THE ONE WHERE One of Coulson’s former proteges, Akela, has gone rogue. The team track her down, but discover that she is being controlled by a mysterious group…
VERDICT And relax…
The good news is that, with episode four, SHIELD finally starts to look and feel a bit more like the show we hoped it would be. It’s still fun, but ever-so-slightly more menacing. The groundwork is being laid for future arcs and – crivvens! – Ming-Na actually gets something to do this week.
The bad news? Well, it’s still got a long way to go before SHIELD is anything more than a competent, very expensive schedule filler. That’s not what we expected from the House of Whedon.
That pre-credits sequence is certainly arresting. The streets of Stockholm suddenly filled with red-masked men is a wonderfully eerie image, worthy of Doctor Who or The Avengers (the real Avengers!). The explanation – that some diamonds are being shipped across the city by one of 55 identically dressed, and almost comically sinister looking, men – is laughably implausible, but, y’know, whatever. It highlights one of the things that’s been missing so far in this series: a sense of mystery and wonder.
Of course, all of that just serves as a cool introduction for Akela. The “agent gone bad” is a hackneyed trope, but this works, largely because of Pascale Armand’s strong, understated performance. She’s clearly at rock bottom, but doesn’t overdo it. Instead, much like J August Richards as Mike in the pilot, she’s a character you want to see more of, rather than bloomin’ Fitz and Simmons. Her interaction with Coulson is enjoyable, and she proves a capable and convincing ass kicker. That he is so concerned with her wellbeing is touching – though it would be nice if someone showed the same concern for the various heavies who get shot each week.
There are some obvious comparisons to be made between Akela and Phil’s other protege… Skye is still an awkward mix of endearing goofiness and annoying incompetence. The fact that she’s still struggling with basic spy skills like using a gun is hilarious, but only reminded us that SHIELD are useless as a covert operation. There’s also another bizarrely out-of-the-blue bit of blurted back story, following Ward’s surreal bibble about cake last week. Whedon’s work is generally defter at that stuff and it’s a shame that it’s an area that the show is currently failing in.
Still, I liked the episode’s urgency, and the fact that, four episodes in, we’ve got a nice little cluster of mysteries building. Precisely who was behind Akela’s mission is left tantalisingly vague. We know they’re powerful – and presumably far better organised than Coulson’s band of pretty idiots. All the talk of “handlers” and humans being used like weapons reminds me pleasantly of Dollhouse (another show which took an age to get going, but rewarded viewers handsomely). There’s also a touch of understated horror at the end, with the look of panic on Akela’s handler’s face, followed by his synthetic eye activating and sudden death.
THE DHARMA INITIATIVE AWARD FOR MOST UNLIKELY BRANDED PRODUCT So SHIELD have their own bottled water, do they? I spy a canny merchandising opportunity…
TRAVELOGUE SHIELD shows off its global credentials again, setting the pre-credits sequence in Sergel Square in Stockholm.
VIEWING FIGURES SO FAR Episode three dropped viewers in the UK again, down to 1.28m (still reasonable for Channel 4). Episode four, however, held steady in the States, pulling in a very impressive 7.85 million. That full season order is looking like a smart investment on ABC’s part.
MARVEL UNIVERSE There’s an interestingly pointed remark about telepathy being unlikely, which rather suggests that mutants – ie the X-Men – don’t exist in this version of the Marvel universe. Other than that, the referencing is pleasingly restrained this week. Skye refers to the fact that aliens exist, but that’s it – unless, of course, it turns out that the group controlling Akela are HYDRA, or something.
SPECULATION “What did they do to him?” This episode’s obligatory reminder that Something Is Up with Coulson comes from Akela. Did she see inside him? Is he a robot, perhaps? But the more interesting question isn’t “how did they bring him back?” so much as “why?” There’s got to be more to it than the fact that Nick Fury just really likes him…
WATCH OUT FOR… Some comically pronounced eye acting from Ming-Na at 22.28.
POP REFERENCE OF THE WEEK “Don’t blame yourself because this chick went to the Dark Side.” Just as you’re starting to think that Akela rejecting her training was a little bit Sith-like, Skye goes and spells it out.
BEST LINE Coulson: “Have you seen Skye?” Ward: “Not since weapons training.” Coulson: “Has she stopped saying ‘bang’ when she pulls the trigger?”