Trust the System: A Review of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 1, Episode 7 “The Hub”

Posted: November 13, 2013 in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Reviews, TV
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Last week’s episode spent a fair amount of time focusing on Fitz and Simmons, with Simmons being the primary focus of the latter half of the hour. Tonight, we get to see Fitz in action, placed in situations he’s not exactly been trained for. The previews would have us believe that Fitz and Ward are placed in an untenable situation, one from which they might not return, but can they find a way to use their unique skills to extract themselves from a hairy situation?

<<Spoiler Alert: This review of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. S01E07 – “The Hub” – will discuss major plot points and events in the episode; read at your own risk!>>

The opening has a hooded and handcuffed man being led down a dingy corridor by two burly eastern European types – swarthy complexion, military uniforms, unshaven faces. They bring him into a room with a couple more guards, and they sit the man down on a chair, pulling off his hood: it’s Coulson. They speak in Russian, saying that the interrogator is coming, and he replies in English that he’s looking forward to seeing him. One of the guards punches Coulson in the face, as the interrogator arrives. He starts going over his instruments, when Coulson asks, “Do you have the intel on you? They know. We have three minutes, Agent Shaw.” With that, May and Ward break into the room, and Coulson’s cuffs snap open in a shower of sparks. Each takes out a guard, with Agent Shaw throwing a knife to take out the last one. They use sleds pulled by tethers to get back to the bus. This scene is interesting for a couple of reasons. Again, it fills in some pieces with Coulson (we now know either that he is fluent in Russian, or that he has a transceiver that can instantly translate for him; plus we see again that he is more than willing to take to the front lines with his team), as well as showing how coldly efficient Agent May, in her side role as The Cavalry, and Agent Ward can be when dealing with enemies. The idea that the team is being used to extract an individual S.H.I.E.L.D. agent in a dangerous situation also acts as a foreshadowing for the entire episode, as we will see as we discuss the rest of the events below.

We move to the bus, where Simmons is removing a data module from deep within Agent Shaw’s sinuses. It is a scene reminiscent of Arnold Schwarzenegger removing the tracking device in the original Total Recall (1990), although that was a lot more graphic. Once she has the data, Coulson takes it, thanking Shaw for his work. As he passes through the plane, Fitz offers to decode it, and Skye offers to hack the information, but he turns to them and tells them it’s classified: it’s rated Level 8. They’re taking it to The Hub for processing. The Hub is S.H.I.E.L.D.’s super-secret headquarters, the location of which is classified. I’m going to guess it’s somewhere near the Black Sea, though, because the extraction takes place in a Russian-speaking location, and the rest of the episode is in South Ossetia – which is located in the Caucasus mountains near Georgia. Plus, the team is within a short flying distance via the bus, as we see at the end of the episode.

Once at The Hub, the team gets i.d. badges – except for Skye, whose bracelet is her badge. They are greeted by Agent Jasper Sitwell (Maximiliano Hernandez, reprising his role from Thor, The Avengers, and two of the Marvel One-Shots), who tells Coulson that “He’s glad to see you’re feeling better,” yet another allusion to Coulson’s grievous injury and death. The members with Level 7 or higher clearance are briefed on the mission by Agent Victoria Hand (Saffron Burrows, playing a role that will be familiar to readers of Marvel comics, especially the New Avengers arc). Fitz and Simmons are particularly excited that the team is meeting with her, although they do not have high enough clearance to attend the meeting. Skye has it even worse – as she tries to follow through the door after Coulson, her bracelet suddenly lights up, and gets pulled hard against a wall sensor, effectively holding her there, as alarms sound. She gets abandoned by everyone.

Inside the briefing, we find out about a super weapon called “Overkill” – in a nice bit of meta-writing, Hand actually apologizes for the melodramatic name, which came across as a nod from the writers to their audience that sometimes names are literally pulled out of a hat (to be polite) when dealing with a MacGuffin. It is some sort of EMP-like weapon that particularly targets weapons systems, either putting them out of commission, or otherwise usurping control, and the South Ossetian separatists that control it are threatening to unleash its power in 24 hours. Hand tells Coulson that she needs a very specific skill set in order to go after this device, and that two members of his team possess these skills. May and Ward step forward expectantly – Ward mentioning that he has worked in the area before and has contacts. Ward is one of the members Hand is talking about, but then she clarifies that she also needs someone who can dismantle and disable the device on-site. May looks surprised and steps back: it’s Fitz Hand wants. They move out into the hallway to see Fitz trying to push a cart of supplies through one of the many automatic doors in The Hub. The cart is stuck, and he can’t move it, finally managing to push it through only to get himself stuck on the other side. Ward looks concerned. “Seriously,” he says, watching Fitz struggling with simply going through a door.

Back on the bus, Simmons is helping Fitz get ready for the mission, packing his things, going over checklists, and giving him his favorite sandwich (prosciutto with buffalo mozzarella). She’s very concerned, which she shows through her nervous verbal ticks and her non-stop chatter. I’m enjoying where the writers are taking these two. Skye shows up and hands him a full-size mag pouch, which comes in handy a while later. In the map room, May and Coulson are briefing Ward, when Fitz and Simmons enter. Fitz looks pretty nervous, but Simmons and he share a nice smile as he accompanies Ward out of the room.

The rest of the episode splits into two parts, one part following the mission, and the other events on The Hub. I’ll cover them separately below, rather than following the back and forth scene jumping that makes up both Acts II and III.

Fitz and Ward are driving to meet one of Ward’s contacts at a local dive, and Fitz is chattering about Simmons. Ward is focused, and obviously already annoyed with his new partner. They arrive at their destination, and Ward sets a beacon (disguised as a rock) outside before they enter. Unfortunately, he finds out that his contact, Yuri, is dead – and that he has no friends among the bar patrons. The pair are tied up and taken into a back room, awaiting the arrival of the boss – who turns out to be a large, red-faced woman in peasant dress. She accuses them of working with the separatists, which Ward denies. He asks for her trust, but she tells him he’s given them no reason for trust. Just as they are about to be shot, the lights suddenly drop out – but more importantly, the television which is showing a soccer match also dies. We next see Fitz being held upside down by his feet in a hole. Is he being tortured? No, he’s trying to fix a wiring issue. With a whir of electricity, all the lights and the TV come back on, and suddenly Fitz is everyone’s best friend, drinking vodka with the boss. He opens negotiations, which result in us seeing Fitz and Ward in the back of a truck full of beer kegs, where Ward is complaining about the cost of their insertion across the border: two million rubles (about $60k US). “I thought they were like pesos,” Fitz explains. He redeems his poor negotiating skills, however, when he tells Ward that he caused the power outage, thus saving them back in the bar. Just then they hear voices, and as Ward is about to check out what is happening, shots are fired. As soldiers approach the back of the truck, Ward throws out two kegs and then shoots them, throwing the soldiers back and momentarily stunning them – but more are arriving. Fitz starts yelling and runs, Ward in pursuit.

They hole-up in a large drainage pipe, and wait out the chase. As it gets dark, Fitz pulls out his sandwich – which Ward promptly grabs and throws into a nearby pool of water. Fitz is very angry, even after Ward explains to him that they are using dogs to look for them, and a pungent prosciutto sandwich is not a great choice at this particular moment. When morning breaks, they are laid out on a road, lying in what appears to be a sleeping bag – which turns out to be the mag pouch Skye brought him earlier on the bus. As a truck approaches, they zip it up, and when the vehicle goes over them, they get sucked up and stuck beneath it, thus granting them access to the separatist base.

They approach the building that houses the weapon, and as Fitz sets up a portable x-ray viewer to check the number of enemies inside, Ward signals for the extraction team. A look of realization hits his face as he gets no response. Meanwhile, Fitz is telling him that there are two armed guards – no, three – inside. To his surprise, the third attacks the other two, and then moves directly toward them. It’s Ward, who has now gone into action mode, realizing that they have to complete the mission and find their own way out. They move to the device, and Fitz goes to work. As he nears the end of the process, Ward asks him to tell him the final couple of steps so that he can send Fitz out early. He tells Fitz that the “extraction is a bust,” and as Coulsen wanted him to take care of Fitz on the mission, he wants Fitz to be safe and get out. Fitz reacts by telling him that he’s just as much a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent as Ward is. At first it looks like Fitz is getting into a “you saved my girlfriend when I wanted to” mode, and Ward tries to calm him – “I know you would have jumped out of the airplane” he tells him – but that’s not actually the point Fitz is trying to make. Although it seems he is being petty initially, he is in fact trying to tell Ward that Coulson had the same conversation with him: take care of Ward. This surprises Ward, but he stops trying to make Fitz leave, and they work together. As the last piece comes loose, alarms start, and moments later, bombs begin to fall: S.H.I.E.L.D. military forces are attacking the installation to ensure that the weapon doesn’t get used.

Ward tells Fitz to take the high ground, and to try to use the weapon on the guns the soldiers are carrying. This proves highly effective, the weapon causing the guns to spark and break apart, and Ward is able to take out most of the now unarmed men. He gets surprised and is forced up against a ladder, pinned by a larger man. Fitz gets his moment, as he climbs down a couple of rungs and kicks the soldier square in the head, knocking him out. “I did that,” he says, surprised, and Ward agrees, equally surprised and impressed. They go outside, only to be confronted by several dozen men carrying automatic weapons…

Back at The Hub, Simmons is visibly upset, and is talking with Skye about her concerns. They try to get information from May, who tells them that they know what they need to know. We see Coulson and Hand talking about the mission. She calls him one of “Fury’s favorites,” and points out that not everyone gets to go to Tahiti. Coulson begins to reply in auto-pilot: “It’s a…magical…place.” He hesitates mid-sentence, as he realizes that this is some sort of autonomic response hard-wired into his brain. Cut to him walking by Skye and Simmons, where Skye tries to get him to tell them how the mission is going. He refuses, telling her to “Trust the system,” and walks away. Skye says to Simmons, “He’s acting like a robot version of himself.” This is a clear hint at Coulson being a Life Model Decoy (LMD), but it is interesting that it is Skye, who barely knows him, who is making the observation. Is Coulson’s condition changing? Is his own increasing self-awareness causing him to act differently? Meanwhile, Skye tries to convince Simmons to help her hack into the S.H.I.E.L.D. computers so that they can find out what’s happening to the men. Simmons tells her, “I can’t be a part of your bad girl shenanigans,” but Skye plays on her sympathies, using Simmons’ fear and concern for Fitz to co-opt her help.

The next scene is back on the bus, where May is silently practicing Tai Chi. Coulson enters and asks if they can talk. He is struggling over what to reveal to the team and not, as he is fighting between his own policy (trust the system), and his loyalty to this team he has put together, and who trust him implicitly. He argues his own points back and forth, and then thanks May for her help – she rolls her eyes and continues with her Tai Chi, not having said a single word. May is turning into Coulson’s conscience, something which enables Coulson to work out problems verbally that normally would be kept inside, thus allowing more character development for the audience to see. As we discussed in last week’s review, May has gone through a similar trauma to Coulson – remember, he stopped her before she could talk about it, but it is certainly possible that she, too, has died and come back. This makes her a natural voice of reason for Coulson to deal with; if she went through what he is going through, she went through it years before, and will thus have wisdom and experience to share with him.

Back in The Hub, Skye is sitting on her computer, speaking through a transceiver in Simmons’ ear as she tries to access a wall panel and plug Skye in directly through a USB port. As she gets the panel opened, she’s confronted by Agent Sitwell, who asks her what she’s doing there. Her attempts to act natural go awkwardly awry (she starts talking about how sexy and shiny Sitwell’s bald head is), and as he pulls out a communicator in order to get security, Simmons draws her go-to-sleep gun and shoots him in the chest. She plugs in the USB device, and runs back to Skye, who tells her to go get May, as she is in a lot of trouble. Skye begins her hack. She figures she has three minutes before S.H.I.E.L.D. security is on to her, and it takes her two minutes just to get into the system. As she is about to check out current missions, she notices a file labelled “Redacted Documents.” She can’t resist the urge, and goes inside, quickly finding the documents she already has copies of. Before she can try to find the unredacted copies, she realizes that she’s down to thirty seconds, and goes back to trying to find out information on Ward and Fitz. She does, and gasps at what she sees: they have no planned extraction. They’re on a suicide mission. Just as she discovers this, footsteps approach. It’s Coulson, and he slams her laptop closed. “What did I tell you?” he says, obviously fighting to control his anger. She replies, not bothering to hide her own indignation, “You told me to trust the system, and the system sent Ward and Fitz in there to die.” She tries to lay the blame for her actions on Coulson – he told her to work outside the box, after all – but he tells her that they need a book to play by, rules to guide them, or there is no box to play outside of. It’s a fine line he’s asking her to play here, where he values her unorthodox approach, but still wants her to be a team player. She’s definitely getting mixed signals. After all, she hardly seems to face any repercussions when she does break the rules, a precedent that is not changed by events here on The Hub, where you’d think that Coulson would least be able to hide or defend her actions.

We next see Coulson talking with Hand. She’s laying into him for Sitwell being shot – he’s in the infirmary being treated – but Coulson turns the tables, asking her why he wasn’t informed that there was no extraction for Ward and Fitz. He’s furious with her, saying it should have been on the table from the start, and that Ward and Fitz should have been able to make their own choices. She tells him to “Trust the system” – but you can definitely see that he is doubting his own advice at this point. She also hints that she knows Skye was hacking, but he doesn’t give her up, refusing to say how he knows there isn’t an extraction planned. This scene is particularly interesting in that it shows some of the internal politics of S.H.I.E.L.D. at work. There is a definite hierarchy here, and a constant ethic of “need to know” that has some very negative repercussions for those further down the pecking order.

Back on the bus, May is leading Skye and Simmons through the cargo bay as they talk about doing the extraction themselves. May isn’t angry at the methods Skye and Simmons used to get the information – she just wants to act on it. She’s explaining to Skye and Simmons that “You don’t need a battalion for an extraction; three can pull it off.” “Four’s better,” Coulson says, standing on the walkway above them. When Skye points out that you need to be Level 8 to even be discussing the situation, Coulson points out, “We’re not discussing anything.” In The Hub control room, the beacon lights up on the map of South Ossetia, indicating that Fitz has disarmed the weapon, and Hand tells the S.H.I.E.L.D. forces to begin their attack.

Now the two story-lines join up, as Fitz and Ward are facing the group of enemies approaching. There is the roar of jets, as the bus comes into view above them, it’s jets pointed downward to give it vertical lift. Fitz looks up, “It’s the extraction team.” Ward replies, “Better. It’s the cavalry.” May spins the plane around and aims the jet wash at the soldiers, scattering them and giving Fitz and Ward time to get aboard. We head back to The Hub to see Hand and Sitwell discussing the mission. “I thought there wasn’t going to be an extraction,” Sitwell says, and Hand agrees. She does, however, suggest that Coulson’s team knows how to take care of itself, and thus had no need for an orthodox extraction. This is either a cop-out from someone who is too willing to sacrifice others for her own needs, or it is an honest appraisal of the kind of team Coulson is able to inspire. Only further episodes showing agent interactions is likely to shed any light on which if either this is, but I do know one thing: at the top, it seems to be an every agent for themselves mentality, and Coulson will need to watch not only his own back, but the backs of his team as well. This could go a long way toward explaining his extremely patient demeanor toward Skye, despite her constant flaunting of the rules. If he in fact wants her to flaunt them, but can’t overtly tell her to do so, this is exactly how he needs to act toward her. I have enough faith in Whedon as a story-arc thinker to believe that this is part of what he is actually doing here, but I just wish they hadn’t turned Skye into such a Mary-Sue to begin with – it’s made her hard to sympathize with, although she is getting a little more likable each episode that she isn’t the main focus.

The end of the episode sees Simmons asking Fitz if he enjoyed his sandwich, to which he replies that it was delicious. Apparently, he’s learning a little something about human psychology, despite his usually distracted approach. Coulson takes Skye aside, and tells her he has more information about her redacted files. He tells her that all he knows for certain is that she was dropped off at the orphanage by a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, and that she was a woman. He says he’ll try to get more information as he is able. We cut to his private office, where May is sitting. This decision by the director, to talk about a female agent dropping Skye off, and then cutting to a close-up of May, made me immediately think – is May Skye’s mother? This, too, would explain a lot of the leeway that has been given to Skye since she joined the team. Coulson tells May about his conversation with Skye, and that he’s going to keep some information back for now, and he asks May to help him with her. I found this decision to be somewhat problematic – he’s been working on building trust within the team, and he’s gone out of his way to get their backs even when they’ve screwed up. Skye has consistently used the knowledge she has gained to help the team, so I don’t really see what his motivation is in keeping things from her at this point. I’m hoping more will become clear in the upcoming weeks. May agrees to help him, and says, “Dangerous waters.” She looks down at Skye’s open file before her – a photograph of a woman, possibly the agent (and not May, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything at this point), and a woman’s body face down in a pool of blood. “Poor girl,” May says.

The stinger has Coulson on the phone, trying to get information on his own recovery. He’s told he doesn’t have clearance, to which he replies that he’s Level 8. Still, the voice says, he doesn’t have clearance to see the file. Coulson looks stunned, and not a little angry. If playing by the rules, “trusting the system” as it were, gets him nowhere, they why does he advise others to follow this path?

This was, start to finish, the most complete episode so far in my opinion. It had a clear objective, there was a nice focus on a lesser-used character (Fitz), there was some character growth (especially with regards to Coulson, as well as the Fitz-Simmons pairing, but also with Ward in his newfound respect for Fitz, and Skye as she seems to be getting in good even with the hardened May), we learned more S.H.I.E.L.D. lore, there were nods to the movies (Sitwell) and the comics (Hand), and I think, for the first time, we got real proof of just how autonomous Fury intends Coulson’s team to be. In past episodes I have struggled with how members of the team have done things (especially Skye) that should have had them up on courtmarshall, or kicked out of S.H.I.E.L.D. and into prison faster than Skye could bat her eyelashes and act all innocent, and yet have had hardly more than a slap (or a bracelet) on the wrist to show for it. But for the team to go into The Hub, to act they way they did – the hacking, Simmons shooting Sitwell, Coulson breaking rank to take his team in for an extraction – and to face no reprimands, but rather a kind of grudging respect as shown in the conversation between Sitwell and Hand after the mission was completed, says to me that there is something going on here that we don’t yet know the full depth of. I’m enjoying where the series is heading, and I am especially glad to see it getting stronger as it focuses on different members of the team.

Steve’s Grade: A-
An episode in which Fitz gets to shine, and the Fitz/Simmons relationship develops apace. Coulson is finding unexpected barriers in his way as he tries to learn about himself, while at the same time seeming to overcome seemingly insurmountable barriers against his team. A solid episode.

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Comments
  1. Jeff says:

    Of course if they had been pesos instead of rubles, it would have cost twice as much (about 130k) so I don’t know what all the bitching was about.

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