Wow. SHIELD episodes are getting better, and the characters are getting deeper. The Agents go after a menace that has no face to punch or mastermind to track down - the enemy within.
Now the patent-pending, spoiler-light recap: Coulson's Crew investigate an unknown threat (sadly not referred to as an 084) leaving electrified bodies floating ominously in mid-air. Just as the main mystery is solved, however, one of the team gets hit, and it's a race against the clock to save the day - but Coulson learns, sometimes you can't save everybody.
Personally, this is the strongest episode yet. More characterization, a credible (while incredible) threat, no "monster of the week" problems that plague so many early sci-fi genre shows. There is also a lot of character development, as we learn that Simmons likes Fitz who likes Sky who is generally expected to end up with Ward who seems to be less stiff and serious than he was at first presented. Also, there seems to be an on-going theme of symbiotic relationships, as not only do Fitz-Simmons operate as single unit (most of the time), but Skye and Ward complete each other's conspiracy theories and May and Coulson complete each other's parental thoughts.
This episode is also the first to address Coulson's death head on. It's been touched, referenced and glossed over, but in this episode, Coulson really seems affected by his (apparent) loss. No new answers are forthcoming, but he does seem in all significant ways, human, and, at least physically, seems to be the same old Phil, if psychologically changed by the experience.
Anyway, let's get on with the desperate reaching for random references:
Let's kick off with the title. FZZT. Printed in all caps like that, it seems like an acronym, but it's not. More importantly, between the title's onomatopoeic nature and the electrostatic nature of the threat, the whole thing seems like an unintentional reference to long-time Marvel threats, the Blips. Despite their silly names and odd appearance, these guys (along with the seemingly artificial Blip called Zzzax) are major threats that have battled the Fantastic Four, Dr. Doom and the Hulk. (Image from the ABC's of Mediocre Marvel Villainy!)
Much of the episode takes place in Wrigley, Pennsylvania, a town I am unable to find evidence for online, so - fictional? DC Comics (yes, I realize that says "comics comics") is famous for its fictional cities, although Marvel does have a few, Marvel is more famous for its many, many, many fictional countries. There are so many extra countries on Marvel's map, that during the JLA/Avengers crossover, DC heroes actually noticed the other Earth having a slightly larger landmass. (By the by, the Marvel Atlas, linked here, is the first Marvel comic to officially have a "special thanks" to Kevin Garcia. I feel special.)
At any rate, Wrigley has a nice little strawberry festival in the spring.
Our story opens with the "Ranger Scouts" telling scary stories over a campfire. As generic knock-offs of the Boy Scouts go, "Ranger Scouts" isn't a bad name. Too bad though, that Marvel (being a Disney Company) didn't use the Junior Woodchucks instead. Would've been a nice touch.
The Ranger Scouts are kept on the edge of their logs with the story of "the Crying Man" forever searching for his lost sister. As with past throw-away references, this would've been a great opportunity to mention one of Marvel's horror characters in passing. Marvel had tons of them during horror's heyday in the 1950s, but one of the most memorable (if rarely used) is the somewhat benevolent "Fear Lord" known as the Straw Man. He feeds off fear, but prefers to go after those with evil in their hearts.
This episode did feature some non-Marvel pop culture references. For one, they finally called a spade a spade by comparing Agent Ward to James Bond, but more importantly, Skye alluded to "The Dude" from the Big Lebowski. Meaning that in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Jeff Bridges and Obadiah Stane are two separate people who just happen to look alike.
The Night-Night gun from "Pilot" and "Eye-Spy" makes another appearance here, although it's an ounce off. Unlike previous appearances, this appearance does not lead to a significant usage of the gun later in the episode. Can't leave a Chekhov Gun hanging!
The first three victims of this week's threat, by the way, are firefighters Adam Cross, Frank Whalen and Tony Diaz. These names don't seem to be any kind of reference to Marvel characters, although Marvel does have a few significant firefighters. Most notably, although not well-remembered, are the heroes from Call of Duty. No, not the video game, the completely unrelated comic books that were inspired by the real-world heroes following the 9-11 terrorist attacks on New York City.
Coulson contacts Agent Blake at SHIELD HQ. Blake first appeared in the Marvel One-Shot "Item 47" alongside Agent Jasper Sitwell (the latter being character who apparently appears next episode and in the upcoming Captain America sequel). Blake's stoic attitude, emphasis on following rules and dislike of ignoring orders makes him seem a lot like another Marvel government man, Henry Peter Gyrich. Gyrich has, at times, been both a friend and foe to various heroes; he's the type of character readers love to hate, and with a few more appearances, Blake could be that kind of a character for the MCU.
Coulson mentions having seen some sort of "beautiful" place after death. As Marvel's world has Norse gods and Greek gods and Mayan gods, Marvel heroes have also encountered various characters that would fall under the Judeo-Christian conceptions of angels and the afterlife. Heck, even God has shown up. More recently, of course, Marvel has incorporated Neil Gaiman's take on heavenly powers, with the (re)introduction of Angela.
This week introduces yet another new concept to SHIELD: the Sandbox. The West African, Sahara-based Sandbox joins the Index, Fridge and Slingshot as SHIELD facilities and programs that handle things that the rest of the world just isn't ready for yet, in this case, specifically "hazardous materials" (although not so hazardous that they need to be shot into space - I guess there's a limit). The nearby Moroccan SHIELD office is, apparently, not fun to deal with.
Interestingly, hazardous materials are also kept on the team's plane, the Bus, in two locations: the interrogation room and the science lab. This implies both rooms are shielded in some special way.
Jemma Simmons finds herself infected with the same Chitauri virus that plagued the firefighters and - wait, Jemma? She has a first name! I mean, we knew she had a first name, but everyone usually refers to her as Simmons, or more commonly as "Fitz-Simmons." It's nice to see the characters start to come into their own.
To find a cure she purposefully infects some of the many lab rats she always has on board for just such a situation (one wonders about feeding and cleaning). The rats each end up in the same antigravity state of shock that the three firefighters were left in when they died. Seems like (if not for the threat of infection) these rats would be the perfect treat for Niels the Speedcat, AKA Hairball, AKA P-Cat the Penitent Puss. Yes, Marvel has a superpowered housecat. And he's a member of the Avengers. The Pet Avengers.
It is interesting that in a lab full of so much equipment that they have rat test subjects to spare, the best way Simmons can think to knock out Fitz - the inventor of the Night-Night gun stored in the self-same lab - is to hit him over the head with a fire extinguisher. Can't beat the classics, I guess.
A couple of off-hand references are made that (probably unintentionally) reference fairly well-known Marvel characters. Ward wishes there was "someone I could hurt, someone I could... punish." A nod, if coincidental, to Frank Castle, the Punisher (who is officially part of Marvel again, should they chose to use him in the MCU). Simmons also refers to the Chitauri - who carried the electrostatic virus but did not die from it - as a sort of "Typhoid Mary." This is, of course, a reference to the real world historical figure whose name has become the main descriptor for anyone who spreads disease - but it is also the name of one of Daredevil's greatest villains.
That's it for now. Next week - we learn what happens at Level 8!