This weeks sees Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s third major crossover with a film, and somehow it’s the most dissatisfying of the lot. Unlike Thor: The Dark World, where the crossover is small enough to almost be nonexistent, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, where the crossover is pivotal but parallel to the TV show, this week’s S.H.I.E.L.D. relies on Avengers: Age of Ultron to resolve significant plotlines. The mysterious Theta Protocol is revealed offscreen. Suddenly Gonzales has every reason to trust Coulson. Instead of the Coulson / Gonzales war coming to a head, it just stops as the two pivot focus toward the Inhumans.
In what might be S.H.I.E.L.D.’s least action-packed episode ever, much of the runtime is dedicated to Skye and her internal dilemmas. She’s torn between her adopted family at S.H.I.E.L.D. and her biological family at Afterlife. They’re not bad scenes, but after the third or fourth scene questioning Skye’s true loyalties, you kind of get the idea. Maybe my favorite scene of the episode was an ominously sweet moment where FitzSimmons give Skye a dancing hula girl, taken off the Bus before it was shot out of the air. It feels like an ill omen, almost as though this is the last time Skye, Jemma, and Leo will ever be together.
This episode also spends a lot of time with Jiaying. S.H.I.E.L.D.’s second season has created some great villains, and Dichen Lachman brings a wonderful complexity to the Inhuman leader. Through the whole second half of the season, she has brought a warm calm to each scene. Especially tonight, when her scenes with Kyle MacLachlan are genuinely touching, as she grapples with the weight of her people’s future. It’s a testament to Lachman’s performance that when Jiaying turns into a diabolical, monologuing villain, the turn feels natural and obvious.
Coulson, meanwhile, remains the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., but is now overseen by Gonzales’ committee. It will be a more democratic, open S.H.I.E.L.D., yet Coulson bristles under their authority. When the time comes for the new S.H.I.E.L.D. to make its first major decision, Coulson is cut off, forced to stay behind on the base and commiserate with a too-friendly Hunter and Fitz.
It’s a sobering moment, but it actually feels like growth for Coulson. The S.H.I.E.L.D. mutiny has caused Phil to question his leadership style, and whether or not he’s making decisions for the good of the agency. It doesn’t help that Mac is leaving S.H.I.E.L.D., and Bobbi seems at a bit of a crossroads herself. For the first time, Coulson’s destiny as the director feels very fragile. He has to prove himself all over again.
Of course, Coulson might not have time. While S.H.I.E.L.D. is fixated on Afterlife, Grant Ward is making moves on them, hijacking a Quinjet and incapacitating Bobbi. Ward remains the most enigmatic element heading into the season finale. We’re not sure of his motivations, his objectives, or what he’s working toward. Ward could still be in love with Skye. For my money, I think he just wants S.H.I.E.L.D. to suffer, and no one is in a better position to make them hurt like Ward.
Though the Age of Ultron crossover is a little underwhelming, the upcoming S.H.I.E.L.D./Afterlife battle looks to encompass the same themes as the film. Like Stark, Jiaying and Gonzales are both acting out of fear. Gonzales fears the Inhumans, and the only way he’ll feel safe is by tracking them for the rest of their lives. Jiaying fears S.H.I.E.L.D.’s attention and the artifact in their hull, so she decides to eliminate S.H.I.E.L.D.. She also fears losing control of her people, so she creates a deception to justify the war.
I’ve never been the biggest fan of Coulson, but watching these two scheme and plot against each other is perhaps the strongest endorsement of Coulson’s leadership there is. Sometimes Coulson looms small on the horizon, a simple man trying to understand the incomprehensible. But even when he witnessed an alien god grapple with a fire-breathing metal golem, Coulson never seemed afraid. Concerned for the safety of innocents, yes, but always excited about what was coming next.
3.5 Jarring Musical Opens out of 5. This season sure seems to love those, especially when they’re morning routines that have nothing to do with the following episode.
For those keeping track at home: the proper viewing order for the Age of Ultron crossover is S.H.I.E.L.D. episode 19, Ultron, then S.H.I.E.L.D. episode 20. It’s pretty easy, the timelines don’t overlap at all.
That makes me wonder what Coulson’s been upto for the last week. Last week, S.H.I.E.L.D. set up the first scene of Age of Ultron. Most of that film takes place over about 5-7 days. Then this episode begins, following the climax of that film. So in the interim, while S.H.I.E.L.D. is interrogating Coulson about Theta Protocol, is he just twiddling his thumbs, telling them to hold tight, Fury’s got this covered?
Can’t say I’ll miss Gonzales too much. Edward James Olmos didn’t seem like he was too into this role. I especially liked how he pronounced “Ultrin.” I hope there were lots of nervous glances between PAs on the set that day, wondering if it was worth correcting him and asking for a second take.
I’m willing to wager that Afterlife is not affiliated with Attilan at all. They’re probably a rogue splinter group of Inhumans, perhaps totally unaware of the ancient city’s existence. Afterlife is like an Inhuman country bumpkin town.
(Minor Age of Ultron spoilers) Though AOU takes place over about a week, the final scene flash forwards a few months into the future. I’m very curious if that scene will play a role in next week’s finale. Could the rumored S.H.I.E.L.D. spinoff actually be something like Avengers Academy?