<<Spoiler Alert – This review discusses plot points of the S01E02 “0-8-4” episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.>>
With character back-stories and introductions done in last week’s pilot, my hope going into tonight’s show was that we’d get a whole lot more story. Behind the camera, Whedon gives up the directing reins to David Straiton, a career television director. His SF cred is pretty solid, having directed episodes of Angel (hence his Whedon connection), Star Trek: Enterprise (perhaps the lesser of the ST franchises, but he has solid ratings on his ten episodes), Charmed, and more recently Grimm, Bates Motel, and Hemlock Grove. It doesn’t hurt either that he has been a regular with a quality show like House (sixteen episodes). So how does this episode pan out?
Last week’s tease left us with Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Skye (Chloe Bennett) jetting back to the mobile base in Lola, Coulson’s Corvette (and a convertible in more than one sense of the word). This week’s episode begins with a large hole being blown in the side of the Bus (we find out that this is what they call their mobile command center), and an unidentified man getting sucked out at 30,000 feet. Coulson looks like he’s about to follow, when we smash cut to Skye unloading her van and taking her things aboard the plane – it’s sixteen hours earlier, and we’re going to find out what happened to get to that impending disaster in the air.
The 0-8-4 of the title means that something of an alien nature has been discovered. Coulson tells Skye that this sort of mission is full of unknowns, but that they can lead to interesting finds: the last 0-8-4 was a hammer – or should that be Hammer? Coulson’s knowing smile as he says this is, again, a nod to the audience, although it is definitely not unreasonable to believe that Skye would know he’s referring to Mjolnir, following the highly public events in New York involving Thor. This 0-8-4 takes them to Peru, where an artifact has been discovered inside of an ancient Incan temple. Fitz (Ian de Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) are deployed inside, where they quickly determine that the device is powered, and that its power source is made up of variable gamma wave radiation. Fitz also comments that, although the device uses alien power, it looks to have a German design aesthetic – this turns out to be a prescient observation.
Outside the temple, Agent Ward (Brett Dalton) meets up with Agent May (Ming-Na Wen), and glibly says, “Here comes the Cavalry.” She gives him a totally dead eye and says, “Never call me that.” So, May is the proverbial cavalry? Apparently the combat moves she displayed in the pilot were not a one-off. Ward is in fact using the conversation to maneuver himself and May into position so that they can deal with several hidden gunmen that have surrounded the temple. After a few swift take-downs, Ward and May find themselves in something of a Mexican Standoff (or is that Peruvian Standoff?) with several armed soldiers. Coulson emerges from the temple to deal with the situation, when the troop’s Commandant, Camilla Reyes (Leonor Varela) shows up. Apparently, she and Coulson have a history – and from her welcome, it appears to be a very friendly one at that.
Just as they’re getting reacquainted, the area is attacked by local rebels who are also intent on gaining the device, and the S.H.I.E.L.D. team extracts both the device as well as the Commandant and several of her soldiers. The damage to the airplane happens due to a dispute over the ownership of the device; Reyes is not entirely what she once was, nor what she seems. Fitz has discovered through his analysis that the device is powered by Tesseract energy, a highly unstable form of otherworldly power already seen in several of the theatrical releases (beginning with Captain America: The First Avenger). This is bad news, as anything could potentially set the weapon off, and an airplane flying at 30,000 feet is not the best containment for such a device. Ward is angry that Fitz didn’t fill him on the dangers of the device before bringing it aboard; Fitz is pissed off at Ward for grabbing it; Skye thinks she should be the “team captain;” and Simmons stands around looking shocked. Coulson tells them to work it out, and goes to debrief Reyes. The argument within the group felt a bit contrived, as it devolved into a shouting match despite the fact that they are supposed to be a group of highly capable professionals, all the best at what they do. It goes counter to their characters as built up in the first episode that, when faced with crisis, they’d resort to petty bickering and name-calling. From a story-building perspective, it appears that the reason for this is that later in the episode, they can show just how wonderful a team they can be. Team-building! Without the Trust Falls!
Coulson realizes that Reyes is up to no good, right around the same time that Ward realizes that the Peruvian soldiers are not actually drinking. All hell breaks loose, with the soldiers getting the upper hand by threatening Fitz’s life, and gassing Agent May in the cockpit (they may not know she’s the Cavalry yet, but they took the right agent out). Apparently the weapon was built with German World War II technology – the Tesseract power plus the German connection means we have a genuine HYDRA weapon on-hand, and the Peruvian government not only knew about it, but wants it back in order to put down the local rebellion.
This is when the team-building happens. Skye has a moment of dreamy optimism where she extols the virtue of crowd-sourcing, and Ward echoes her insights. May doesn’t seem to buy into the whole “let’s work together” ethos, but is willing to do the necessary work to get the team out of trouble. Each member utilizes their areas of specialty: May drives the truck through into the lab, giving the team access; Fitz sends up one of his drones to activate the weapon with an energy burst, thus blowing a hole in the side of the plane (we’ve now caught up to the opening scene); Simmons encourages Fitz and looks concerned; and Skye looks like she doesn’t know what to do.
Now, we’ve all seen dozens of films and television shows where a plane suffers an explosive decompression. People get sucked out of the airplane, there is much screaming and gnashing of teeth, and people nearly fly out only to be grasped at the last moment by their ally/enemy, depending on the show. All of this happens here, but it’s old and just a little bit silly. Most audiences nowadays, especially the demographic that ABC is after with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., are sophisticated enough to know that a) this kind of decompression only lasts a few seconds before the air inside equalizes with the pressure of the air outside, and b) if they’re flying at 30,000 feet (a height mentioned several times), anyone not wearing an oxygen mask would likely pass out, also in seconds. The decompression here? It lasts for about five minutes, long enough for the team to fight their way upstairs from the cargo hold, to fight off the bad guys, for several soldiers to be sucked out the hole (with Coulson almost joining them), for Coulson to save Reyes and tie her up, and for Skye to finally realize her purpose in tonight’s episode. See, she was given a safety brochure when she first came aboard, given to her almost as a joke. But in fact this was FORESHADOWING. Apparently, the safety brochure was the gun over the mantle, as we see it suddenly show up here in Act 3, pasting itself to her face in minute four of the five minute slow-motion explosive decompression. She fights off the ferocious brochure blowing winds, finds an inflatable life raft, and inflates it – just in time for it to miraculously plug the hole as Agent Ward goes flying toward it. This, just after another soldier got sucked out into midair. I just have to say that S.H.I.E.L.D. must really know how to build inflatable rafts; once it inflates, it is strong enough to maintain its integrity over the hole that just sucked out several 200 pound men, all without even showing a pressure dimple in the flimsy plastic bottom of the raft. Liquid ceramic injectors? Reinforced (inflatable) steel fiber? Hard to say, but certainly beyond my ken.
The episode ends with two unrelated but very interesting scenes: Skye sends a text message to her Rising Tide hacker collective, stating “I’m in.” And Coulson receives a dressing down from Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), over his inability to keep the mobile command center in good repair, threatening him with a Winnebago. Both scenes help the episode end on a positive note, although the issues I have with the episode make it somewhat of a mixed bag for me.
The main focus of “0-8-4” is teamwork, but if anything, it began to show some gaps in the super team Coulson has gathered. Simmons came out the worst of the bunch, mostly looking concerned, scared, or at a loss for most of the episode. Skye, too, goes from apparently floundering to saving the day, to possible traitor. Hard to read. For me, though, the biggest failing of tonight’s episode was the lack of believability. That may seem a strange word to use in relation to a show that focuses on people with superhuman powers, godlike beings, and alien artifacts, but if you’re setting the story in a known world (such as Earth) with known physics (such as those of the known universe), then you need to remain consistent and respect your audience. Superhero shows, or shows that cater to people who love comics and things geek, are going to attract an audience that knows explosive decompression is rapid; that knows an inflatable raft is going to just get sucked right through that hole (if the decompression is still happening); and that the characters exposed to the decreased air pressure at 30,000 feet aren’t going to be sitting around enjoying a drink or complaining about the damage to the airplane – they’ll be passed out from lack of oxygen. That this was the key plot device to get the team to work together and to escape from their hijacking makes this mistake all the more grievous. Treat your audience with respect, or you will lose it.
Steve’s Grade: B-
Still a largely enjoyable outing, despite the bad misuse of plot devices and heavy-handed foreshadowing that treats its audience like a bunch of oblivious illiterates. A bit of a hiccup in episode two – it will be interesting to see how things shape up in episode three.