Now that Coulson’s back with the team, albeit full of existential questions that have not yet been adequately answered, it’s time to…go to S.H.I.E.L.D. Academy? The location could provide for some interesting storylines, and potential ally/enemy relationships for future episodes, but seeing Coulson talking to Skye about her parents has me worried going in: is this going to be a return to the Mary Sue of old? Click after the break to find out.
<<Spoiler Alert: This review of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. S01E12 – “Seeds” – will discuss major plot points and events in the episode; read at your own risk!>>
The opening flashbacks are off several scenes that appear focused on two issues: Coulson’s mortality, and Skye’s progenitors. We see Coulson’s scar (in the scene where he exposes his chest to May early in the season), May telling Skye she needs to focus, and similar scenes. The opening flash has always served to tell us where the episode is going to be focused, and this is no different – it will be a tale of two inner demons: Coulson’s life after death, and Skye’s origins.
Spoiler: this is the first episode that had a large Skye concentration that I actually found not only palatable, but downright interesting. And in some ways, it may mark the end of Skye as the focus, which is nothing but good as far as I’m concerned (more on this at the end of the review).
The cold opening is set in the S.H.I.E.L.D. Academy – more specifically, the one for Science and Technology (Operations and Communications have their own Academies, as we find out a bit later). Three students – one man and two women – decide to blow off some steam by swimming in the Academy pool after-hours. A fourth student – we find out his name is Donnie Gill (remember this name) – sits on a nearby bleacher, watching but not participating. Two students go into the water, and try to cajole the third to join them. She decides to do so, but as she’s removing her shirt, she sees that the pool is suddenly turning to ice. She yells at the others to get out. One woman does, but the man ends up with his leg stuck in the ice. Donnie runs over, grabbing a pool net – he breaks the ice and helps to free the student.
On the Bus, Coulson is looking through his own file, now released to him on Director Fury’s orders. We see several pictures of Coulson in a body bag. This kind of morbid curiosity bodes all kinds of ill. It’s bad enough to be obsessed with one’s mortality when one is alive – to be focused on it after you’ve died and come back is just asking for trouble. We overhear the team discussing the events at the Academy, and we move to the briefing room. It turns out that the device uses a cold inducer invented by Simmons, and a delivery system designed by Fitz. It only makes sense that the team should therefore head to the Academy to investigate. May lets them know that they will be without her and Coulson, however, as they have another mission to take care of. At this point, the narrative splits into two, following each of the two parts of the team. The story is told in an interweaving structure, but for the sake of brevity, I will concentrate on the Academy story line first, followed by Coulson and May’s mission – both arcs come together again close to the end of the episode.
The team sans May and Coulson arrive at the Academy, and they are met by Agent Weaver, who is in charge of the investigation into the pool incident. After brief introductions, Ward takes Skye to the main entry lobby, to show her the Wall of Valor – a wall that has plaques with the names of all of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s fallen agents. Here, we get the first moment of potential Mary-Sue-ism, when Skye sighs and tells Ward she wishes she could be a part of this. He tells her that, “All you need to join, is a dedication to the greater good. Coulson saw that in you the moment he met you.” Oddly enough, I didn’t groan at this; instead, I found myself mumbling, “The greater good,” in an undertone, mimicking the town council in Hot Fuzz (if you haven’t seen it yet, stop reading this and go do so – now. I’ll wait). Another reason I didn’t groan is that we’ve seen Ward entrenching himself further into the pro-Skye camp for some time. His job, as her mentor, is to get her on board with the S.H.I.E.L.D. agenda, and part of this is instilling a sense of loyalty, a sense of belonging. He hears what she’s really saying – that she doesn’t belong – and he addresses that by telling her that she does, and why. As much as I find Skye annoying at times, I do find Ward’s motivations here to be honest, and they work within the context of the character arcs involved.
Fitz and Simmons, played often for laughs due to their overt geekiness and high intelligence (which always seems to be associated with a commensurate lack of social graces – Sheldon, anyone?), are suddenly the focus of much adulation and attention; they were in fact the youngest ever graduates of the Science and Technology Academy, and they are celebrities here on the campus. They lead an assembly of the school’s students, with Skye in the audience. They use humor to soften the audience, and tell some of the history of S.H.I.E.L.D., especially the science and technology wing and its importance. This is primarily for the viewing audience; one has to think that most of these students have been enrolled in a “History of S.H.I.E.L.D.” course as part of their training, but it is not over-done nor does it come across as too much info-dumping. This is helped considerably by the jumping back and forth between this story line and a couple of others – the May/Coulson one and one with Ward questioning a student – as the narrative line skips before the information becomes too dense. The student that Ward is interviewing is the boy that almost got trapped (his name is Seth), going over a list of names of students to see if he has any enemies (the list is of the top ten percent of the student body – they figure the device could only have been built by a prodigy). Seth says he’s friendly with all of them, except one: Donnie Gill, the loner at the pool. He tells Ward that he’s a quiet guy, doesn’t really have any friends.
Back in the auditorium, Fitz and Simmons begin to address the serious nature of their visit: the student who almost got trapped in the icy pool could have died. It is likely that someone within the academy built the device, and although they therefore show great potential, they must also be made aware of the great danger of getting too far ahead of themselves. Just as they are talking about potential, however, one of the students in the audience – Donnie, the loner from the pool – stands up and pleads for help. He begins freezing from his feet up, completely freezing over within seconds. Fitz and Simmons jump into action. They’ve come prepared. Fitz breaks through the ice on Donnie’s neck, and stabs him with a hypodermic to keep him alive, while they shout for someone to find the device. Skye sees it, and smashes it with her foot. Donnie defrosts almost immediately – he’s still alive. Cut to a man taking a call in a private jet – it’s Ian Quinn, our billionaire friend from Episode 103, “The Asset”. He tells whomever he is speaking to to “take care of it before I get there.” So, he’s behind whatever is motivating the student or students to experiment with their little freezing device. In the auditorium again, Donnie apologizes and leaves quickly – but why is he apologizing? Because he’s caused an inconvenience? Because he caused the event? After he leaves, Ward suggests that it may be a vendetta by one of the other top students – Donnie is top of the academic charts – and decides to try to conduct a little investigation into motivations on the sly.
He sends Fitz to speak with Donnie alone – Donnie is something of a loner, the top student in his year, and seems to have difficulty relating to his peers, prime real-estate for Fitz to cultivate. Simmons, meanwhile, takes Ward and Skye to “The Boiler Room,” literally the Academy’s boiler room, but also the place that students retreat to when they want to get away from the pressures of class and homework. In the years they’ve been using it, the students have turned it into a high-tech club, with loud music, strobing lights, a fully stocked bar, and pool tables. The three mingle, as back in the dorm rooms, Donnie begins to share some of his work with Fitz. Fitz is very impressed, and tells Donnie he should be sharing his big ideas with his instructors. He uses his own experiences as an accelerated student, who had few friends and a hard time fitting in. Donnie is obviously in awe of him, but doesn’t agree to go to the instructors. Instead, he tells Fitz that these aren’t his big ideas, and shows him a miniaturized battery pack he’s working on – his only issue is overheating. Fitz is impressed, and comes up with a solution that gets Donnie’s wheels rolling, and Fitz leaves, promising to speak with him later.
In The Boiler Room, Ward has focused in on a young woman who had been the top student until she was replaced by a new, younger student – Donnie. His theory: she has reason to be holding a grudge, and may also have the knowledge and ability to have engineered the attacks. Plus, she was also at the pool when the initial attack happened. He plays pool with her, and offers her a position with Operations, the division within S.H.I.E.L.D. that trains field operatives. He hints that if she were behind the attacks, Operations would find her skills valuable – besides, nobody died. She does seem to weigh his offer, but lets drop a piece of information that immediately grabs Ward’s attention. Far from being unknown to each other, Seth (the first victim) and Donnie are actually friends, and they’d been talking for weeks about meeting Fitz – even though the only reason Fitz even came to the academy was due to the attacks.
We jump back to Donnie’s dorm room, where we see a table descending from the ceiling, holding several devices which he hadn’t bothered to show to Fitz…including something that looks an awful lot like the freezing weapon. Outside, Fitz is on his way back to meet with the others, when Simmons calls him to warn that the whole things is a set-up. He reassures her – he’s already left Donnie’s room – when he suddenly realizes what he may have done in giving the student information on making his battery system work. He rushes back and barges in, only to find Donnie working on the freeze device. Donnie looks lost – “You weren’t supposed to see this,” he says – but it’s Seth, now in the room and hiding behind the door, that acts. He shoots Fitz with an air gun and knocks him flat, unconscious on the floor.
During all of this, Coulson and May have been on an unrelated, parallel mission. Before they leave on it, we see Coulson going through his own files, looking at pictures of his own, dead self. May enters his office, and tells him to put it (the file) away. He tells May that there’s new information regarding Skye that has arisen. The agent who brought Skye to the orphanage, and died, had a partner who disappeared at the same time. He was a suspect in her murder, but no evidence, other than his disappearance, ever linked him to the crime. Now, he’s shown up in a picture posted to social media – he’s in Mexico City, and he asks to accompany him there – she agrees to go. Soon after, we see them in Lola, staking out a hotel in Mexico. While they’re waiting, May seems antsy. She asks Coulson point blank if he’s planning to leave S.H.I.E.L.D. after learning what he has about his own death. He seems uncertain and noncommittal, and he redirects, asking May why she’s agreeing so readily to help with his investigation into Skye’s background. “She’s proved herself,” May says, referring to the key help she gave the team in finding Coulson while he was being held by Centipede. Coulson looks serious, saying, “We need to root out all the secrets.” He is obviously referring to S.H.I.E.L.D. secrets here – his own, Skye’s – but May looks terribly uncomfortable for a few moments, before blurting out, “Agent Ward and I have been having sex.” However, as she does so, Coulson spies their target – Agent Lumley – and it isn’t apparent whether or not he even heard her (for now). May gives chase and tracks Lumley down in an alleyway. A very even fight ensues, and as she gets a slight edge on him, Lumley tries to take a pill, which turns out to be cyanide. She knocks it out of his hand, and he overcomes her momentarily, trying to climb up a fire escape to get away. Coulson arrives in Lola, and brings her up to the same level the former agent is at. He identifies himself, and tells him they’re not there to harm him. Lumley replies, “Oh thank God. This is about the baby girl, isn’t it?”
Back on the bus, Coulson and May are debriefing Lumley. We find out that he was on an 0-8-4 – retrieving an object of unknown origin – and May misunderstands, asking what the object was. He tells her it was the girl: Skye herself is the 0-8-4, and he tells her that she had powers, but he doesn’t get into any details. He does tell them that a bunch of agents died protecting her, not just Agent Avery – and that he has one piece of advice for them: “Stop digging, and stay away from that girl…because wherever she goes, death follows.” As they walk away from the interview, May asks Coulson to keep the information secret. Here, I believe she’s thinking of Skye’s best interests. The new “uncover all the secrets” Coulson runs the risk of losing perspective; much of what allows people to live in civil society is the ability to keep secrets, and sometimes to tell lies. May, who definitely still has some secrets of her own, recognizes this all too well, and is witnessing first-hand what having secrets revealed can do to damage the psyche, as she tries to help Coulson deal with the shock of sudden self-awareness. He doesn’t, however, commit – he’s going to tell Skye, whether it is good for her or not – he feels it’s the right thing to do. The most important thing here, however, is that Skye’s backstory takes a sudden turn in a direction that might actually be interesting as opposed to annoying. Making Skye an 0-8-4 is, on the surface, an obviously Mary-Sue kind of decision, one which could be used to make her the focus even more than she already is in the show; but that’s the thing – they really don’t. While the mission to Mexico City is ostensibly to help solve Skye’s mystery, and it does move that story forward, in practice it does far more to move Coulson’s story forward, and also helps May’s character arc at the same time. If the writers want to continue focusing on Skye, this is exactly the way to do it: Have her story be a focus, but not the focus. If you’re going to work on her, show movement for the other characters as well. Doing it this way is a positive move forward for the writing on the show, and is something I hope to see more of. It may not only serve to mitigate the Skye-hate bouncing around the Internet, but may also serve to integrate her more honestly into the team.
The two story lines reunite at this point, and we get another set of dual focuses. We jump back and forth between activities on the Bus, and activity on the ground where Seth and Donnie have moved their now full-size, fully powered freeze machine to a multilevel parking lot. The team is in the Bus’s hanger, discussing where Seth and Donnie might be, and Fitz realizes that they must have a wealthy backer, due to the enormous costs of the equipment he saw in Donnie’s room. We cut to Seth, speaking on his cell phone with none other than Ian Quinn. Confirmation soon comes in the form of Skye’s most useful skill the last few weeks – her ability to follow the money online. She traces the funds to Quinn, so now the team knows who they are facing (again). Skye, sensing an aloofness in Coulson, asks to speak with him privately. Back on the ground, Quinn tells Seth he wants to see a demonstration, or their deal is off. Donnie resists, not certain what the machine is capable of, but Seth’s greed makes him very persuasive, and he convinces Donnie to try it, but as soon as it seems to power up, it whirs and appears to die. Meanwhile, Skye confronts Coulson, and he tells her, “I’ve been keeping something from you.” He starts to tell her about how an entire S.H.I.E.L.D. team and a village were wiped out trying to protect her when she was a baby. In the lab, Fitz and Simmons note a massive power surge coming from the ground near the Academy. Skye is still listening to Coulson, and crying as he tells her everything he knows, although we can’t hear the words. Near the parking garage, Ward and Weaver see a swirling mass of nasty looking clouds closing in on the Academy. Back to Skye and Coulson, and he gently caresses her cheek, trying to wipe away a tear. I know I’ve made fun of Skye in the past, but Chloe Bennet’s not a bad actress (it’s never really been her as an actress that I’ve been annoyed with; rather, it’s been the decisions made by the writing team); here, she actually does some of her best acting by remaining absolutely silent.
Back on the ground, Seth and Donnie realize that the device is actually working, and see the massive ice storm start. Huge hailstones begin to fall on them, and they jump into the cab of their pick-up, just as a large piece of hail smashes the windshield. After a few moments, it abates, and they get back out. Seth asks Donnie if it’s over; “No,” he replies, “it’s just beginning.” On the Bus, the team is watching a radar image of the storm as it build in intensity, and they determine that Seth and Donnie are likely at the heart of it. Ward is now with Weaver and the students in the safest place on campus – deep in the bowels of The Boiler Room. Coulson tells Ward where the boys are, and asks him to go get Donnie. Ward tries, opening a door to the outside, and is almost sucked outside. He realizes he can’t make it, and tells Coulson. Coulson’s at a loss, but Fitz tells him he thinks he knows a way to get to the boys. We jump to an exterior shot, showing the Bus flying through the leading edges of the storm. Focusing in on the cockpit, we see May carefully lowering the Bus into the eye of the storm. Down in the hanger, everyone is strapped in to their jump seats. Coulson reaches over and takes Skye’s hand. We move outside again, and see the Bus settling in carefully to land on the parking garage. Donnie struggles to stop the machine – the storm is getting out of hand, and he seems genuinely concerned that people are going to get hurt. Suddenly, the machine explodes, throwing Seth backwards to the ground, and Donnie against the back of the truck’s cab. The Bus lands near them, and the team rushes out to help. They get the students on board, and we see them fighting to save Seth’s life. Coulson doesn’t let it go on for too long, however; “He’s gone,” he says. I suspect that Coulson, if queried, would tell us he’s become a staunch supporter of euthanasia at this point, and his own desire to be dead is reflected in his decision to stop the team from working on Seth. While we see the team working on Seth, we cut back and forth with the cockpit, and May’s struggles to get the bus out of the storm, which she is able to do after a great struggle. This is another thing that the writers on the show do consistently well: cutting between two apparently disparate scenes that are, in fact, mirrors of each other. Inevitably, there is one success and one failure in these mirrored scenes, as we see here May succeeding in saving the team, but the team failing to save Seth.
Once the storm has dissipated, the team hands Donnie over to Agent Weaver. Fitz tries to talk to him, but Donnie shuts him out, back into his sullen shell of self-reproach. May, speaking to Coulson quietly aside from the rest of the team, asks him if he heard what she said in Mexico. He replies, “I trust you know what you’re doing.” Interesting – May is ostensibly Ward’s superior, if for no other reason than sheer experience, but Coulson is leaving this in her hands. This has to be a reaction to the revelations he received in Episode 111 last week regarding his lost love, the cellist who believed he had died. While May doesn’t claim to be in love with Ward by any means, Coulson would rather show his respect for her and her decisions by not meddling, by not being the superior office in this particular case. This, combined with his revelations to Skye, and his refusal to keep working on Seth, bespeak to an interesting new direction in Coulson’s character. I think we’re going to see him taking more chances, putting himself more and more on the line in order to get missions accomplished, or to protect his team. He now knows that he should be dead, and that every moment is borrowed time in a sense; he’ll be putting that to good use in the weeks to come.
While May and Coulson are talking, they briefly discuss Skye’s situation, agreeing that her search is over – they’ve uncovered all that they are likely to be able to at this point. We cut to Skye standing at the Wall of Valor from earlier in the episode, looking at the plaque for Agent Avery as Ward watches her from a distance.
As Weaver drives away with Donnie, we see the student sitting alone in the backseat, looking unhappy. He touches the glass of the window, and a line of frost snakes out from where he is touching, frosting the window over. He starts to smile, realizing that the explosion of the device has had an unforeseen effect. Remember how earlier in the review I told you to remember the name Donnie Gill? Turns out he’s this guy:
That’s Mr. Blizzard to you
I guarantee you that they’ll be playing him off-canon as far as the Marvel universe is concerned (for one, he only has an intelligence rating of 2 out of 7, which is not the Donnie Gill we know), but if you’d like to read about him a bit more, you can check out the official Marvel website here.
The episode’s stinger takes us back to Quinn in his private jet. His phone rings, and he answers thinking that it’s Seth – instead, it’s Coulson. He tells Quinn in no uncertain terms that if he at any time flies over the airspace of a country allied with S.H.I.E.L.D., that he will be summarily shot down. Quinn takes this in stride, and tells Coulson, “I have a message for you. The Clairvoyant told me to say hello.”
As stingers go, this one’s pretty heavy. We already found out over the mid-season finale and follow-up episodes that just about everything we’ve seen so far this season was associated with Centipede. Now, the only episodes that were initially completely divorced from Centipede influence, the creation backstory of Graviton (the end result of Dr. Franklin Hall being sucked into the gravity vortex in Episode 103, “The Asset” – you can read more about the character here), and Blizzard (Donnie Gill in this episode), are actually tied to Centipede after all, through Quinn. This means that the writers do, somewhere in the back of their minds, have an over-arching storyline that is driving their decisions forward as the series continues.
Despite my concerns, especially regarding the force-feeding of Skye to a resistant audience, this, in my opinion, bodes well for the series as a whole. I fully understand and accept that Joss Whedon is not infallible; but I prefer to think of this series as a potential Firefly that grows into itself and finds its story as it grows, rather than a Dollhouse that dies without settling on a cohesive story. Dollhouse lasted longer, but I would argue that in retrospect, Firefly was the superior story. I really hope that the good decisions made in this episode, those to integrate the different characters’ storylines together, is indicative of the direction Agents will be taking through the latter half of the season. Firefly had some excellent focus episodes (Episode 104 “Jaynestown” was a standout), but they always allowed room for growth by the other characters. Agents has yet to find it’s own “Jaynestown,” but I’m willing to share a cautious optimism with the rest of you after this episode. Perhaps the defining episode of this season is just around the corner.
Steve’s Grade: A-
An episode that had a little bit of action for everyone except for Simmons, who still got to look super concerned when Fitz was in danger. Skye’s story, not explained, might get some backburner treatment for a while, allowing us to watch the other characters come to the fore.