Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 1, Episode 13, "T.R.A.C.K.S." RETRO-REVIEW (SPOILERS)

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“T.R.A.C.K.S.”:  the obligatory Joss Whedon train episode.  It’s actually a lot more than just a train heist episode, but that’s where the episode starts.  And this is also when the series starts to connect the episodes together more closely into a single long plot of Coulson’s fight against Ian Quinn and Centipede.  The small vignettes with the members of the team and mystery-like nature of the episode make it pretty fun and a nice change of pace from the rest of the series.

Reminder:  All Retro-Reviews contain potential spoilers for all of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. seasons 1 and 2.

The episode starts off right where the last one left off, with Coulson hunting down Ian Quinn, who is now known to be working for the Clairvoyant.  Skye manages to track down a shipping invoice for a shipment of an unknown package to Quinn from a small company called Cybertek.  The shipment is being made by rail across Italy to avoid suspicion and throw S.H.I.E.L.D. off the track, but Coulson sends his team onto the train undercover to follow the package in the hopes that it will lead them to Quinn.  The team sets up:  May climbs onto the roof of the train, Ward dresses as a conductor, Fitz and Skye set up their comm. system, and Coulson and Simmons use special dirt to track the Cybertek team’s movements.  Oh, and Stan Lee shows up to make his cameo (is anyone else disappointed he didn’t show up in season 2?).  However, Cybertek “makes” the team and they are forced to improvise.  This is when the episode starts using one of the more fun structures—and I as far as I can remember this is the only time that we’ve actually seen it used on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

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The first iteration follows Coulson, who suspects something is wrong and goes to the baggage car to check on the package and make sure Cybertek hasn’t done anything with it.  However, on the way he realizes that the comm. system has been jammed and that Cybertek must be planning something.  Ward runs into the dining car, warns Coulson, and the two of them have to leap off the train.  Just after they leap, the head Cybertek guy throws a grenade at them.  It goes off, releases a blue cloud, and the train just vanishes.

The second iteration shows Ward’s perspective of those same events.  He changes into a conductor’s uniform and is tricked into helping a passenger with her bag, and the passenger tries to shoot him.  Ward fights the woman and an accomplice off, escapes from the room, and goes to the car where Simmons and Coulson had been.  He warns Simmons and tells her to go to the baggage car with Fitz and Skye before going after Coulson.  He is followed by the Cybertek team, runs into Coulson, they jump off the train, and the grenade goes off as before.  However, following the grenade, Ward and Coulson escape from the men sent after them by ducking into a vineyard.  They find a truck that was “fortuitously” hotwired and is running, and they drive the truck back to the Bus.  I think one of the best parts of the episode is Ward and Coulson playing off each other.  Ward is serious and intense, while Coulson is making wisecracks, and it really works seeing them together.  Ward tries to get the holo-table to work, but he and Coulson can barely make it do anything—which is easily the funniest scene of the episode.  Coulson contacts his Italian contact, Russo, and sends him their coordinates.  Russo arrives, but before he gets more than 2 sentences out, May kills him and tells them that they are leaving in five minutes.

This segues into the story of May’s part.  May is on top of the train, using her special goggles to watch the Cybertek team leave their dining car.  However, she is unable to call it in, and one of the guys starts shooting at her.  He misses, and she is able to get away using a small parachute.  She finds Ward and Coulson knocked out by the grenade and actually starts to panic when she thinks that Coulson is dead (not Ward).  She quickly realizes that they are still alive and goes off to get transportation.  After hotwiring the truck, she gets captured by Russo, who takes her to a mysterious hideout where he hangs her by a rope from the ceiling and prepares to kill her, explaining that he has been receiving bribes from Cybertek in exchange for ensuring safe passage for their deliveries across Italy.  He stabs her in the shoulder, and her only response is a feral grin—at which point he turns away from her (I don’t know about you, but I’d probably shoot the psycho chick, not turn away from her!).  While his back is turned, she pulls herself up so she can reach the knife with her tied-up hands, pulls out the knife, uses it to cut herself down, kills one of the guys, and chases after Russo, who had escaped.  She follows him to the Bus, where she throws her knife to kill him before he can shoot Ward and Coulson.

The scene with Coulson patching up May in the lab is very touching, especially after the last episode, “Seeds” (1x12), filled in some of their history together.  I don’t think we can extrapolate from their interaction in “T.R.A.C.K.S.” that they were ever in a relationship, but they are certainly close friends.  When May is withdrawing after this particularly stressful mission and trying to stitch herself up, she does not want Ward to comfort her or help her.  However, Coulson is able to break through to her.  Surprisingly, I think May is the character who gets the most development in this episode.  She shows off both how tough she is and how she relates to the other characters—she cares more about Coulson (her ex-handler) than about Ward (the guy she’s sleeping with).

Ward, Coulson, and May track down the train, which had stopped in the middle of the Italian countryside.  When they get on board they find the computers, which had been shot up, and Simmons, who had been knocked unconscious with the same grenade that had been used on Ward and Coulson.  She wakes up dazed and confused and starts shooting at them with a Night-Night gun, and from there it flashes back to Fitz and Skye.

While watching the package on the screen, Skye asks Fitz if he thinks that it’s an 0-8-4, leading to an interesting conversation about 0-8-4s.  Fitz notes that S.H.I.E.L.D. has encountered 0-8-4s that were weapons, spacecraft, and energy sources, but that they are all dangerous.  I am very curious if we’re going to see any more of them from S.H.I.E.L.D.’s history.  We’ve seen 0-8-4 weapons (Mjolnir, the Obelisk, and the Peruvian device) and we’ve seen energy sources (the Tesseract), but we have yet to see an intact spacecraft (not counting Malekith’s ship).  I’d love to see them investigating a ship that crash-landed on earth at some point down the line, maybe as part of a storyline introducing S.W.O.R.D., S.H.I.E.L.D.’s space counterpart.
However, Skye and Fitz are attacked by one of the Cybertek security guys, whom they fend off—though not without Simmons and the guy getting knocked out with one of the grenades.  They follow Cybertek to a compound in the country, where they activate a spare tracker.  Skye goes inside to make sure Quinn doesn’t escape, and Fitz stays outside to disable their cars.

While inside the mansion, Skye finds Mike Peterson, miraculously alive but asleep in a hyperbaric chamber.  Quinn and one of the security guys find her down there, wake Mike up, and show Skye the device which Cybertek had delivered.  The device turns out to be a cybernetic leg which attaches to Mike’s stump, deploys, and calibrates itself in such a way that it can mimic his normal body structure and gait.  Unfortunately, Mike is under the control of Centipede, and he is unable to help Skye.  Instead, he is ordered to attack and kill the Cybertek team for leading S.H.I.E.L.D. to their compound.  I like how they introduce Mike here and make it clear that he is under Cybertek’s control.  He was not forced to attack S.H.I.E.L.D., but he still had to kill (relatively-) innocent people despite his own wishes to the contrary.  Cybertek has been upgrading him—as Quinn notes when talking about how much money they’d put into him (“Every piece of technology in you is top of the line”)—but the procedures do not seem pleasant as they don’t use anesthetics.  Centipede is controlling him and preventing him from seeing his son.  His own desires are completely irrelevant because he is more machine than anything else now, and someone else is in control.  And this comes out in his performance:  he doesn’t like what he’s doing, but he feels powerless to do anything else.

After Mike leaves to complete his mission, Quinn shoots Skye in the gut a couple times, saying that he was ordered to do so by the Clairvoyant.  Skye manages to crawl toward the door before passing out from blood loss.  Fortunately, Coulson finds her and Simmons arrives shortly thereafter to administer first aid.  There’s nothing she can do under the circumstances, so she puts Skye into the hyperbaric chamber, pressurizes it, and lowers Skye’s body temperature to preserve her a little longer.  Skye is still alive, but just barely.  Coulson has Quinn in custody, but he is virtually out of options with Skye’s condition.

Skye’s injury really helps a couple of the characters to grow.  We see how much Skye means to Coulson in the way that he stands and stares at her.  Simmons’ reaction is the most touching as she holds it together while with the group but falls apart in the storage room—where Fitz follows her and holds her while she’s sobbing.  Ward’s reaction seems perfectly in-character at the time (punching the car), but with the benefit of hindsight we realize exactly whom he is blaming for what happened to Skye.  He knows exactly who is responsible because he is working for the man who was responsible:  John Garrett.  And he has really allowed himself to get invested with Skye, something which is coming back to bite him now that she is in jeopardy.

Overall, I like the different structure of the episode and I thought that all of the character development was well done.  Simmons’ speech to Coulson about how terrible a father he was and all his prostitutes was really over the top, but it actually worked since she was going for “ridiculous overacting.”  Plus, that gave us our Stan Lee cameo, so can we complain?  (Probably)  Skye’s near-death is one of the biggest moments of the series—perhaps even bigger than the Hydra reveal in some respects—and it gets all the build-up and all the reaction that it deserves.  There are a few things that could have been better, but it’s still a pretty good episode.

What did you think of “T.R.A.C.K.S.”?  What is your favorite Stan Lee cameo to-date?  Are you disappointed that we didn’t see him in season 2?  Let me know in the comments!

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