Agents of SHIELD finally delivers its first solid episode, courtesy of writer Jeffrey Bell, who cut his teeth on The X-Files and Angel. Though it concerned a former SHIELD agent, “Eye-Spy” is also the first episode that feels far enough removed from the ins and outs of the superhero world that it could conceivably take place in any number of fictional universes, or even ours. (On The X-Files, Mulder would have tried to sell Scully on the sixth-sense angle before eventually abandoning it himself; on Angel, a harder-hearted sidekick like Wesley or Gunn would have tried to talk their redemption-loving vampire-friend from offering Akela a second chance.)
Agents of SHIELD set out to tell human-scale stories in a world full of super-powered beings. The series’ first three episodes directly tackled that idea, but the contours of this world are still so amorphous that the characters seem to exist in a plot-convenient vacuum. “Eye-Spy” grounded the characters in a more recognizable universe by hewing the A-plot closer to sci-fi than fantasy and setting down a rule: ESP doesn’t exist. That world-building tidbit is accompanied by a few more details about the show’s mythology: Coulson used to be a jerk-boss and may have received a personality transplant during/after his near-death encounter, Melinda May is far from the only traumatized spy who’s had to retire from the field, an eye-exploiting mastermind is still lurking out there somewhere. At last, the show feels like it has a history.
This week’s caper started out with a wonderfully creepy visual: identically gray-suited men with metal briefcases and pink latex masks who could be a team of very conspicuous assassins or just a flash-dance mob. But one of them ends up with his briefcase stolen and his hand severed by Akela Amador (Pascale Armand), a former Coulson protegee. Based on her closed eyes during the subway fight, she appeared to be telepathic, but the SHIELD agents later discover that she simply has an ocular implant that gives her special vision, sends her messages, and forces her to commit crimes under threat of fatal eye swipe.
Akela isn’t so interesting herself as a character – and Armand lacked the charisma to make her pop onscreen – but she served as a telling mirror for the core cast. Coulson’s willingness to give her a second chance – “I got one. It seems only fair to extend that opportunity to others” – (re)establishes the character’s fundamental goodness, while reminding us that some weird stuff happened to him that even he doesn’t know about. Like his protegee, he was experimented on too, and we don’t know who did it or why. Akela’s aversion to teamwork reflects May’s lone-wolf act, a parallel that subtly suggest it’s not Skye, but the powerful The Cavalry, who’s the weakest link among the group. And the footage of Akela’s camera insertion and the necessary eyeball-ectomy provided some fun reaction shots from the group and displays of squeamishness from Fitz specifically. The eyeball held between Simmons’ forceps didn’t look real enough to be gross, but for whatever reason Fitz snipping away at Akela’s optic nerve made me gag. Between the hand and eye amputations, “Eye-Spy” fully embraced its body-horror potential – another way in which the show’s universe feels more visceral, and therefore relatable.
Ultimately, the music staff-looking symbols that was Akela’s mission objective turned out to be a MacGuffin (for now) – a development I was happy to see. Bell’s script wisely didn’t try to do too much. As a result, the pacing felt relaxed and naturalistic – a big improvement from the tap-dancing-while-spinning-plates hurriedness of the previous episodes. Thus, we finally see what day-to-day life aboard the SHIELD plane (and van) looks like: thinking about bathroom breaks, complaining about the lack of snacks, bonding through card games (Fitz got his pretzels!), and playing with new toys like the camera-glasses.
It feels like a whole new world. Let’s hope we get to stay in it longer.