson in a Captain America costume?
- Let's end on a positive note. After a rough start, Brett Dalton has done a nice job growing into the role of Agent Ward, maintaining the character's stoicism while softening all of his rougher edges. I'm hoping his growth marks the beginning of a trend.
- Don't forget to check back in two weeks from now, when our heroes square off against a mysterious killer who makes people levitate after they die, or something. (That preview went by pretty fast.)
Scott Meslow is the entertainment editor for TheWeek.com.