The Good: Fast-moving plot, Fun narrative technique, Coulson and May’s characters
The Bad: Hinges on reversals that seem predictable for genre fans.
The Basics: In a repetitive story told from different perspectives of Agents on the S.H.I.E.L.D. team, “T.R.A.C.K.S.” cleverly details how a mission to get closer to S.H.I.E.L.D.’s main adversary goes horribly wrong.
Repetitive narratives are a tough thing for television to pull off. Most shows don’t even attempt it because it is tough to pull off well. Star Trek: The Next Generation did it surprisingly well with “Cause And Effect” (reviewed here!), but even that episode holds up less well over repeated viewings over the years. Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. attempted the feat with its latest episode, “T.R.A.C.K.S.” To its credit, “T.R.A.C.K.S.” might tell a story repetitively, but it works very hard to do it from different perspectives so it does not feel as repetitive as it actually is.
“T.R.A.C.K.S.” works best for those already watching Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., despite that fact that it has the appearance of being a bottle episode. The episode references virtually all of the prior episodes of the season, so it actually is one of the more subtle serialized episodes yet produced. Moreover, “T.R.A.C.K.S.” leads up to an event that I have been hoping for – a character’s death – but in such a way that the survival or inevitable return of the character is virtually assured. Like Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan’s (reviewed here!) use of a Vulcan mind-meld to set up Spock’s resurrection, “T.R.A.C.K.S.” seems less audacious or surprising than fans of the series might hope. The concept of death in the Marvel Universe has not actually been dealt with in the Avengers side of the franchise – in fact Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. undermines any potential significance of deaths in the Marvel Cinematic Universe by resurrecting Agent Coulson. So, when the near-death comes in “T.R.A.C.K.S.,” there is less of a sense of permanence (or potential for permanence) than fans of Joss Whedon’s other works - “T.R.A.C.K.S.” is not “Hero” or “Seeing Red.”
“T.R.A.C.K.S.” picks up almost immediately after “Seeds” (reviewed here!) and those who have not seen “Seeds” are unlikely to appreciate where the episode begins as Quinn – who is the recurring villain working for the mysterious Clairvoyant – is hunted by the Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Opening with the hunt for Ian Quinn, S.H.I.E.L.D. is dispatched to Italy where they believe Quinn will be taking possession of a Cybertech Technologies shipment. The Agents board a train to tag the merchandise Quinn is expecting. When they realize they are made, Coulson and Wade jump off the train and Quinn’s security team turn the train invisible with the rest of the team aboard. Investigating after getting off the train, Wade and Coulson realize that May is no longer on the train and their team will not be rescued by her.
May’s perspective reveals how she got off the train and what actually happened to Coulson and Wade. A new weapon, much like the nighty-night gun was used (in the form of a grenade) and those afflicted lose time and are frozen. Aboard the train, Simmons is attacked in such a way and separated from Skye and Fitz. Following the tracker, Skye and Fitz discover Quinn’s lair. Skye finds Mike Peterson and watches as he is altered using advanced cybernetics by Quinn. Now a cyborg, Peterson’s allegiances are tested and one of the Agents is shot and left near death.
“T.R.A.C.K.S.” has a number of decent moments, moving the series forward exceptionally well. Stan Lee makes his inevitable cameo and it is appropriately amusing. Fortunately, though, that is not the exceptional aspect of the episode. In one of the first perspective changes, Ward and Coulson make it back to the plane and when they do, they discover just how much they rely upon Simmons and Fitz. Watching Coulson and Ward using the holographic generator is brilliantly light before the episode goes dark.
The serialized nature of the plot is significant. Coulson addresses the fact that May admitted to him his relationship with Ward and one of the best lines of the episode has to be Coulson pointing out that Ward should start calling his relationship sex if that’s actually all it is. Similarly, viewers of only this episode will not truly recognize the significance of Skye asking about a person being an 0-8-7. Mike Peterson’s return and the tragic nature of it also lacks punch for those who only watch “T.R.A.C.K.S.” That said, those who have a passion for Marvel Comics will appreciate Peterson’s transformation and the hope that his new evil alter-ego might make for a significant crossover in any of the upcoming Marvel films could truly tie the television series to the film franchise in a meaningful way.
The other thing that sets “T.R.A.C.K.S.” apart from many of the other episodes of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is the consistency of the acting. All of the actors in “T.R.A.C.K.S.” live up to their potential. Clark Gregg and Grant Ward dominate the little moments, while J. August Richards, Ming-Na Wen and Chloe Bennett do the big emotional portrayals for the episode. The episode actually has all of the players apparently (finally) completely comfortable with their characters and utilized well in their roles. Outside one delivery of medical technobabble delivered unfortunately stiffly near the episode's climax, the acting is flawless. In fact, Elizabeth Henstridge gives one of her funniest, most charismatic performances when Simmons details the extensive backstory she came up for for her alias on the train. Using her well - as opposed to just delivering technical exposition - is a nice change.
As odd as it might seem, “T.R.A.C.K.S.” might be the essential episode of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. so far. If the remainder of the season keeps the momentum created by “T.R.A.C.K.S.,” it might just be enough to salvage the first season!
For other shows with actual significant character deaths, please visit my reviews of:
Game Of Thrones - Season Three
“Skin Of Evil” - Star Trek: The Next Generation
“Becoming, Part 2” - Buffy The Vampire Slayer
[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. - The Complete First Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the debut season here!
For other television reviews, please visit my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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