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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. 1x7 - "The Hub"

"The Hub" is the James Bond-iest episode of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. yet. Specifically, Goldeneye, if Q had joined 007 on the mission to Russia and brought along a prosciutto sandwich. Our intrepid young heroes are charged with the task of finding and disabling yet another super weapon that would be disastrous if it fell into the wrong hands, but unlike the 084 in "084," it is not alien technology. However, like the 084, the MacGuffan is a rather uninteresting handheld device that shoots energy. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. fares far better when it concerns itself with humans developing superpowers than it does ill-defined dangerous objects that blast people with blast-y things. But the point of "The Hub" is really team building, pairing up our Agents in a couple of new Marvel Team-Up iterations, while digging deeper into the show's two major concurrent mysteries. Along the way, "The Hub" is also our most intimate look yet at just how S.H.I.E.L.D. operates.

Welcome to The Hub, a major S.H.I.E.L.D. base in a classified location. It's impressive and bustling with men in identical black suits but as Simmons tells Skye, "this is nothing, you should see the Triskelion." Yes, please! I would very much like to see the Triskelion. And we will in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. At The Hub, S.H.I.E.L.D. protocol is at its protocol-iest, with all of the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. tight-lipped, heads down, and happily doing their business according to what Level they are ranked. Coulson, Melinda, and Ward are granted temporary Level 8 access for their mission briefing, we learn Simmons and Fitz are Level 5, and Skye is not anything. She is not an Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. so I guess she's Level 0. Plus she's wearing The Scarlet Wristband That Isn't Scarlet for her little dabble with treason, so she gets to be magnetically chained to wall access panels from time to time.

Skye bristles at being treated like a second class citizen in a third world nation. She may as well be a Fourth World Hunger Dog. But I do love that Skye questions everything she's seeing and how everyone is behaving because in a way, Skye is right: S.H.I.E.L.D. is cool, but they are also a creepy organization of spybots and they are abnormal and weird. Thor's human friends Jane Foster and Darcy would agree; they're not fans of S.H.I.E.L.D. either. But in another, more accurate way, as we learn throughout the episode, Skye is also not right. S.H.I.E.L.D., as a spy organization, operates on compartmentalization and secrecy, this "need to know" system is in order to protect the lives of their Agents, so that if an Agent is compromised, no one Agent can bring the whole system down. "Trust the system," Coulson repeatedly asks of Skye. Nope, she can't. Skye was recruited by Coulson to "think outside the box" and she professes she wants to be an Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. but to be an Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. means living in and loving the box. Take Simmons, she just wants to keep her head down and do her job. So of course, Skye gets Simmons to go off book and violate protocol in order to find out what's happening to Ward and Fitz in Russia. This leads comedy. Simmons, who's probably a horrible poker player, gets caught immediately by Agent Sitwell (who is bald - any relation to Stan Sitwell on Arrested Development?). Simmons panics and shoots Sitwell in the chest with the Night Night Gun. "I'm going to get court marshaled for this!" Simmons fears. Her fears are unfounded.

Coulson deals with another major S.H.I.E.L.D. top gun, Victoria Hand (Saffron Burrows). You know she's important because she's Level 8 and wears a pants suit. Otherwise, she's just like everyone else in S.H.I.E.L.D., hiding something, quick to enforce protocol and regulations, and devoid of personality. (But also secretly impressed by acts of heroism.) Hand's presence in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. makes one wonder where exactly Maria Hill falls in the hierarchy. In the comics, Maria Hill is the top dog, the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. In the Marvel Studios universe, Hill's rank is more ambiguous. (Is How I Met Your Mother the main reason Maria Hill's career trajectory is so muddy?) One thing that's interesting, from Hill's deleted scene in The Avengers, and an offhand (pun unintended) comment Hand made about Nick Fury, both of these high-powered female Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. take a bit of a withering view towards the Director. Maybe they don't like his leather pimpcoat. Hand takes a couple of little shots at Coulson as one of "Fury's favorites," and questions whether he's glad to be "off that plane" and "back in the big leagues." Coulson says he never left the big leagues. Oh, I'm not sure about that. Coulson's seemingly kneejerk response to the mention of Tahiti - "It's a... magical place..." - stopped him cold this time around.

As for Ward and Fitz, they're the classic odd couple on their secret incursion into Russia. Fitz's motormouth annoys Ward but "The Hub" goes out of its way to give Fitz ample ways to be useful and heroic, whether it's getting in good with Russian gangsters by fixing the electricity in the bar so they can watch football, or busting out his Harry Potter Invisibility Cloak and cool X-Ray Vision Wall Thingie. Ward, the perfect S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent, a stickler for protocol who follows orders and wants to execute missions perfectly, took the prosciutto and buffalo mozzarella with a hint of pesto alioli sandwich Simmons lovingly packed for Fitz and chucked it into the muck. What. The. Hell. That was completely out of line and the first time I was sternly on Fitz's side about anything. Yet Ward was also right to do so; they were behind enemy lines and being hunted by dogs who would be able to smell that sandwich a mile away. Everything a S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent does has a reason, though they're often kind of dicks about it and explain later, if at all. As the episode continues, the point that Ward gradually comes to respect Fitz's ability and courage is spelled out for us. Ward is nothing if not fond of the nerds he's stuck on a plane with and yes, he will lay down his life to protect them.

Meanwhile, Skye violates every S.H.I.E.L.D. protocol by hacking into their system (so The Scarlet Bracelet That Isn't Scarlet doesn't work when the plot requires it not to?) and learning that there is no extraction plan in place for Ward and Fitz. She also finds the mysterious redacted file about her past but with only seconds to go before she's discovered, she chooses to concentrate on saving her friends. Despite May's confusing non-expressions - Skye's "Which non-expression is this?" is the best line in the episode - May backs up her team, and so does Coulson, after a bit of soul searching and a moment where he calls out Hand for her secrecy. It's like there's no honor between Level 8s! Coulson's dream team boards The Bus and makes for Mother Russia, rather impressively making the save for Ward and Fitz by hovering The Bus over the Russian soldiers about to shoot them and using the VTOL (Vertical Take off and Landing) engines to blow those Russian bad boys back. Our Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. never return to The Hub, never get yelled at for their actions. They just zoom off into the wild blue yonder, not looking back. Back at The Hub, Hand acts impressed or pleased or something, as if they're doing just what she expected them to. S.H.I.E.L.D. Who can figure these guys out?

Another thing that separates Skye from the rest of S.H.I.E.L.D.: She's a hugger. If Skye ever ascends past Level 0 and someday becomes Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., I'll bet she turns it into a very huggy organization. Coulson promised Skye he would look into the redacted file about her past and true to his word, he did just that for his favorite troublemaking, follow-the-rules-and-trusting-the-system-notting hacktivist: He found out the woman who dropped off Skye at the orphanage, who may or may not be Skye's mother, was a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. But also true himself being a S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent, he held information back. Only Coulson and May are aware that the woman who is a S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent who may or may not be Skye's mother and dropped her off at the orphanage was brutally, bloodily murdered. Coulson vows to get answers, but first, something more pressing: answers about himself and Tahiti. A dismayed Coulson is told on the phone by S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ that despite his Level 8 access, he is not authorized to have information about himself. "Would you like us to make a formal request to Director Fury?" asks the voice on the phone. "No," Coulson replies. Well, maybe he'll see Fury in the movies again, some day.

And lastly, I agree with Chloe Bennet, who agrees with me. Just a couple of Level 0s.