Stan Lee, creator of the S.H.I.E.L.D. comic books that inspired the TV show, cameos in this episode.
The idea behind T.R.A.C.K.S., the most recent episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. certainly has potential for interesting television. After an initial chaotic event separates the main characters, the episode follows each of them individually (showing the different storylines of the characters one after the other). This leads the viewer to try to guess what has become of the other agents through hints and clues provided in each segment. Not only is this an unconventional and risky method of telling a story in any medium, it is exactly the sort of out-of-the-box thinking that this show desperately needs to finally grab the attention of its audience. Unfortunately and predictably for this extremely troubled show, the creators have somehow managed to fall short yet again. T.R.A.C.K.S. fails to be compelling television, even with the interesting non-linear plot. The problem, as usual, boils down to the characters themselves; both how they are written and how they are performed. At the beginning of the episode, Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and his teammates are on a train travelling through the Italian countryside. Posing as tourists, they are hoping to apprehend recurring villain Ian Quinn (David Conrad) and a mysterious object that will soon be in his possession. Almost immediately, the episode becomes grating; the characters are back to communicating in infuriating witty one-liners and snappy jokes. This is especially annoying, since recent episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. have featured much better-written character dialogue. Particularly annoying is the interaction between Skye (Chloe Bennet) and Fitz (Iain De Caestecker); a poorly-written sequence that somehow manages to be offensive to British and American viewers alike. Similarly aggravating is a short scene in which Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) is supposed to be under cover as a grieving young woman. There is nothing more embarrassing to watch then a bad actress trying to deliberately play a bad actress.
Perhaps the most depressing aspect of this episode is that it wastes a cameo by Stan Lee, the 90 year old creator of the Marvel comic books that inspired Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. among many other comic book properties. Whilst Lee is certainly not much of an actor, his appearance in this episode is poorly conceived and feels very much like it was hastily written into the episode (interestingly, Lee recently openly criticised Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for being uninteresting). After an unnecessarily lengthy opening scene, all hell breaks loose on the train and the agents are separated from each other. Coulson and Ward (Brett Dalton) leap from the train which seems to vanish before their eyes; the ultimate revelation as to how this is possible is incredibly disappointing and boring. Simmons is rendered unconscious (sort of) and left on the train. Fitz and Skye ride the train to its destination and then follow their enemies on foot through the Italian countryside (somehow managing to keep up with several cars despite not knowing the local environment). May (Ming-Na Wen) falls from the train and quickly becomes involved in one of the few exciting and tense action sequences of the episode. The fact that these adventures are told out of sequence and one at a time, rather than intercutting them with one another, gives the episode a unique feel but it is squandered by the poor dialogue and performances. Admittedly, things do improve towards the end of the episode when the severely injured Skye is trapped inside Quinn’s mansion. Not only does Chloe Bennet deliver a surprisingly strong performance during this mostly dialogue-free sequence, but the scene is filmed and edited in a disorienting and uncomfortable manner. It is as if a production crew with actual skill temporarily took over and crafted a tense sequence. This well-made scene is one of two surprisingly graphic portrayals of violence within the episode. During May’s storyline segment, she is strung up by her opponents and stabbed. Whilst there is very little blood or gore, the fact that a main character is being tortured is rather shocking and completely at odds with the tone of the rest of the episode. The two violent scenes are certainly well directed and tastefully filmed, but they feel entirely out of place in a show like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. which as always leant more towards general audiences.
Possibly intriguing for the future is the return of J. August Richards as Mike Petersen, the superhuman from the pilot episode, who the S.H.I.E.L.D. team believed to be dead. Now boasting a robotic leg that is almost certainly a leftover prop from one of the Iron Man movies, it is heavily implied that Mike will soon take centre stage as the show’s primary antagonist (his new robotic persona is loosely based on a villainous character from Marvel Comics) but this prospect is not enough to save the episode from being boring. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. continues to blunder, to miss opportunities and to fail miserably. After some genuinely good episodes in recent weeks, it’s a real disappointment to see it return to its usual low quality. At this stage, watching it has become a fascinating examination of how not to write, direct and act in a television show.
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