This review covers episodes 21 and 22 of Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. as one single installment. So if you’ve only seen part one, “Absolution,” consider yourself warned: Details from the season finale will be discussed openly right from the beginning.

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And so, the back half of Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. season three ends the way it began: with the image of a lonely death, in space, aboard a S.H.I.E.L.D aircraft, looking down on Earth. These final episodes have been one long build to this moment, and also a useful reminder against telegraphing (what has repeatedly been teased as) a major death too hard. If it’s one of your beloved central characters, audiences will revolt. If it’s too minor a player, it will be considered a disappointment. It’s a no-win scenario, really, which is why the series deserves points for choosing the best of all possible bad options. The sadness of death is quickly mitigated when your action-adventure show surrounding it kicks this much ass.

Really, when you think about it, Lincoln was the obvious choice to lose his life aboard the Zephyr. If it had been Yo-Yo or Joey, it would’ve felt too incidental: Those are both welcome characters, to be sure, but we haven’t seen them enough to really get attached. If it had been Mack, the series would’ve been justifiably tagged as somewhat racist, addicted to killing off its black men. May or Coulson? They’re both key players, whose loss—especially so soon after Bobbi and Lance—would’ve royally pissed off viewers. And Fitz or Simmons? Please, don’t even get me started on the riots that would ensue. Daisy was a possibility, but the show has too much invested in her to dispatch with its central Inhuman. Unless you think the show considers Talbot a major force (although, after his comedy stylings in “Absolution,” I’m starting to think Adrian Pasdar might be), Lincoln is the only real choice left. He’s connected to people we care about, and his death will leave a void in their lives. Plus, we never really got to know him too deeply, so we won’t be terribly upset by his loss. R.I.P., Lincoln.

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The one-two punch of “Absolution” and “Ascension” sent this season of S.H.I.E.L.D. out on a high note, with crackerjack action and breathless abandon. Directors Billy Gierhart and Kevin Tancharoen both stepped up and delivered wonderfully choreographed fight sequences, although the one between Hive and Daisy might be a high point. The story flew along, almost never pausing, save for the blissful few minutes halfway through the first hour, when it seemed as though Hive was captured and all was (temporarily) right with the world. Okay, there was still a warhead loose, sure, but hey, baby steps. After all, it was enough time for Fitz and Simmons to talk about taking a vacation in the Seychelles, and give Fitz a chance to insist he was the romantic one. Their blossoming relationship is catnip for fans, which may be why the show has been so stingy about doling it out.

And speaking of doling it out, this may have been the most overt game of life-or-death hot potato with which I’ve ever seen a show play around. Yo-Yo’s cross necklace functioned as a perpetual “not it!” sport, played without knowing it by every character, as it passed from hand to hand throughout the finale. It could have easily tipped over into hokey, as such blatant attempts to goose the audience so often do, but the game of reverse musical chairs was handled with an almost comic touch, a half-winking play for taking bets on who’d be left holding it when the music stopped. Mack, Yo-Yo, Fitz, Daisy…a solid majority of the cast touched it at some point, before Lincoln finally pulled it from Daisy’s neck and made his self-sacrificing move, destroying the manual override and launching himself into space with Hive and the warhead in tow. It made for a lively way to add some theatrics to the otherwise relentless momentum.

But let’s address the big setpieces in order, because there were more than a few that deserve kudos. The first half of “Absolution” balanced thrilling and funny about as expertly as I’ve seen on S.H.I.E.L.D. The whole thing was cross-cut smartly between the respective missions, with Coulson’s acquisition of the kill code, Fitz and Talbot’s motion-capture hijinks, May’s badassery, and the others’ taking down Hive all getting due attention and sharp execution. Yo-Yo had some great great lines, mostly making fun of Mack (“You work, then stare. You stare, then work”), and Doctor Radcliffe proved a winning comic presence as well. Even the serious conversations didn’t feel as soggy as they tend to on the show, with Daisy’s withdrawal pain just barely avoiding turning into a repetitious pity party during her talks with Coulson and Mack.

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And then, just as I worried the show was leaning too hard into her pathos—watching Daisy and Mack reenact the “it’s not your fault” hug-cry from Good Will Hunting came dangerously close to cornball—Fitz realizes that Hive’s plan referred to Absolution, Montana, and the gas was released in the hangar, turning fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. employees into Hive’s Primitives, and freeing him. And while the show managed to make Fitz’s escape from the hangar another breezy joke (anyone happen to know Professor Bron’s Third Primer Theory Whatchamacallit?), the ending cliffhanger, with Daisy breaking out and begging Hive to take her back, only to learn Lash’s abilities made her immune to him, was spectacular. And not just because it led straight into the best fight of the night.

This is a fight scene almost three seasons in the making, and every punch, kick, and blow landed with satisfying force. Daisy and the Inhuman formerly known as Grant Ward have been circling each other since the pilot, be it romantically or as opponents, and after their brief reconciliation when she had been swayed, this was an emotionally exhilarating scene for both viewers and Ms. Johnson. Put plainly, Daisy needed to kick some Hive ass, and even if he ultimately got the upper hand, it took all those months of anger and betrayal Daisy had been nursing and channeled them into a mean right hook.

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But everybody got to have a hero moment, tailored to their specific skill set. Jemma Simmons used her brain, of course, and figured out the Primitives used heat sense to see, and therefore managed to essentially turn them all invisible by cranking the furnace up to 100 degrees. Which made for a nice counterpoint to Fitz’s heroics, as he employed invisibility of a different sort, using the technologically disguised gun to finally end Mark Dacascos’ metal-controlling Mr. Giyera. Yo-Yo takes a bullet for Mack, which is noble, if misguided; that allows Mack to save her in turn, by doing something I frankly would never have the stomach for, and blowtorching her wound shut. Coulson gets to live out his fantasy of being a hologram and saying, “Help me, Obi-wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.” May kicks more ass. And Mack—well, he finally gets his shotgun-axe. Christmas morning in the Mackenzie household, really.

I’ve been avoiding talking about Hive’s “real face,” because honestly, it was kind of silly. Whereas Lash’s look was slowly improved over time with a combination of CGI and makeup, the reveal of the face that had previously been teased as so unexpected and threatening was a bummer, and looked rather like something out of The Phantom Menace. I’m not saying it would’ve been acceptable for tentacle-headed Hive to utter, “Meesa gonna kill you,” but it wouldn’t have shocked me. And it felt like the show didn’t love the results, either, as we jumped back to Brett Dalton as quickly as possible.

So let’s take a moment and offer an elegy to Brett Dalton, who definitely earned the “most improved” award from the beginning of S.H.I.E.L.D. to now. Until the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Ward seemed carved out of wood—and unfortunately, so did Dalton’s acting. But going evil was the best thing that ever happened to him. It freed Dalton from the stiff dialogue and even stiffer personality of the character—a stiffness that, in retrospect, makes more sense as the persona of a deep undercover Hydra operative—and allowed him to indulge his inner bad boy, a quality the actor turned out to posses in spades. And the past two seasons have essentially been the Grant Ward show, when it came to villains. I’m genuinely going to miss his presence. R.I.P. Grant Ward/Hive.

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But the emotional arc of this season ends where it began, with the pathos of Daisy Johnson. She’s been put through the wringer multiple times over, now; sure, both Fitz and Simmons have arguably suffered worse experiences, and Coulson lost a damn hand, but the emotional toll the show has extracted from our Inhuman is steep. We may have never bought the Lincoln/Daisy romance as an audience, but that doesn’t mean the character didn’t. As Hive tells Lincoln, Daisy thinks she loved him, whether that’s reasonable or not. And the loss of her boy apparently breaks something in her. Everyone else is sad, but she’s devastated, in large part because she’s convinced it should’ve been her who died on the Zephyr. Her withdrawal kept her trapped in a miserable prison of her own guilt and remorse, and to lose someone you love during such a fragile time…it’s not something most people could just bounce back from.

Instead, we jump forward six months, and learn Daisy has finally earned her superhero name from the comics: Quake. Only, she’s robbing banks, and on the lam. Coulson and Mack have teamed up, apparently to track and capture her, but that’s far from the most telling reveal. That honor belongs to the discovery that someone else is director of S.H.I.E.L.D.! I’m officially taking bets on who (May is running at 3-1, presently), but it’s clear Daisy’s turn to the unlawful side isn’t malicious. She’s keeping her promise to Charles Hinton, by looking after his family. And she’s mastered the art of the rumble-jump, to delightful effect. Cutting so abruptly from Simmons’ question about what to do into a “six months later” was smart and rewarding, in that it left the emotional aftermath of this finale in the viewers’ minds, while teasing what’s to come. Best of all, this two-hour conclusion reminded the audience of everything great about Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.—that’s a kick-ass achievement in its own right.

Stray Observations:

  • So let’s just address the stinger: Dr. Radcliffe appears to have built himself a female version of Adam, his A.I. creation from the comics, no? Although, I suppose we can call her “Ex Machina” for now. (UPDATE: Yes, you eagle-eyed commenters are correct: I missed the “LMD” label in Radcliffe’s office. See you next season, Life Model Decoys!)
  • Glenn Talbot, killing it again: “Like, betting on Wrestlemania stupid.”
  • Lincoln announcing he was quitting was the trigger for me that he’d be the one to die. How about the rest of you? Was there a moment you guessed what would happen?
  • I quite liked Daisy’s dream sequence at the start, even if it teased potential story arcs that didn’t come to pass. Go ahead and get weird, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., I like you that way.
  • Also, so many playful double entendres teasing who might end up dead at the end! Simmons, talking to Fitz about going on vacation: “A little fun wouldn’t kill us.”
  • Dr. Radcliffe: “It’s a science hunch.” Gonna steal that one for everyday use.
  • Not sure how I feel about future skate-punk Daisy, with her dyed long hair and sassy attitude, but I could be convinced to get on board.
  • Thanks to all of you for being such a great crew for this second half of the season. I’ve loved talking through this show, good and bad alike, with all of you, be it here or on Twitter. Incidentally, please join me on that social media app during our summer break, and we can keep talking Marvel, Inhumans, Mack’s shotgun-axe, and anything else we desire during our break before season four. The rest of you: I’ll see you all soon, I hope. Until then, make mine Marvel.

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