Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. got a surprising amount of mileage out this week’s jump in genres. Whereas last week we were making up fake elements and stopping mad (well, idealistically angry) scientists, this week we’re just trying to figure out what’s up with these diamond heists. This subversion of expectation works well for the show at this point in its evolution. Not only do we as viewers need a break from extremises and gravitoniums and alien guns, but the episode itself draws a new sense of revelry from this same desire to subvert. This week we’re not watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., we’re watching a mini spy thriller. So what else isn’t what it seems?
Quite a lot, it turns out.
For such a young and goo-shaped television show, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. sure has perfected the art of the Thrilling Cold Open. This time we’re in Sweden, watching a young woman as she calmly but assuredly follows a host of men in identical suits and comical red masks. They weave quietly through crowded Sergel’s Square, merging and splitting, ignoring those who try to engage them and those who try to photograph them. They wait patiently for the subway, boarding quietly during rush hour, flanking the passengers in the car. Each one of them has a briefcase handcuffed to their wrist.
If you live in New York City, this scene makes you so. tense. This kind of ominous public display is exactly the thing we’re told incessantly by NYPD posters and subway conductors to watch out for. Look at how no one questions the red-masked men as they enter a packed train car. It could happen this easily, the episode says. Is this performance art? Is something unavoidably terrible about to occur? You won’t know until it happens. The men aren’t talking. It’s already too late.
And what’s worse…this is exactly how it would play out in real life.
“Eye Spy” starts flipping the tables on the viewer here. The woman follows the red-masked men on to the car, seems to deliberate for a moment, then plunges the train car into darkness. When the lights come back, all of the men are on the floor, out cold. She saved us!
Except the red-masked men aren’t up to anything nefarious. They were part of an engineered display of anonymity, designed to protect a shipment of diamonds from our heroine, the same woman who’s been thieving them across Europe. The same woman who just severed an innocent person’s hand to nab the briefcase carrying those diamonds.
(Extra credit goes to the show staff for not naming the episode “Hand Off.” I…would not have been able to resist that.)
Who’s going to get those diamonds back? The agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are on the ca…wait, what? They don’t chase diamond thieves. I mean, it’s only been three episodes but we know that much. It turns out we’re not chasing a diamond thief, we’re chasing a former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent by the name of Amador Akela. And by “we,” Coulson means him. This isn’t an official operation, Akela used to be his protege. This is personal.
The idea of a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent gone rogue is fun all by itself. If these are supposed to be the most capable people on the planet, able to go toe-to-toe with superheroes, then it should be interesting to see the damage that one with experience and no scruples can do. But “Eye Spy” adds more to this story, and a theme starts to develop that makes the episode far more memorable than it would have been otherwise.
Akela proves up to taking on the team, shaking off Coulson and Ward in Belarus and letting Fitz, Simmons, and Skye get a peek at her location only when that location happens to be In A Truck, Coming Right At You. Up to this point, Skye has been championing the theory that Akela is telepathic, or precognitive, despite everyone giving her their best “That’s dumb and you should feel dumb” face.
And they’re right. Akela isn’t telepathic. She’s bionic. Her right eye is bio-tech and it can see through damn near anything.
The team reconvenes and May has words with Coulson. Akela is too much for them and this needs to be an official S.H.I.E.L.D. operation. Coulson has too much faith in his former protege, she thinks. Coulson, to his credit, also thinks that. But they’re not bringing in anyone else, he stresses. Oh, and by the way, Agent May, you are super capable, and we are now tracking Akela through her own eyeball, and you have the first watch. Good night!
May then does my favorite thing, which is fit the phrase “this is bullshit I’m taking care of this” into a single quiet huff, and she pins down and confronts Akela. And of course, now that May has finally stepped onto center stage after three episodes locked in a cockpit, what happens? Akela has to kill her just because she saw her.
Another subversion. Akela doesn’t want to kill May, she has to. Her eye is also a communicator and contains a literal kill switch. She’s under someone else’s control. As May and a well-timed Coulson take her into custody, we learn that Akela so hated the concept of someone else having control over her actions that she disregarded Coulson’s orders years back, and ended up getting their entire team killed. She thinks back fondly on her days in S.H.I.E.L.D. now. Her unknown puppetmasters won’t even let her sleep without their agreement.
With Akela in hand, the team come up with a three-pronged plan. Fitz and Simmons will remove her eye. Ward and Skye will hijack the feed to her eye so that her captors think Ward is actually Akela. And Coulson and May will track down where the signal to her eye is coming from.
Everyone’s plan goes more or less smoothly, if squeamishly. Akela’s puppetmaster discovers Akela isn’t what she seems just as the eye is disabled. And Coulson discovers that Akela’s puppetmaster is just another puppet. No one is who they say they are anymore.
Even Coulson. As Akela is lead away to prison, she asks May what’s wrong with Coulson. May doesn’t know what she means. And neither do we.
Subversions of S.H.I.E.L.D.
After three weeks of mostly the same material, I wasn’t actually looking forward to reviewing the show this week. Obviously, I should doubt the show more often! This was the first episode where Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. felt like it was comfortable with its own premise. The difference in tone helped, but the consistency of that tone is what ultimately sold the episode. “Eye Spy” was committed to letting the story of Akela unfold and content to let the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. react to the revelations it brought about. What we ended up with was a more genuine portrait of the characters than we’ve yet gotten.
Keeping the stakes personal also brought the threat closer to home than thousands of atoms of gravitonium ever could. Coulson’s teams have failed before, and this one certainly could, too. The episode is smart to let it speak to an aspect of his character that we’ve enjoyed throughout all of the Avengers films: his unwavering faith.
We’ve now heard or seen three teams that Coulson has willed into existence by championing them when no one else would, the current agents, the team Akela was on, and the Avengers themselves. It’s arguable whether any of them were a success.
And that’s yet another subversion, isn’t it? Coulson has always appeared to be the ultra-capable assembler, cool under pressure, and dedicated to what he feels is right. But is that true? Or does he just blunder through the world, swinging hope around to make himself feel better?
That episode doesn’t come anywhere close to answering that question, or asking it, really, but for the moment just hinting at it is enough.
Tidbits of S.H.I.E.L.D.
- Roxann Dawson directed this episode. Nice job, B’Elanna Torres!
- Only Pepper Potts gets to call him, Phil, Skye. And you are no Pepper Potts.
- In one of the episode’s coolest moments, Ward stumbles into a room with two old guys on typewriters and chalkboards full of equations. I wonder what was supposed to be on them? Was it outlining circuitry? A genetic sequence? I didn’t get a chance to really research that.
- Who’s got tech so ahead of the game that they can put an eye in Akela but still need other think tanks to complete their plans? The puppetmaster at the end had a fake eye, as well. Maybe the bionic eyes are this mysterious organization’s only useful piece of tech, hence the stealing of other blueprints?
- The attention paid to the science in this episode was actually pretty damn outstanding. A ten year leap to a bionic eye is not unreasonable. And Fitz and Simmons disposed of the potentially explosive eye in something that would actually render it inert. And the method that Akela used to hide the diamonds is brilliant in its simplicity.
- The Nobel laureate that Simmons geeks out about is Zhores Alferov, who won the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physics for the creation of the heterotransistor, which is why you can read this on high speed electronic device. (It’s actually weird that Fitz upbraids her for that. Isn’t he the techie?)
- If they ever do an only-Skye episode they should call it “Eye Skye.” BECAUSE I SAID SO, THAT’S WHY.
- Coulson Death Watch!: Akela wonders why Coulson is “different,” but she hasn’t seen him in years, so the difference can’t be chalked up to whatever he is post-Avengers. Considering that she expects him to say “I told you so” to her, it seems like Past Coulson was a bit of an asshole. What could change that? What made Coulson hope for a world full of heroes?
- This Week’s Coulson Theory: He’s Clara from Doctor Who. There, I solved it.
Chris Lough is the production manager of Tor.com, your resident Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. recapper, and a party on the dance floor.