After three seasons, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. finally does the high-concept bottle episode. Tonight’s episode cuts out the cast, focusing on the vastly underutilized Simmons, and her odyssey through a blue-filtered alien world. The episode dispenses with most musical cues and opening titles, letting the lonely ambience of distant wind provide the soundtrack. Periodic pop-ups remind us how long Simmons has spent in the alien wastelands, fighting dehydration, starvation, and alien madmen. It’s a refreshing break from the S.H.I.E.L.D. formula, but the execution is a little wanting.
This episode is a great showcase for Elizabeth Henstridge. The first third of the episode has Henstridge wandering the alien desert alone, talking to herself, referencing her phone. I’d say S.H.I.E.L.D. is riffing on The Martian, but the timing makes that seem more coincidental than intentional. The show’s first third mostly shows Jemma’s attempts at physical survival. She constantly references her super-powered phone, looking at pictures of Fitz, talking to Fitz, asking Fitz for help, thinking about Fitz all the time.
I really struggle with Jemma’s depiction in this episode. While FitzSimmons was a thing when S.H.I.E.L.D. began, Fitz quickly broke away from Jemma, growing into his own person. He has unique, well-defined relationships with Hunter, Coulson, Bobbi, and Mac to redefine his character in Jemma’s absence. But Jemma herself remains distinctly tied to Fitz, her relationships with Bobbi and Daisy lacking the depth that Fitz has with the other agents. I don’t think she even mentions another characters’ name tonight. I’ve said before that S.H.I.E.L.D. is more of a family than a spy agency, but the show struggles to find where Jemma sits as part of the family. Even after she meets Will, an astronaut stranded on the alien world, Jemma still obsessively talks about Fitz. It’s not just her defining relationship, it’s her only relationship.
For whatever reason, S.H.I.E.L.D. just can’t get its beefcakes right. To compare it to another Whedon joint, S.H.I.E.L.D. feels like it has no Spikes, half an Angel (Ward), and like fifty Rileys. Ward and Mike Peterson are only interesting as villains. Lincoln is white-bread and forgettable, Triplett and Mac are largely carried by their actors’ charisma, and Hunter only really turned around this season. Tonight the show introduces Will, another brooding, handsome, beardy muscle with no memorable features. Dillon Casey mumbles his way through Will’s generically existential lines. Will is tortured by trauma with Jemma as the spunky but smart optimist on a mission. It’s a well-worn character dynamic, reminiscent of The African Queen, and I like the formula when it’s done well. But while I admire S.H.I.E.L.D.’s mission to build meaningful platonic relationships between the sexes, this show struggles with romance. Jemma and Will have no real chemistry, they kiss in a dark moment, and their entire romance happens offscreen.
And moving forward, that’s probably the real weakness of the episode. I love Jemma desperately trying to return to an alien world to save her space husband, but not if that space husband is Will. Will’s a pill. He’s boring. Hinging the show’s most intriguing mystery on the fate of one of its most boring guest stars is troublesome. I’m far more interested about the dynamics between Jemma and Daisy once Jemma reveals her ambition to return to the planet. The monolith was designed to eat Inhumans, and almost killed Daisy a few weeks ago. What will that Zombie Astronaut do once Daisy comes through the other side?
3.5 Pirate Swords out of 5. First Jemma was infected with an alien electrical disease and didn’t get superpowers. Now she’s stranded on an alien planet, finds an ancient sword, pulls it from the ground and still doesn’t get superpowers. Just give her superpowers already, S.H.I.E.L.D.!
When Will’s ancient astronaut equipment popped onscreen, I immediately thought he was Vance Astro, founder of the original Guardians of the Galaxy, set a thousand years in the future. It’s… complicated.
The glowing substrata will pay off in future episodes, right? Who else thinks the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are going to use that to blow up the planet?
I’m very intrigued by Will’s response to Jemma’s mention of her employers. “That’s real? S.H.I.E.L.D.?” I guess in 2001, S.H.I.E.L.D. wasn’t as well-established. It makes sense, since Pepper didn’t know who they were in Iron Man in 2008. I’d really love to see what changed between 2001 and 2012, when S.H.I.E.L.D. transformed from an organization that might not even exist to an entity that can build flying aircraft carriers.
Will enters the Monolith in 2001. Little on-the-nose, but I’ll take it.
JEMMA, WILL DREW A GORGEOUS HANDRAWN MAP. STOP USING A SHARPIE ON IT.