Ask and ye shall receive, I guess. Early on Tuesday I wrote about three things Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. needed to work on in order to become worthy of our love and attention. In this week's "T.R.A.C.K.S.," the series attempted to rectify most, if not all, of those complaints at once. It continued building on the overarching plot by focusing on the search for the Clairvoyant and Ian Quinn, who returned as the series' resident asshole in "Seeds," while attempting to further develop characters like Skye and Agent Handsome. But most importantly, it absolutely raised the stakes.
Hoping it would lead them to Quinn, the gang took on another increasingly personal mission and hopped on a train to try to recover a piece of technology made by Cybertek that was en route to him in Italy. This was a perfect opportunity for S.H.I.E.L.D. to pair up characters we don't often get to see together, like Coulson and Simmons as father and daughter, and Fitz and Skye as a young couple. May and Handsome's cover identities basically involved May being a quiet, cold woman in a relationship with Handsome, who was left carrying the bags (literally). Gee, I hope they didn't have to stretch their acting abilities too far for that one.
The pairing of Simmons and Coulson provided some great comedy, because as we know, Simmons is terrible at playing things by ear, so she prepared for her role by creating an entire backstory for her character that included a dead mother, leftover resentment of her American father for choosing his work and his prostitutes over their family, and a family vacation to Thailand. As she explained to Coulson, while she's not great at improvisation ("The Hub"), she excels at preparation. Perhaps even funnier than Simmons' outrageous backstory were Coulson's excellent reaction shots to the over-the-top stories being spun by her. Almost as good were Skye and Fitz, who were pretending to be a young American couple in love celebrating nearly a month-long relationship by traveling Europe. Knowing that Fitz harbors a crush on Skye made his reaction to her role playing quite enjoyable, but also a bit sad. If they were to ever become a real couple, it's clear Skye would emasculate Fitz on a daily basis without even realizing she was doing it.
Unfortunately for the team, but fortunately for viewers, things did not go as smoothly as they'd planned. Cybertek knew they were on the train and with everyone separated in different compartments (or on top of the train, if you're May), it was easy to use that against them. Once communications broke down and the gang was offline, the episode kicked in to high gear by experimenting with framing. Instead of following a linear progression of time involving the characters, "T.R.A.C.K.S." jumped around to switch perspectives in order to showcase what happened to each of the characters after things started going downhill.
This style of storytelling can sometimes be frustrating, but the use of it here actually worked well to raise the stakes. It put the viewer in the shoes of the characters each time. One of the series' biggest issues is that very few of the team's mission feel all that problematic or dangerous. And when viewers aren't worried about the characters and their safety, it actively keeps them from fully immersing themselves in the story. Not knowing what happened to Simmons, May, Skye, and Fitz after Coulson and Handsome jumped from the train raised the tension, and actually made me grateful for the train setting, because it trapped the characters in a confined space. Nothing gets the anxiety up quite like being trapped. But while Coulson and Handsome were in a trance caused by a dendrotoxin similar to what the gang used in their own Night-Night Gun, May was being captured and tortured, Simmons was in search of Skye and Fitz, and everything was falling apart.
But of course, none of that could top the last 15 minutes of "T.R.A.C.K.S." in which Mike Peterson officially became the cyborg Deathlok with his new mechanical leg, or when Quinn shot Skye twice in the stomach because he's a villain and that's what villains do. For a moment it looked as if the series was ratcheting up the tension by actually killing off a main character, but then it clicked that Skye was an 0-8-4 and maybe that meant she'd be okay. It only took about two seconds to realize how big of a mistake it would be to reveal anything that big about Skye so soon after dropping the bombshell of her own origin story in "Seeds." Choosing to have Coulson find her and Simmons put her in the hyperbaric chamber was a better, more emotional ending to the episode.
It's nice to see that Skye is still dealing with the reveal of how she came to be in S.H.I.E.L.D.'s care as a child, but it absolutely would have been the wrong call to suddenly give her some sort of magic healing powers as an instantaneous do-over in the first episode after the reveal. This new development will hopefully lead to a more emotional, more personal team when the series returns in March, and for the first time, I'm really, really excited to see what's going to happen, because I honestly don't know. Handsome's reaction, in particular, is something I'm very interested in, because he's clearly very upset over what happened to Skye, and he's not blaming himself (though, I think he is just a little bit), but Coulson for letting her go in to the field at all.
It's no secret Agent Handsome has been my least favorite character since the show premiered. He earned his nickname because of his flat personality and handsome face, but this week he started to feel like an actual person for the first time. The series tried to flesh him out by hinting at his backstory in "The Well," but there are other ways to develop characters other than simply giving them a backstory, and this week the writers did just that. From his confusion as to how the holotable worked to busting in the mansion with double guns blazing like he's a Chris Argent-wannabe, he finally seems to be gaining a personality. Even his relationship with May—which we all know I really disliked in the beginning—is helping to make him a more likable character (even if its mostly in reaction to how Coulson's taking the news and the fact Handsome can't refer to it as sex). Handsome certainly still has a long way to go before I'm sending him any Christmas cards, but the series is at least making an effort to round him out and make him less of a good-looking cardboard cutout with the emotional range of a teaspoon. As long as the series continues down this path of character development and serialized plot, I think this second half of the season is going to be great.
– Simmons basically threw herself on a grenade for Fitz and Skye this week. Of course, it wasn't a real grenade—it was laced with the same dendrotoxin that was previously used to knock out Handsome and Coulson—but I'd say she definitely earned the title of Episode MVP for her over-the-top backstory and her selflessness and quick thinking to save Skye. Team Simmons.
– Handsome and Coulson's inability to work the holotable might actually be one of my favorite moments from the series to date. Taking characters out of their comfort zone and asking them to do something that seems easy but actually isn't tends to result in good humor.
– Stan Lee's cameo: What did you guys think? It was cool to see him, but maybe he should limit his speaking roles, yeah?
– The series won't be back until March because no one wants to compete with the Olympics. As a strict Summer Olympics person, this really bums me out. Who even cares about the ice luge?
– "I used to watch a lot of American TV growing up. Some of it's quite good. Lots of nice teeth."
– "You are the least supportive pretend girlfriend I've ever had!"
What did you think of "T.R.A.C.K.S."?
AIRED ON 12/6/2016
Season 4 : Episode 8