If there’s one thing that is generally agreed upon regarding the first season of Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., it’s that it kind of sucked. Or rather, it kind of sucked until the MCU film Captain America: The Winter Soldier was released, at which point the show could finally reveal its long-con tie-in: S.H.I.E.L.D. had been infiltrated at all levels—including the highest—by Hydra, and the agency essentially collapsed into chaos. That included our heroes, who went on the run after realizing one of their own was also Hydra. Since then, it’s been a steady progression away from the events of the MCU, the better to allow the series to stand on its own without having to twiddle its thumbs waiting for the next big in-universe development to come from the movies. And now, in the final season, we’re coming full circle, returning once more to the events of the second Captain America movie in order to pose an existential threat to the existence of S.H.I.E.L.D. one last time. But with a twist: Hydra has bumped its schedule of world-conquering up by more than 35 years. And they’re just getting started.
The return of Project Insight was such an inventive way to combine S.H.I.E.L.D.’s latest enemies and its oldest ones, it’s a shame it ended up just being a one-off premise, albeit one that created a real cliffhanger for the episode. Still, Hydra and the Chronic-Coms working in tandem looks to continue, so despite the team using the Zephyr to blow up the rocket that would’ve carried out the mission of killing Hydra’s enemies (including Bruce Banner and Stephen Strange, just as in the film) before they posed a threat, the basic structure of the menace can happily continue. For longtime viewers, this adds some rich layers of memory and character development to these plots, even as the show mostly breezes by all but the most superficial connections to its past as it races ahead with this newest intrigue.
Entering 1973, the team takes a few minutes to properly adjust their look for this era (not Sousa, though—he hates those bell bottoms) before heading out to discover the reason for this stopover. Arriving at the S.H.I.E.L.D. safe house (and surprised to discover it’s now a swinging after-hours bar for the agency), they quickly realize Hydra has left some of its agents behind in the past, in order to introduce Project Insight and the technology required to carry it out decades ahead of when it originally happened. Just as it seems like another case-of-the-week is unfolding, the Chronicoms (and the show) smartly upend expectations: The villains alter the time algorithm and immediately leap ahead three years to the day of Insight’s launch. (Much like Daisy tells Sousa, it’s best not to think too hard about the various contrivances and hypotheticals of the time-travel premise—otherwise it’s hard to avoid assuming this date was picked for maximum drama.) Having already demonstrated a willingness to alter the timeline by keeping Wilfred Malick (and his son Nathaniel) alive past their original deaths, these new wrinkles by the Chronicoms helps the show keep fresh a formula that might otherwise begin feeling a little too pat.
That upending of expectations continues into the back half of the episode, where just about every member of the team is either confronted with a surprise maneuver or pulls one themselves. The most abrupt of these twists is Deke shooting and killing Malick (“Did they see that coming?” he asks the corpse), a move he can somewhat justify by pointing out the Hydra leader was supposed to die three years ago. And while it was obvious someone was going to be used as leverage against the team, Mack’s parents being chosen would’ve carried a lot more weight if he didn’t immediately pivot to plan B and destroy the rocket from the sky. Yes, it “gave away their position,” but with Coulson and May captured, and Daisy and Sousa neutralized, our heroes were already exposed. Plus, his parents are still in the base, so Mack’s going to do whatever keeps them alive regardless.
This episode raced along at such a whirlwind pace, there wasn’t much chance for interpersonal dynamics, or time to develop them further. With the fleeting exception of passing comments from May and Coulson about their working relationship (and Mack hoping to use exploring the Lighthouse as a date night for him and Yo-Yo), the only person who had some moments of real significance for their character was Jemma, as we start to learn the mystery of what happened to her. (We also got a nice reminder that Deke thinks of them as his grandparents, calling Fitz “Bobo” and Jemma “Nana.”) The show is still dragging its heels here, as we witness a trio of glowing red lights under the skin of her neck and she tells Enoch that she is worried she didn’t “remember” these events the way she apparently expects to. “Without you, I feel like I’m slipping,” she says, the implication being something was done to her that only our friendly Chronicom understands.
That’s the extent of it, and the show better start paying dividends next week on that story, because it has cut its own legs out from underneath by dragging out Fitz’s absence this long. I’m as sympathetic as anyone to letting Iain de Caestecker have a few weeks away to finish up a BBC series or whatever, but this is getting ridiculous. We’re approaching the halfway point of the season, and while that long of an absence can always be explained narratively, how they’re doing it isn’t making for great drama any more, and here’s why: You can either explore the toll this separation takes on your characters, thereby justifying the absence and letting the mystery actually emotionally affect the viewer, or you can tell us why Simmons is essentially unconcerned about the total disappearance of the love of her life, so that we understand the reasons for the lack of pathos. You can’t choose neither option and have it work. By trying to have its keep-the-best-couple-apart cake and eat its mysterious-transformation too, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. lessens the impact of both. Right now, it’s just a beloved character failing to express any concern for the biggest person in her life, and without revealing the causes for that, the storyline gradually deflates from the delay.
This episode still managed to deliver some humor, if not much in the way of action, thanks to some early juxtapositions with its 1973 setting and Sousa’s delightfully out-of-date understanding of technology. (“Whoa–hi-tech,” he says of the chunky reel-to-reel tapes and boxy computers hidden in the bar’s secret office, almost as good as his wonderment at discovering phones can take pictures.) And it also afforded us the opportunity to watch Melinda May deck General Rick Stoner, as returning guest star Patrick Warburton did his straitlaced best with the character. For maybe the first time since the season began, things are really looking dire for the team. And with Nathaniel Malick ready to shake the timeline up even further by acquiring some enhanced abilities, the series seems ready to plunge into fraught territory. It just better address the Fitz-and-Jemma-sized elephant in the room when it does.
- Finally, someone uses their damn powers! Daisy better start quaking the hell out of more Chronicoms in the coming weeks. (And Yo-Yo needs to regain hers.)
- Mack tells Yo-Yo her powers don’t define her. “Then why do you call me Yo-Yo?” “Because you always bounce back.”
- That extended opening credits, complete with ’70s TV voiceover introductions for each actor, was delightful.
- Good god, Deke. “Bump lemons” has to be one of the all-time worst euphemisms for sex I’ve ever heard in my life. I don’t know who is responsible for such a travesty of language, but if it’s credited writer Iden Baghdadchi, they have some serious explaining to do.
- Enoch is back, and a total joy. “Come with me if you want to continue to exist.” They’ve really landed on an excellent (and Data-like) way of integrating that character.
- “Swordfish” is still the password for the safe house.
- Certainly not excited to see the Lighthouse and it’s interchangeable grey hallways again. Is it too much to ask to have Project Insight built somewhere with a few posters on the wall—or shag carpeting, at the very least?
- Having now looked it up, I can say that I plan to start using the expression “a trout in the milk” at every available opportunity.