The Importance of a Well-Made Pamphlet. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: “0-8-4”

As if Coulson wasn’t already dead enough, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s second episode “0-8-4,” opens with our beloved agent nearly being sucked out of a hole that has been blown out of the side of their plane (The Bus). Why a hole? Why near Coulson? Who’s the idiot who yells “Hang on!” from offscreen, as if a Level 8 S.H.I.E.L.D. agent didn’t have “don’t get sucked out of a plane” completely internalized? We don’t know. Let’s keep watching!

The episode flashes back to 19 hours earlier, where we find Skye moving her stuff out of her van and into The Bus, because anyone who isn’t an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. can do that it’s just not a constitutional right that we’re made aware of. Agent Ward asks Coulson what’s up with Skye and Coulson says she’s not an agent, she’s a “consultant” and Stark was a consultant so LAY OFF. Ward and, oh, Agent May is also there she just wasn’t talking, continue to argue their very reasonable points: 1.) She’s part of a group that’s considered hostile to S.H.I.E.L.D. 2.) She’s not combat-trained and that stretches the actually-trained members of the team thin, considering that Fitz and Simmons haven’t yet perfected their Care Bear Stare. 3.) Coulson is giving her access to tech that she could bring the world to its knees with.

Coulson pretends to have good answers to these, but doesn’t really, and the subject changes to the teaser from the previous episode: the emergence of an “0-8-4” which, in S.H.I.E.L.D., is the catch-all code for Who Even Knows. Actually, technically it’s “An object of unknown origin” according to later dialogue and we find out the last 0-8-4 that S.H.I.E.L.D. encountered was a very specific hammer….

Skye gets shown around The Bus and immediately is given a bunk nicer than any of our apartments. Simmons apologizes for the whole thing where they threw a bag over her head and kidnapped her and the bagger himself, Ward, gives Skye a handy pamphlet on how The Bus works and where to escape from it should it ever turn into a flying deathtrap. The pamphlet is super adorable but leads me down an existential spiral of wondering why they thought they needed pamphlets, do they have a lot of guests, where were they printed, was that printing classified, is printing classified pamphlets something you would label a 0-8-4, is this a Chekhov’s Pamphlet and…this is why I can’t have friends.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode 2 0-8-4 review

Coulson strolls by to explain The Bus some more. It turns out it was a gift to Coulson from Nick Fury for putting himself in harm’s (i.e. Loki’s) way “before the Battle of New York.” Skye mentions that she heard he went to Tahiti to recuperate, to which Coulson vacantly replies, “It’s a magical place.” The message is clear. He knows he’s not supposed to be alive. And you should really be using coasters if you’re going to leave that bottle of water on the table.

The team lands in Peru and Agent May is given the high-priority job of parking their cars while the rest of the team explores the area. Fitz geeks out over monkeys and Simmons geeks out over the wide variety of biologically diverse fauna in the region. Skye gets on Coulson about warning the people but Coulson is all, “Remember the panic from that antimatter meteor that nearly engulfed Miami?” We rack our brains trying to remember which Marvel movie that happened in, but before a result comes up, Coulson reveals that no, of course we never heard about it, because S.H.I.E.L.D. kept it contained and quiet. Now let’s all go inside that huge temple we drove up to, he continues-ish, because that’s one of the index cards that the writer’s room darts hit this week.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode 2 0-8-4 review

S.H.I.E.L.D. meets a professor in the temple, who reveals that it dates back over 500 years and is full of pre-Inca artifacts, one of which is weeeird. Skye finds out that if said artifact gets Too Weird her job is to destroy any information that gets out about it. Plainly, the opposite of what she wants to do in life.

The 0-8-4 is pretty obvious, being a piece of tech that’s 1500 years old, still glowing, and somehow gouged into a wall that it pre-dates. Fitz likens the craftsmanship to German manufacturing. While they take readings, Ward and May guard the entrance to the temple and Ward teases her about her nickname “The Cavalry” while also sneaking casually up to a soldier hiding in a nearby bush and taking him out. May takes another three or so out as they flush into the area, but the two of them are quickly outnumbered and a stand-off ensues.

Coulson walks out and the woman leading the soldiers recognizes him instantly. He introduces her as Commandante Camilla Reyes of the Policia Peru. “We used to work together back in the day.”

While Coulson and Camilla canoodle the team bickers about revolution, unknown isotopes, and the hypocrisy of promoting violence from behind the safety of a computer. Just then, rebels attack the soldier camp just outside of the temple. Coulson and Camilla dive into the action and the rest of the team scampers away with the artifact after Ward literally yanks it out of the wall and gives Fitz a heart attack.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode 2 0-8-4 review

There is a daring escape and Ward gets to use this weird spike thing that shoots out an EMP burst. The team makes it back to The Bus and Fitz reveals that the artifact uses the same kind of power that the Tesseract from The Avengers did. During this explanation Ward uses one of the dumbest lines of dialogue in the history of ever, a cliched line that I hate so much that I wish the U.N. would pass a binding resolution where using it is considered a war crime: “Hey, [name of scientist], in English.”

First of all, don’t cut a character off when he or she is actually about to say something interesting and possibly horizon-expanding. Especially in a show that’s about the Earth taking a huge leap forward into an era of superheroes. A show which will, by definition, involve fascinating theoretical concepts. So what if I don’t understand the terms that the character is saying? If they’re important to the story, or they sound cool, then I’ll bother to find out what those terms mean. And even if the show is using those terms incorrectly, I’ll still have learned something interesting.

Second of all, this is a show about a team that deals with superpowered anything. Your audience grew up reading comic books! You can safely bet that they self-identify as a nerd or geek of some sort, so having Agent SquatThrust hush up someone who is just trying to lay some science down is more than annoying character trait, it’s downright shameful. You’re telling your audience that even in arenas where they are valued for their knowledge they should act as if they aren’t, that some jerk will steamroll right over them, and that they should feel ashamed for even trying to share.

Third, it’s not even a line that’s necessary to the script. In the episode, Fitz begins his detailed explanation, then Ward bark bark barks, then Fitz gets to the summation of his explanation. Regardless of what Ward does or doesn’t say, Fitz will get to the piece of information that the script is trying to convey, so why have Ward say something that doesn’t actually contribute to the scene or his character? The “in English” line is a cliche for a reason. Its presence is so ubiquitous in the media that we consume that it’s easy for writers to find themselves inserting it into a script without really thinking about its implications or needlessness. Which just makes it worse, really. It’s an insulting line, included without thought.

This is possibly also why I can’t have friends.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode 2 0-8-4 review

Coulson sheepishly apologizes (to May, not me, although wouldn’t that be an interesting twist?) about putting her back in combat but she gives him the coldest of shoulders and he backs off. Meanwhile, Fitz yells at Ward for jostling and exposing the artifact—which is essentially a nuclear core—to gunfire even though Fitz told him “in plain bloody English!” to Be Careful. Ward doubles down on being an asshole, looms over Fitz, and says he used “MY English. Words like ‘duck.’ And ‘cover’.” and that should have been enough for Fitz. The two of them escalate to full on screaming as Coulson herds the Peruvian police to the upper deck where they can relax. (And which, oddly enough, does indeed prove the usefulness of printing pamphlets about The Bus!)

With Coulson in the room, everyone on the team (except May. Always except May!) brings their laundry out to air. Skye accuses the team of being just as inexperienced as she is and that she might as well be Team Captain. Ward insists that his talents lay in solo ops, he’s trained to eliminate variables and arrive at One Solution, and that being on a team confuses that training. Fitz and Simmons babble over each other about how unappreciated their talents are. Coulson listens, but doesn’t engage. They need to work this out for themselves.

Fitz and Simmons get to play with some nifty Stark tech as they analyze the artifact and without Ward’s mastery of English to interrupt them, we get a clear explanation of what it is: The Tesseract energy generates plasma and focuses it optically into a beam powerful enough to shoot through 50 feet of solid rock. “A laser?” “A weapon.”

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode 2 0-8-4 review

Upstairs from the lab, Skye sits down to talk with Ward and explain her viewpoint on supporting uprisings with her online activities, citing that technology as straightforward as Twitter is allowing people to unite their voice in a manner that hasn’t been possible in previous times. Uprisings against oppressive regimes will happen anyway, she argues, but if you link thousands of like-minded people together they can produce change and consensus that is more useful than a handful of militants can. Skye reveals that supporting this concept provides her with a lot of optimism, although she’s careful to add that she’s never been in a war zone “until today” (and even that is arguable), like Ward has.

Coulson uses his downtime to show his collection of classic spy tech to Camilla, including a walkie-talkie watch that S.H.I.E.L.D.’s precursor made in 1936. Camilla makes a series of clumsy passes and Coulson’s spider-sense goes off, just about the same time that Ward’s does, one deck below. “We could make some more memories…what do you think?” Camilla flirts. To which Coulson responds, “I think Ward already knows that you’ll have to take May out in the cockpit to have any chance of getting this plane, which gives him 20 seconds to get to her first.” BOOM. Coulson for the win! He was also probably ordering dinner for everyone off of Seamless while he said that. That’s how smooth he is.

Unfortunately, Ward gets caught up with pummeling the soldiers near him and May gets gassed in the cockpit. The soldiers also make short work of Fitz and Simmons and the agents are nullified. They’re tied up together and start apologizing for being jerks to each other earlier, and for not knowing kung fu, which is an apology we all have to make at least once in life.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode 2 0-8-4 review

While they work out a plan, Camilla delivers her Villain’s Monologue to a captive Coulson in while utilizing the Watching-A-Pigeon-As-It-Flies-Around-Inside-A-Car-Rental-Office style of stage acting, the incongruity of which has the fascinating effect of making you more interested in the scene just to see what weird move she’ll try next. We get the full story about the 0-8-4. The artifact is actually pretty new and was made by Hydra agents that fled Germany for Peru after World War 2. They lost it until recently and would like to use it to crush the Peruvian rebels, please. Coulson reminds her that engineering alien tech to rule your own country is pretty small-minded when you consider how the Chitauri tried to kill everyone just a short while ago. “They won’t care what colors you’re wearing, just that you’re in the way.”

Camilla accuses Coulson of having a mid-life crisis, a line reading only made notable by Coulson’s response of “More of an afterlife crisis…” He thanks her for giving his team a common enemy, though, and forcing them to work together. One level below, this new bonhomie starts off with the team taking out the one guard watching them, smashing through the lab doors with their truck, and sending a bunch of Fitz’s hovery robots through the duct system to activate the ray gun and blow a hole through the plane.

The team battles through the decompression, gets the artifact back, retakes the cockpit, and even saves Camilla. Then Skye notices the pamphlet and scampers off to get one of the helpfully marked inflatable rafts marked out on it, her idea being to seal the hole in the plane’s hull with it. The plan WORKS, but the camera tries not to linger too long on it, lest we notice the hole torn in the extremely flimsy raft prop.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode 2 0-8-4 review

Whoops! Raft wrangler to the set please. Raft wrangler to the set.

The team makes it to The Slingshot, a classified facility where the 0-8-4 can be stored, and Skye considers whether to join S.H.I.E.L.D. outright. May mentions that if she does she’ll need a supporting officer to show her the ropes. Ward assumes she’s talking about him.

While The Bus gets looked at, the crew watches the lift-off of a rocket that Fitz apparently built as a way to unwind from their adventure. It’s calculated to fly directly into the sun, and shouldn’t hit any Lagrange points or coronal ejections. Ward pleads once more for English, but he is the worst and besides, Lagrangian points are cool and rockets are cool and oh Ward, the cliched line did have a real point, didn’t it? You’re just nervous now that you have to be around people all the time, aren’t you? It’s okay, I forgive you.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode 2 0-8-4 review

They have some beers as the the stub rocket takes off in the distance, but Skye abstains. She’s busy getting texts from Rising Tide asking whether she’s infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. yet.

 

Impressions of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Second episodes are harder than first ones, I imagine. You’ve introduced your premise already, and given new viewers some real spectacle to see, but now you have to keep giving that spectacle while the actors figure out what kind of character they’re playing, while the show figures out what kind of voice it has, and while the viewers figure out whether this is interesting enough to stay tuned in. The first episode has to put some butts in the seats, so to speak, but the second episode has to keep them there, and that is not easy.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode 2 0-8-4 review

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s second episode “0-8-4” does…okay. It puts some real effort into developing the characters alongside the action sequences, squeezing in bits of dialogue or conflict wherever it can, and it allows itself one great one-on-one between Skye and Ward in the final third of the episode. Both are espousing their worldviews in it, which can be awkward, but it’s refreshing to watch due to how the two actors let their characters relax and just talk to each other like adults.

It’s obvious that the show needs to keep focusing on this if it’s going to be at all interesting, because it’s already scraping the edges of the Barrel O’ Plot. A tesseract-powered gun made by Nazi Hydra agents that escaped to Peru is a pretty groan-worthy plot device, made just barely allowable due to how silly the Marvel superhero world can get. But the rest of the Peru stuff was so by-the-numbers that I couldn’t bring myself to care about any of it.

The same goes for what the artifact eventually turned out to be. A laser gun? Whatever. S.H.I.E.L.D. has those already. Any other type of device would have been more interesting to convey. Hell, even a laser gun with a specific twist would have been more interesting. Like, what if it was a gun that only activated for the first person who touched it? That would have made Ward a threat to the team and a target for the Peruvians. It would have made Fitz insanely jealous. It would have made everybody very worried. And it would have allowed Ward to explore the pros and cons of his habit of always finding one quick solution for a problem.

This is all easy to point out from where I sit, however. And any TV show, regardless of pedigree, can hardly be faulted for its simplicity when it’s only two episodes old. “0-8-4” is at least trying to build its characters into more fully realized people, and it does that without sacrificing the verve and fun that has come to embody the cinematic Marvel universe. At this point I feel like that’s all we can really ask from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D..

I shall endeavor to create a pamphlet that explains this more concisely.

 

Tidbits of S.H.I.E.L.D.

  • It also helps a LOT to have a post-credits scene where Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury shows up to yell at people. A fish tank, Coulson? This is why he is in charge and you are not.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode 2 0-8-4 review

  • Marvel teased the post-credits scene before the episode and in my mind it was an even toss-up between a Nick Fury appearance and something Thor-related. I wonder if they’ll weave more Asgardian stuff in to subsequent episodes, or react to the events of it after Thor: The Dark World has been released?
  • Clark Gregg is trying so hard not to break during that scene. It’s amazing to watch. He almost loses it after the fish tank line.
  • I love that the agents, the Peruvian soldiers, and the rebels were all very careful to keep Lola out of harm’s way.
  • It is pretty creepy how insistent the show is at keeping May offscreen or silent in group scenes. Not “good” creepy, just “creepy” creepy. I also get the sense that May will end up being the one taking a traitorous Skye down, not Coulson.
  • What, again, was the actual plan that the Peruvians had? Did they pick up on the same transmission that the professor sent to S.H.I.E.L.D.? Are all professors just trained to call S.H.I.E.L.D. in the Marvel universe?
  • THAT IS NOT HOW PRESSURIZATION WORKS. But it was a hilarious solution. Sorry, science. I will always give you up for comedy.

Chris Lough is the production manager of Tor.com and is buying inflatable rafts wholesale in order to corner the plane-hole-plugging market.

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