As a general fan of Marvel Comics and the majority of the Marvel Studios films, it brings me great pleasure to say that Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is definitely improving, even if it’s still not a must-watch show each week. The producers have rearranged priorities behind the scenes and started to push the show in a more comic-influenced direction, meaning viewers can expect guest stars like Thor’s Sif (with Jamie Alexander reprising her movie role) in upcoming episodes as well as new characters pulled from the page like Asgardian Lorelai, Agent John Garrett, and Deathlok, the cyborg assassin that debuts in tonight’s episode. Taking inspiration from the loads of published Marvel stories is a smart move, but that’s not the thing that makes “T.R.A.C.K.S.” an enjoyable episode of action television. That happens because the dialogue has more flavor, the fight choreography is sharper, and the story significantly raises the stakes while exploring the relationships between these characters.
It’s unclear why there are so many periods in the title of this episode, although it’s likely that the writers thought they were being really clever with some “S.H.I.E.L.D. on a train” shorthand. The title could also be related to the structure of the actual episode, with each letter being isolated to reflect how the character threads are split between commercial breaks. The team is separated during a mission on a train and left without any way to communicate, so each segment focuses on what happens to a smaller group, keeping viewers as in the dark as the characters. This episode get a lot of mileage out of its central train job concept by employing this structure, building suspense in a way previous episodes haven’t been able to.
This episode contains some major events, including the debut of Mike Petersen as Deathlok and Skye getting shot point blank in the gut multiple times, but it’s the smaller moments that really make the story work. The team infiltrates the train undercover in pairs, and it gives writers Lauren LeFranc and Rafe Judkins the opportunity to more fully explore specific relationships, strengthening the show’s characters by strengthening their bonds with each other. The first pair is Ward and May, who have emerged as the show’s primary romance and are now trying to figure out what to do now that Coulson knows about their affair. Then there’s Fitz and Skye, who have a lighter, more adorable dynamic with the former fawning over the latter, as well as a shared inexperience in the field that puts them in over their heads.
The last pair also happens to be my favorite, with Coulson playing Simmons’ absent American father who is only in Italy to spread her mother’s ashes, an elaborate backstory created by Simmons after her catastrophic improvisation attempt in “The Hub.” She’s a person that excels at preparation, and she’s dedicated herself to a script that needs to be performed if she’s going to feel comfortable about the mission. Clark Gregg and Elizabeth Henstridge have great chemistry in this scene, and it’s a lot of fun to see Henstridge indulge her comedic side. There’s generally a lot more humor in this episode, which ultimately makes it feel more Whedonesque than any previous script.
By beginning with more comedy, the writers are able to give the story’s final moments more weight, working with the light/dark contrast that is a common element of Joss Whedon’s TV shows. Fitz and Skye’s plot also starts with humor as Skye tries out a horrible Scottish accent before making her partner blush by pretending to be his new bride, and the playful flirtation between the two makes them much more likable. It much more sensible to romantically link expert hacker Skye with tech-head Fitz instead of commando Ward, and hopefully the writers continue to bring these characters together. Of course, that’s assuming Skye doesn’t die next episode, because she gets shot pretty bad this week. (While I wouldn’t shed any tears if Skye didn’t survive, I would feel the tiniest tinge of disappointment in not learning why she’s an 084, so that was definitely a good move on the writers’ parts.)
The big event this week is the appearance of Deathlok, who is primed to play a larger role as the season continues. Deathlok is a name that means nothing to most of the general population, but for comic-book fans, it means the arrival of a character that has always been pretty cool on the page. In his original incarnation, Deathlok was Luther Manning, a dead soldier from Detroit brought back to life as a cyborg to fight evil in the future, and Rick Remender recently did great work incorporating Deathlok into his epic Uncanny X-Force run by emphasizing the character’s sci-fi roots and making him a bridge to the future of the Marvel Universe. It would be great to have Mike Petersen break free from The Clairvoyant’s control and join S.H.I.E.L.D. as Agent Deathlok, especially because J. August Richards is quickly becoming the emotional core of this series. The show started with Mike and his son, and Richards really captures the character’s pain in the episode’s final scene as he asks for permission to make contact with his child and is denied.
The first half of the episode is devoted to Coulson, Ward, and May, who confront personal issues when they’re thrown from the train. While Coulson and Ward try to figure out how the train disappeared before their very eyes, May is tortured before unleashing the beast within, and the two threads converge with one badass shot of a wet, bloody May throwing a knife in the back of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s turncoat Italian contact. Both plots involve slick fight choreography that hits harder than anything we’ve seen on the series yet, starting with Ward’s action sequence in a cramped train compartment that shows how close-quarters combat can look especially brutal on screen. The full might of Melinda May finally comes through when she escapes from torture, and she actually gets the change to use real weapons like guns and knives to eliminate her targets. That being said, the Night-Night Gun looks pretty cool this week, particularly during a sequence where Ward walks into enemy territory with guns blazing.
At the start of the episode, May reveals to Ward that she told Coulson about their relationship, forcing Ward to confront the reality of his emotional involvement with his fellow agent. When their romance was a secret, it was easy to pretend that it was nothing, but now that it’s in the open, it has to be nothing or it becomes a liability. Ward doesn’t want to deal with that, so he focuses his anger on Coulson, who is simply trying to maintain protocol but also has the personal relationship with May that Ward wants. When May appears at The Bus wounded and cranky, Coulson is the one that tends to her wound, igniting a jealous streak in Ward that intensifies when Skye’s life is put in danger. In Ward’s envious mind, Coulson is the leader of the group so he’s responsible for the protecting the women Ward cares about, placing blame where it’s not necessarily deserved.
Skye has almost no field training and didn’t attend the S.H.I.E.L.D. Academy, so of course she’s not suitable to be on a dangerous life-or-death mission on a moving train. Coulson is to blame, yes, but so is Ward, especially because he’s her supervising officer. He knows that Skye isn’t fit for the field, so he should make sure she doesn’t end up there, no matter what Coulson insists. After making it off the train and over to Ian Quinn’s villa retreat, Skye decides to get her secret agent on while Fitz provides really bad back-up by laying under a car, lumbering her way through the house to discover Mike Petersen just before Quinn shoots her under The Clairvoyant’s orders. Skye is in no way prepared for this situation, and she suffers significantly for it.
I don’t care about Skye enough to be deeply affected by this plot development, but I believe its impact on these characters. Simmons’ private freak-out hits hard after her previous confession that she’s not good with improvisation, and this reminder of their occupational mortality forces Ward and May to really consider their future together. May takes Ward’s hand to offer some physical comfort, but it’s not clear if she’s developing the same emotional connection Ward feels. That aura of mystery is great to have, bringing a level of complexity to the relationship that reveals new facets of both characters.
The second half of this season has seen the writers add more layers to the characters and the story, and “T.R.A.C.K.S.” is an episode that provides a lot of hope for the series’ future, balancing fun superhero action and witty dialogue with higher emotional stakes and a stronger focus on interpersonal dynamics. This show should deliver the same thrill of the Marvel movies on a weekly basis; this week’s episode comes pretty damn close.
- Stan Lee has his obligatory Marvel Studios cameo in this episode, appearing with two women on his arm to kill the momentum of a humorous Simmons moment that is actually going very well before Lee appears. I get that he co-created a lot of this stuff, but it’s not too smart to give him too many lines.
- Because of the Olympics, S.H.I.E.L.D. won’t be back until March 4. In a month, David Sims will be here to cover Bill Paxton’s debut, along with some other things.
- Evidence that the Clairvoyant is working for S.H.I.E.L.D.: He/she always seems to know where Coulson’s team is going; the grenades used to knock out Ward, Coulson, and Simmons use the same technology as the Night Night Gun.
- Italy sure does look a lot like California.
- Simmons looks adorable in those glasses, she should wear them all the time.
- Ward: “You think Coulson will take that excuse if he finds out about us.” May: “Took it O.K. when I told him.”
- “You never made time for her. But you made time for your work! And your prostitutes!”
- “Prostitutes? Plural?”
- “If its really just sex, Ward, you should get more comfortable with using the word.”