Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. desperately needs to kill an agent.
The show started with six core cast members, and by now has ballooned to ten. There are also two vital supporting cast members (Joey and Andrew Garner), three major supporting villains (Lash, Rosalind Price, Werner Von Strucker), and a host of guest characters filling out the show’s ranks. Not counting villains, Triplett is the only character of note who has died on this show. I’m not used to complaining about large ensembles; I love shows ranging from Buffy to Mad Men to The Wire, and hated how small and cramped the first season of S.H.I.E.L.D. felt.
But few shows have changed themselves as radically as S.H.I.E.L.D. has. Every half-season, the show metamorphs into something drastically different than what came before. The show’s voice and focus has shifted so much, yet the same core people stick around well beyond their expiration dates, even when they’re not serving any possible purpose to the story.
So yeah, Simmons is back.
I hope Jemma’s Summer Break on Alien Planet will lead to some great, new revelation. I’m sure we’ll feel the fallout next week in episode three, but what about episode 10? Episode 20? I very seriously doubt that come next May, we’ll look at Simmons’ abduction as a critical part of the season’s drama. I hate to be so dour, but I’ve been burned on this before. I was so excited to see Simmons as a Hydra spy, which lasted… all of two episodes. Simmons as an Inhuman-hater was an interesting dynamic… for all of two episodes. How much stronger would it have been to leave Simmons on the alien world for at least a half season, a looming mystery built up over time? But that would mean putting the lovely Elizabeth Henstridge out of work, even though her character has become infuriatingly unnecessary.
At any rate, the actual hunt to find Simmons was pretty neat. The team goes on a globetrotting mystery, piecing together clues, eventually discovering an old machine at the bottom of a castle that can control the people-eating Monolith. In their search, they recruit Elliot Randolph, the Asgardian hiding as a professor from season one. Randolph is much better here than his first appearance. Peter MacNichol still feels like a bizarre choice for an Asgardian. I know the whole point of his character is that he’s weaker than most in Asgard, but it’s still hard to imagine him rubbing shoulders with anyone in an Asgard tavern. But that doesn’t matter: in this episode, his Asgardian status feels almost incidental. Randolph could’ve easily been an astronomer, a historian, a sorcerer. Yet somehow, his inclusion in the plotline still feels arbitrary. They sought his counsel because he’s an alien, and he knows how to help them because… he got wasted at a party 150 years ago.
Like Simmons, Ward is another character who has suffered under continual reinvention. But this episode promises something more interesting and focused than his meandering second season. Ward is now an ideologue, trimming the fat from various Hydra factions, uniting them under his control. His biggest coup is recruiting Werner Von Strucker, son of the monocle-wearing Hydra baddie killed in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Ward’s longterm aims are still unknown, but he casts a long shadow. Coulson, Bobbi, and Hunter have their eye on him, and want to send in the best to stop him.
May spends the episode chilling with her elderly father, and I was bored before the end of the first shot. It’s blatantly obvious that May will rejoin S.H.I.E.L.D. by episode’s end, and though May’s elderly father is fun, it’s just padding runtime for a character who doesn’t need the extraneous backstory. Melinda May is perhaps the only S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who doesn’t need to be actively humanized. While the rest of the cast has grown into their roles, Ming-Na Wen is the only actor who has fully embodied her character from the beginning. Why waste time having May look over childhood photos with her dottering father, when Wen’s eyes give all the backstory we need?
I’ve been down on Hunter in the past, but this episode uses him really well. Hunter is at his best when he doesn’t carry a whole storyline, and he does a good job of adding to May and Bobbi’s subplots. Nick Blood brings a bit more weariness and gravitas to the character than the snarky whiner he was last season. And I’m actually pretty excited at the idea of Hunter infiltrating Hydra. Hunter is a lot more fun when he’s not trying so desperately to be fun.
If nothing else, the one character who has not suffered at all from radical reinvention is ~~Skye~~ Daisy (damn, that’s hard to get used to). Although her arc in this episode was slight, it’s actually really compelling. She desperately wants to train and deploy Joey in the field, but Andrew thinks he’s not ready. Daisy wants to help the Inhumans, but is really worried about repeating the mistakes of her maniacal mother. Given how strong a character she’s become, watching Daisy’s trial-and-error approach to governing the new Inhumans could be fascinating. Especially if S.H.I.E.L.D. plays out over seven seasons, ending the summer before the Inhumans film debuts.
For all my grousing about the show’s character size, it really is a great cast. So much of this episode relies on the cast members’ chemistry, and this group really clicks together. But the show strains under the weight of so many stories, unable to do full justice to any of them. When it was first announced, I thought Marvel’s Most Wanted was a little unneeded. But after an episode like tonight’s, I think it’s almost necessary. S.H.I.E.L.D. has assembled a wealth of talent, and are wasting their skills with lesser storylines.
(Though I still think an Inhuman-focused Secret Warriors would be a more natural spinoff.)
3 Rat Bags out of 5. 2014: Hydra uses multiple helicarriers to attack 20 million people. 2015: Hydra releases a bag full of rats onto a rich boy’s boat.
The episode opens in Gloucester in 1839. In the MCU chronology, I believe this is our earliest Earthbound scene. (Though both Thor films feature prologues thousands of years before, they’re not on Earth.)
Tonight’s episode was directed by Kevin Tancharoen, and I wouldn’t mind at all if he directed every episode. He always fills his shots with great staging and kinetic energy. I love the entire scene in the bottom of the castle, the S.H.I.E.L.D. team bouncing around a very tactile environment.
The production design was aces in this episode. The castle is an obvious highlight, but I also loved S.H.I.E.L.D.’s huge robotic doors opening and closing around Lance and Bobbi. Little touches like that really bring their sets to life. It’s too bad Randolph’s prison cell looked like it was shot in a closet.
After his father’s quick death in Ultron, Werner Von Strucker’s appearance is delightful. The Von Strucker family are some of Captain America’s oldest enemies in the comics; it’s great to see their smug Nazi lineage living on in S.H.I.E.L.D.
Team S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t flinch at the idea of turning on ancient electrical equipment. That stuff can cook you alive, Coulson!
Ward gets tonight’s best line: “If you’re gonna kill someone, don’t threaten them. Just do it.”
But Mac’s enormous scream while he holds Fitz’ cable comes in a close second.
Okay, third best line comes from May’s father. When May spots a shadow and asks if he expects company: “No, but I’m not afraid of the prospect.” James Hong really is very funny in this episode.
From this point forward, every future review will refer to her as Melinda “Millie” May. This is my solemn vow.