Now here’s the kind of one-two punch we like to see from our superhero TV shows! Just last week we got to find out what’s going on inside Coulson’s should-be-dead head and this week Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. dropped its Big Big Plans For the Future on us. I am...cautiously excited for what comes next.
I find it interesting that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s better episodes have involved exploring the larger apparatus of the organization. I would rank “The Hub” amongst this fledgling show’s best outings, if not the best outright, and aside from the Clunkiest Monologue That Ever Clunked, “Seeds,” which explores how S.H.I.E.L.D. agents are trained and the social structures that appear as a result, stands right up there with it.
Our tale begins with three greasy teens acing a S.H.I.E.L.D. academy test on quantum mechanics and taking a dip in the pool to relax. Then the pool freezes over while some other kid named Donnie Gill watches from the bleachers. But don’t worry, he’s not evil! He’s just scared because it’s not every day you see ice chasing people across the water. He even helps break out Greasy Seth, who doesn’t quite escape the pool in time.
Shenanigans are afoot at the heart of S.H.I.E.L.D. Academy! And our team is on the case! Because Fitz invented the little doodad that was subsequently used to Ice-9 the pool and he can probably explain how someone retrofitted it to become a weapon. Fitz, Simmons, Ward, and Skye head over to the Academy and Skye finds out just how accurate her Hogwarts joke actually was, since S.H.I.E.L.D. actually sorts its students into Ravenclaw (science & tech), Gryffindor (operations), and Hufflepuff (administration/computing). Fitz and Simmons snerk that Skye is probably bound for Hufflepuff while Gryffindor Ward looks deeply uncomfortable and makes decades-old jokes about how nerds are physically weak and awkward and, god, really? The evidence refuting that is standing right next to you, bro-cicle. Work on those insecurities at some point, okay?
They’re guided around on campus by Cathica from Satellite 5 and everyone gives me pitying looks because I can’t stop making “Three, two, one and...spike!” jokes whenever she’s on screen. She insists her name is Agent Weaver and tells Fitz and Simmons to brief the super-genius student body on the pool attack, the tech involved, and how using tech to these ends is something that S.H.I.E.L.D. agents have to always watch out for. It’s a smart little speech, referencing how not being mindful of the damaging effects of progress results in sinister organizations like Hydra, Centipede, and A.I.M. Simmons is careful not to stymie or put anyone down. It’s not that being too smart is a problem, she says. They all have a responsibility to advance the world around them, but part of doing that is always being mindful that there is a world around you. Progress does not exist in a vacuum. It has causes and effects.
Also someone just froze Donnie in the middle of Simmons’ speech. Rude.
Besides being mindful of the societal and interpersonal concerns regarding scientific research, “Seeds” also does a great job at incorporating its pseudo-science as a plot motivator. Fitz and Simmons mention that the device being used to freeze things promotes constant “nucleation,” which is actually what’s happening when ice forms!
Ice-9 is actually real, although it’s not a catalyst for turning water into ice like it does in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. Rather, it’s a descriptor for one of the many possible crystal lattices that ice can form when it changes state from liquid to solid. These lattices are called “nucleation sites,” since they provide a structure for additional lattices to form. (The first site is also often called the “seed crystal.” Appropriately-titled episode FTW!)
But spawning nucleation and creating a cascade of ice in a warm environment takes energy! Which is probably why, when Fitz visits Donnie in his dorm room post-freezing to see if he’s okay, Donnie’s working on completing a terawatt battery (i.e., more energy than he would need for anything not-dangerous).
You see, Donnie’s kind of a genius, according to the students that Ward and Skye are interviewing at The Bronze, er, I mean, the “Boiler Room,” a nightclub that the S.H.I.E.L.D. students built for themselves in the basement of the school. He doesn’t talk a lot, probably because everyone bores him so much. Agent Weaver concurs, telling our agents that he’s so smart he’s probably going to be assigned immediately to the Sandbox, where all the crazy super top secret Item 084 stuff lives. Or he will be if he doesn’t start engaging in class. (Or PARTYING DOWN AMIRITE?)
Donnie keeps to himself and it’s obvious from the variety of gadgets that Fitz oohs and aahs at that he spends most of his time just inventing. He’s got plans for invisibility clothing on the wall and a miniature compression gun on his table, along with the aforementioned battery. (More clues, essentially. Compression is a common way to lower the temperature of air and there’s a mention of lasers, which are used in another cooling method.)
Fitz is impressed and Donnie is impressed that Fitz is impressed. Fitz was the Too Smart Guy once, he relates, but you can be that and not shut yourself off from the people around you. Because then you don’t have teammates that can point out to you that Donnie and an air cannon-toting Seth just tricked you into completing their super-energetic battery that they need to power the HUGE version of the freezing device they made. And that they basically froze themselves to lure our agents to the academy. For theirs is an evil laugh.
Coulson would probably be mad about this, but he and May are busy in Mexico City, having pinned down one of the former S.H.I.E.L.D. agents who dropped Skye off at an orphanage lo those many years ago. During the stake-out, Coulson and May get chatty, dropping feelings off left and right. Coulson is confused about having two sets of memories for one event, and is so, so tired of secrets, which goads May into revealing that she’s sleeping with Ward. Coulson’s all, “Who isn’t? That guy is very emotionally needy.” and May is all, “I know. He’s really into crying during sex.” and I should really be paying attention to the TV because what actually happened is Coulson ran off and cornered the agent they were hunting down.
The agent has some impressive anti-May’s-kicks defenses and manages to fight his way past her, but he’s no match for Casual Friday Coulson and Lola.
Which is fine, because the agent thought he was actually being cornered by The Mysterious People Who Have Been Hunting Him All His Life. On the Bus, the agent spills everything he knows about Skye. It gets a little meander-y, but what it ultimately boils down to is this: Skye herself is an 084 that S.H.I.E.L.D. nabbed out of the Hunan Province in China. The woman who dropped her off wasn’t her mother, and it’s doubtful that Skye even has parents.
Coulson tries not telling Skye for about two seconds before Skye corners him. We don’t actually hear the explanation, we just see Skye crying as the soundtrack swells. Later on in the episode Coulson explains to May that even though Skye is devastated by the news, she’s looking at the silver lining: S.H.I.E.L.D. has always been the family she lost. It’s an excellent sentiment, and we’re obviously meant to see how Skye’s actions affect how Coulson feels about S.H.I.E.L.D., but the whole thing is dumped on us in a long, awkward monologue that breaks the fourth wall a little tooooo much and makes it all difficult to sympathize with. It’s even more distracting in that it’s supposed to be a hugely defining moment but ends up being the only wooden scene in an otherwise solid episode.
Back at S.H.I.E.L.D. School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, it turns out that Seth and Donnie want to make it big on their own, so they’re selling the device to Quinn. You remember Quinn, right? Yeah, me neither. It took me a while to recall that he’s the jerk from episode three who was trying to make a gravity-altering device with the help of a former S.H.I.E.L.D. scientist. This guy just loves scientists! And drinking. Seriously, every time he shows up on screen he has a new drink, and just before the episode ends he asks his stewardess for another one.
Smug Drinklots is willing to buy the device from Donnie and Seth, but he wants a demonstration that it actually works first. Seth stupidly agrees, over Donnie’s objections, but the device is all “Remember how you guys are STUDENTS?” and doesn’t work correctly, exploding in Seth’s face, seeding the clouds, and creating an ice hurricane.
Once the storm passes the damage is assessed. Seth is dead despite Simmons’ best efforts to revive him. The school is wrecked. Quinn Boozefood is long since gone in his own jet, taunting Coulson that “the Clairvoyant says hi.” Skye is staring dazedly at a wall commemorating dead S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, including her Not-Mom. And Donnie is being turned over to the Sandbox to be imprisoned...with new ice powers that only he knows about.
Had Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. not been picked up for a full season, we’d probably be in for a rock ’em sock ’em season finale next week involving all the various things locked up in the Sandbox. As it is, we’re only about halfway through, and now that the show has time to build up the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the reveal of Donnie Gill’s ice powers, the Sandbox, and Quinn’s machinations on behalf of Centipede really really make it look like this season will conclude with debut of the Thunderbolts.
For those unfamiliar, the Thunderbolts are a team of supervillains posing as superheroes, conceived and led by an old enemy of Captain America. While Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t quite following that origin story, they’re definitely putting the pieces in place for something big. Centipede now has super-soldier Mike Peterson under their control, and it’s not hard to imagine them using him (as Deathlok?) to break into the Sandbox to free Graviton and Donnie “Blizzard” Gill.
Seems like we’re heading for a massive showdown. One that S.H.I.E.L.D. has inadvertently created.
- The S.H.I.E.L.D. Wall of Valor lists casualties up to 2015. Production error or...?
- There’s also the question of why Centipede wants tech that can bring people back to life. Do they have someone on ice? Is it Baron Zemo, the leader of the Thunderbolts in the comics?
- This whole talk of academies and seeds makes me think of Final Fantasy VIII. Skye is totally Rinoa, Ward is Zell (and not Ward!), May is Quistis, The Bus is Balamb Garden, and Simmons is Selphie. No Irving or Squall, though. Maybe this show needs an Irving.