After taking a week's vacation from the airwaves, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is back — but unlike Agent Coulson, it returned from its absence exactly the same. This week's "FZZT" was a perfectly generic episode of ABC's so-so superhero drama: well-produced, blandly watchable, and peppered with just enough flashes of brilliance to make it frustrating that the show isn't better.
There are plenty of things that work just fine. There's a fairly successful bait-and-switch at the heart of "FZZT." S.H.I.E.L.D. is called in after a couple of volunteer firemen turn up dead, their corpses inexplicably floating in midair. After a brief investigation, Coulson intuits that their friend Tony Diaz — who possesses a Chitauri helmet he scavenged from the alien attack in The Avengers — must have gone full supervillain and turned on his onetime allies.
When Coulson confronts Diaz, he learns that the truth is a little more complicated. As it turns out, Diaz has never even put the helmet on; instead, the culprit is an alien virus that uses the Chitauri helmet as a kind of carrier. Our heroes' seemingly straightforward mission is a reverse War of the Worlds situation, with S.H.I.E.L.D. racing against the clock to cure and contain the virus before it's too late.
All that bluster about alien viruses is really just a means to an end; the episode's real purpose becomes clear when it's revealed that the underdeveloped scientist Simmons has been infected by the mysterious virus. In "FZZT," Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. finally works to deepen the decidedly unfunny comic duo of Fitz and Simmons. Until now, at least half of their scenes together have been variations on what might be the hoariest of all stock scenes involving scientists: Geniuses, blathering at each other in technobabble, until a nonexpert says something witty like, "English, please."
In "FZZT," we get a little more insight into Fitz and Simmons's shared history, and the unique ties that bind them together. Let me be clear: I really do mean a little more insight. Until now, each of the characters has been totally one-note — and while two notes is an improvement, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. still has a lot of work to do before these are characters we actually care about.
In the meantime, what do we learn? Fitz has a crush on Skye, and she's too oblivious to pick up on it. Simmons talked Fitz into joining S.H.I.E.L.D so they could "see the world," though they've since spent most of their time in the lab. Despite all their bickering, they have a deep and abiding affection for each other, though it seems to be platonic. When it becomes clear that Simmons is infected, Coulson puts the lab in quarantine, but Fitz breaks in to help her search for an antiserum that will cure her in time. When they think they've failed, and Fitz realizes Simmons has jumped out of the plane's cargo bay, he's prepared to jump out with a parachute after her (though Ward, inevitably, ends up playing stuntman instead).
Of course, there was never any real chance that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. would kill Fitz or Simmons, so "FZZT" was less about suspense and more about learning how the characters operate under this kind of pressure. Of the two, Simmons comes off much, much better; for a character who's been so poorly defined, her infection with the virus leads to some surprisingly affecting scenes. Her request that Coulson let her father tell her mother that she died is easily the strongest moment in the episode, and in general, Elizabeth Henstridge does a lovely job with the more dramatic material she's been given. Iain De Caestecker's performance leaves less of an impression, but he's also more of a peripheral character in the story, so I'll reserve judgment until Fitz gets his own spotlight episode.
Either way, it would be nice to see more episodes where Fitz and Simmons are asked to do more than jabber at each other, because the rest of the episode was more of the same. The B-plot in "FZZT" hinges on — what else? — the increasingly tired mystery of Coulson's death and resurrection. On one level, I get it; episodic television comes with some basic constraints, and there's nothing wrong with providing a little exposition for viewers who aren't as acquainted with the Marvel Universe. But do we really need a cryptic reference to Coulson's return from the dead in every single episode? Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. obviously has no intention of solving the mystery anytime soon, and the constant, ominous references take up time that could be used to build the relationships that the show should be focusing on.
Fortunately, "F.Z.Z.T." also seems to be setting up a more interesting story that could change the show's status quo: A story in which Coulson and his "dream team" go head-to-head with the S.H.I.E.L.D. leaders, who are clearly worried that their once-dutiful lackey is starting to get out of line. Coulson may have sacrificed 8 to 40 seconds of his life for his employers, but they're not going to let him take his fancy jet and flying car anywhere without their saying so. (Then again, they're suspiciously okay with letting him keep Skye around, despite betraying the whole organization a single episode ago — so he probably has a fair amount of rope.)
At this point, I doubt Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has the conviction to follow that Coulson vs. S.H.I.E.L.D. plotline to its logical conclusion — but can you imagine what it would be like if it did, with Nick Fury using all his resources to hunt Coulson and his rogue team down? This show continues to lack a clear sense of narrative tension; the overarching mysteries are too generic and glacial to fuel a season, and the self-contained missions are too low-stakes to have any significant impact on the story. Both Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are too safe. I want to see them without the safety net of their endless gadgets and their big, terrifyingly impenetrable global network. When Simmons was in danger in "FZZT," Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. suddenly felt vibrant again — so let's get them out of their comfort zone a little more often.
Let's hit this week's S.H.I.E.L.D. points:
- Skye and Ward's extremely brief feud ends when they bond over their concern for Simmons. For a guy who claims to have trust issues, Ward certainly is trusting.
- How long will it take Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to realize that the real heart of this show is the Coulson–Melinda May relationship? The sooner they stop pretending that Skye is the most interesting character in every scene, the better (no matter how many Big Lebowski references she drops).
- I've got "S.H.I.E.L.D." down cold, but I failed to crack what "FZZT" is supposed to stand for. Any ideas?
- Everything we've seen so far points to the possibility a kind of vague love quadrangle between Skye, Ward, Fitz, and Simmons — but not Coulson and Melinda May, who are too cool to waste their time on shipping.
- "Little heavy on the iron, but you don't have to call me Iron Man." Coulson never misses a chance to humblebrag about his Avenger buddies.
- Don't forget to check back in next week, when our Level Seven heroes are assigned to take on a Level Eight mission.
Scott Meslow is the entertainment editor for TheWeek.com.