Although Agent Coulson didn’t take on much screen time this week, his presence as a leader in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s fourth episode might have been bigger than ever. Coulson’s a quick-thinking man who’s slow and deliberate when it comes to making actual moves, so it’s naturally taken this long for us to get a full sense for his leadership. Here, in the not-so-cleverly titled “Eye Spy” episode, S.H.I.E.L.D. explores a theme that’s probably been on most viewers’ minds since the show’s beginning: the necessary evils of surveillance and what it means for a leader to use it responsibly.
“Art becomes reality and reality becomes art, that’s something that happened along the way,” producer Jeph Loeb explained to me earlier this month when asked about releasing S.H.I.E.L.D. in the midst of NSA controversy. “It isn’t something that’s driving the story but absolutely from the very beginning, one of the challenges is, S.H.I.E.L.D. is an organization that for the most part, works well in the shadows. Secrets sometimes do have value, but they also come at a price as we’ve seen in current events.”
The idea is present early in “Eye Spy,” where Skye uses those home-grown hacker skills of hers to identify suspects involved in a heist (a scene, by the way, which involved red-masked men and a severed hand. Probably the darkest scene we’ve viewed on S.H.I.E.L.D. so far.) Her tactics aren’t terribly high-tech, maybe a glorified version of the way those years-long Catfish cases are cracked with Google image search. But importantly, here we see the extreme differences between S.H.I.E.L.D.’s tactics and what’s actually possible with technology in one of Coulson’s former S.H.I.E.L.D. agents-turned-bad: Akela Amador, a character who seems to touch an exposed nerve with the leader when she pops up as the problem.
It’s quickly decided the reported heists would be near-impossible for a human to complete without some sort of psychic ability, a quality that is decidedly impossible in this universe (sorry, X-Men). And after Akela’s attack on three S.H.I.E.L.D. members, which has just about everyone on-board to get rid of this menace permanently, we discover has an ocular-tool that beams x-ray-like vision to not only herself, but monitors to handlers pre-determining her every move. Here, Coulson’s intuition is again proven—there’s more than meets the, well, eye, and Akela’s not serving simply herself.
In fact, the device she’s fitted with could execute her if direct orders aren’t carried out, and we see the character reacting to years of wearing the device in a showdown with Agent May, who Akela will receive orders to kill if she sees her. After Coulson knocks Akela out, avoiding a one-of-us-has-to-die-right-now situation, S.H.I.E.L.D. takes the weight of her next mission by installing the eye on Agent Ward, who’s hilariously awkward banter with a guard brings the episode’s comic relief and proves he’s more of an action guy than a smooth talker. He hastily completes Akela’s objective, and after a shifty surgery from Fitzsimmons, Akela is free after years of having her every vision monitored.
But most importantly, whatever happened between Akela’s departure was resolved in the mind of Coulson, a now-peaceful guy who she’s surprised isn’t rubbing the whole thing in her face. On one hand, Coulson looks like a seasoned parent who’d rather let the weight of her situation be the punishment itself—he offers Akela a fair trial, he’s calm and direct with his former team member, that I’m disappointed, but not as much as you are right now-kinda thing. And although S.H.I.E.L.D. is probably bigger in every way than the forces controlling her, it resonates that her former organization never held this kind of power over her, no matter how bad things might have been. It also seems this character knows better than to think Coulson just had a really relaxing time in Tahiti, so she thinks it over and asks May what happened to the guy. Four episodes in, and we don’t know much more than Akela—Coulson’s wildly different, maybe for the better, but we’re starting to piece together that the man leading this team isn’t the same guy who was taken out by Loki.
Still, S.H.I.E.L.D. feels slow-building, but with Graviton surely rising in the future, the Rising Tide looming in the background and Akela’s controllers up in the air, maybe that’s what we need for a long-running show. These one-offs that separate the show from what the super-sized spectacle it might have appeared to be at the beginning might be head-scratching on a week-to-week scale. But it appears that Marvel and ABC are simply building what S.H.I.E.L.D. requires—a stellar web of baddies to develop our young team around, and ones with pretty interesting histories with S.H.I.E.L.D. Throw all of that in with some still-funny humor and a tone that’s on-point with every episode—I’m still excited to see what pops up next every week.