Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. continues to try to build an identity for itself in the most recent episode; The Hub. After the sentimental and corny tone of the last episode, this is certainly an improvement (if only a slight one). Unlike the previous instalment, the emotional stakes of this episode feel legitimate and the moments of tension are far better conceived. Were it not for some extremely poor writing decisions, this could have been the first episode since the pilot to rise above being “passable”. Unfortunately, as with almost every episode so far, the faults have a severe impact. The Hub begins with a very tense and well directed sequence in which Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) is rescued from a foreign military facility. Coulson and his agents then report to “the Hub”; a mysterious S.H.I.E.L.D. base of operations. Soon Agent Ward (Brett Dalton) and Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) are dispatched to Georgia to track down a powerful new weapon. Only after the two have departed for their mission does Skye (Chloe Bennet) discover that her fellow agents are being sent to their deaths.
There are a lot of things to like about this episode. The two interconnected plots (Ward and Fitz’s mission and Skye trying to mount a rescue) are tense and fast-paced. There is a strong emphasis on character interaction over action and spectacle. The fact that the superhero science fiction aspect of the show is used very minimally in this episode allows for more focus to be given to the characters themselves instead of the Marvel Comics references (although the episode does feature a cameo from Saffron Burrows as a character from the comic book source material). Perhaps most interesting is the fact that S.H.I.E.L.D. is finally being written and presented as a massive organisation with complex political allegiances. A new viewer who is unfamiliar with the Marvel Studios films could easily make the mistake of believing that Coulson and his team are S.H.I.E.L.D.. This is the first episode that really promotes the idea of them being a small part of a larger whole. Coulson’s team are written as if they are members of a family; their association with one another is very informal and familial. This has given the impression that S.H.I.E.L.D. is a rather homely, friendly entity. This episode re-emphasises the more sinister and secretive side of the organisation.
However, the problems with The Hub outweigh these positive attributes. The character dialogue continues to be surprisingly irritating; an attempt to mimic the witty banter wordplay of Joss Whedon but failing to achieve that writer’s perfect balance of humour and drama. The scenes of Skye convincing Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) to help her hack into S.H.I.E.L.D.’s restricted files is written like a child is convincing her little sister to do something naughty; one could easily forget that these two are supposed to be adults. Obviously the intent of the writer is to make the characters seem human and endearing, but more often than not, they merely come across as incompetent, stupid and possibly a bit insane. These scenes between Skye and Simmons are meant to mirror those between Ward and Fitz (Skye and Ward are slowly being set up as a couple as are Fitz and Simmons). In both cases, a novice is being pushed out of their depth by someone who is more experienced. Also in both cases, the novice proves themselves to be more cunning and devious than the more experienced team member realised. This attempted narrative symmetry just comes across as lazy and perhaps even a little bit sexist: Fitz proves himself to Ward by being surprisingly tactical and brave, whilst Simmons proves herself to Skye by being surprisingly flirtatious and manipulative. Another troubling element of this episode is the continuing identity crisis that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has in relation to its politics. Instead of outright avoiding the question of what it means to work for a government organisation that polices the world, the show keeps trying to address social commentary about freedom and security. Throughout the episode, Skye is told to “trust the system”. When she objects to this philosophy, Fitz makes a bizarre comment about radical socialism; as if Skye’s concern over what the organisation that she works for is secretly doing is “socialist”. Victory is only gained when Skye and the others defy the system that they keep being told to trust. This apparent stance against government cover-ups is then torpedoed by the saffron burrows character claiming that their insurrection was always part of the plan and that they are still working within “the system”; as if the character’s display of antiestablishment rebellion was something that the show’s writers felt that they needed to apologise for. At the very end of the episode, there is a not-at-all subtle implication that S.H.I.E.L.D. is continuing to lie to Coulson and that Coulson in turn is continuing to lie to his team, reversing the “trust the system” theme of the episode. These issues with The Hub prevent it from being considered a strong episode. The things that work about this episode work really well. Unfortunately, they are not enough to save this latest instalment from its own monumental errors.
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