Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has a lot in common with another (and my favorite) Joss Whedon show: Dollhouse. As a started to prepare this week’s write up, I noticed a huge structural similarity between the two shows. Both shows took more than a few episodes to find their feet. Both shows dealt with high concept cases of the week and part of the stumbling in the first few episodes were dealing with setting up said concepts in a believable manner that didn’t feel cheesy. Both shows took a bit to acclimate the actors within the ensemble to the fast paced nature of the scripts. AND, finally, and the point of all this gabbing, both shows aimed directly for the heart during the sixth episode. Dollhouse had the heartbreaking “Man on The Street” which followed an A story of Echo on her yearly outing with a man who had lost his wife and who yearned to recapture the magic of his lost love and a B story that dealt with a possible brutal abusing of an Active by another Active. A.o.S. brings us the same kind of high concept sci-fi storytelling, but throughout a slow, subtle dagger right toward our emotions and it’s a welcome set of new toys that the show has no problem taking away from us and stomping all over.
Episode six finds our team investigating the strange deaths of seemingly random citizens by what seems to be freak surges of massive amounts of electrostatic energy. The victims brains are cooked from the inside and their lifeless bodies are left hanging in mid-air. Skye quickly links them all through one common event: The Invasion of New York. Each of the victims were first responders when The Chitauri attacked New York and someone is picking them off one by one. Its this hook that keeps us glued to the couch as we watch. The team, and scripting, is still riding high from the momentum built by the last episodes. Each episode seems to get better and better as the writers have finally found a firm grip on what each member brings to the team. Skye establishes the connection between the victims, Ward, May, and Coulson provide the leg work, while FitzSimmons, through a thorough examination of the body and crime scenes, piece together the clues that point to the murder weapon: a Chitauri helmet that infects the first responders with an alien virus. Every character has a role to fill and they fill it masterfully, all while delivering the cracking banter that we all have come to expect. Come for the comic cosmic hi jinks, stay for the impressions of Agent Ward that Skye and FitzSimmons’ have perfected.
But, this is where the tears start.
After tracking down the helmet to a fire station housing the owner, who is gathering energy for another deadly discharge, Coulson shuts himself in the room with the literal ticking time bomb. It’s here that the writer, Lost vet Paul Zbyszewski, gives us one of two gut wrenching scenes that sets this episode apart from everything before it. Coulson starts to relate to the man as he realizes that he’s about to die with his own tale of mortality. He reveals that he himself had died and though people have told him that it was for only eight seconds, he’s aware that it was more than that; he completely left our plane of existence. This isn’t only a bit of bravura acting from Clark Gregg, who has now shown incredible range and versatility that has gotten him noticed in so many supporting roles in Hollywood, but yet another deep layer brought to surface of Agent Coulson. Before we have only seen the droll wit and the leadership qualities of everybody’s favorite agent, but this episode, we see the man underneath the suit and he’s faltering. Death has fundamentally changed who Phil Coulson is and he doesn’t know if he can deal with it.
Zbyszewski isn’t content to stop there. As the team is tasked to transport the helmet to a S.H.I.E.L.D. black site storage facility, Simmons starts exhibiting the symptoms of the owner of the helmet, giving her mere hours before she discharges, destroying The Bus and everyone inside. Coulson is ordered to dump his infected cargo by his superior, in the form of a nice bit of MCU connectivity with a cameo by Titus Welliver, Item 47’s Agent Blake, but Fitz refuses to accept his lab partner’s fate. He seals himself inside with the infected Simmons’ to find a cure derived from the blood of the fallen Chitauri. These are tense, highly emotional scenes between two now fully developed characters that we now love and want to see survive. Both Elizabeth Henstridge and Iain De Caestecker give stellar performances that elevate their characters far beyond the token comedic relief techie roles that the early episodes pigeonholed them into. The relationship is fully formed, even without the extensive back story between the two that’s been hinted at and their struggle to find a cure is gut wrenching. After a last failed attempt, Simmons knocks Fitz across the head and, without hesitation, throws herself from the cargo hold to save her friends, who is then followed by Ward who snatches a parachute away from Fitz as he’s moments away from diving after her with the cure they thought had failed. Its a drastic, and very shocking set of scenes that show just how much this team now cares for one another. The main set piece of Ward jumping from The Bus, sans parachute, to rescue and cure Simmons is real heart in your throat TV, but it’s the emotional undercurrent that brings tears to your eyes with worry and then triumph as he snatches her up. We cheer as they float to the water below, we feel our cheeks get hot as Coulson berates her snap judgment with the reason that “We would hate to lose you”, and we fully break down when Skye, without a word, wraps Simmons in her arms, grateful that she’s still alive. We repeat the entire cycle when Simmons tells Fitz that he, not Ward, is the real hero for never leaving her side. This is vintage Whedonverse stuff and it’s the best kind of genre TV; high concept thrills with the capacity for real human emotion.
As I write these reviews, I usually play the episode in the background just to give myself some bearings as I try to spill out all my thoughts, but, just as I did the first time watching it, tears welled up in my eyes throughout the episode. Marvel has always meant a great deal to me as a person and it’s wonderful to see that yet another MCU property has found its way into my heart. Coulson and his team are now just as important to me as The Future Foundation or Clint and Kate. Like Dollhouse before it, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has now proved that it has the power to not only excite and stimulate your mind, but your heart as well and in equal measure.
Crying Many Manly Tears,
-J. Partridge, III