Over the last several weeks, we have spent time examining the hidden secrets and closeted skeletons of each of the main characters aboard the bus, save for one: Agent May. Tonight, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. promises to change that, and give us a look into the dark, shadowy past of their most stoic member.
<<Spoiler Alert: This review of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. S01E09 – “Repairs” – will discuss major plot points and events in the episode; read at your own risk!>>
The episode begins in a small gas station in Batesville, Utah. The store clerk is reading a headline about an accident at a particle accelerator, when the woman who is pictured in the story shows up and puts some items down on the counter. He tells her one of the four men killed was a friend of his, and it’s her fault he’s dead. Things start to fly off the shelf and hit him as he confronts her, and she huddles into a ball. “Not again,” she says, as the gas pumps outside explode in a fireball.
We jump to a hotel room, where Agent May is putting on her blouse when her transceiver beeps. “We have a mission,” she says, and Ward comes out of the bathroom wearing only a towel. Apparently, they weren’t just talking all night. But wait – this isn’t the first time they’ve enjoyed a tryst. Ward says, “Same plan as before,” and starts talking about alternate routes and staggered arrivals, only to hear the door close – May’s on her way back to the bus.
This is a very promising start to the episode, suggesting that May and Ward have had an ongoing relationship right under everyone’s (even the viewers’) noses. While there are some secrets the writers can’t seem to wait to let out of the bag, hitting us over the head with them week after week (cf. Coulson’s resurrection), here’s one that they kept so well hidden that it took me completely by surprise. I’ll have to spend some time going back to see if there were any subtle hints in earlier episodes that this was happening. The reason I suggest that this is promising is that it shows that perhaps the writers might be starting to trust their audience. I haven’t enjoyed the at times ham-handed approach to symbolism and mystery – it has lacked subtlety and has been, on occasion, insulting to the viewers. If the writers can spring something this big on us (and face it, any kind of tryst within a group as interdependent as this one is supposed to be is pretty major, considering the possible fallout on multiple fronts), then it implies that there are other, bigger secrets that they may also have in store.
Back to the show. Coulson and Skye are discussing the events in Utah, and Coulson tells her that as it is a sensitive operation involving a potentially telekinetic individual, he’ll be sending in May and Ward. Skye objects – she feels that she’s be better equipped. No really legitimate reason is given for this, other than Skye always seems to think she’d be best at handling most things. She refers to Ward and May as “Warm and Fuzzy,” disparaging their ability to bring a non-violent subject in successfully. Fitz/Simmons go about planning how to retrieve the data logs from the particle accelerator, to see if they can figure out what went wrong and if the subject – Hannah Hutchins – caused the accident. Ward, May, and Coulson go to Hutchins’ house, where an angry mob has formed outside ready to try and convict her on the spot. Coulson tries to talk them down, but someone throws an egg, narrowly missing Hutchins. A police cruiser suddenly goes into gear, nearly striking people in the crowd, and a police officer trains his gun on Hutchins – things are quickly escalating out of control. Before they can, however, May hits Hutchins with a tranquilizer. Coulson doesn’t seem too happy, but May is satisfied she did the right thing.
On the bus, Hutchins is placed in isolation while she sleeps off the tranquilizer, and Fitz/Simmons try to recreate the experiment that blew up the accelerator. They lament never having had any freshmen to prank while at the S.H.I.E.L.D. academy, when Simmons suddenly decides that Skye’s unusual status surely qualifies her as a freshman.
Upstairs, Coulson is talking to Ward and May about how long it will take to get to the Fridge (the S.H.I.E.L.D. storage facility in which they hid away the Gravitonium in episode 103, “The Asset”), and what steps they’ve taken to shield the holding cell from possible telekinetic attacks. Coulson mentions in passing that he’s going to take off his tie so that she won’t have a noose handy. May and Coulson go into the cell, and explain that they had to sedate her to bring her here safely. Hutchins takes it quite well, but then reveals that it isn’t her that’s making things move – it’s the demons that God has sent to punish her.
Outside, Fitz/Simmons with Skye are monitoring Hutchins’ brain activity, but all they can see is that she’s upset. Skye scoffs at their need of an EEG to be able to see this, and again expresses her dissatisfaction that May is the one speaking to the subject. She asks where May got her nickname, The Cavalry. Fitz gives Simmons a sly look, and the two of them spin a tale of a mission in Bahrain where, lacking a vehicle, May stormed into a compound and single-handedly defeated one hundred mercenaries in order to save some S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives. Skye seems to buy it, and then tries to fiddle with part of the holographic projection of the particle accelerator. Fitz smacks her hand away, and tells her she needs two semesters of specialized training before she can touch the hologram, and Skye leaves. Fitz/Simmons are quite pleased with themselves over the story they concocted regarding May.
Up in Coulson’s office, he debriefs the team regarding Hutchins’ claims regarding the demons, and they discuss whether she may be delusional, perhaps in connection with the accident at the accelerator. As Coulson finishes talking, we see a shadowy figure behind him, who dissipates out of existence before anyone can see him. After, Skye questions again why she can’t go in to speak with Hutchins – she sees her as a normal, frightened woman who could do with a friendly face. Hutchins’ faith is also questioned, and May says, “People believe what they need to believe to justify their actions.” Pretty heavy moralizing, and just about the longest sentence May has uttered thus far – but very wise. To paraphrase a good friend of mine (while keeping it relatively PG): No one wants to go to bed thinking they’re a jerk. May believes at this point that Hutchins is culpable, but is trying to hide her guilt behind faith and a persecution complex. Before the scene ends, one of Coulson’s trophies falls to the ground. “Odd,” he says, “I thought that was glued on.”
Skye goes to Ward to complain about May and her apparent coldness, and she tells him that May just “needs to get laid.” Ward looks mildly concerned for a moment, but realizes that Skye has no knowledge of what is happening between him and May. He tells her to give May more slack, that she doesn’t understand everything she’s been through. He then proceeds to spin his own yarn about May’s nickname, only this time it’s twenty men, and they were trained assassins.
Meanwhile, Fitz is gathering supplies for the prank he and Simmons are going to pull on Skye. He stands behind Simmons wearing a gas mask and breathing heavily, but she doesn’t even bat an eye. He goes into a storage closet to find more gear, and a shadowy figure appears behind him, disappearing before he can turn. Back in the lounge, Skye and Ward are researching the dead technicians from the accelerator accident, and Skye discovers that one of them, Tobias Ford, seemed to have a large number of complaints requiring Hutchins’ attention as safety inspector. They posit that he may have had it in for her, and was trying to get her into trouble at the lab.
Simmons, alone now that Fitz is gathering items, is going through the holographic recreation of the explosion, when she sees something disturbing: what appears to be a rift opening up at the same time as the explosion, and what looks like a figure of a man stuck in it. She says, “It’s like it opened up a window,” and a voice behind her finishes her sentence, “To Hell.” It’s our shadowy friend, and he’s carrying an enormous pipe wrench, which he brings down, almost hitting Simmons and destroying the holographic projection. Coulson runs into the room and helps Simmons back up – they know now that they’re dealing with an intruder on the bus. The man reappears in a hydraulics control room, and pulls out a fistful of wires. The power on the plane goes out, and everyone prepares for a crash landing. In the cockpit, Ward takes the copilots seat (a symbolic gesture if there ever was one), and Skye looks rather helplessly on from behind. I just have to mention this, because she spends so much time complaining about how she can do things better than May in this episode, that it’s nice to see here have to face facts in a rather blatant manner: May is simply better than her at most things.
After May successfully brings the bus in to land, the team is debriefing when they realize that Fitz is missing. He’s been locked into the storage closet, finding a knife jammed under the door. He assumes it was Simmons, and he nearly runs into her and Ward as they come searching for him. May head to the holding cell to guard Hutchins – they’re afraid she’s been targeted by whomever this shadowy man is – while back in the vehicle room, Coulson is attempting to send out a Mayday distress, when the shadowy man appears outside and destroys the transmitter with a swipe of his wrench. As May approaches the cell, she hears Skye talking to Hutchins through the door, and pauses out of sight to listen in. They discuss God and punishment, and Skye tells her a bit about her own upbringing, which involved nuns at the orphanage. She says her favorite nun didn’t try to scare her with stories of God’s wrath like the other nuns, instead telling her simply that “God is love.” May comes around the corner and tells Skye that she’ll take over; Skye gives her a bit of the stink-eye, and acts rather aggressively toward her. Where did this new, angrier Skye come from?
Back with Ward and Fitz/Simmons, they hear a noise and Ward goes to investigate. The shadowy figure reappears, locking Fitz and Simmons into a closet, and then attacking Ward. We get our first good look at him: he’s Tobias Ford, one of the technicians presumed dead at the accelerator accident. Every time Ward looks about to get the upper hand, he disappears, only to reappear immediately in a more advantageous position. Ford goes into the close with Fitz and Simmons again, and holds his wrench against Simmons’ throat, forcing Ward to come to the rescue, only to have Ford disappear and reappear behind him, where he gets the upper hand. As the fight ends, Ford looks down at his hand as it begins to glow blue and slowly fade away. He screams.
Coulson is upstairs with Skye. Skye lets drop some quip about May’s rescue mission, and Coulson now tells her his version of what happened in Bahrain – he was actually there. The most important thing he tells her is how the event changed May. Before she went in, she was different – caring, fun, someone who liked to think outside the box and buckled at regulations. “Sound familiar?” Coulson asks, just in case Skye doesn’t get the reference to herself. As they’ve let their guard down, Ford decides this is good time to attack, briefly holding his wrench to Skye’s throat before locking them into Coulson’s office. This didn’t make much sense to me – if they’re already inside the office, why not just jam the door? Why attack Skye at all?
He then stalks May. The power troubles are causing the lights to flick on and off, and each time the lights change they’ve changed positions. First, he’s far away; then, May looks down and to the side – she senses something; he appears right behind her; but then just as effectively as his own disappearing act, May is gone. He tears apart the room in his rage.
May takes Hutchins outside, and into a nearby barn, telling her she’s going to “Fix the problem.” She tells Hutchins she’s going to use her as bait to bring the enemy out of the shadows, for which she apologizes. On the bus, Ward comes to and communicates with Coulson. Fitz rigs up a transponder signal to use Coulson’s watch as a small explosive in order to get them out of the office (although there is no reason given as to why they couldn’t simply have come upstairs and unjammed the door). Coulson’s quite sad at the loss of the watch – he tells Skye there were only twenty made. When they’re told that the apparition is actually Tobias Ford from the accelerator, Skye makes the connection between his actions and Hutchins – he wasn’t trying to get her fired or hurt her; he was trying to get her attention because he liked her.
In the barn, Ford attacks May, but she’s a match for him, disappearing act or no. The fight is very well choreographed, with May consistently anticipating where Ford will next appear; however, he’s apparently able to get the best of May, knocking her to the barn floor. Although she appears to be down, due to their fight a support beam gets knocked loose, and he places himself between Hutchins and the beam, protecting her. This winds him a bit, and as he’s trying to lead Hutchins out of the barn, May suddenly acts, bringing him to the floor with a sweep kick, and then hitting him hard in the chest, incapacitating him. The fight over, Ford admits to Hutchins that he never intended for anyone to get hurt, but he loosened a few bolts here and there so that she’d have to come – seeing her was the bright spot of his day. Unfortunately, when the explosion happened, he got caught between two worlds: ours, and one he refers to as Hell. May tells him that he can’t be forgiven for his actions, that they’re done, and he has to live with the consequences. This really feels introspective – is she talking to Ford, or to herself? She tells him that he can’t stay, that he has to “let her go.” He hesitates, then does as May suggests, holding Hutchins’ hand until he completely fades away. Outside, Coulson asks May what he said to Ford. “The same words you said to me in Bahrain,” she says. The question is, which words did she mean? The letting go, meaning she lost someone? Or the fact that our actions define us, are ultimately unavoidable?
Back on the bus, more decompressing. Skye and Coulson are talking about fixing problems, and she tells him that May is worth helping/fixing. This theme of fixing ties into the “Repairs” title of the episode, and Coulson now explains why he’s kept her on the sidelines – plus we get to learn that Skye has a new “Super Skill” ™. Coulson tells her that there was a reason he wanted her to be hands off, to observe the team’s actions around this particular Index Asset and Evaluation Process: she knows people and can read them, better than anyone save for perhaps Coulson himself. In fact, he tells her that she’ll “be really good one day, even the best.” As he said this, I wanted to yell at my television, “No Phil, don’t do it! Don’t stroke her already too-large ego! You’re creating a monster!”, but I didn’t, because my three-year old son is asleep, and I didn’t want to scare him. As if to show how utterly inane his pronouncement is, Skye goes up to the cockpit and asks May if she can stay there – this, the woman she’s been basically slagging all night, showing just how extremely bad she is at reading people. May nods at the copilot chair, and Skye sits down with a look of satisfaction. Smugness in this situation just felt wrong – what has Skye got to feel smug about? Is it because she’s suddenly realized that May is damaged, and she can “repair” her? I’d like to see her try – I don’t think May would be too amenable.
The stinger is rather low-key tonight. Coulson, Ward, Simmons, and Skye are playing Scrabble when Fitz walks in, shaving cream on his hand and all over his face. He accuses them of pranking him, starting with Simmons and then going through the others as each denies culpability in turn. Cut to the cockpit, where May is listening in. She gets a devilish look on her face and smiles. Aha! The human side of May we’ve been waiting to see, but that she still feels compelled to hide from the rest of the team.
Overall, I enjoyed tonight’s episode. It was an interesting take on ghost stories, and was a little less espionage/super-hero in tone, which shows yet another face this series can wear. This can potentially be made into a strength, although I suspect it isn’t exactly what most people tuning in for the Marvel part of the show are really looking for. Last week’s tie-in with the Thor movie was less a tie-in than a minor parallel story, while this week’s use of portals between worlds really should have been more closely tied to the Marvel movie continuum, considering their use in several of the films (most notably the huge portal through which the Chitauri came in The Avengers). The reason they don’t use this connection eludes me. But the positive aspect of this is that we’ve now seen four distinct types of episodes: super-powered people causing trouble; spy thriller; pseudo-supernatural activities (which always have either a scientific or alien explanation); and tie-in, which we’re likely to see again next year with the new Captain America movie.
The focus on May turned out to be one of the more deftly run pieces of backstory we’ve seen so far this season. While each of the focus episodes that has occurred seemed to expose weaknesses in the characters being examined, this one served more to show how truly kick-ass May is. She begins the episode in control of a sexual encounter that she engineered, and ends it showing her playful side. In between, we see her pragmatism, her ability to throw and take punches (granted, something we’ve seen a lot of), and get a hint about her inner motivations. She cares deeply for the people on her team, and her first purpose is always to see them to safety. This reiterates her actions in “The Hub,” with the difference here being that we find out it was on a similar mission that something happened to her that left her forever changed. The fact that she is still willing to put herself out there for her team shows an inner nobility that she does her best to keep hidden. And it’s certainly no accident that Coulson, when facing an emergency, calls “Mayday” into the transmitter.
The part of this episode that I didn’t like that much was Skye’s sudden turn against May. Wasn’t she just telling Simmons in “The Hub” to go to May when she was in trouble? Didn’t she celebrate with her when they got Ward and Fitz out? Suddenly, it’s as if May represents everything Skye can’t have, and that’s just not fair because, dammit, Skye’s way better than May at everything! Okay, she never quite says that, but she sure as heck implies it to anyone who will give her a second. And worse: after several weeks of curbing her character, pulling her back from the Mary Sue abyss, the writers put words in Coulson’s mouth that can’t have any kind of positive effect on Skye’s ego and self-importance. To tell her that she may one day be the best at anything simply feeds into the crap she’s been speaking about May all night, and I found it very hard to swallow that Coulson would say something like this. He’s been portrayed as a much better reader of character than that, and his words here felt contrived; by placing it right at the end of the episode, it soured things somewhat for me.
Suspension of disbelief continues to be an issue. Fitz is able to extricate himself from a jammed door, but no one thinks to come upstairs and try to open Coulson’s door when it’s jammed. The plane crash lands with some force, but Fitz, sitting in a closet, is completely unhurt. Ford, the antagonist, attacks Coulson and Skye, only to jam the door he could have jammed without even coming inside in the first place. It seems there are always a few of these little logic gaps in each episode, and while I can forgive a few when the writing is strong, like in tonight’s episode, it can be pretty glaring when it’s not (refer to the miracle hole-plugging inflatable raft in episode 102, “0-8-4”). Hopefully this is something the writers will address in the future – perhaps bringing in some more technical expertise might help.
Steve’s Grade: B
Although this was a more than serviceable episode, it loses a half a grade due to the odd denouement with Skye that felt completely out of sync with the rest of the episode. On a positive note, it focuses largely on May, who is fast becoming my favorite character in the show. In future, I’d like a little less Skye and a lot more of The Cavalry – too bad the target demographic for the show might not let them do that.