Despite the considerable improvements Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. has made since its debut, the series has yet to pick up a sense of style. The writing, design, and direction are competent but uninspiring at best, bland and generic at worst, and it sometimes feels like the people behind the scenes are doing the bare minimum to bring these stories to life. The series has managed to compensate for its stylistic weakness by building up character relationships with an ensemble of exceptionally talented performers, but the show could be so much more if it wasn’t so committed to mediocrity in those other areas.
We got a glimpse of that better series in “4,722 Hours,” an episode that made strong creative choices to amplify Simmons’ emotional experience, but with “Chaos Theory,” the show firmly settles back into its middling status quo. The episode delivers some significant developments, but it does so without much imagination, wrapping up the Lash storyline quickly and efficiently. As it’s done with characters like Ward and Jiaying in the past, the show aggressively announces that former ally Andrew Garner is a threat now by underscoring all his scenes with tense, discordant music, and giving him lines with double meanings the other characters don’t pick up on, like his warning to Simmons that “secrets can eat you up from the inside.” Subtlety is written out of Andrew’s character in Lauren LeFranc’s script, which offers revelations about his Terrigenesis, but fails to adequately address his motivations as the murderous Inhuman Lash.
There are cryptic teases when Andrew talks about his moral responsibility to kill Inhumans as it relates to some ominous future event, but withholding key details diminishes the impact of his scenes with his ex-wife May, who he shoots with an I.C.E.R. and chains up after she confronts him. The plot of a woman watching the man she loves turn into a raging beast is well-trodden territory for a Whedon-produced TV series, and Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t try to make this familiar situation unique in any way. By refusing to delve into the specifics of what is driving Andrew’s behavior as Lash, Lefranc creates a broad conflict for Andrew and May that isn’t especially conducive to rich emotional storytelling, and despite the best efforts of Blair Underwood and Ming-Na Wen, the drama between the former spouses falls flat.
The Hawaiian vacation was six months before the drama, though, and the flashbacks to Andrew and May enjoying drinks in front of an island sunset are the most effective moments of the episode, largely because of their use of color to create a much different mood from the present-day plot. This show’s primary palette is gray, brown, and white, so whenever there’s any pop of color, it makes an impression. The warm sunset combined with smaller color details like the flowers and drinks on the table help make this tropical world feel more alive than the washed out locations S.H.I.E.L.D. visits this week, and it shows the value of embracing a wider spectrum of colors in the design to create more evocative visuals.
As Andrew and May are driven apart, Coulson and Rosalind are brought closer together, increasing the level of collaboration between their organizations and finally engaging in some off-the-clock fraternization after a particularly stressful day. Unfortunately, the more the script commits to building their romance, the less creative it becomes. For example, this extremely basic exchange when Rosalind helps Coulson tie his necktie:
Rosalind (referring to Coulson’s amputated hand): “Does it hurt?”
Rosalind: “Phantom pain. The thing that’s missing is the thing that you feel the most.”
Coulson: “Makes it hard to forget.”
It’s supposed to be a big moment of vulnerability for the two, but the writing is dull and obvious. The script technically gets the job done because the characters are talking about their weaknesses, but there has to be a way of expressing the same sentiment without hitting such predictable beats. Granted, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t worried about being predictable. Last episode revealed that one of S.H.I.E.L.D. allies was actually an enemy in disguise (which has already happened a couple times before), and tonight’s cliffhanger reveals that Coulson’s new ally Rosalind is actually an enemy in disguise. Rosalind is working with Gideon Malick, the man Ward has promised Coulson’s head to, and while we don’t know the exact nature of their relationship, I’m going to guess it’s not very good.
Rosalind is weaving her way into S.H.I.E.L.D., and she’s being rewarded with information, like learning about the existence of a codex that contains the names of the Inhumans that fled Afterlife. Tensions rise between Rosalind and Daisy when Coulson pairs them up, inciting a heated debate between the two women about the danger Inhuman power poses to global security, but they reconcile in the heat of battle when Daisy saves Rosalind after Lash throws her off the side of a building. Seeing what Lash is capable of makes Daisy reconsider the benefits of Rosalind’s stasis strategy, and it’s difficult to argue against Rosalind when S.H.I.E.L.D. has been housing a homicidal Inhuman this entire time and didn’t know it.
- Could the organization that sent Will and his team to the alien planet be Jonathan Hickman’s centuries-spanning incarnation of S.H.I.E.L.D.? The symbol on the chamber door does look like it could be a more primitive incarnation of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s eagle insignia.
- Lash’s big showdown with S.H.I.E.L.D. and the A.T.C.U. has so much potential to be a thrilling action sequence, but instead it’s mostly just Lash charging at people when he’s not getting shot.
- Lincoln continues to be completely uninteresting. The writers have no idea what to do with him.
- “I—I lashed out.” Groan.
- “Really gotta commit to that shotgun-axe idea.” Hurry up and do that Mack because you have proven to be totally useless in combat.
- Hunter: “I’m just gonna say what we’re all thinkin’: he has a hog face.” Fitz: “He does have a hog face.” Fitz is a trooper this week, so I love this moment where he lets his disdain for Will shine through. It’s a great episode for Iain De Caestecker in general.