Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. S1 Ep13: T.R.A.C.K.S.

Deathlok is born - and will Skye survive?

This week on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D … The team becomes separated when a mission goes wrong. We discover more about what’s happening with Mike Peterson. And Skye gets a bit more action than she was bargaining for.

This week’s mission

Coulson’s team go undercover on a train to locate and track a valuable package which Ian Quinn has ordered from Cybertek. However, the security team protecting it have been tipped off, scattering the team in different directions.

Simmons and Coulson go undercover on a train (Image: ABC)

Simmons and Coulson go undercover on a train (Image: ABC)

Déjà vu

This is an excellent action story to begin with – it plays like a modern-day Mission Impossible episode –  but what elevates it further is the way it unfolds. The story is told as a sequence of overlapping sequences as events unfold from the perspective of different members of the team. Each section revisits part of the previous one, using the new perspective to answer an unexplained mini-mystery in the process, and then advances the overall story slightly to set up the next segment.

There are four distinct sequences in all.

We start with Coulson‘s perspective as he reacts to the team’s comms going down. He discovers the package has gone but is interrupted as Ward arrives chased by Cybertek agents. The pair throw themselves off the train and an exploding device appears to make it disappear before their eyes.

Next we see Ward’s point of view. He is attacked by Cybertek agents who have been waiting to ambush the S.H.I.E.L.D. team. After jumping off the train, he and Coulson find a pick-up truck which has already been hot-wired. Back at the bus, Italian agent Russo arrives with a slash across his face and says he knows where the train is, but before he can say any more a bloodied May knifes him in the back.

This brings us to May’s timeline. She was walking on the roof of the train to locate the package with her goggles when a hostile agent starts shooting at her. She parachutes off the train, finds Coulson and Ward unconscious – the train didn’t disappear, they were just knocked out for several minutes – and hot-wires the truck but is captured and tortured by Russo – who’s working with Cybertek – before she makes her escape, slashing Russo’s face in the fight. Following him to the bus, May knifes him before he can draw his concealed gun. She, Coulson and Ward find the train and a panicked Simmons inside it, but there’s no sign of Fitz or Skye.

Fitz and Skye track the package to Ian Quinn‘s house after a struggle with a Cybertek agent leaves Simmons unconscious in the luggage car. Skye sneaks in and discovers Mike Peterson in a hyperbaric chamber. The package is revealed to be a cybernetic leg, intended for him. Quinn shoots Skye in the stomach and Simmons puts her in the hyperbaric chamber to prevent her from dying there and then.

It’s all skilfully executed, with each section neatly linked and clever use of visual and audio cues to help viewers keep track of events on the train. As such, a convoluted narrative structure which could easily have detracted from the main story ends up adding to the mystery and excitement. Most long-running shows eventually do a multiple timeline/perspective episode of sorts – this is definitely one of the best ones I’ve seen.

The best episode yet?

In the US, curious scheduling by ABC left this episode as a standalone, airing three weeks after Seeds and four weeks before the next one. That wasn’t the only thing that makes T.R.A.C.K.S. a stand-out episode, though, as the writers produced the finest hour of the series’ fledgling run so far – perhaps not coincidentally, also its darkest hour – and left us with a cliffhanger far superior to its mid-season finale.

From the outset, it’s clear this story means business as we are launched straight into an adventure which, even without the unconventional narrative, stands on its feet as a great episode. In too many early episodes, the writers struggled to find the right balance between high-octane action, meaningful plot and character development. Here it’s spot on. The train sequences are fast-paced, May’s fight to escape her captors is brutally but beautifully choreographed, there’s enough humour to allow viewers to catch their breath, and the story itself is strong even before the shocking denouement.

In particular, Simmons’ comically over-meticulous preparation for her cover story is a natural consequence of her inability to improvise a lie in The Hub. Elizabeth Henstridge delivers it perfectly, reciting every fact with comical precision and detail as if recalling it by rote rather than simply acting out her role.

You never had any time for her, but you made time for your work … and your prostitutes.

Ward and Coulson’s inability to operate the holotable is a nice reversal of the youngsters’ discomfort in combat situations.

Nonetheless, both Fitz and Simmons have grown significantly since we were first introduced to them. Neither is as daunted by fieldwork as they once were, and Fitz is not afraid to stand up to the Cybertek agents to protect himself and Skye. Skye herself has no hesitation in putting herself into danger, with terrible consequences. And even the three ‘senior’ agents, Coulson, May and Ward, now feel like fully rounded characters rather than one-note ciphers.

As for the ending, Quinn shooting Skye is a blind-side gut-punch which immediately ups the jeopardy level several notches. Not only does it elevate Quinn’s villainous status beyond being simply an evil Bruce Wayne – a stooge in an expensive suit rather than a genuine threat – but his admission that he too has his orders casts some questions over his exact role in Centipede. And Skye being put in a situation where she was on her own angers Ward, who blames Coulson, creating friction within the team itself and adding a little shade to his Mr Perfect super-agent personality.

Okay, we know that Skye isn’t really going to die, but it seems her injuries will require more than a simple trip to the hospital. Indeed, is this another concerted attempt by the Clairvoyant to find out the source behind Coulson’s resurrection? It rather looks that way.

It’s clear that all her colleagues care about her, albeit in different ways. Coulson is a surrogate father. Ward is her supervising officer and protective big brother. Fitz and Simmons are like siblings or best friends. And even May, who disliked her intensely at first, has come to respect and even like her. It will be interesting to see how they react.

Marvel mentions

After seeing the train disappear, Coulson and Ward talk about the possibility of a portal being involved. Coulson notes wearily that he really doesn’t want to have to deal with Asgard, in reference to the Thor movies.

A label on Mike Peterson’s new cybernetic leg marks it as being part of Project Deathlok. The character Deathlok has appeared in a number of guises in Marvel comics, each of them involving a human resurrected using cybernetic technology.

Stan Lee, the creator of many of Marvel’s most iconic characters, makes a cameo appearance early in the episode as a passenger on the train flanked by two beautiful girls.

Best line

You’re the least supportive pretend girlfriend I’ve ever had!

Fitz’s frustration at Skye begs the question of exactly how many pretend girlfriends he has actually had.

Rating: 10/10

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. reviews

Preview: Can Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. work without Avengers?

1.1 Pilot

1.2 0-8-4

1.3 The Asset

1.4 Eye-Spy

1.5 Girl in the Flower Dress

1.6 FZZT

1.7 The Hub

1.8 The Well

1.9 Repairs

1.10 The Bridge

1.11 The Magical Place

1.12 Seeds

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