Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 1, Episode 1, "Pilot" RETRO-REVIEW (SPOILERS)

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Over the summer, I’m going to go back and review all of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 1 (and hopefully the first half of season 2).  First up is the “Pilot” (1x01).

The first thing to get out of the way regarding this episode is that it really gets a bad rap.  If you read ScreenRant, you may remember that in their “‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ Easy Viewing & Catch-Up Guide to Season2” they completely ignored the “Pilot” and instead suggested “The Hub” (1x07) as the “Real Pilot.”  That episode is certainly a good one—I’ll be reviewing it 3 weeks from today.  However, if we ignore the “[Real] Pilot” we will miss a lot of huge foreshadowing for future events in season 1—and even season 2—along with the beginning of a season-long pattern which they have followed for both seasons.  Don’t believe me?  Read on to see why the “Pilot” is so important.

Warning:  There will be spoilers for the entire series in each of my “Retro-Reviews.”

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The episode begins with a voiceover by Skye:  “The world is full of heroes and monsters.”  However, we do not see her.  Instead, the first characters we see are Mike Peterson and his son Ace, who is looking at Avengers figurines in the window of a toy store in East Los Angeles.  It is clear that Mike is down on his luck, but he is trying his best for his son.  Suddenly, a building across the street explodes, and Mike entrusts Ace to a bystander, runs around to the back, and uses super strength to climb the building, punching handholds in the brickwork as he goes.  Mike quickly searches the blown-out floor off-camera, and jumps out the window carrying a woman in his arms.  He falls several stories, lands on his feet, and puts the woman down before disappearing into the crowd.  Skye is present and filming the whole scene, which she then places on the Internet.

The next character introduced is Ward, who is carrying out a S.H.I.E.L.D. mission in Paris.  We see him using some cool James Bond-esque spy gadgets to copy a man’s fingerprints and locate a hidden safe.  He recovers a Chitauri neural implant, brutally fends off a pair of thugs, and escapes by hitching a ride on a helicopter.  We next see him debriefing with Maria Hill.  I really liked the use of Hill as a link between Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the larger MCU.  It would be easy to shrug off all of the Avengers references as cheap marketing tricks, but the characters who jump from one medium to the next play a huge role in helping us to see the movies and TV series as interconnected and focusing on the same events.  Some of the other Avengers Easter Eggs are a little too on-the-nose for my taste, but the shared characters are easily my favorite MCU “Easter Eggs.”

Ward and Hill talk about what “S.H.I.E.L.D.” stands for—“we are the line.”  S.H.I.E.L.D. protects the regular people from things they can’t understand, covers them up when possible, and contains them when necessary.  It’s ironic that the character who explains what S.H.I.E.L.D. is turns out to be the character who is a Hydra plant all along (uh… spoilers).  My favorite part of this entire conversation, however, is Coulson’s entrance:  “Welcome to level 7.”
That is the kind of humor that we enjoy from the Marvel movies, and seeing it in this series was a nice touch.  No matter how crazy things get, they can still laugh.  At the time, it made sense to me that a Specialist like Ward would be uninterested in joining a team; after watching the whole season, however I realized that even back then you might say that they were planting the seeds for Ward’s eventual betrayal.  He doesn’t seem to put up much of a fight to get off Coulson’s team.  He lets Coulson think that there is something wrong with him and that Coulson can fix it.

Coulson discusses the events that lead to his revival with Ward and Hill following the previous conversation.  Along the way, he drops a couple of hints which lead into the storyline later in the season when he discovers the truth.  The repeated “It’s a Magical Place” response whenever someone mentions “Tahiti.”  The comment that he feels like it was longer than 8 seconds that he was not breathing.  Both of these serve as triggers that help him realize what happened to him.  But this storyline does not come to fruition until the midseason premiere.

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I actually liked the introduction of the team.  Fitz and Simmons work together so well that it is obvious that they’ve been partners for a long time.  However, no one else seems to have any previous experience together.  Ward knows May by reputation, but everyone is meeting for the first time.  This doesn’t cause a lot of tension in the “Pilot,” but it certainly drives the plot in “0-8-4” (1x02), which I will be reviewing on Friday.  May and Coulson clearly have history together, but they do not specify it at all.  In fact, we don’t get the whole story until season 2 in “Melinda” (2x17).

Turning back to Skye and Mike, Skye meets him at a diner to convince him that S.H.I.E.L.D. is the bad guy and he needs to go public as a hero to give himself a measure of protection from the “scary guys in suits” (meaning S.H.I.E.L.D.).  At the time we have no idea why Skye is against S.H.I.E.L.D., but this does set up a degree of conflict which builds through the first half-season or so as we learn why she distrusts S.H.I.E.L.D. and she decides what her feelings are towards S.H.I.E.L.D.:  will she continue to work against them, or will she finally trust them?  After watching season 2, it is clear that this conflict was an integral part of her early development:  without her initial fear and mistrust of S.H.I.E.L.D., her struggle to trust the Inhumans—and then to choose between the two groups—would have been far less powerful.  And at the same time, Skye has a huge thing for heroes:  She cosplayed in front of Stark Tower (once).  She is super excited to meet Mike—a real-life superhero.  She even has a newspaper article about a “Hero Kid” on the wall of her van.  That over the course of the series she has gone from a hero-worshipper to a bona fide hero seems like a satisfying arc for her.

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Mike on the other hand comes across as very humble.  He doesn’t want to take his hero persona public; he wants to be a good father and provide for Ace.  There is an interesting parallel here between his attitude toward what he does and that of Steve Rogers before he became Captain America.  However, his journey does not mirror Cap’s journey very much; he goes his own way.  For one thing, we learn that his powers come from a project called “Centipede” and that the doctor he rescued was working for Centipede.  His powers are a mixture of every known super-power-granting substance:  alien metal, gamma radiation, super soldier serum, and even Extremis are being filtered through his blood by the “Centipede” on his arm.  It is extremely unstable, and causes him to lash out at his former boss uncontrollably.  He abducts Skye and nearly explodes.  However, he still sees himself as a good man, and he still wants to be a hero.  In fact, one of his (perhaps cheesiest) lines turns out to be a huge foreshadowing of the rest of the series:  “It’s an origin story.”

The interrogation scene after Coulson and Ward took Skye in for questioning was probably my favorite of the episode, especially knowing what I do now.  Ward starts off the interrogation as the big mean agent (“There are two ways we can do this.”  “Is one of them the ‘easy way’?”  “No.”).  He asks her name, and then demands her “real name” (which she doesn’t know).  I find it fascinating that though this is a small subplot in season 1, much of season 2 revolves around the question of Skye’s identity—we don’t learn her full name until “The Frenemy of My Enemy” (2x18).  Then Skye accuses Coulson of wanting to contain Mike, to which Couslon responds:  “We’d like to contain him, yeah.  The next guy will want to exploit him, and the guy after that will want to dissect him.”  Funny enough, that fits Mike’s character arc to a “T”:  the next guy was Garrett, who exploited him with an exploding eye and kidnapped son; the guy after that was List, who dismantled his leg and started dissecting him to find the source of his powers.  Did they plan that far in advance, or did it just fall into place that way?  I think it may have been the latter, but it could as easily have been the former.  There have been a number of throwaway bits from season 1 that became bigger pieces in season 2.

When Coulson injected Ward with the “truth serum,” I thought at the time that it was just funny.  However, now that we know that Ward was a Hydra agent, his angry and fearful look at Coulson appears in a different light.  Does S.H.I.E.L.D. really have a truth serum?  If Skye had probed Ward a little more, might the Hydra uprising have been revealed sooner?  Of course, Ward probably would have found a reason to kill her, or she would not have been willing to tell anyone because she was unsure who to trust, keeping the secret safe.  However, that is certainly food for thought.

All of Fitz’ and Simmons’ tech was really cool.  Nothing they did was more advanced than Tony Stark displayed in Iron Man 3, and in fact a good deal was less advanced than that, so in terms of suspension of disbelief it all fits into the MCU.  However, they are able to do a lot with the technology at their disposal.  The “Night-Night Gun” itself is interesting, especially in how it has evolved throughout the series and become almost indispensible for S.H.I.E.L.D.  I’m actually a little surprised S.H.I.E.L.D. didn’t have anything like it before now.

The final confrontation between Mike and S.H.I.E.L.D. wasn’t as big as some of the other climactic battles in this series; it was about enough to show off Mike’s abilities, but nothing more than that.  He threw a man across the train station.  He defeated Ward fairly easily.  He took a shotgun blast to the chest and survived (evidently he has some healing abilities from his Centipede).  However, he continued getting erratic and irrational, until Coulson managed to talk him down, and Ward shot him with the Night-Night Gun.  In retrospect, Mike’s assertion that “I could… be a hero” and Coulson’s response of “I’m counting on it” should have clued us in that Mike was going to play a much bigger role in the series at some point.  At the time I thought that this episode served as his origin story as a hero, but in reality it was just the first act; the rest of his origin story took place in the second half of the season.

This episode was not the best episode of the season—maybe not even of the half-season.  However, it introduced all the characters, focusing especially on those characters whose stories would drive the season forward:  Skye, Ward, Mike, and Centipede/Hydra—a subject I will discuss at length next Tuesday and Thursday.  This season really was the origin story for a superhero, and without this episode, the origin story wouldn’t have had a beginning.

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  1. Great review! I was considering doing a rewatch of AoS, and I am definitely doing it now, in sync with your reviews. I enjoy the idea of spoiler-loaden re-reviews, as you can really point things out which you can only see after having watched everything. Keep up the great work!

    1. Glad you like the retro-review idea! It's amazing the little things they included early in the series which pay dividends down the line. The best example from this episode would be Coulson's line about Mike: "The next guy will want to exploit him (meaning Garrett), and the guy after that will want to dissect him (meaning List)." I'd love to know whether that was an intentional foreshadowing or just something they worked in after the fact.