by Thom Yee
1×07: “The Hub”
The way I see it, there are three base models for any given episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to follow:
1) Freak-of-the-week procedural;
2) Superhero-oriented; and
So far, we’ve had several freak-of-the-week investigations, with some dalliances in superheroics, and we still haven’t answered the question of whether this show can establish and contain its own set of superpowered heroes and villains. Because of this, there’s a part of me that rues and laments the fact that the show takes place so early in the Marvel cinematic universe. There just aren’t enough established superheroes, supervillains, rules, or constants for this show to play around with, and I don’t get the impression so far that the producers have the latitude to create much of their own mythology given the constraints of working within and between the movies. There’s only so much they can do, so many places they can go, because most of the important stuff will be set up and explored in the movies. That’s too bad, because an espionage-oriented episode like tonight’s “The Hub” doesn’t have enough intriguing Marvel superhero toys to play around with to make it anything more than just another episode.
We begin in media res as Coulson is pulled into a room and beaten by unidentified thugs before the arrival of an interrogator who, it turns out, is actually an undercover S.H.I.E.L.D. agent being extracted. It’s a reasonably strong opening that reflects the type of propulsive storytelling that is one of the strengths of this episode. “The Hub” moves forward with a high level of energy that manages to avoid the sense of boredom that usually sets in midway through most Agents episodes. In this episode, Ward and Fitz are selected by S.H.I.E.L.D. to deactivate a weapon called “Overkill” that can trigger devices from great distances and turn an enemy’s weapons against them. The weapon is part of a separatist group’s plan to declare independence from… some place. Honestly, this is an element of the episode that would’ve greatly benefitted by delving into its setting and pulling out a fictional Marvel country rather than some foreign country with no further effect on the plot. Anyway, things go awry when Skye and Simmons, having been told to “trust the system” (the same system that won’t tell them anything because they’re not level eight), go against orders and discover that there is no extraction plan for Ward and Fitz.
One thing this episode gets right is establishing the utility of Fitz. With several episodes having established Fitz and Simmons both as nerdy, good-in-the-lab/worthless-in-the-field comic relief, it was almost rewarding to see Fitz in action as a competent and dedicated S.H.I.E.L.D. agent without whom the mission would’ve failed (and failed pretty early on). The episode helps to legitimize a character we still haven’t really gotten to know and is probably more successful at making viewers care about any of these people than anything seen yet in the series.
That said, there is a glaring flaw in how the episode handles the team’s insubordinate behaviour. In discovering the truth behind the mission, Skye and Simmons breach protocol, disrespect the chain of command, and assault a superior officer. And nothing happens to them. There’s an obvious integrity to the characters and their actions and the rest of the episode as they save Ward and Fitz, proving their actions were right, but the whole thing undermines the competence and credibility of S.H.I.E.L.D., the seriousness of the situation, and the tone of this world. It’s long been established that the Marvel Universe is meant to be fun and inviting, but this is international espionage, and even in a fun superhero universe there have to be consequences or the whole thing doesn’t matter.
I said earlier that it’s too bad that “The Hub” suffers from the fact that it doesn’t have enough Marvel toys to play with to make it anything special, and pretty quickly into the episode I thought about some of the better Marvel spy stories involving characters like Jessica Drew, Jimmy Woo, or even Daredevil. The best Captain America stories have generally involved superspies at some level, a fact that the producers of The Winter Soldier seem to understand. In spite of its garish costumes and bombastic storytelling, the Marvel Universe is a world in which hard, brutal spy stories can and have worked, and that’s something we don’t see in this episode. In the absence of the Marvel stuff that could make it special and despite its strengths in pacing and character, what truly undermines the episode is that it still doesn’t have a point to make. There were no stakes, no real danger, and because of this nothing matters. As much as it’s rare for any real peril in any serialized American network television, there is at least the illusion of it because lines are usually drawn somewhere. “The Hub” proves to us that our heroes will always emerge unscathed, whether or not it’s immediately or after some unspecified amount of time in some “magical place” (repeated ad nauseum). So who cares?
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. “The Hub” final score: 6.5
Items of Note:
-There’s a new Marvel bumper at the beginning of the episode! That’s exciting!
-Agent Sitwell! Victoria Hand (with the purple streak)! Names only people like me recognize!
-That road Fitz and Ward were lying on to catch that truck wasn’t exactly paved and lined. One metre to the left or right and one of them might’ve gotten run over.
-I was really hoping there was going to be a person inside the device.
-Just noticed a Lexus SUV in the hangar. What happened to the Acura sponsorship?