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28 years of Hydra history unfold on an MCU-packed Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Photo: Byron Cohen (ABC)
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You’ve gotta be an awfully loyal Hydra agent to remain with the secretive organization in the present day. General Hale shot the only remaining Hydra agent after S.H.I.E.L.D. captured Gideon Malick, leaving just her and daughter Ruby as the final two, yet chose to stick with it. She’s no fair-weather friend.

And yet, her pragmatic disavowal of the sinister spy group and its former ideologies is one of the most plausible aspects of her entire campaign. Flags are irrelevant when all of humanity has a common enemy, she explains, and she’s not wrong. You don’t have to have read Watchmen to know there’s nothing quite like the threat of an alien invasion to unite all the world in shared purpose. Everything from nation-states to neighborhood watch groups serve a similar function in that regard: Protection against outsiders out to harm insiders. And unlike Talbot with his impulsive (and admittedly brain-damaged) stars-and-stripes-forever bluster, Phil Coulson knows a necessary alliance when he sees one. They don’t have to like each other—and god knows they never will—but for now, S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra have the same goal. The deadly enemy of my even deadlier enemy is my important but untrustworthy friend.


The first three-fourths of “Rise And Shine” may play out in the same underground Hydra facility, unspooling key moments from the past 28 years of Hydra history from the point of view of Hale, Talbot, and Coulson, but the episode is so densely packed with allusions to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe that it seemed to expand beyond the boundaries of its limited setting. (Much like the space-set first half of the season, the show is really doing its best to not let the reduced budget weigh down its storytelling, even if the visuals can’t help but suffer for it.) From pure Easter eggs like teenage Hale eating with a young Jasper Sitwell, on through to Hydra recovering communication tools from a crashed Chitauri ship in New York, many of the story beats here were enhanced by knowledge of the wider MCU, not to mention numerous callbacks to earlier seasons of S.H.I.E.L.D. This show has always been the best of all of Marvel’s TV series when it comes to integrating the MCU, and the trend continues with this exploration of General Hale and the legacy of Hydra.

The flashback to Hale as a young student, along with the two-years-prior look at both her relationship with Ruby and acquisition of the Confederacy’s travel device, were some of the most engaging elements here, sketching out a character for the team’s antagonist and providing backstory that makes her far more compelling. The crowded hallways of Hydra’s training school illuminate just how the organization was able to create such an army of spies that could seize control of S.H.I.E.L.D. in The Winter Soldier. As always, Hydra’s fascist tendencies hide beneath a veneer of helpfulness: “You always have a choice whether to comply,” Daniel Whitehall tells Hale after informing her that Hydra wants to artificially inseminate her to give birth to the future super-soldier they hope to breed. Hale reads between the lines, and soon we’re jumping ahead 26 years to Ruby’s life as she goes through the same routine her mother did decades prior, watching the easy bond of a genuine mother-daughter friendship, until it’s all interrupted by S.H.I.E.L.D.’s capture of Gideon Malick, leading to the destruction of Hydra—save for Hale and Ruby.

Screenshot: ABC

The respective experiences of Glen Talbot and Phil Coulson are mostly notable for being flip sides of the same kidnapping coin, tragedy and comedy played out in the two mens’ encounters with Hale. Talbot’s story ends up being even sadder than might have been suspected after he was shot in the head by an LMD last season. He survived, but only to suffer serious mental issues, scaring his own wife and son, until finally being taken prisoner by Hale and tortured to give up all his secrets about how to reacquire the Hydra contraband he stashed. As established by Alex (née Wolfgang Von Strucker) a couple of weeks ago, Hale seems to have a clear strategy for introducing outsiders to this base. And as Talbot’s initiation moves from welcoming to threatening, he stubbornly lashes out—he might not even be capable of doing anything else, for all we know about his condition—and as a result, is tortured, kept around in part to serve as a warning to Coulson six months later. “I’m sorry!” he cries as the robots take him away; between that and his fervent belief Coulson would save him, it’s an unexpectedly moving arc for the character.

Coulson, by contrast, has been through too much already to let something like a little bit of captivity, or even a sudden trip through space to meet a representative from the alien Confederacy, faze him. Grabbing some cereal and heading back to his room, he’s a low-key delight throughout this encounter, delivering zingers and smart negotiations in equal measure. If only he could get Hale to believe him about the future: Her plan to put Daisy in the Particle Infusion Chamber and infect the Inhuman with gravitonium would bring about exactly the destruction she’s trying to prevent. Only, she won’t listen. Like many a Hydra leader before, she’s blinded by her own sense of rightness, and refuses to listen once someone rains all over her savior-complex parade.


But all it takes is a quick check-in with our heroes to realize things are practically running smooth as can be at Hydra, compared to the state of the S.H.I.E.L.D. team. True, Yo-Yo is getting her bionic arms (albeit in rough form), but there’s a giant hole where team morale used to be, and Fitz is sitting in it. He may not be wrong that restoring Daisy’s powers and closing the rift needed to happen, but his refusal to apologize for his ruthless actions, and instead simply refute any charges of malfeasance, don’t speak well in contrast to his lacerating self-indictment from last week. He may be trying to help, but he’s no longer owning up to the grievous harm he inflicted, which isn’t exactly going to make repairing this team any easier. Jemma is getting through it via sheer faith that they’re invincible, thanks to the ineluctable course of future events, but Daisy doesn’t have that luxury, because she and the rest of the team need to believe the opposite: That they can alter the future. So forgiveness is harder to come by.


Fitz gives her reasons to reconsider, of course: When she snarls, “We don’t turn on our own here,” he retorts, “Do you want me to recall all the times you did?” That point lands with her, and even if she quakes Fitz against the wall just to vent her anger, she’s going to have to reckon with how her own forgiveness and re-entry into the team came about. She should probably do it soon—there’s a Hydra general convinced Daisy is the key to saving the world, and Agent Johnson will need plenty of help to avoid unintentionally destroying it instead.

Stray observations

  • Coulson on Ruby’s upbringing: “Seems like a real failure of home schooling.”
  • It was good of the show to make Hale smart enough to realize the Confederacy may be the true enemy. It keeps things playing to the top of our intelligence.
  • Daisy saying, “Hale is Hydra?” only to immediately realize the wordplay and roll her eyes, was this show’s sense of humor in a nutshell.
  • Similarly, her and May’s conversation allowed the series to slide in another real-world burn in elliptical form: “How are we still fighting Nazis?”
  • Fitz, with the best reaction to learning his own grandson Deke has been with them this whole time. “But—he’s the worst!”
  • It looks like Hydra took a page from the spy training in Kingsman, but missed the part where you’re not actually supposed to kill your dog.
  • It was fun seeing Daniel Whitehall again, but Coulson’s response to Hale mentioning the long-gone Hydra leader was even more so: “I buried him...go team.”

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About the author

Alex McLevy

Alex McLevy is a writer and editor at The A.V. Club, and would kindly appreciate additional videos of robots failing to accomplish basic tasks.