<Spoiler Alert: This review discusses plot points of the S01E03 “The Asset” episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.>
Due to a series of unforeseen events, I was unable to watch the third episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. until this evening, two days after air. While last week’s “0-8-4” felt a little flat to me, I was left with a good taste in my mouth by the surprise cameo at the very end of the show (done in true Marvel fashion, after the television equivalent of end credits – the final commercial break). That positive feeling was only improved after watching this week’s much more entertaining edition, although for reasons I will go into after the break, I think that “Muscle Memory” would have been a better title than “The Asset.”
The episode opens with a teaser sequence that included some nice special effects, with SUVs shooting through the air like leaves from a blower. They’re supporting a big rig that we find out is carrying a S.H.I.E.L.D. asset, as the driver frantically calls in for support during the attack, before the big rig itself is suddenly lifted a good hundred feet into the air, and dropped back down again. Coulson’s team is rerouted to Colorado to find out exactly what happened.
Initially I thought that we were going to see some sort of super-powered villain in this episode, as the vehicles being batted looked like they were being tossed by some sort of invisible Hulk-like force, but Fitz-Simmons quickly dispel this theory, as they find a tiny object no bigger than a jack, and shaped something like a combination tesseract cube/Dyson Sphere, but which most closely resembles the embedded concentric rotating circles seen in previous SF vehicles such as Contact or the mass relays from the Mass Effect series of games. There’s something about circles within circles that just screams “SF” going all the way back to Ezekiel. (PS: If anyone knows the technical term for this kind of geometric shape, I would love to hear it!) Skye asks what it is, and Coulson replies, enigmatically, “Something big.”
As the team is working, we’re told that the asset that was taken was a Dr. Franklin Hall (Ian Hart), a physicist who was once one of Fitz and Simmons’ instructors. This knowledge, combined with the way the small device affects the local gravity when energized, gives the team the direction the need to find who has taken him. As we find that Hill has been taken by a very wealthy, very smart billionaire (Ian Quinn, played by David Conrad), I found it a little hard to believe that any team hired by him would leave something so important as a gravity thingamabob (my official name for it until someone tells me what it’s called) behind; then again, it could be argued that they needed to work quickly enough that S.H.I.E.L.D. wouldn’t be able to stop them, and perhaps didn’t have enough time to find all their gewgaws. And to be fair, the episode was strong enough that a little suspension of disbelief is fine here.
The team heads to Malta, a small country in the Mediterranean located south of Sicily on a direct line toward Tripoli, Libya. Fiercely independent, they have a ban on all S.H.I.E.L.D. activity on their territory; in addition, Quinn’s compound is highly fortified, meaning that the team has only two options: a full frontal assault, or working from the inside. Fitz laments their lack of a monkey, as one would do nicely for infiltrating and turning off the defenses, and the team discusses alternatives, while Skye is busy tapping away at her smart phone that seems to have magical S.H.I.E.L.D. wifi and 3G/LTE block-evading mojo (well, she is a leet hacker, so she must have some pretty leet gear). She scores an invite to a big shareholder meeting Quinn is holding, so she becomes the person on the inside.
She uses an unusual tactic to gain access to Quinn’s office. It turns out that he knows who she is…kind of. He knows all about her work with Rising Tide, as it was through her back channel contacts there that she was able to get the invite; Quinn allowed the invite to go to her with the express desire to hire her for her skill set. Skye seems to be genuinely interested, and when cornered by Quinn snooping around inside, she surreptitiously lets him know that S.H.I.E.L.D. is listening. Even though I feel pretty confident that she is a permanent part of the team, I did start to question where she was going with this move – well done bit here, making me question what I thought I knew about her character.
She manages to keep Quinn distracted long enough that she is able to compromise the compound’s security, and just in time – the extraction team of Ward and Coulson are under heavy fire, and are able to use the defenses to protect themselves once they are inside. Coulson goes to look for Dr. Hall, while Ward tries to track down Skye. Quinn, now onto her, has Skye at gunpoint. She utilizes some basic gun disarming training given to her by Ward earlier in the episode (more on this in a moment), but she is not willing to pull the trigger. She jumps from the window, into a pool below, and tries to get away. She gets surrounded, and Ward shows her just how willing he is to stand up for a teammate in need.
Meanwhile, Coulson has found Hall – and apparently the good doctor engineered his own kidnapping. He knew Quinn had discovered a new element, atomic number 123, the fabled “Gravitonium” that Dr. Hall had himself theorized twenty years earlier. Quinn has brought him here to work on it, but Hall has other plans. He intends to destroy the Gravitonium, Quinn, his compound, and from the sounds of it, half of Malta, all in an effort to save millions of lives that may potentially be lost if Quinn is able to harness its immense power. Side note: as a name for a made-up element, I find this far preferable to James Cameron’s rather silly sounding “Unobtainium.”
As Hall and Coulson fight, and Coulson tries to talk the doctor down, all hell breaks loose as gravity starts to go a little wacky. (This is actually the point at which Skye makes her initial escape – the episode does a nice job of inter-cutting between the four scenes that are all occurring concurrently: Coulson and Hall, Skye and Quinn, Ward, and the other three back on the airplane). I loved some of the touches here: Coulson picking out the suit he is going to wear, from a rack of identical suits; Coulson then wearing that suit as he comes on to shore on a zodiac, while Ward is outfitted in full tactical gear; and agent May practically jumping out of her skin as she listens to everyone else who has infiltrated the base – you can practically see her itching to be there in their place. There was, however, one pretty glaring issue here: where is the airplane? May, Fitz, and Simmons are all aboard, and are close enough that they are able to maintain real-contact in the other agents’s earpieces with no discernible lag (say from satellites or the like). As Malta has a strict no-S.H.I.E.L.D. policy, and the plane isn’t exactly easy to camouflage, I feel the writers just tried to gloss over this bit of information as unimportant.
After Coulson and Hall fight it out in the ever-worsening gravity near the device, Coulson shoots out the shielding window between the control room and the gravitonium, and Hall falls into its heart, somehow stopping the reaction in the process. The device with its large supply of gravitonium is placed in a very secure vault, Skye looks to be dedicated to her S.H.I.E.L.D. teammates for the first time, and May lets Coulson know that she’s ready for combat duty – she’d rather he not put himself at risk anymore.
Now to get to why I think “Muscle Memory” would have been a better title for this episode. Certainly, “The Asset” works fine – Hall is one asset, and we discover that Skye brings unique assets to the team as well. But muscle memory keeps coming up, and hints at some of the broader multi-episode story arcs that have only been hinted at so far. It’s first mentioned when Ward is training Skye to disarm a gun-wielding opponent. He tells her she needs to practice until it become instinctual, part of her muscle memory. Later, we see Coulson trying to dismantle a gun, and much to his frustration he is unable to – he comments about his muscle memory, and that he must be a little rusty. This happens again right at the end of the episode, and again he comments on his muscle memory. Combine this with a comment he makes to May earlier in the episode – that he saw plenty of action with the Avengers, and her reply, “Yes, and it killed you,” and we see another piece of the Tahiti puzzle fall into place. If the Agent Coulson we see in this series isn’t a clone with implanted memories, I will be very surprised indeed. So while the episode is purportedly about S.H.I.E.L.D. assets in the form of Hall and Skye, I think the real asset that the title refers to is Coulson himself – he is so valuable, that they have back-up copies of him ready to go. His lack of muscle memory fits.
To finish the episode, there was another Marvel-esque post-climax zinger. No cameo this time, but a solid hint that we will, in fact, get to see a super-villain of sorts at some future date. And Quinn managed to make good his escape by helicopter, so I think we can expect to see him again in future episodes. Shows like this need some occasional continuity, even if the majority of episodes are intended to be one-offs. It’s nice to see the seeds being planted here already (much like the doctor from the pilot episode, who also gets away). Overall, a much better episode than last week’s uneven outing.
Steve’s Grade: B+
A strong third episode which, with it’s exotic locations and high-tech gizmos, felt almost like an old-school Bond film with a few extra agents running around. The series looks to be back on track.