After last week’s return to solid action and superhero (or villain) -esque plotting, the teasers for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s fourth outing in its inaugural season look to continue with more of the same. This time, it’s former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and Coulson protege Akela Amador (Pascale Armand), who not only seems to have gone rogue, but seems to have somehow developed superpowers along the way. While ABC and Joss Whedon have indicated that Agents will focus less on superheroes and super-villains than the big-screen adaptations (primarily due to budget constraints), it is heartening to see that they are doing what they can to remind viewers that this is a pretty amazing universe full of powers far beyond most mortal beings – even those with lesser powers (and a smaller budget) than a Thor or a Hulk can still do a lot of damage. Fortunately for us, then, we have Agent Coulson on our side.
<<Spoiler Alert: This review of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. S01E04, “Eye-Spy,” will discuss major plot points and events in the episode – read at your own risk!>>
The episode opens with a rather sinister looking group of men in identical suits, carrying identical metal briefcases handcuffed to their arms, wearing identical red masks, walking through the city of Stockholm. Many people are obviously intrigued, taking videos and pictures with their cameras, but one woman seems to be much more focused: Akela Amador. She follows a group of men into the subway and onto a train. She looks at them, closes her eyes, and then smashes what looks like an alarm box, but which somehow turns off all the lights in the car. When the train arrives in the next station, all the masked men are down – and one is missing his briefcase and his left hand, although at least the hand is still nearby. We then see the thief on a support strut over the tracks, looking at the contents of her pilfered suitcase: a pound or two of beautiful cut diamonds.
Coulson decides to go to Stockholm to investigate. He doesn’t tell the team at first what his interest in the case is, and as soon as May and Ward find out what his interest is, they try to convince him to ask S.H.I.E.L.D. for help. Amador, it turns out, was initially trained as a S.H.I.E.L.D. field agent by Coulson himself, and she has a bit of a history of turning on her teammates. Even May (“the Cavalry”) realizes that they might be going in over their heads. In addition, this is the third time Amador has committed a similar heist, amounting to approximately 30 million dollars in stolen diamonds. No one can figure out how she’s able to breach increasingly tough security each time, and Skye proposes something she claims is a little outside the box – to which Coulson replies, “I live outside the box.” Her suggestion, ESP, is quickly rebuffed, as are May and Ward’s attempts to convince Coulson to bring in S.H.I.E.L.D. proper, and they follow the trail to Belarus.
Meanwhile, Amador fences the diamonds she stole for a key card – it must open some pretty serious doors to be worth that much. When the team arrives in Belarus, all of them save for May drive into town to try to find Amador. May calls in to Ward – “Bus to Short Bus” – and Coulson tells Ward that he’ll choose the nicknames next time. They both leave the van, and Skye helps Fitz and Simmons to try to find any encrypted transmissions into the quiet town, expecting that they may be new orders for Amador. She also calls Ward to ask a rather sensitive question – there are no toilet facilities in the vehicle – and Ward tells her there’s a container they can use in the bottom of the blue cooler: an empty water bottle. Skye gives him a brief anatomy lesson over the phone, and Ward hangs up. Shortly thereafter, Coulson and Ward find a woman who calls Amador her angel, and tells them that she sees things; in fact, she saved this woman’s life by telling her to go to the doctor, a visit which revealed the presence of a tumor. While they are speaking with her, the team back in the van focus in on an unusual and encrypted television signal – one that seems to be broadcasting a picture of their van. Suddenly it drops into x-ray mode, and the team can see themselves, just as Amador runs a truck into them, knocking the van sideways into a ditch as she makes her getaway.
Back on the Bus, they manage to localize Amador’s broadcast, and find out where it is originating – from her eye (hence the rather clever title for this week’s episode). But that’s not all. Just as May and Ward appear ready to go over Coulson’s head, they all see Amador writing a note: “Can I sleep?” A moment later, a message types out across the feed: “Stand by.” Coulson grits his teeth and says, “She isn’t being watched. She’s being controlled.” All the pieces come together in this moment: she isn’t committing these crimes because she’s gone rogue; she’s doing it because she is being made to by a third party, and one of her eyes is in fact a very complex robotic piece, capable of x-ray vision and in possession of its own power source. Coulson’s gut instinct again proves correct, and the team is ready to move on Amador.
Once they can see everything that Amador can see, it is only a matter of time before they are able to locate her. The first one to do so is May, and she decides to go deal with Amador on her own. We find out that the observers do not have an audio feed, but that there is a kill switch in the eye. If she tries to go in with May, she’ll be killed. The two fight, and Coulson arrives just in time to prevent Amador from shooting May. It wasn’t really a fair fight: May was winning handily, until Amador knocked out the lights and used her cheat-o-(or x-ray) vision. The team rigs a replacement for Amador’s feed running into a pair of glasses worn by Ward, while Fitz and Simmons attempt to remove the eye and its kill switch.
Under instruction from the faceless, nameless handler, Ward infiltrates a research facility in Minsk, while Skye rides shotgun and support. He is able to enter a sanctum deep within the complex with a group of men working on what appear to be World War II era encryption machines. On a chalkboard are a series of drawings that look like a cross somewhere between an algebraic formula and an electrician’s diagram. The words “Mission accomplished. Good luck” flash across his glasses. As he’s evading gun-wielding security guards, he inadvertently looks in a mirror, exposing to Amador’s handler that it isn’t in fact her feed that he is receiving. He yells at Simmons to cut the wire connecting Amador’s eye, and he does so, Fitz throwing it into a containment bin just as it detonates. Ward manages to make it out of the building just ahead of gun-wielding security, and May is able to guide Coulson to Amador’s handler based on localizing his broadcasts. He approaches a rather disheveled looking man and identifies himself as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. The man says, “Oh no,” and his right eye clouds over – he falls over dead. Apparently, he too had a handler, and how deep this goes nobody yet knows.
Again we see in this episode technologies and hints of technologies (the chalk diagram) that are far beyond the ken of what S.H.I.E.L.D. has at its disposal. This is a wonderful way to build tension. In addition, this fits with the theme we’ve seen so far this season: whenever it appears that superpowers are being used (Mike Peterson’s super strength and the tossing about of vehicles at the beginning of last week’s episode), it is in fact some form of exotic technology that is behind the mystery. Even the one episode that didn’t have anyone seeming to exhibit powers (“0-8-4”) put the spotlight on a piece of tesseract-powered weaponry. If gadgetry and gewgaws is the route that Whedon wants to go with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., it may prove to be a fine alternative to the inevitable demand to see heroes and villains fairly often. After all, the heroes deal with the superhuman enemies, and Coulson et al deal with the humans trying to utilize other-worldly and super-advanced technologies. It ultimately makes for just as high stakes a struggle as any that Tony Stark or Thor face, with the very real possibility of losing team members (this episode does mention that Amador lost her team mates, and was almost killed herself).
I really enjoyed tonight’s episode. It was tightly written, with a great deal of humor and camaraderie between team-members. Skye is mildly admonished by Coulson (“Don’t call my Phil”), so she pointedly starts calling him “A.C.” Ward goes to bat for those members of the team he sees as weaker or needing protection, only to have them show that they are ready to work and able to shake off the attack made on them by Amador. May tries to protect Coulson by dealing with Amador herself, only to find that she’s the one that needs protection. Fitz and Simmons are effective and efficient as always, and there’s even a hint that Simmons might be getting a bit soft on Skye – although she’s making it increasingly clear that she is more than interested in Ward. And the mystery of Coulson’s “recovery” gets another tantalizing clue; Amador, who knew him very well, asks May what they’ve done to him, going so far as to ask where the Coulson she knows is now. Some really good stuff.
Steve’s Grade: A-
For my money the best episode of the season so far, with a great combination of tension, teamwork, humor, and growing camaraderie. It looks like the wheels just might be rolling on this bus after all.