Friday, June 12, 2015

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 1, Episode 6, "FZZT" RETRO-REVIEW (SPOILERS)

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The Marvel Cinematic Universe has always excelled at bringing in other genres through its movies, and that’s only going to increase with this year’s Ant-Man (comedy heist) and next year’s Doctor Strange (horror).  However, Doctor Strange will not be the first MCU installment to make use of horror elements; that honor goes to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which used horror elements, in several season 1 episodes, the first of which is “FZZT” (1x06), the next episode in this “retro-review” series.

The episode begins with a group of Boy Scouts clustered around a campfire in the middle of the woods late at night, listening to one of their leaders tell a ghost story.  Their Scoutmaster suddenly hears a buzzing noise and goes off to investigate it.  However, just after the Scoutmaster, Mr. Cross, leaves, they notice that his cup has started to levitate.  The cup buzzes with electricity before falling to the ground, and the spooked scouts run to their car and get in.  Just as they get in, a bolt of lightning zaps the car, frying the battery and sending it shooting out through the hood.  The scouts go to investigate (when is that ever not a mistake in a horror movie?) and discover Mr. Cross hovering in midair and buzzing with electrical energy.  I really like the spooky opening to this episode because it sets the episode apart tonally from the more traditional “spy-thriller” episodes which preceded it.

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Our first look at the team is on the Bus.  Simmons is giving Coulson a physical exam, and gives him a clean bill of health.  By the end of the episode we realize that Coulson ordered the physical himself because he feels like there is something different about him.  However, he cannot figure out exactly what it is.  All of the hinting at something being different with Coulson in this episode actually feels very natural.  Considering the case they are investigating—its cause and its results—it makes sense that Coulson would be thinking about the incident that led to his death and resurrection.

The team is called in to investigate Mr. Cross’s death, and initially have no idea what could have caused it.  Ward suggests some kind of weapon, while Skye suggests that someone from the Index might have done it.  While investigating, Simmons gets a little too close to examine a burn mark on his forehead, and she gets zapped.  I was a little surprised that they didn’t take that more seriously, but I think that fits into the horror genre:  things that would normally be considered very serious get ignored.

Back on the Bus, May clears the other scout leader of any involvement while Skye checks up on Cross using the internet.  She is unable to find any motivation for murder; the guy is a teacher, coach, Scoutmaster, volunteer firefighter—he’s literally a Boy Scout.  Without anything to go on, the team is stuck until Fitz’ equipment identifies a large electrostatic signal building up in the area.  Coulson, May, and Ward go to investigate, and arrive just after it pulses and disappears.  They find a dead man hovering in midair inside a barn that was barred from the inside.  He is alone, the doors are shut, and it appears that he was terrified and going for his shotgun when he died.  While Fitz is scanning the body with one of the Dwarves, an electrical pulse from the body shorts out the Dwarf, and both fall to the ground.  Yet again, I like how the episode really plays with the horror elements and themes.

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Skye realizes that both of the victims were members of the same volunteer fire department, and went to New York with a group of other firefighters to help with the recovery effort after the Battle of New York.  While in New York, the firefighters found and brought home a Chitauri helmet as a souvenir.  However, one night when they were bored, three of the firefighters took out the helmet to clean off what they thought was rust (when has that ever been a good idea in a horror movie?).  While cleaning the helmet, all three contracted an alien virus, which had already killed two of them; the third is at the fire station.  When Coulson, May, and Ward arrive at the firehouse, Coulson immediately notices that the third firefighter does not look well.  He quickly clears out the firehouse after May discovers the Chitauri helmet, while he himself sits with the firefighter, Diaz, and comforts him that he knows what’s on the other side, and “It’s beautiful.”  This is when it becomes clear that Coulson suspects that the story they’ve told him about his death was inaccurate.  He knows that he was dead for longer than 8 seconds.  However, how long that was is still a mystery to him.  His words are a comfort to Diaz, who tells him to leave about a minute before he emits an electrostatic pulse and dies.  I really like this scene for how it drives all of these events home for Coulson.  This is the first time Coulson has actually said “I died” in the series; before now it’s been “I stopped breathing.”  His desire to figure out what is wrong with him becomes a driving force for several episodes following “FZZT,” culminating with his discovery of what Fury did to him in “A Magical Place” (1x11).

Following Diaz’s death, the team returns to the Bus and leaves to take the helmet to the Sandbox, a S.H.I.E.L.D. facility in West Africa.  While en route Simmons discovers that the virus can be transmitted from person to person by electrostatic shock (forgetting that she herself had received one of those at the beginning of the episode).  However, while she is explaining her discovery to Coulson, he sees a piece of lab equipment start floating behind her, and quickly leaves the lab and locks it down, realizing that she has contracted the virus.  Though Agent Blake (a senior agent who first appeared in the Marvel One-Shot “Item 47”) gives him the message that the Chitauri helmet must be delivered to the Sandbox and that “If you have infected cargo, you need to dump it,” Coulson chooses to ignore him to give Simmons time to find an antiserum for the virus.

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I think the best part of the episode is the scenes with Fitz and Simmons in the lab trying to create the antiserum and starting to go through the stages of grief.  Right after Coulson locked down the lab, the next scene is of Fitz and Simmons sitting in almost identical positions with their backs to each other on opposite sides of the glass door.  At this point Fitz seems to be in the “denial” stage while Simmons is starting to experience the “depression” stage.  Simmons tests a couple of possible antiserums on lab rats, but neither test succeeds.  The next scene is of Fitz and Simmons arguing—the “anger” stage.  Fitz is angry with her for dragging him into the field where they could be killed by things they couldn’t understand.  She calls him “pasty” for having been stuck in a lab all those years, which he throws right back at her, saying that she was in the lab right beside him all those years:  “You’ve been beside me the whole damn time.”  And then he stops—and I think this is when he realizes just how much Simmons means to him.  This would be the “bargaining” stage.  Simmons explains that the firefighters’ antibodies aren’t strong enough to create an antiserum, and realizes that the Chitauri carrier was able to live with the diseased and that her antibodies would be strong enough.  Fitz runs to the containment room, grabs the box with the helmet, runs back to the lab, and goes in to join Simmons.  The two of them create an antiserum using skin cells from the helmet, and test it on a lab rat, which emits a pulse and seems to die.  Though Fitz is still trying to improve the antiserum, Simmons has accepted her fate—the “acceptance” stage.  She knocks Fitz out, lowers the cargo door, and falls out while Fitz watches.  Fitz realizes that the antiserum worked when he sees the lab rat is alive (it was just knocked unconscious), so he recharges the antiserum and starts to grab a parachute, which Ward grabs out of his hand, jumping out himself to save Simmons.  Ward catches her, administers the antiserum, and opens the parachute, saving both their lives.

This episode was very Simmons-centric.  We saw her go through the whole range of emotions—and I actually liked her performance.  After seeing this episode, it’s clear just why Fitz and Simmons work so well together:  they know how the other thinks, and the one’s strengths make up for the other’s weaknesses.  When Simmons is ready to give up, Fitz keeps her on track.  I think this is the most character development that either of these characters has gotten in the series.  Before now they were both either happy and smiling or stressed out.  In this episode they experienced all the negative emotions together.  It also gave us some hints into their shared back story.

Thus far none of these episodes have been without fault.  However, I think that the early episodes of season 1 get unfairly criticized for not showing a lot of superpowers and not pushing the season plot forward enough.  The goal of this particular show was not to introduce a ton of superheroes or show a lot of superpowers; it was to explore the MCU and how regular humans cope with a world of superheroes.  I like how this episode uses the events of The Avengers with the Chitauri helmet but moves past The Avengers and touches on its impact on a smaller scale for the regular humans who had to clean it up.  It’s a lot like the firefighters from around the country who responded to 9/11 and contracted respiratory infections from all the contaminants in the air.

What did you think of “FZZT” when you first saw it?  What has been your favorite “tie-in” episode with a Marvel movie so far from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.?

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