It seems like a lot of weight to put on the third episode, but there's quite a few people for which The Asset is make-or-break. That's one of the dangers of living in the so-called "Golden Age" of television: The hours needed for a show to figure itself out can often be better spent at any given moment on five, or six, or (thanks to Netflix/Amazon) 20 other shows that have already established they can deliver the goods.
So this episode needs to work a lot better than the preceding two if it wants to keep enough viewers (like me) sticking around to stave off cancellation, even if the show is owned by Disney. Sure, they can afford to give SHIELD a little more rope. But television history is littered with dead shows backed by serious money that still choked to death at the end of their corporate leash, chasing after bored viewers they could no longer catch.
So did our shiny, eager group of puppy-ish smartasses manage to keep me around for one more week?
Reminder: these recaps are written with the idea that a) you watched the show or b) you don't care about spoilers. If that's you, let's hack ourselves a backdoor invite past the jump to find out if we're finally gonna get some honest-to-Uatu supervillainy in our comic book show
Like I said, I’m not the biggest fan of this show so far, but millions do watch every week. Although there was a steep drop in viewers, that's still a lot of people who managed to hang on after the sharp snap of the Marvel blankie between episodes one and two.
Why do they watch? Some think it’s a fun, faithful callback to early 80s action, like A-Team. I don’t know if they’ve watched an episode of A-Team recently. Or ever. But that’s the comparison they’re rolling with, and even if I disagree, I can see where they're coming from. Some are hanging on out of sheer faith, citing varying takes on a “Whedon Formula” that I’m not entirely sure really even exists, much less applies to this show, since this show is in a Whedon’s hands, but not that Whedon’s hands.
Then there’s the chunk that is watching the show the way a long-time pro-wrestling fan might: They’re not there for the story, and they don't care much how that story is executed, either. They’re mostly there to collect details as a means to guess at where how this fits in with the next company promotion. Is SHIELD going use the show to prove a C-tier hero is salable as an intellectual property? Which of these characters could be one of those properties? Ooh, maybe they'll create a supervillain that will graduate to the films, thus tying the show to the movie universe even tighter!
Even though continuity for continuity’s sake is why superhero comics are, with a few notable exceptions, a fucking insufferable mess, I don't even think the wrestling-fan take on SHIELD is a "wrong" one. Watching the show as an armchair comics editor is probably more rewarding than trying to take the SHIELD at face value, right now.
At least it was until The Asset, where we finally got a supervillain origin story (Dr. Hall, aka Graviton) and we got a Coulson that acts like Coulson, a Skye that managed to wear her smartass persona like it legitimately fit, and an Agent Ward that almost seemed like an actual person.
We also got the first cold open that was legitimately intriguing and interesting, and the first bad guy that was worth paying attention to, with his greasy charm and his big ideas for this week's technological doohickey. Sure, there were still some lingering problems from the first two episodes: Pacing hasn't been completely ironed out, Ming Na still only has about 3 minutes of useful screen time per-episode (although at least Whedon/Tancharoen gave an in-story explanation for why she's being wasted), and it would be nice if either Agent Squarehead or Not-Faith, both of whom have been established as very, very smart people in their own right, could let the Exposition Siblings spit their vomitous technobabble without always interrupting them with some condescending variation on "Speak English, nerds."
Those complaints aside - the show is starting to gel, thanks in large part to another first: A real "moment" between Ward and Skye, as Ward is trying to teach her how to disarm an attacker. They share a couple revelations, and the button on that scene cleverly subverts the emotion they legitimately earned, while the scene entire makes possible the successful payoff for Skye's character in the climax, that is also a clever, entertaining subversion of the "rookie proves their inner badass" cliche:
"Do you have what it takes to pull the trigger?"
(Skye bails the fuck out over a balcony)
The showdown between Dr. Hall and Agent Coulson in the slowly rotating lab was also pretty good, mostly because every other shot would invariably cut to our actors glued to a different wall/ceiling as they play a sloppy game of mental chess against each other. There are superhero conventions that are fun to poke and prod at, and the extended negotiation between Coulson and Hall does that entertainingly. The show essentially ends with a man who sacrificed himself while trying to save humanity, sacrificing a man trying to do roughly the same thing, for roughly the same reasons.
That's the big improvement, really: This episode feels thought-out in a way the other two didn't. It felt like they worked from a script, not a loose collection of roughly arranged notecards. They may not be much thicker than one of Coulson's ties, but there are levels - as in multiple - to scenes and characters this week. That's a huge step forward for any show, even one that isn't aspiring to much more than a 21st century descendent of The A-Team. Hopefully The Asset turns out to be a sign of what's to come, and not just an anomaly, locked up behind a safe for the rest of this show's run like poor Dr. Graviton.