Well, that was two thirds of a good episode, and that's certainly a step in the right direction. "The Hub" splits its time between three plotlines. One: Ward and Fitz go into the field to find and dismantle a potentially dangerous weapon in South Ossetia. Two: Coulson has a personal crisis about the insane level of confidentiality at S.H.I.E.L.D., which includes the circumstances of his own death and resurrection. Three: Skye — who recently betrayed S.H.I.E.L.D. — is allowed to wander around the top-secret base unescorted, where she inevitably hacks into the organization's database, then somehow escapes all consequences for it.
Guess which one doesn't work.
Let's start with the A-plot — a story that turned Ward and Fitz into a kind of Marvel-flavored Odd Couple, with Ward's uptight by-the-bookishness contrasting nicely with Fitz's freeform improvisation. Last week's episode put the spotlight on Simmons, so it's nice to see "The Hub" give her lab partner a chance to shine, and the results are similarly successful. This is easily the most time we've had with Fitz, and Iain De Caestecker makes the most of it, finding the surprising competence and confidence underneath all the character's obvious insecurity.
The mission sends the unlikely duo on a quest to destroy the "Overkill Device" — a whiz-bang piece of comic-book tech that allows its wielders to use a wide variety of weapons against their owners. There's never any doubt that they'll get the job done, but there are some fun bumps along the way (and several nifty pieces of S.H.I.E.L.D. technology — an area where this show continues to excel). The rescue scene is a bit anticlimactic, as May scares off all their enemies with a single burst of the jet, but this was still a major improvement over the muddled missions of some of the show's earlier episodes. More of this, please.
While Ward and Fitz are out in the field, the rest of the gang hangs out at a big S.H.I.E.L.D. base called the Hub, where it quickly becomes clear that Coulson is beginning to doubt the wisdom of his longtime mantra: "Trust the system." Coulson may be Level 8, but he's being kept out of some pretty big loops, from the decision to treat Ward and Fitz as expendable to the true circumstances behind his mysterious resurrection. This probably shouldn't work as well as it does — we saw Coulson learn almost the exact same lesson about S.H.I.E.L.D. last week, when he defied a direct order to sacrifice Simmons. But repetition aside, this is by far the most compelling of the show's overarching mysteries, and Clark Gregg somehow makes the character's interior conflict feel fresh again (though it's still maddeningly unclear when he'll stop poking around and demand some real answers).
And then there's the annoying decision to devote yet another story to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s perpetual weak spot: Skye, whose antics remain as implausible as they are irritating. The Hub is one of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s primary bases, packed with hundreds of potentially vulnerable agents. (The title card lists its location as "classified," so not even the audience is privy to its secrets.) Skye knows she's skating on thin ice as it is, and her pre-coded bracelet prevents her from her usual meddling — so of course, she just enlists Simmons' help to hack a S.H.I.E.L.D. database intended for agents way, way above her pay grade.
I hate to sound like a broken record, but once again: How is Skye not rotting in a cell in some top-secret S.H.I.E.L.D. prison by the end of this episode? In the process of hacking into the S.H.I.E.L.D. database, her partner knocks out a high-ranking agent. Once she's in, she has unfettered access to dozens of highly confidential missions around the globe. It's clear that Agent Hand, who runs the Hub, learns what Skye has done and disapproves of it. So her punishment is … nothing? Forget her teammates, who are attached to her for sentimental reasons. Why is anyone at S.H.I.E.L.D. comfortable with having her around?
I still believe there's a more interesting version of Skye's character that wouldn't require all that much retconning from what we've already seen: Just make her a full-fledged turncoat, working to take S.H.I.E.L.D. down from the inside for motives either principled (the Rising Tide arc that was almost immediately dropped) or personal (the knowledge that S.H.I.E.L.D. is somehow responsible for her growing up an orphan). The other possibility is that Skye is so valuable — for a reason we don't know yet — that the top brass at S.H.I.E.L.D. are strategically keeping her close no matter how big a risk she represents.
What it is, I hope there's an answer on the way, because it doesn't make any sense now — and as it stands, I'm worried that Skye represents an insurmountable problem for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. going forward. If the show isn't going to take S.H.I.E.L.D. seriously, why should its viewers? Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn't need to be Breaking Bad, but there do need to be consequences when a character does something like, say, hacking the database of the most powerful and well-funded quasi-governmental organization in the world.
Maybe we're getting there. "The Hub" ends by shedding a little more light on Skye's mysterious past: She was dropped off at an orphanage by a female S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, who was apparently killed sometime after. That's the kind of dramatic consequence this show could use — the kind of thing that would make these episode-length missions feel like they had some stakes to them. How much is S.H.I.E.L.D. hiding about Skye and Coulson, anyway? It's an intriguing question. Let's hope the show is ready to start answering it.
Let's hit this week's S.H.I.E.L.D. points:
- Sitwell — the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent played by Maximiliano Hernandez, whom Simmons drops with her night-night gun — is an increasingly omnipresent force in the Marvel Universe, with appearances in Thor, The Avengers, and the upcoming Captain America: The Winter Solider, as well as two DVD-only shorts. You might also recognize him from FX's The Americans, or the 2009 comedy classic Hotel for Dogs.
- Here's the extremely simple recipe for Fitz's favorite sandwich: prosciutto, buffalo mozzarella, and a touch of pesto aïoli on what looks like a baguette. I'd probably throw a few tomato slices on, but still, tasty.
- "I like men that are about my height but heavier than me." Flirting, Gemma Simmons style.
- Early in the episode, Skye complains that Coulson is "acting like a robot version of himself," and there is something disturbingly mechanical about the way he automatically describes Tahiti as "a magical place." More hints that he might be a Life Model Decoy?
- Lots and lots of deep cuts from Marvel comics lore in "The Hub." Simmons references the Triskelion, an impressive S.H.I.E.L.D. base that's pretty much constantly under siege by one villain or another, and newly introduced Agent Victoria Hand (Saffron Burrows) was introduced in an Iron Man comic nearly five years ago.
- Don't forget to check back in for next week's recap, when Marvel takes synergy all the way to Level 8 with an episode that crosses over with Thor: The Dark World.
Scott Meslow is the entertainment editor for TheWeek.com.