Maybe the creative team behind Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been listening to us after all. After a long string of episodes that offered little more than weak characters, dull stories, and go-nowhere mysteries, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. bounced back with last night's "Seeds." The episode delivered virtually everything Marvel fans have been clamoring for since the beginning: solid action, forward momentum, and the kind of deeply embedded Marvel lore that makes this feel like something more than a toothless spy drama.
"Seeds" begins by introducing a S.H.I.E.L.D. cadet named Seth, who nearly dies when a mysterious device freezes the pool that he's taking a dip in. Our heroes are sent to investigate just in time to see Donnie — a brilliant fellow cadet who's commonly regarded as a loner — ends up similarly frozen in the middle of a lecture. But despite a few red herrings, it doesn't take our heroes long to crack the case; a brief investigation reveals that our two victims, Seth and Donnie, were also the culprits. They used the little ice devices on themselves to divert suspicion from the bigger, more dangerous device they were building on the side.
As far as a mission-of-the-week goes, this was one of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s better offerings.
For once, all our heroes take on jobs that play to their strengths: Simmons delivers a speech to an adoring freshman class, Fitz bonds with loner Donnie Gill, Ward shoots pool as he interrogates a suspect, and Skye stares at a wall.
Even more important, the story actually strengthens our understanding of the hazily defined lead characters and provides some important texture to S.H.I.E.L.D. itself. It's fun to hear Fitz, Simmons, and Ward reminisce about their time at the S.H.I.E.L.D. academies, and the high-school-football-esque rivalries between Sci/Tech, Operations, and Communications gives the organization some much needed color. (It almost made me wish we'd met some of our heroes before they were established as S.H.I.E.L.D.'s best and brightest. Sign me up for a flashback episode.)
Instead, "Seeds" devotes the narrative to reintroducing a villain from a more recent past: Ian Quinn, who set the episode's events into motion by funding Donnie and Seth's experiments. When Quinn escaped in "The Asset," I hoped we'd end up see him later down the road. Unfortunately, "Seeds" dilutes what made him interesting in the first place — the idea that he represented a plausible, free-market alternative to S.H.I.E.L.D.'s world-policing — by revealing that he's now in cahoots with the Clairvoyant. I'm all for having a big bad, but Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s world feels pretty small as it is, and there must be some room for a character and an ideology that fall between S.H.I.E.L.D.'s quasi-fascism and Centipede's apparent plans for world domination.
While most of the team is investigating the academy attacks, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D splits off its two best characters, Coulson and May, for their very own mission. The duo heads to Mexico City to investigate the reemergence of a disappeared agent named Richard Lumley — and just in time, since he happens to have a key piece of information about Skye's past. The agent who was murdered delivering baby Skye to safety wasn't her mother after all; it was Lumley's partner, Agent Linda Avery. Lumley reveals that Skye herself was an 0-8-4, which attentive viewers will recall as any "object of unknown origin." An entire village was killed protecting Skye from harm, and S.H.I.E.L.D. made sure that she would be bounced from one foster home to another so her pursuers could never find her.
I like this (partial) solution to the Skye mystery because it raises more questions about her past than answers, and because it finally offers an explanation for why S.H.I.E.L.D. puts up with an acknowledged traitor operating within Coulson's unit. Granted, it's not a very good reason — I still don't see why S.H.I.E.L.D. would ever let Skye out of their sights to become a hacker, or to go on a series of dangerous missions with Coulson — but if Skye turns out to be an asset that's too valuable to toy around with, it will at least start to explain why she operates with so much autonomy.
Back at the S.H.I.E.L.D. academy, "Seeds" manages to sneak in a supervillain's origin story: Seth dies, but Donnie Gill is sent off to be monitored at the Sandbox. There's a reason for that; I didn't recognize him at first, but Marvel's official website reminds me that Donnie is better known as Blizzard, a villain who began his career under Iron Man 2 baddie Justin Hammer in the comics. (Since Sam Rockwell's salary is presumably beyond Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s budget, the origin story presented for Gill in "Seeds" is a fine substitute.) At the end of the episode, we see the beginning of Blizzard's turn to the dark side, as he tests out his freeze powers for the first time. Comic book logic!
Despite a few rough edges, "Seeds" is the kind of episode I've wanted this show to deliver. When Marvel announced Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., I suspect most fans were hoping for something like "Seeds" — and as Agents of S.H.I.EL.D. prepares to launch the back half of its season, I hope the show's creative team keeps the successes of "Seeds" in mind.
Let's hit this week's S.H.I.E.L.D. points:
- Simmons dropped the names of a few key evil factions during her lecture. We've already met Centipede in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but we also got a couple of nice references to the movies: HYDRA, the organization led by Red Skull in Captain America, and A.I.M., the organization headed by Iron Man 3 baddie Aldrich Killian.
- How long until Blizzard reemerges to challenge our heroes? Any chance he can bring Graviton along for the ride?
- It seemed odd to have Coulson repeat Skye's big speech in a conversation with May instead of, you know, just showing us the scene in which Skye actually said it to him.
- Earlier this week, TV Guide reported that Bill Paxton* will join the show for an extended guest arc as Agent John Garrett, a "rough-and-tumble former cohort of Coulson's." Anyone who's already familiar with Garrett will probably understand how the character's debut on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. might hint at a major spoiler, so I'll avoid going into any further detail for now — but I'm thrilled that the show is demonstrating a greater commitment to serialized storytelling and that they managed to attract an actor of Paxton's caliber.
- Looks like Captain America: The Winter Soldier will be introducing some fairly radical changes to S.H.I.EL.D. After the half-assed tie-in with Thor: The Dark World, I'm looking forward to seeing how Agents of S.H.I.EL.D. riffs on a movie with a narrative much closer to its own.
- Don't forget to check back in February for the next Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. recap (the show returns Feb. 4), which will cover yet another gratuitous Stan Lee cameo and "an astonishing, series-changing final act."
Scott Meslow is the entertainment editor for TheWeek.com.
* Argh, this originally said Bill Pullman. And the Pullman/Paxton confusion lives to see another year!