Like an increasingly large number of its characters, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is crawling back from a near-death experience. Last night's "T.R.A.C.K.S." — a title seemingly designed to irritate TV critics — offered a fun, fast-moving plot and a cliffhanger that actually left me hanging. We're thirteen episodes in, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is finally evolving into the show it should have been from the beginning. The only question: Is it too late to woo back viewers who felt burned by the first twelve?
"T.R.A.C.K.S." thrives by falling back on a tried-and-true screenwriting principle: Train heists are never boring. In a zippy bit of exposition that opens the episode, Coulson explains that a company called Cybertek is transporting an unspecified piece of technology to Ian Quinn. In order to protect the cargo — and, presumably, because everyone agrees this show has already spent too much time on a jet — Cybertek is using a train to get mysterious item from Verona to Zagreb. The team is quickly divided into thirds: May and Ward will tag the package, Skye and Fitz will track it, and Simmons and Coulson will spend enough time sitting around and doing nothing to set up an obligatory Stan Lee cameo.
The first part of the episode devotes itself to the mechanics of the train heist, which offered Agents of S.H.I.EL.D.'s usual mix of gee-whiz gadgetry and witty-ish banter. But for reasons our heroes don't immediately understand, their cover is suddenly blown. Coulson and Ward manage to leap out the back of the train just in time to see it inexplicably disappear before their eyes.
From there, "T.R.A.C.K.S." takes an unexpectedly clever narrative turn: The episode follows each of our heroes individually, doubling back to show what happened immediately after the mission went south. This is easily the most audacious structural gambit in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s history, and it adds some nice texture to what might otherwise feel like a boilerplate mission-of-the-week. Even a simple revelation — like May hotwiring the car that was later used by Coulson and Ward — is a lot more fun when you see it happen out of order.
The unconventional structure also gives each of our agents a chance to shine in the field. Coulson is a consummate leader who manages to evade his enemies and get the mission back on track. Ward is a quick thinker and a talented fighter. May is a tenacious, almost feral survivor who's toughest when she's back up against a wall. Simmons is reliably focused in a time of crisis. Fitz is smart and tech-savvy in the field. And Skye has developed the confidence and instincts to take on an acceptable risk when the greater good might require it.
I've complained before that these are ill-defined characters — and don't get me wrong, there's still plenty of work to be done on that score — but as far as basic archetypes go, those aren't all that bad. By the time that Coulson, Ward, and May have reconvened, the pieces of the great mystery have fallen into place: The train didn't disappear at all. It just looked like it disappeared to Coulson and Ward, who were hit with a device that froze them for a while. In reality, the train is exactly where it’s supposed to be: within the reach of Ian Quinn.
Meanwhile, as the train arrives as scheduled with Fitz and Skye still onboard, they follow the mysterious package to Ian Quinn's compound. Skye heads down to the basement and encounters a battle-scarred Mike Peterson in a hyperbaric chamber. (Imagine how much cooler this scene would be if Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. hadn't pointlessly revealed that Peterson was still alive in the last episode). Unfortunately, Peterson isn't exactly the buddy that Skye remembers; between his missing leg and his blind willingness to follow the Clairvoyant's orders, the whole death/resurrection thing has been even harder on him than it was on Coulson. Fortunately, the mysterious piece of technology turns out to be a major asset: a state-of-the-art prosthetic robo-leg to replace the one he lost in "The Bridge."
Peterson's orders don't include killing Skye, so he wanders off to follow the path the Clairvoyant does want him to take. Unfortunately, Quinn isn't playing by the same rule book, and he shoots Skye twice. Our heroes are too late to save the day, but they do manage to step in before Skye is totally gone. By loading her into the same hyperbolic chamber that contained Peterson, they can keep her on ice for a little while — but according to Simmons, they only have a few hours to get her more substantial medical treatment before brain damage sets in.
This is the "astonishing, series-changing final act" that ABC has relentlessly teased over the past few weeks, and while that's more than a little hyperbolic, it is an intriguing development. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is finally doing a cliffhanger right (and I wouldn't be shocked to see a small uptick in the ratings for the next episode as a result). Skye has always been Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s most problematic character, but the team has come to care about her greatly, and there's always the chance that her temporary absence from the screen will make viewers' hearts grow fonder. (That said, she's getting a more than acceptable substitute: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is swapping in Bill Paxton next episode, which is a little like swapping in a filet mignon for a McDonald's hamburger.)
But that's not all, folks. In the final shot of the episode, the camera zooms in on the newly acquired prosthetic leg to make a shocking revelation: Mike Peterson is Deathlok! The revelation that our old friend Mike is Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s version of the comic-book villain of the same name will be a delight to any Marvel fan who didn't see that announcement splashed all over the Internet a few weeks ago. Still, it's a strong choice for the series: a recognizable comic-book whose superpowers, while impressive, are also well within the range of a TV budget. Between the past two episodes, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has finally made a compelling case that both casual viewers and hardcore Marvel fans shouldn't tune out just yet. Let's hope they're still watching.
Let’s hit this week's S.H.I.E.L.D. points:
- Stan Lee's much-hyped cameo: as pointless and distracting as ever.
- How long will Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. keep Skye out of commission, anyway? I'm betting that she'll be up and kicking by the end of the next episode, but I'd be impressed if her recovery was a harder-won victory; for once, this mission feels like it has some actual life-or-death stakes.
- "It's not your fault," insists May, in an unconvincing attempt to comfort Ward at the end of the episode. If only she could get Robin Williams to say it.
- Emil Blonsky — also known as the Abomination, or "that bad guy played by Tim Roth in The Incredible Hulk" — is apparently locked up in a S.H.I.E.L.D. cryo-cell in Bering, Alaska.
- Lots of material for shippers in this episode; between May/Ward's weirdly huffy flirting and Fitz/Skye's undercover banter, love is clearly in the air. Will CoulSimmons be next? (Please say no.)
- Don't forget to check back in March for our next Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. recap, when Agent Bill Paxton shows up to help our heroes save Skye.
Scott Meslow is the entertainment editor for TheWeek.com.