Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 1, Episode 7, "The Hub" RETRO-REVIEW (SPOILERS)

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“The Hub” (1x07) may be one of the most interesting episodes of this Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season.  We get a peek behind the curtain into the inner workings of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the form of the Hub and its commander, Agent Victoria Hand.  We watch from afar as she plans and executes an operation to take out a dangerous group of Russian separatists, and Coulson’s team plays a key role in the operation.  However, we also see a theme which has been at play behind the scenes for the whole season to date come out into the open:  Should some information be kept secret?

The episode begins with Coulson’s team carrying out a mission to extract a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who was working undercover in a Russian terrorist cell.  The team escapes with the agent and brings him and his information to the Bus, where Simmons extracts a drive with his information through his nose.  When Fitz and Skye offer to analyze the information, Coulson tells them that it is classified at Level 8.  Though Fitz and Simmons accept the explanation immediately, Skye is angry and upset about being kept in the dark.  Clearly her time with the Rising Tide has given her a strong interest in keeping information in the open—something which completely contradicts the level of secrecy that S.H.I.E.L.D. employs.

The team brings Agent Shaw and his information to the Hub, one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s major operational planning and coordinating bases.  However, when Skye comments on how impressive it is, Simmons tells her it is nothing compared to the Triskelion—S.H.I.E.L.D.’s headquarters, which plays a major role in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  At the Hub, Coulson, May, and Ward are briefed on a new mission with Victoria Hand and Jasper Sitwell.  As part of the mission, a two-man team will infiltrate a Russian Separatist base to disable their “Overkill Device,” a weapon capable of setting off any weapon.  Though May and Ward assume that the two of them are the agents Hand has in mind, she denies it, stating that one of the agents needs to be capable of disabling the device in the field without any advance preparation.  They are at first confused, but suddenly realize that she is planning to send Ward in with Fitz.

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Fitz and Ward go in through the South Ossetia border, where they discover that Ward’s contact in the area is dead and the mission is nearly blown when the bar owner ties them up and threatens to execute them.  However, Fitz comes up with a plan to blow out the power with an EMP and restores it for them.  This buys him enough good will with the bar owner to negotiate their passage across the border into Russia.  Their transport gets attacked by the Border Patrol shortly after they cross the border, and they are forced into hiding.  After hiding for the night, they catch a ride into the compound on a Separatist truck, where Ward subdues the guards and gets the two of them into the building with the device.  Fitz disables the device, rigs it into an improvised handheld weapon, and the two of them knock out the soldiers who come to investigate and escape from the building.  The mission element of the episode was definitely the most fun and exciting part, made even more so by Fitz and Ward’s interaction.  We really haven’t seen these two characters together very often, so it is fun to see how a “super spy” like Ward and a tech geek like Fitz work together to complete a mission.  And amazingly both of them make important contributions to the successful completion of the mission.

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However, back at the Hub things go much worse for the rest of the team.  Skye is reluctant to leave the mission alone and follow Coulson’s instruction to “trust the system.”  She sees all of the troops running around the base and preparing for their parts in the mission, and does not accept May and Coulson’s refusal to disclose mission details.  Consequently, she convinces Simmons—who is beside herself with worry over Fitz—to help her hack into the Hub’s mainframe and find out about the mission.  However, Simmons suffers a total meltdown when Sitwell discovers her trying to plant a flash drive that would allow Skye to access the Hub mainframe without being caught.  Simmons fails at talking her way out and then at flirting her way out before finally shooting him with the Night-Night Gun as a last resort.  Skye uses her computer to get into the mainframe, but is distracted by her redacted S.H.I.E.L.D. file and wastes most of her time trying to find it.  However, she eventually leaves that aside and returns to the task at hand: locating the mission file.  When she accesses the mission information, she discovers that there is no extraction plan for Ward and Fitz, despite Hand and Coulson’s assertions to the contrary.  Coulson finds her at the same moment, and she accuses him of withholding the information from them.  Coulson tells her to “trust the system” before going off to yell at Hand for keeping that information from him.  Hand passes it off as not being a big deal—Coulson put together numerous similar missions without extraction plans for Barton and Romanoff.  However, Coulson is upset because he always made sure the two of them knew going in; Ward and Fitz should have been given the knowledge and allowed to make the choice themselves.  This is the beginning of Coulson’s season-long arc toward mistrust of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s secrets.  As he told May, he appreciates the way that their team can operate without red tape; S.H.I.E.L.D.’s secrets send people to their death unknowingly, and keep him from knowing the truth about his recovery.

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Skye and Simmons immediately go to May, who agrees to help them extract Ward and Fitz, who by this time (in episode time) have realized that there is not ex-fil team waiting to get them out.  May tells them that the three of them in the Bus—four including Coulson, who joins them—can get in and out without interfering with the rest of the mission forces.  The four of them swoop in with the Bus, May uses two of the Bus engines to knock back the soldiers approaching Ward and Fitz, and they escape together.  I really liked all of the team interactions, and especially how this episode paired up Ward with Fitz and Skye with Simmons.  These characters are so completely different that it was interesting to see them interacting together.  It was also a good call in how it allowed Fitz and Simmons to mature as characters.  Before now they were almost always paired up together and working together so well that they could finish each other’s sentences; in this episode we finally get to see them as separate characters… who still finish their partners’ sentences, something that Skye calls Simmons out on.  We don’t get a lot of May in this episode, but from her few lines it becomes clear that though she is loyal to S.H.I.E.L.D. and accepts its secrecy, her loyalty to her teammates comes first.

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Back at the Hub, Hand is watching the operations room map when Sitwell comes in.  She asks if Coulson’s team has cleared the area, and when he confirms it, she orders the units to clean up the rest of the operation.  This might be the most enigmatic part of the episode.  Hand sent Ward and Fitz in without an extraction plan, but when Coulson’s team went in to extract them, she wasn’t surprised—it almost seemed as though she expected it to happen.  On the one hand, I want to distrust her for not telling anyone the truth about the mission.  On the other hand, I think she might just be good enough to have expected Skye to hack the mission file and push her team to serve as the extraction plan.  She hinted as much to Sitwell when she said that all of their forces were otherwise occupied with the mission.  But why she couldn’t have come out and told Coulson that his plane was her extraction plan for Ward and Fitz is beyond me.  Maybe she couldn’t actually give him orders since the two of them are (possibly) the same clearance level (8).  Maybe it was a test to see where Coulson’s loyalties lay—to S.H.I.E.L.D. or to his team.  Either way, Hand was a very interesting character, and I was glad to see her appear a few more times over the course of the season.

The final scene of note was when Coulson told Skye that he had found the unredacted file.  He told her that it concerned the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who dropped her off at the orphanage.  It did not say anything more—there was no way of knowing if the agent was her mother or not.  However, this was enough to satisfy Skye at the time; she thanked Coulson for the information.  Of course, as soon as he left her he went straight to May, who was looking at the paper copy of the file.  Something in the file had Coulson worried, and we didn’t have long to wait before finding out.  Apparently the agent who dropped Skye off was killed shortly thereafter.  In order to solve the mystery, Coulson and May would need to find out more about how the agent was killed.  Naturally, solving one mystery only created another—something this show has been frustratingly good at doing all along!  Every mystery solved only creates more questions:  T.A.H.I.T.I. led to the alien writing, which led to the Kree temple, which led to the Inhumans, which led to the Kree Doomsday Device…  It certainly keeps me coming back for more!

I enjoyed this episode a lot.  I can even see why ScreenRant would have called this the “Real Pilot”:  it highlighted the “bigness” of S.H.I.E.L.D., showed a mission of which our team was only a small part, and put the focus squarely on the question of secrets.  However, this episode would never have stood as a “Pilot”; it relies far too heavily on the character development which we saw in the first six episodes.  Without them, I don’t see it standing well on its own.

What was your favorite part of this episode?

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