After building all season to an explosive confrontation, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. kicks the can down the road tonight. Last season’s mid-season finale hit like an earthquake, bringing the war with Hydra to a head, killing two major characters, and debuting the Inhumans. Unfortunately, tonight’s episode builds to a pretty ho-hum conclusion, featuring multiple battles happening just offscreen, and a final confrontation that’s undermined seconds later.
This episode does have a really killer setup. In the sky, the S.H.I.E.L.D. team monitors an ancient castle Hydra has set itself up in. In the castle, Hydra has sent their own strike force into a portal to another world, to find and secure an ancient alien god. It’s a nice three way dynamic, with S.H.I.E.L.D. storming the castle, Simmons and Andrew held hostage by Hydra, and the doomed mission on the alien world. It’s also the long-promised debut of the Secret Warriors, which arrive with a yawn. Daisy’s strike team doesn’t really do much this episode except easily dispatching Asian Magneto. I think Bobbi actually takes out more Hydra goons than the three Inhumans. I wish S.H.I.E.L.D. would take a cue from one of its sister series. Daredevil’s whole first season was an origin story, but it still started the story right in the middle of the action. We didn’t start with Matt’s first incompetent mission. It’s so strange that three seasons in, S.H.I.E.L.D. is still doling out Daisy’s origin story. I wish they would just cut to the part where she’s the leader of an ass-kicking team of superhero spies.
There’s one wrinkle in this episode I really liked, and it surprisingly comes from Simmons and Andrew, two of my least favorite characters this season. Cornered by Hydra, Simmons sets Andrew free. I think we were all expecting Lash to wind up being a heroic presence in this episode, and for him to be some kind of morally compromised presence on the S.H.I.E.L.D. team. But the show is smarter than that; it’s genuinely horrifying when May discovers the room full of slaughtered Inhumans, consumed by Lash. I will say this about S.H.I.E.L.D.: when it comes to characters like Ward and Andrew, the show never forgets that they’re monsters. And Jemma’s the person who let the monster out of his cage. Although honestly, between Will’s death and Fitz’ pining, I wonder if they’ll even acknowledge Jemma’s complicity in the deaths of those Inhumans.
Coulson’s first scene tonight is a dream of him and Rosalind lying together in bed. It’s striking, full of closeups, soft focus, warmth, and intimacy, a marked contrast to S.H.I.E.L.D. typical button-down, espionage minded drama. The scene is so good and so brief that it makes me more frustrated that this show can’t figure out how to write romance worth a damn. Spending more time with Coulson and Ros would’ve made her death and appearance in this episode have a much greater impact.
So in the end, Coulson finally kills Ward tonight. But Ward’s actual death is strange: it’s unclear that Coulson is suffocating Ward until he stops breathing. Also, Ward was obviously going to be resurrected by Zombie Will, so that undercut the drama. But more importantly, the moment lacks catharsis. Ward has been an absolute monster, responsible for at least a half dozen onscreen deaths. In the last episode, Coulson watched Rosalind bleed out because Ward shot her in the neck. But her presence isn’t felt in Ward’s death. The show is too focused on what Ward’s murder is doing to Coulson (leaving his hand behind, Fitz’ knowing glance as the episode closes) rather than on what Ward has done to Coulson.
And in the end, the ultimate final Hydra evil, the Inhuman god that they’ve been worshipping for centuries, is… a slug. I guess brain slugs can be scary, but after all the buildup, it’s a little underwhelming. We don’t much know what the slug’s powers are yet, nor what its goal is. I’d like to say I’m intrigued, but knowing that we have twelve more episodes with Zombie Ward as the big bad is a little dispiriting. It’s functionally similar to the Ward dynamic we’ve had all season.
In fact, what has actually changed since season three’s first episode? S.H.I.E.L.D. is still together and intact, with all of their agents in place. The Secret Warriors are still more of a concept than an actual team. Hydra is running strong, still lead by Ward (or at least a Ward facsimile). Lash is at large, killing Inhumans. The A.T.C.U. is dead, I suppose, folded into Hydra. But the show just can’t bring itself to kill any of its main characters. After 54 episodes, S.H.I.E.L.D. is still terminally bloated, with too many cast members and dangling storylines to juggle in a satisfying way. The show had the opportunity to change the game tonight, yet it just rearranged the pieces on an already cluttered board.
- 2.5 Plans out of 5. “This is how S.H.I.E.L.D. works: you make a plan, the plan turns rubbish, you make a new plan.”
I had a bet with another MCUE writer that all ten S.H.I.E.L.D. cast members would survive this episode. I think we’re both going to claim that we won.
It’s crazy how the show just comes alive when Mack, Bobbi and Hunter are onscreen together. I dread the idea of rewatching the first season without those three characters.
It seems weird that the writers made Mack the skeptic. “An ancient alien god, are you people hearing the words that are coming out of your mouths?” Does he forget that he was possessed by an alien temple just a year ago? For Mack, this shit is real.
Ward’s plan is to sacrifice Fitz because Fitz is a virgin.
“Earth’s going through a big change right now. Some kind of alien contagion. Call themselves Inhumans. Not thrilled about it, but the wind’s blowing that way.” Ward speaks for the X-Men fans in the crowd.
“I’ll be damned. Tatooine.”
It’s been an honor reviewing S.H.I.E.L.D. for you guys this year, and I’m excited to announce that the inestimable Doug Herring is taking over for me in the spring. Doug did a great job reviewing the first half of Jessica Jones, and I can’t wait to see him take on Marvel’s flagship network program. But first, Agent Carter!
Also, Doug, I totally won that bet.