Summary : This week's episode finally delivers on the show's initial promise; it's pacy, well written and full of twists and turns. It also helps to set up for storylines which (we hope) look set to pay off further down the line.
It's been a bit of a rocky start for this superhero series; after a dramatic and exciting pilot, it's all been a bit hit and miss in the subsequent episodes. So it's refreshing to see that the fourth instalment is finally starting to fulfil the potential of the series with a pacey, well-crafted story that displays the strengths of the show's writers.
In an opening which is downright unsettling, a procession of suited men wearing identical red masks and carrying identical briefcases move noiselessly through the streets of Stockholm; everything is set up for these creepy figures (whose appearance is faintly reminiscent of Buffy's Gentlemen) to be the big bad of the week. Of course, this being a Joss Whedon show, this idea is instantly flipped on its head and after a brutal attack on a subway train, this mysterious group are left utterly decimated with one's hand removed and his briefcase missing.
This violent act, carried out entirely in the dark and perpetrated by a seemingly superhuman assailant, prompts Coulson's team to be summoned into action when it turns out that the missing briefcase contained some rather expensive diamonds. Of course, something so banal as a jewel heist doesn't really fit with S.H.I.E.L.D's usual line of investigations, and it turns out that this is a rather more personal mission for Agent Coulson - the assailant is a former protégé of his, Akela Amador (guest star Pascale Armand). Of course, this is not as simple as a good-guy-gone-bad storyline (particularly as the show has already employed a couple of those in recent weeks), and it appears that someone is pulling this former agent's strings...
This was an episode full of twists and turns, and one which gave us more of an insight into Coulson's past - far more so than the previous time that the team have encountered a former colleague of his. His guilt over how he treated of his former trainee, coupled with his unwavering attempts to make things right, added much needed depth to the character. It also provided a chance for the show to carve out a personality for the character beyond his portrayal in the various Marvel-Universe films. We also got near-confirmation that there's something amiss with his sudden reappearance after his 'death' - Amador's line to Agent May, 'What did they do to him?', seems to have particular significance given her unusual 'abilities'.
The pacing and the plot seemed a lot tighter this week too. Yes, some of the dialogue was a little corny and predictable (Coulson's line about knowing the assailant was signposted from a mile off), but we're willing to forgive that a little as it fits with the comic-book style of the series. The ending twist, with its hints at a wider conspiracy and the suggestion of a shadowy super-villain, was well executed and intriguing too.
The only real gripe with this week's episode is that this is the third week in a row that the episode's villain has had some kind of connection to the team; it feels a little like lazy writing to use this as a method to get the team involved - surely it would be easier for them to just check their phone books and pre-emptively chase down any former contacts?
Comic book aficionados might also be a bit disappointed by Agent May's line that there's no evidence of telekinesis or telepathy; considering the powers of other Marvel surperheroes such as the X-Men, these comments seem a little off.
Still, a much stronger episode all around and the series finally seems to be finding its feet. Let's hope that next week's episode, 'The girl in the flower dress', continues to build on the excellent work this week and finally finds a villain that's not already associated with the team.
Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is shown on Fridays at 8pm on Channel 4 and Channel 4 HD