A semi truck barrels down Route 76, the driver’s soft croon struggling to exist against the white noise of the road. It’s like this when you’re pulling a long haul. Just you, the smokies, and the Stark tech coating the interior of your windshield.
Although the truck says “Rocky Mountain Paper Supply” it’s actually hauling a vault emblazoned with the S.H.I.E.L.D. logo and is being escorted by two agents that keep the road clear in front and behind. Not that this helps when some unseen force launches the cars 50 feet into the air. Our driver, the friendly-faced Agent Mack, is as professional as he can be as he sails sickeningly through the air, but remains unable to clarify just what is happening.
He exits stage death and some bad guys get into the vault and steal the precious cargo within: an accountant?
On The Bus, Agent Ward is punching his feelings and ordering Skye to brush up on her basic kickboxing workout skills. She whines as if she has something better to do and Ward explains that she’ll have to commit soon to being a S.H.I.E.L.D. field agent and that there’s a Defining Moment that tells you whether this should be your life. Ward doesn’t admit what his was, although one assumes it involved some Stoli-powered rude awakenings courtesy of his 10 year high school reunion.
Coulson tells the team that some bad guys stole Professor Franklin Hall, a Canadian physicist who makes Fitz and Simmons coo with warm bubblies. (He was their Kinetic Chemist advisor and you never forget your first Canadian Kinetic Chemist.) He’s super good at physics, apparently, enough so that S.H.I.E.L.D. gives him “Red” status and keeps a hold of him so other people can’t use him for…I don’t know. Dark physics?
But wait wait wait…does this mean Jane Foster is “Red” status? She was spirited away during The Avengers to prevent Loki from becoming aware of her, but she was spirited away awfully fast and Coulson kind-of-sort-of wanted to recruit her during the events of Thor. In this episode, Coulson gives the impression that Professor Hall isn’t really given the freedom to do whatever he wants. Is Foster being coerced in the same manner? Does she get driven around in vaults by high lonesome truckers?
Our agents hit the scene of the crime and Agent Mack—who survived yay!—tells Coulson that someone inside S.H.I.E.L.D. compromised their position. Agent Mack is instantly more interesting than the entirety of the main cast, minus Coulson, and he leaves the episode so I can buy him a beer. That truck really flew through the air? Shit, man, you got some stories…
Simmons finds a whirling dervish of dust angrily spinning around in mid-air and Fitz deactivates the ring-sized device that has seemingly created it. While they figure it out, Agent May gives Skye a dossier to read on Prof. Hall that is bigger than her head.
A backhoe was used at the scene of the crime, so Coulson flies Lola to a cowboy isolationist that the mysterious bad guys probably bought it from. Ward does his now-signature “popping out of nowhere to disarm you” move and the cowboy admits that the bad guys paid him in gold bars. Fitz and Simmons determine that the gold came from a Tanzanian mine owned by a chemical company mogul by the name of Ian Quinn.
The episode gets bored of its own investigation and just outright reveals Quinn stole the professor. They’re college buds, apparently, and Quinn reveals that they’re in a superlab underground in Malta and, man, you know what? It’s only been a week and I already miss Breaking Bad.
Anyway, Quinn thinks S.H.I.E.L.D. can’t get to him on Malta, forgetting that S.H.I.E.L.D. has the phone numbers for a super soldier, an iron man, and a hulk in their Favorite Contacts list. He shows Prof. Hall a version of the same device that created the whirling dervish, “a theoretical device powered by a theoretical substance.”
Fitz and Simmons reveal that this substance is using “gravitonium,” a “high atomic number extremely rare element” that distorts gravity within itself and which changes gravity around it if you put an electric current through it and here’s where this week’s rant begins.
Okay, if you’re making a show about a world of emergent superheroes then you have to include bad science or pseudo science because even though we can already do some really cool things with science, we can’t do the insane things that a world of superheroes requires. And I’m fine with this for the most part. I got a little antsy when Tony Stark created a new element that conveniently powered his heart but he’s so damn fly that it’s easy to forgive. (I also love that Iron Man 2 went to the trouble of showing him building a particle accelerator out of spare parts. Fuck yeah Tony Stark!)
This episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. falls in a weird area of this fine-not-fine Spectrum of Depicted Science, though. Whereas last week’s episode featured a magically rigid inflatable raft, it played that moment very lightly, and cut away from it as quickly as possible. In “The Asset,” however, the bad science is pinning down the whole plot and our suspension of disbelief simply can’t last that long. The show’s solution for this seems to be to have Fitz and Simmons babble some additional esoteric terms in the hopes that we’ll get confused and think they’ve got this wacky stuff all under control, but that ends up providing more focus on the impossibilities.
It’s a weird Uncanny Valley-esque line to cross. Two SUVs and a semi truck being launched into the air for no reason? I can accept that. It’s visually exciting and over in moments. But try to explain the why of it and I can’t stop myself from picking the explanation apart. When it comes right down to it, television, movies, books…they don’t need to be smart about science, they need to be smart about getting around science. “The Asset” is, unfortunately, really bad at that.
After Fitz and Simmons finish not-explaining this impossible element, we cut back to Quinn, who reveals that he’s built a huge generator powered by gravitonium and wants Hall to get it working. Our agents are chomping at the bit to go rescue the professor, but can’t because Quinn is throwing a huge charity gala and there’s a law in Malta that S.H.I.E.L.D. agents can legally be shot on sight and…oh dear, we’ve backpedaled right off a cliff and now Skye is the only person infiltrating Malta to rescue the professor.
Ward takes umbrage to that because, although he is impressed with Skye having already managed to “hack” an invite to the gala, she isn’t a trained agent. So he bothers Coulson about it while Coulson busies himself checking his email and trying to decide between a rack full of identical suits. It’s a nicely sly performance from Clark Gregg in what is otherwise a pointless scene. Coulson, or rather the script, suggests that Ward just treat her like another person and not a potential agent. Meanwhile, in an alternate universe, the better script for this episode has Coulson getting Ward to admit that if the untrained and unorthodox Skye succeeds then Ward will feel as if his own skills, the ones he punched so many things to perfect, aren’t worth anything. And wouldn’t that have been interesting for Ward to admit?
Especially considering how, in the following scene, Ward continues to badger Skye about being more like an agent. Skye is completely uninterested in his advice on how to disarm someone, saying that she prefers skills that come naturally to her. We find out that protection and defense come naturally to Ward, on account of how his older brother always beat the crap out of him and his younger brother. That, he admits, was his “defining moment.” To be fair, he never said defining moments had to make sense or be chronologically linked with one’s entry into S.H.I.E.L.D. (Although maybe Ward is like the Black Widow in that he’s been in special ops pretty much since he was a kid? This isn’t the first time the show has tried to link him with Romanov.)
Skye enters the gala in impractical heels and entertainingly schmoozes her way over to Quinn, who reveals that he invited her because he’d like to hire her away from the Rising Tide and over to his company. Quinn also reveals the presence of gravitonium to the crowd, along with its atomic number and atomic mass (Which means that the element would be so unstable that it couldn’t exist for more than 1 millisecond at most.) while Skye heads off to do more sneaking. She’s caught immediately but gains Quinn’s trust by revealing that S.H.I.E.L.D. is monitoring the party. He warns her that scooping up people like her is how they operate. They take the gifted but unwanted and they offer them a home. With the way Quinn frames it the concept is meant to sound sleazy, which is probably why he gets so mad when Skye lets S.H.I.E.L.D. into the compound anyway.
Coulson reaches Prof. Hall only to find out that Hall has set the generator to overload and doesn’t seem too particular on who gets destroyed with it. The generator has reoriented the gravity in the room by 90 degrees, and Hall pours himself some sideways whisky as he rants to Coulson about how Quinn and S.H.I.E.L.D. are essentially the same thing, and how he’s sick of advancing the cause of either of them. “Your search for an unlimited power source brought an alien invasion.”
It’s too late to simply shut off the generator, so Fitz and Simmons suggest using a catalyst to render the element inert. Although it pains Coulson to do it, Hall isn’t listening to reason anymore. Coulson shoots out the glass beneath them and finds his catalyst. Hall plummets towards the generator, getting sucked into the ball of gravitonium at its center in big dramatic slo-mo. The only thing missing is a caption flashing, “YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE LAST OF MEEEE.”
After the crisis is over, Coulson has the gravitonium hidden to such an extent that he hopes that the organization itself forgets they have it. Agent May in turn reveals that she’s tired of
sitting out episode after episode their team having sloppy close-calls and that she wants to be put on active duty once more.
Outside the lab, Skye works a punching bag just like Ward taught her. Quinn’s tirade about S.H.I.E.L.D. offering a home hit the perennially adopted Skye closer than he knew. “Hoping for something and losing it hurts more than never hoping for anything.” Ward promises S.H.I.E.L.D. won’t turn its back. “Doesn’t matter. I made my choice. I want this. Bad.”
Hangovers of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Watching “The Asset” was like watching someone rally through a hangover. The pre-credits scene was a lot of fun, but it felt like a final drunken flame-out in comparison to how weak the rest of the episode was. Not coincidentally, this was an episode that mostly sidelined Coulson, the show’s actual “asset,” which is probably why it feels so thin.
Still, the episode managed to pull itself together by the end (probably by drinking a lot of water and downing some vitamin C) and it gave us a glimpse of qualities we may come to heavily identify the show with this time next year. Hall’s whole plotline is straight up comic book goofy, but the show gives that goofiness some room to grow and breathe and be generally entertaining. (The sideways drink pour was a nice touch, I thought.) Coulson and S.H.I.E.L.D. get to play the straight men to this situation, and that dynamic reinforces why we like the show in the first place.
The more we can see ourselves in S.H.I.E.L.D., the better we can accept idealistic scientists getting eaten by a blob of non-existent element. In fact, the more we see ourselves in S.H.I.E.L.D., the more we want to see crazy stuff like that happen. We got a taste of that in “The Asset” and I imagine that as time goes on, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will figure out how to incorporate even crazier comic book scenarios into its plots on a regular basis.
We also got a glimpse of how interesting our titular agents can be, as evidenced by Skye and Ward’s scene at the end of the episode. The scenes and lines that inform Skye’s desire to belong to a family were well-placed, I thought. While you’re watching the episode it’s not clear where the story is really going with Ward’s “defining moment” speech, Skye’s lampooning of it later in the episode, and Quinn’s criticism of S.H.I.E.L.D. But tying those disparate elements together gave us a really sweet moment, and it felt like a realization that Skye’s character was ready to make on her own terms, since you as the viewer are making it with her.
Tidbits of S.H.I.E.L.D.
- The agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. got their first supervillain! This episode’s post-credits scene probably came as no surprise to comics readers, even if they weren’t already familiar with Dr. Franklin Hall. I’m really happy that the show is going this route so quickly, even if it does beggar belief. The agents need an overwhelming threat to focus them and something nebulous like the Rising Tide just isn’t going to provide that.
- COULSON DEATH WATCH: Coulson can’t disarm a gun in the smooth manner he’s accustomed to. Is he really just rusty, or is this a coordination glitch that one could expect if you were, say, a clone?
- “I know Director Fury felt he owed you after you sacrificed yourself…” “And my card collection.” – I was really happy to see this mentioned. And, as expected, Coulson sure doesn’t like Fury’s maneuver but is a professional and respects the results.
- Is the show finally going to stop treating Agent May like wallpaper? This is the third episode out of three where she’s taken herself out of the story.
- Want to know something nerdy? They actually could have made “gravitonium” plausible. There are 118 elements in the periodic table, but pretty much all of the elements above 94 do not occur naturally and were discovered by being manufactured in labs. They’re also largely useless, as after element 100 they decay too rapidly to be, well, anything. Theoretically there should be possibly-usable elements beyond element 118 in a range dubbed the Island of Stability. In the show, gravitonium’s atomic number (123) and atomic mass (308) just miss this range. If they had listed something more like an atomic number of 120, with an atomic mass of 295, it would have been plausible.
- Nice Marvel reference at the beginning: “SHIELD 616 with new orders…” In the comic books, the Marvel universe is Earth-616.
- Was the truth serum real or was Agent Ward just playin’? I’d like to think it was real, if only because it makes Coulson shooting Ward with it more satisfying.
Chris Lough is the production manager of Tor.com and has either too little gravitonium or too much gravitonium and never enough.