Adjust the System. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: “The Hub”

“I don’t want to alarm you, but I think you may have a mold problem,” Coulson says as he’s worked over by some Russians. Our favorite agent is cool as ice as a hard-edged capital-I Interrogator enters the room; appropriate considering how they’re all ensconced in a dank bunker in the depths of Siberia. The Interrogator is lovingly fondling his tools when Coulson asks, “Do you have the intel? No? We have three minutes, Agent Shaw.”

ZERG RUSH! May and Ward and Shaw and Coulson take everyone out and they rush to some bobsleds waiting out on the ice. “Where are the dogs?” Shaw asks. Coulson buttons up his blazer, grabs hold, and tells him, “Don’t be ridiculous.” The bobsleds zip away to The Bus and thus does Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode “The Hub” establish that we’re about to see one of its best episodes yet.

Although we don’t know it yet, the running motif throughout the episode will be The Bad Things S.H.I.E.L.D. Agents Do To One Another and we get a small taste of that after the opening credits, as Simmons slides a wicked looking instrument through Shaw’s nose so she can retrieve the capsule he’s hidden there. (Ew. But also, how?) Coulson to Shaw: “I bet you’re used to being on the other side of these things.”

The intel is retrieved and Skye and Fitz are waiting outside (with S.H.I.E.L.D. issue mugs that I now want) to unlock and decode the information on it. Except they’re not going to be touching it, says Coulson. This is a Level 8 classified mission and they’re going to The Hub to get the word on what they should do next. We don’t know much about our plucky agents yet, but we do know that 1.) Coulson not trusting them is not the tone this team is accustomed to and 2.) It’s creepy how even the more senior members of the team shut down their natural inquisitiveness—which is part of what makes them an asset to the team in the first place—upon hearing the words “Level 8.”

Agents of SHIELD episode 7 The Hub

It also makes them kind of nasty. When Skye very logically asks what’s going on, Fitz mumbles that this isn’t the time for her socialism and May smirks at his barb. If the scene had gone on any longer Ward would have probably whipped a dodgeball at Skye’s head.

The team arrives at the Hub and WOW that’s one hell of a budget you have for extras, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. The team pick up their passes but Skye is still bound by her bracelet. She can’t go anywhere the team can, and she can’t touch anything even resembling a computer, which means that she can’t search for the redacted S.H.I.E.L.D. file on her parents. Coulson assures her that he’s looking into it but he also rigs the door to the Level 7 briefing room so that she’s magnetized to the wall outside of it. So Skye is obviously not all that confident that Coulson will follow through.

Coulson, May, and Ward link up with Agent Sitwell, he of Item 47 fame, and they head in to a meeting with the (seemingly) legendary Agent Geena Davis Victoria Hand. Hand is all business and very judgmental of even Coulson’s abilities as she briefs the agents on their mission. A separatist group in Ossetia has captured a weapon dubbed the “Overkill Device,” which can sonically activate munitions, explosives, even nuclear weapons from miles away. They’re going to use the weapon to declare independence from Russia and Georgia unless someone stops them.

Since the Overkill makes it useless for S.H.I.E.L.D. to storm in with jets and troops they need to send a team in to infiltrate. Ward still has contacts in that area and May is…oh wait, actually, May has literally just been taken off the team that she assumed she was on in favor of Fitz. What the hell, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.? You’re seven episodes in and you keep doing this. (More on this after the recap.) Ward needs to have someone with him who can dismantle the tech.

In rolls Fitz, who can’t even get his cart through the door. His lack of field experience is being played here as a joke, but keen ears will have heard Fitz say he found a “localized EMP and a few other party favors” which will come in handy later in the episode. It’s very nicely done, giving us the joke we expect to see while foreshadowing the field-capable Fitz that we’re about to see.

Agents of SHIELD episode 7 The Hub

The episode also takes a moment here to begin undermining its own premise: that Coulson is entirely trusting of his team. The look he gives the bumbling Fitz here betrays a bit of regret that he has to put Fitz in the field, and the notion of trust will end up shaping the narrative of the entire episode.

Agents of SHIELD episode 7 The Hub

Simmons worries herself sick over Fitz, even making him his favorite sandwich, but the worry only serves to undermine Fitz’s confidence in his own abilities all the more. He is suddenly all business and very cold, even going so far as to upbraid Ward for wasting time before the mission. We haven’t quite seen this side of Fitz before, and it seems to vanish as suddenly as it arrived.

It’s also unclear just where Fitz and Simmons exist in regards to their relationship to each other. There is unbridled worry on the part of Simmons and a determination on the part of Fitz to not think about all he might be losing. She also knows hundreds of little details about him, and obviously the two have been working in close quarters for years now. But there’s a hesitancy to almost all of their interactions, as well. Have they never had a romantic relationship? Did they attempt one in the past and it just…didn’t work out? Their connection is a little more heated than just a brother/sister dynamic, but it’s not quite heated enough to make it clear whether either of them want something more from the other.

On the ground in Eastern Europe, Ward’s contacts quickly turn sour and the two of them are tied up in the back of a bar. (Fitz being an awkward goofball and asking what beers they have on tap doesn’t help.) The Ossetians have no reason to trust them, and they’re about to get executed when the power suddenly goes out. Fitz offers to help them get the power back on so they can finish watching the game and the next we see of him he’s being dangled down a crawlspace fiddling with wires. The power comes back, the bar cheers, and Fitz turns to their captors and tells them that it’s time to talk business. A happy bar and two million rubles in grease payment later, Fitz and Ward are on a truck heading to the compound that the Overkill is stashed in. Oh, and the power outage? Caused by the localized EMP that Fitz took from The Hub. His bumbling was just a cover. Here, and possibly elsewhere.

Agents of SHIELD episode 7 The Hub

Back at The Hub, Hand and Coulson talk about his return to the “big leagues” and how his recovery was curated. “Seems Fury has a soft spot for his favorites,” Hand says. “Not everyone gets sent to Tahiti.” Coulson repeats his “it’s a magical place” mantra in response but pauses during it. He’s realized that the word Tahiti triggers that response in him automatically. Something is up.

Aside from that, his discussion with Hand highlights something that’s been slowly building throughout the show: That Coulson and his team are not taken entirely seriously by S.H.I.E.L.D. Hand doubts that his team can pull off the mission, and in the previous episode we saw another agent doubt that Coulson would even take his orders in the future. Confidence in Coulson himself seems to have been shattered after the events of The Avengers and if Coulson wasn’t considered Fury’s pet project before, he certainly is now. In the same manner that everyone sneered at Skye for questioning the activities of S.H.I.E.L.D. earlier in the episode, now everyone at The Hub sneers at Coulson for doing things his own way.

Agents of SHIELD episode 7 The Hub

And now Coulson himself doesn’t even know what “he” is. He’s unaware that S.H.I.E.L.D. has sent a third of his team to their death, he’s caught between his urges to trust his team and “the system,” and why does everyone keep focusing on his recovery? What happened to him?

Although Coulson plays it cool as ever, his concerns eventually boil over during a one-sided conversation with Agent May as she does tai chi. It’s an excellent little scene, hilarious and conflicted and heartfelt all at once. Timing it so that May enacts the “push out” gesture right after Coulson dumps all of his angst on her is pretty funny, too.

Agents of SHIELD episode 7 The Hub

Skye is used very effectively here, as well. Not only is she the one prompting everyone to explain S.H.I.E.L.D.’s actions, but she consistently stands in as the audience’s advocate in questioning the reasons for those actions. By that act alone she furthers the emotional conflict of the episode, and it’s even richer a progression because we know it’s entirely within her character to prod at S.H.I.E.L.D. You couldn’t imagine May or Simmons doing the same thing, and when Skye’s urging focuses on those two agents it makes even more sense that May ignores her and Simmons cracks. Which is how we eventually get Simmons’ Super Awkward Espionage and an unconscious Agent Sitwell.

Agents of SHIELD episode 7 The Hub

Oh, and also the realization that Coulson unknowingly lied to Ward and Fitz and that there is no plan to extract them once they neutralize the Overkill. They’ll go up in flames as S.H.I.E.L.D. jet-bombs the facility. (Oh, the Bad Things That S.H.I.E.L.D. Agents Do To One Another… And I love how the name of the device also describes S.H.I.E.L.D.’s own response to it.)

Here’s where the episode really hits a home run. We know S.H.I.E.L.D. means what they say in regards to not sending an extraction team to save them, and we also trust in Ward and Fitz’s abilities right alongside Coulson. So even though Ward and Fitz are highly entertaining as they go after the device (“You have ten seconds.” “I thought you’d say five.”) their capability just ratchets the tension up even higher. They’ll die as soon as they succeed and there’s no way they’re not going to succeed.

Coulson for his part sticks with the party line throughout the entire episode and gives some good reasoning as to why S.H.I.E.L.D. does things the way it does. “Our team can go off-book because there is a book. The Hub. An organization watching our backs.” He’s not wrong, and yet, when Skye asks Coulson if he knew he was sending Ward and Fitz to die, he hides behind the catch-all justification that S.H.I.E.L.D. itself does: it’s classified.

When we find out that Coulson didn’t know, he has an amazing scene with Hand where neither party is entirely wrong. Hand has good reasons for why the operation is being carried out the way that it is, and Coulson has equally good reasons as to why his team members should have been told of the full plan. Hand loses the argument, just barely, by hiding behind the same S.H.I.E.L.D. platitude that everyone’s been echoing throughout the episode: Trust the system. Ironically, Hand herself would be entirely in the right if only she trusted the system. After all, Coulson’s team is part of the system, too, aren’t they?

Ultimately, that’s the scenario that the episode leaves us pondering. More and more it seems like Coulson’s team are the black sheep of S.H.I.E.L.D., and Coulson and Nick Fury themselves went out on one hell of a limb with the Avengers Initiative. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been pointing out repeatedly how unorthodox Coulson’s methods are in relation to the organization, but only a few people in that organization seem to recognize that S.H.I.E.L.D. itself needs to evolve along with a world filling up with superheroes, aliens, and future technology.

Coulson and his team enjoy Fury’s protection and an unprecedented amount of freedom within S.H.I.E.L.D. It’s not a big leap to make to say that our agents may be the harbinger of a gradual transformation that Fury has begun to put S.H.I.E.L.D. through. It’s a thread that has run through the Marvel Avengers movies, a thread which is currently running through the show, and which is supposedly taking center stage in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Fury knows that S.H.I.E.L.D. has to change, but long-lasting change must be implemented gradually. And more and more it looks like Coulson and his team are the most effective tool Fury has for instituting that change from within S.H.I.E.L.D. itself. It’s just that S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t know that….

Unfortunately, this probably means that Fury isn’t done using Coulson for his own ends. Fury certainly acted honorably by doing everything he could to revive Coulson. But there was something else motivating Fury, as well.

Tahiti? It’s a magical place.

 

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

  • Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has a definite problem with forgetting how it treats its minority characters. The continual offscreening of May isn’t as funny as they think it is and now that we’re seven episodes in the show needs to address this. Thankfully, according to episode synopses, we’re FINALLY getting that in the ninth episode. (We’d probably get it sooner, too, but the ongoing plotlines are probably taking a break so next week’s episode 8 can react to Thor: The Dark World.)
  • Speaking of Thor, what do you think our agents will be sent in to clean up? If it’s that huge galumphing beast from Jotunheim I will be SO HAPPY.
  • Actually, there’s kind of a million things from Thor 2 that I would be happy with a cameo from but I’m trying not to be too spoilery since we’re still close to its U.S. release. That said, WARNING: the comments of this article may have spoilers for Thor 2.
  • The X-ray laminate is by the far the coolest toy the show has created. I want one. Now.

Agents of SHIELD episode 7 The Hub

  • The episode had some great scenes for everyone involved, most of them involving their trust in the team. Skye is given a choice as to whether to find our more about her past or help her team, and her selflessness in that regard pays off in the end.
  • Ward similarly learns to trust Fitz and to relax on being Mr. Protector a little bit. It’s very smart of the show to point out that by being too proactive, Ward is actually supressing the capabilities of his teammates to a certain extent.
  • And their delicious sandwiches. He is also suppressing those.
  • “Barton. Romanov. They never have an extraction plan.”
  • “Wait until you see the Triskelion.”
  • The background graphics at The Hub also list these related agencies to S.H.I.E.L.D.: H.A.M.M.E.R., A.R.M.O.R., and EuroM.I.N.D.
  • So what’s up with Skye’s parents? Was her mom actually a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent or was she murdered by S.H.I.E.L.D.? Either way, why was she killed?
  • As if the episode wasn’t dramatic enough, then there was that post-credits scene. COULSON KNOWS.

Chris Lough is the resident Tor.com Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. recapper and is also famous for revealing his innermost thoughts to people doing tai chi.

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