This week’s episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. plays with perspective a la Rashomon for a large portion of the second act, and it makes for one of the more interesting choices Whedon and Tancharoen (showrunners Jed and his partner) have made thus far. While there are some weaknesses and predictability in this episode, I found myself enjoying it for the most part. I’ll explain exactly why after the break.
<<Spoiler Alert: This review of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. S01E13 – “T.R.A.C.K.S.” – will discuss major plot points and events in the episode; read at your own risk!>>
There is no cold opening in this episode. We begin immediately on the Bus, where Coulson is briefing the team. It seems that Ian Quinn, our favorite rogue billionaire, has recently made a $10,000,000 purchase from a company called Cybertek, and Skye, using her usual m.o., has tracked the purchase. This allows the team to get further information: the item, whatever it may be, is being transported by train through Italy en route to Zagreb. Coulson tells the team that they’re taking over the investigation from Italian authorities, whom he asked “very nicely.” We cut to a scene of Coulson sitting drinking an espresso with an Italian cop (Russo, played by Carlo Rota), who is complaining that Coulson isn’t asking at all. The team is going to go undercover to try to procure the device. When she hears this, May responds, “I hate going undercover.” Too many chances to mess things up, perhaps? The only real field agents on board are her and Ward, but the entire team is going to be aboard the train; May must be feeling a little like a babysitter by now.
On the train, we see the team split up into pairs: Ward and May head to a private room, in charge of physically taking the device; Skye and Fitz are tasked with comms; and Simmons does her best to pretend to be Coulson’s daughter, acting as – actually, it’s not entirely clear initially why they’re on the train, except as an extra couple of observers.
On the way to their private room, we find out that Ward speaks Italian fluently – he’s just full of surprises, and is in fact quietly becoming one of my favorite characters on the show. He and May begin to change – she into S.H.I.E.L.D. gear complete with infrared goggles, he into a conductor’s uniform – and they discuss the current situation. Ward expresses concern that ever since his encounter with Centipede, Coulson appears to be taking things personally. “Of course it’s personal,” May counters, questioning either Ward’s perception or his circumspection. He says a few positive things about Skye, that she seems like a woman driven, but you can tell that he’s concerned. Is Coulson’s personal vendetta getting in the way of his judgement, and causing him to push people too hard? As May finishes zipping up, she tells Ward that the only way to prevent personal feelings from getting in the way of good tactical decisions is to not have personal feelings – which is why she doesn’t. He looks a little taken aback, and counters that he doesn’t think Coulson would see it that way if he were to find out about their relationship. As an aside, she tells Ward that she’s already told Coulson about them. Ward goes from taken aback to openly chagrined, and I swear his complexion went a little gray. “You told him?” he asks. “Yep,” May replies as she pulls herself up and out of the car window. It’s good to see Ward, who more than anyone else has been a toe-the-line kind of character, a little off-balance and questioning what’s going on. In the past, when he’s praised Skye to others, he’s done it with a kind of over-positivity that smacked badly of Mary-Sueism. Here, his praise is tempered with concern, showing that while he is still clearly a Skye supporter, he’s not a cheerleader, and more importantly, he’s not blindly following Coulson. Questioning orders is a sign of development in his character that is a welcome one.
Meanwhile, Skye and Fitz are up to something. They want to decide what nationality they are before speaking with anyone (isn’t this the sort of thing they should have figured out on the Bus?). It’s played for comedic effect here, with Skye trying the most god-awful quasi-Scottish accent I’ve ever heard. It sounded more like a drunk Aussie with a mouth full of marbles than anything remotely Glaswegian. “Right, American it is,” says Fitz with barely a cringe. He pulls off a passable Midwest accent, and the two of them walk up to a conductor. Skye overwhelms him with her overzealous “one month anniversary” talk, kisses Fitz on the cheek, and generally acts totally ditzy. As she does, she uses the distraction she’s causing to lift the set of keys off of the conductor’s belt. They make their way to the baggage car, and let themselves in, Skye giving Fitz a hard time for not getting into character as readily as she. “You’re the least supportive pretend girlfriend I’ve ever had,” he replies.
In one of the main passenger cars, Coulson and Simmons are settling in, and Simmons makes a big deal out of calling him “Dad.” This scene was in the preview released last week by ABC, and it’s every bit as uncomfortable and obvious here as it seemed then. She explains to Coulson that she’s used to the definable confines of the lab, where things generally are predictable. Her only previous experience with trying to adlib resulted in her shooting a senior agent with the night-night gun (“The Hub”), and so she’s thoroughly prepared for her role on the train in order to prevent uncertainty. She then goes into a long and increasingly loud diatribe, complaining that Coulson was an absent father who frequented prostitutes rather than spend time with his daughter. Just as she’s reaching crescendo, along comes a kindly older gentleman flanked by two young, beautiful women. It’s Stan Lee making his ubiquitous cameo, and he sympathizes with Simmons before laying into Coulson a little. Coulson simply looks lost – a rare thing, for him – as he agrees that he needs to be a better father. I can’t help but thin that this is a bit of double entendre from the writers here, not only reflecting the sense of recklessness and loss creeping into Coulson’s usually unflappable persona since his discoveries while being tortured by Centipede, but also foreshadowing serious events that unfold later in the episode. Coulson is clearly the metaphorical father of the S.H.I.E.L.D. team (which would make May the mother-figure, although this could lead to some rather uncomfortable ideas if you then consider her relationship with Ward), and – to go out on a bit of a limb – may even be more than that to Skye.
While being her actual father would be exactly the sort of information Coulson would already know, and he’s promised her no more secrets, it’s completely within the realm of possibility within this storyline that he is, in fact, her father, but that this particular piece of information was not given back to him when his mind was reconstructed. Okay, to parse: he might be her dad, but doesn’t know it himself. When he was using the memory machine at Centipede’s lair, he was being led through the interrogation, and the only thing Centipede was interested in was how he came back from the dead, not anything else that might have been lost. It’s a possibility that is certainly not beyond this writing team, and it would go a long way toward explaining Coulson’s treatment of and interest in Skye, even before he knew she was an 0-8-4. His constant fascination, indeed obsession, with Skye and her welfare has only been mirrored by his fascination and obsession with his return from death, and Tahiti. The latter was due to repressed and reconstructed memories trying to seep through into his conscious brain; what, then, is the former? Of course, there’s a much larger Internet contingent that figures May is her mom, but why can’t it be both? We do get some hints in that regard later in the episode.
After Stan “Excelsior!” Lee passes by, Simmons notes her target – Mancini, the head of Cybertek security – approaching. She stands up, apparently in a huff at her father’s inattention, and promptly walks right into the security guard, dropping the urn she is carrying, and spilling ash all over him. So here’s the reason she and Coulson need to be on the train: the ash acts as a tracking device so that May can follow his footsteps from the top of the train, using her combination infrared/x-ray goggles. Seems just a little bit thin as a reason to put extra people in danger, but this whole mission smacks of ill-preparedness and of being rushed. In the baggage car, Fitz tells May what to look for – the Cybertek device case will be shielded, so will look like a large black space in her goggles. She sees it, and reports in. Back in the passenger car, Coulson leans in and tells Simmons she needs to cool it, but before they can discuss things, they realize that comms are down. “Something’s wrong, sit tight,” he says, and heads toward the back of the train. He arrives in the dining car, which was where May spotted the device case, and sees it’s been abandoned. He touches a demitasse to see if it’s still warm, when Ward suddenly enters the car, shouting “We’ve been made!” They jump off the open back end of the train as they are rushed by Cybertek security, one of whom throws a grenade at them. It goes off, and the train disappears in a shimmer of light.
Now begins the pseudo-Rashomon section. I must admit, at first I thought that ABC had simply mis-spooled the episode, putting the acts in the wrong order (and this shows how old I am – I suspect that television broadcasters don’t use spools anymore). We’re with Ward again, and he’s finishing getting his conductor uniform on just after May has exited through the window. He goes out into the hallway, and realizes that the comms are out. Determined to get to Coulson to let him know, he’s instead stopped by a passenger who asks him to help her with a heavy suitcase. He agrees to help, but is on his guard, so as he brings the suitcase through the door, he continues his movement and knocks the gun she’s pulled on him right out of her hand. She then pulls a knife, and they fight. Ward eventually gets the better of her, hesitates for a moment, and then knocks her out. He rushes toward the back of the train, seeing Simmons as he goes. He warns her that they’ve been made, and then continues, several Cybertek goons in pursuit. We then catch up to the previous storyline, and he and Coulson stand up after the grenade blast, dusting themselves off and pondering where the train has gone to. Ward wonders who’s given them up, but Coulson figures it might actually be The Clairvoyant himself. This is another indicator that Coulson is becoming far too focused on this one bogeyman as being the cause of all evil. Certainly he has reason to be cautious, and to see The Clairvoyant as an enemy, but he’s been adamant all along that there is no such thing as psychic powers, yet here he is not looking further into a serious situation because he’s writing it off as a concern and attributing it to his enemy du jour. This willingness to wave something off almost comes back to bite him in the ass later in the episode. Coulson reassures Ward that May is still aboard the train, so the rest of the team will be safe, but Ward finds her goggles on the ground nearby. Seems a little convenient, given the context of a rapidly moving train, that the goggles would end up so close to them; but not everything here is as it seems. They posit that Cybertek might be using a cloaking device to hide the train, but before they can think things through too much, they spot two SUVs full of Cybertek mercenaries approaching. They hightail it into a nearby orchard, and come across a small work truck that’s already been conveniently hotwired.
At the Bus, Coulson speaks briefly with Russo about how things have gone seriously sideways (that would be pear-shaped for my British readers), and the two of them try to use the holographic table in the lab in order to examine the grenade that was thrown at them. At first, Ward has trouble turning it on, and then, joined by Coulson, they can’t figure out how to zoom in or change the view aspect. They decide to just send the schematics to the Hub, and hope they can figure things out. This sequence is actually quite humorous, as first Ward and then Coulson try various hand gestures and pinching motions to try to change their viewpoint. They look like they are people used to an old rotary phone trying to learn how to use a three-dimensional touch screen – which, in effect, they are in this case. Ward decides to broach the topic of his relationship with May, and Coulson gives him a warning – is he sure he wants to talk about this right now? He does, and Coulson warns him that if he screws things up, endangers or hurts anyone on the team due to his relationship, he’ll personally ensure that Ward is permanently stationed at the base at Barrow, Alaska, where S.H.I.E.L.D. has The Abomination kept in cold storage. Ward gets the point, and doesn’t press. They head down to the hanger just as a bloodied Russo shows up. He starts walking up the ramp, saying “We’ve found your team,” when suddenly he’s hit from behind, and blood starts to pour from his mouth. It’s May, and she’s hit him in the back with a knife. “Wheels up in five,” she says, her face bloodied and bruised as well. Flashback time.
Now we’re with May, as she’s looking at the package through her infrared goggles. She, yes, realizes that comms are out, when suddenly a Cybertek merc appears at the other end of the train car, shooting at her. It looks like she’s winged, and she pulls out a drogue chute that quickly gets her off the train. She spies Coulson and Ward lying on the ground, not moving. She runs to Coulson first, and checks for a pulse. The look of relief on her face is palpable when she realizes that he’s still alive. His face is covered in what looks a lot like blue veining, but is a side-effect of the grenade he and Ward got caught in. Apparently, it has put them into a sort of temporary suspended animation, thus explaining the disappearing train. Her check of Ward seems almost perfunctory in comparison. She did tell Ward that she doesn’t allow personal feelings to get in the way of her job, so there are really two ways we can read this scene: either she is checking Coulson because he’s the leader, and thus more important to the mission; or she checks him first because she has more history with, and thus loyalty toward, him. I think it’s more the latter, as we can see a little bit later that there is some real tension between them, reminiscent of the scene earlier in the season where she asked Coulson to take off his shirt (so she could look at his scar, honest). We all know that they have a history, and we’ve been led to understand that it had to do with the mission in which she lost a bunch of agents, but I think there’s more to it than that. I suspect they may have been intimate at some point, and have maintained a healthy mutual respect ever since.
May realizes she needs to get them out of the area – they are completely helpless in their current state, and she has no way of knowing how long they’ll be like this. She goes into the orchard, finding the work truck we saw Ward and Coulson at earlier (later?), and proceeds to strip the wires and get it started. Just as the engine turns over, two SUVs pull up (beginning to see some patterns?), only it isn’t just a bunch of Cybertek goons – Russo, Coulson’s Italian contact, is with them. They hold her at gunpoint, and Russo knocks her out. She comes too in a scene right out of the Spanish Inquisition. She’s suspended from the ceiling, arms bound together over her head, surrounded by Cybertek people and Russo. He wakes her by throwing a bucket of water over her, and then tries to get information about the team. Of course, she resists, so he stabs her in the shoulder with a knife. She thanks him, and he laughs – but not for long. She pulls the knife out of her shoulder, freeing herself in one smooth motion, and begins her attack. Of course, the goons all have their guns away – she was tied up, after all. Big mistake. She knocks Russo back, bloodying him, and then proceeds to take out each of the Cybertek men, moving fluidly between them as though in a choreographed dance, but Russo manages to get out before she returns to him. Agents has taken care to not be overly bloody, usually opting for the night-night gun and other non-lethal take downs, but May pretty much equals the series’ entire body count to this point in about ten seconds. We’ve been told how badass she is, and we’ve seen hints of it, but this is the first time we get to see just how lethal she really is. I wonder if Ward has any idea what he’s getting himself into, as this person is fully his better at everything: violence, stealth, thinking, strategizing. Ward is good, but May is…amazing. Okay, enough geeking out. We see her catch up to Russo as he is approaching Coulson and Ward, only from her perspective we see that he is concealing a gun. She takes him out for good, and then explains to the men that it was Russo that sold them out.
She heads to the lab and is stitching her shoulder wound up, when Coulson comes in and helps her. He is tender as he treats her, using a healing paste and placing a bandage carefully over her wound. It’s obvious from the way they move and touch that there is a history here; again, this is why I tend to believe there was something between them in the past, and I’m not the only one: Ward sees Coulson’s ministrations, and looks distinctly uncomfortable. Remember, he’s just spoken with Coulson about his relationship with May, and here he walks in on the two of them sharing a moment borne of a relationship probably begun before Ward was even a toddler. He swallows his concern (jealousy?), and tells them that the train has been located.
They arrive at the train, now stopped on a spur track, and go to the baggage car looking for Skye and Fitz. They enter, only to find that the computers the two were using are all shot to hell. Just as they are taking a closer look, a screaming Simmons suddenly jumps up, firing the night-night gun randomly in their direction, but missing. She looks bewildered, and asks where Skye and Fitz are.
In order to find out, we get our final flashback. Skye is asking about 0-8-4s, and what sorts Fitz has heard about. He lists off various objects, and tells here that really, the only thing they have in common is that “they’re dangerous.” Skye swallows, and begins to ask him if he’s ever heard of an 0-8-4 that was a person, when the comms go out. The door to the car opens, and a Cybertek goon enters, gun in hand. They fight, Fitz putting up a surprisingly good struggle, and as he distracts the goon, Skye is able to grab his gun and hold it on him. He pulls a grenade out of his vest, and pulls the pin, just as Simmons enters the car. She grabs the mercenary and pulls her body against his, pinning the grenade between the two of them. This is a huge character moment – she has no way of knowing, in the moment that passes between entering the car and deciding to grab the mercenary, that this isn’t a regular explosive grenade. She is, in effect, sacrificing her life for Fitz and Skye. Remember, this isn’t the first time she’s shown a willingness to sacrifice herself for the team, throwing herself off the Bus to save everyone in Episode 106, “FZZT.” Here, the grenade goes off, and they both collapse to the floor, paralyzed. Fitz recognizes the grenade as using a kind of dendrotoxin, similar to that used in the night-night gun. He and Skye put the goon into a crate, and he shoots him twice more with the paralytic, ensuring that he’ll be asleep for some time. They carefully lay Simmons down and put the night-night gun in her hand, so she’ll have some protection when she wakes up. Out the window, Skye sees the Cybertek team taking the package and putting it in an SUV. She asks Fitz if he’s carrying an extra tracker, which he is – she says they need to follow the Cybertek people. My question is, how? They’re on foot, Cybertek is not. Unless they’ve parked the train at the driveway, there’s no way Skye and Fitz can follow them. Pretty big suspension of disbelief here, but this is the first big one this episode, so there is that. We see them in some bushes overlooking a villa, where the SUVs have pulled up. They don’t look winded, so let’s just assume the whole driveway thing is accurate. Lo and behold, who do they see? Ian Quinn is meeting the Cybertek people, and enters the villa with them. Skye asks Fitz to start the tracker in order to alert the rest of the team to their location. She’s going to go inside to try to find Quinn – it’s what Coulson would want, she tells Fitz – and he stays outside to disable the vehicles,handing her the night-night gun. We see her take out one goon with the dendrotoxin, as Fitz pulls himself beneath one of the SUVs, trying not to alert the guard whose legs he can see walking around the vehicle. He fiddles a bit with the engine, and prepares to move on.
Inside the house, Skye makes her way to the basement, where she finds the device case, and a hyperbaric chamber. Who could be inside? She walks over and sees that it’s a badly burned and disfigured Michael Peterson. Before she can do anything, Quinn and one of the Cybertek men enter the room. Quinn wakes Peterson, and opens the Cybertek case, removing a device. He attaches it to Peterson’s right leg stump; it unfolds, and turns out to be a high-tech prosthesis. Quinn, playing the slimeball to a T, asks Peterson what he would do if he asked him to kill Skye. Peterson looks at her, and then looks back at Quinn, his contempt for the billionaire simmering just below the surface. “Those aren’t my orders,” he says, and stalks out of the room. Once he’s left, Quinn turns to Skye, holding a gun on her. He pulls the trigger, hitting her in the stomach. She looks shocked, and starts to stumble backwards. He comes closer, and takes her in his arms, almost tenderly. He shoots her a second time, this time in her side. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I have my orders too.” He lowers Skye to the floor and leaves.
Skye struggles across the floor, coughing blood. Upstairs, Peterson is in the villa’s library with the Cybertek team. They ask about their payment, and Peterson tells them that The Clairvoyant is angry that they led the S.H.I.E.L.D. team straight to them. He grabs the blond by the throat – the woman who pulled the gun on Ward aboard the train – and chokes her. Outside, Fitz is surprised as the guard near the SUVs suddenly collapses to the ground. A gunfight erupts, and he pulls himself out from beneath the vehicle. A goon is about to shoot him, when Ward hits him with a night-night round. The team reunites, and Fitz tells them that Skye is inside. We flash to her, dragging herself across the ground. She struggles to open the door, and then weakly calls, “Help” a couple of times, choking on her blood. Upstairs, Quinn is walking through the foyer. He realizes that Coulson’s team has arrived, but he doesn’t seem too concerned – he was expecting them. Ward bursts in through the front door, taking out Quinn’s bodyguards with a few efficient shots of the night-night gun, and Coulson goes for Quinn, holding a gun to his head.
In the library, Peterson is finishing the last of the Cybertek mercenaries, breaking his neck. He hears the commotion from the foyer, but he gets a message in his cybernetic eye: DO NOT ENGAGE S.H.I.E.L.D. Back in the foyer, Coulson sees the blood on Quinn’s hand – “Where’s Skye?” he asks, but Quinn just gives him a smug look. Coulson smacks him across the temple with his gun, knocking him out – he tells the team to split up and find Skye. May cuffs Quinn while the rest of the team spread out. Coulson takes the basement and finds Skye. He falls to the floor and pulls her onto his lap, trying to staunch the flow of blood from her abdomen and telling her to hold on. He calls for the rest of the team. They come running, but it seems they are too late – Skye doesn’t have a pulse. Simmons orders them to get her into the hyperbaric chamber, as it’s her only chance – they need to lower the pressure on her insides so that she can breath and her heart can pump what little blood is left in her system. They get her in and wait, tension silencing the room. Then, a faint breath – she’s alive. May shows up too, concern creasing her face – but this begs the question: who the hell is watching Quinn? Sure, he’s unconscious, but he could come too at any moment.
Despite the predictability, he doesn’t actually escape, and we next see the team on the Bus, Quinn showing up on a monitor feed from the holding room. They’ve moved the hyperbaric chamber on board, and Simmons tells the team that her core temperature has been lowered, and she can keep her alive for some time, but if they don’t get proper medical help for her in the next few hours, she’ll start taking permanent damage to her organs – including, presumably, her brain. Simmons leaves the lab to get more supplies, and Fitz follows her, taking her in his arms as she breaks down and sobs. In the hanger, Ward is standing in front of one of the S.H.I.E.L.D. SUVs. He punches the hood, hard, hurting his hand. “It’s not,” May says, pausing, “your fault.” But he isn’t blaming himself – he’s giving Coulson a withering glare, full of anger and accusation. Coulson, for his part, looks the face of grief, and concern. The metaphorical father has failed one of his children, and it’s obvious that he’s blaming himself – and rightly so.
In the stinger, we see Mike Peterson standing in some bushes, watching children playing in a park. He writes a note and looks at it: Can I please see my son? The reply: NOT YET. The camera pans around, and focuses on his prosthetic leg. It zooms in on a small Cybertek sticker. In small print: Project Deathlok.
So, we’re going to get another baddie from the Marvel universe here in the TV show, joining earlier alumni Graviton (Dr. Franklin Hall in Episode 103, “The Asset”) and Blizzard (Donnie Gill in Episode 112, “Seeds”). I’m not terribly familiar with Deathlok, but I do know that he’s a cyborg, something which Peterson is well on his way to becoming. And I also know that this team Coulson has put together is particularly good at one thing: creating new super-villains. There’s sure to be a reckoning at some point, and it’ll be interesting to see how Coulson and team deal with the super-powered. Perhaps things will come to a head when we get to see the Asgardian Lady Sif in an upcoming episode? I’m sure she could help out, should she choose to. Next week’s episode won’t likely answer any questions regarding super-villains, however; it’s named “Tahiti,” which strongly suggested that we will see Coulson facing some moral conundrums around whether or not to save Skye, and how far to go in order to do so. Will he be willing to put her through the same kind of procedures that haunt him? Or will Skye’s mysterious categorization as an 0-8-4 somehow come into play?
This week’s episode had a much more frenetic pace than we’re used to, and it served the show well. The Rashomon-esque broken narrative worked well, showing us pieces of a puzzle and then bringing them all together at the end. Quinn’s capture seems to be part of The Clairvoyant’s plan, and the creation of Deathlok further complicates the team’s future. But over-riding all is the big question: no, not will Skye survive – she will – but how? And at what cost, both to her and the team? Her near death wasn’t over-played – they only gave her two brief scenes after the shooting – and oddly, despite my at times anti-Skye stance, I didn’t feel any particular satisfaction at her plight (I don’t have that much schadenfreude in me). Has she begun to win me over? Not to the extent that she seems to have won over the team, especially Simmons and Coulson. But just a little. I actually hope she doesn’t die (but again, she won’t – she’s the contact person for the audience), but I do hope that the writers continue to tone her back, and bring her more solidly into the fold as a part of the team, rather than its entire focus.
Steve’s Grade: B+
An action-heavy episode that, for the second time in the last four episodes, puts a member of the team at real risk. Skye is on the verge of death, and a new super-villain has been born – what isn’t there to like?