It’s an old trope, both in comics and life: The notion of failure as a more valuable experience than success. Think of Bruce Wayne’s father from Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, asking his son, “Why do we fall, Bruce? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up.” Remember JFK, encouraging us to fail greatly so that we can achieve greatly. Or Henry Ford, considering that failure is just a chance to more intelligently begin again. We learn more from failure than success because learning, in large part, is about shutting down unknown avenues of possibility. It’s about realizing that those who haven’t failed as you have know less, in a sense, because they don’t yet see the results of such experimentation.
“Failed Experiments” takes that mindset and uses it to explore not just the possibility of failed actions, but failed relationships, and suggests that neither experience is quite the misstep those who have gone through it might consider it to be. Hive was a Kree experiment, one the aliens considered to be a failure, and it’s not until their “failure” is staring one right in the face that the blue-skinned Reaper learns just how successful a failure can be. It’s this lesson from Hive that Daisy then tries to apply to S.H.I.E.L.D.: It created her, then forced her to be something she wasn’t. She wants her former teammates to go through the Kree experiment, if only to show them what a successful relationship looks like.
The problem being that Daisy, whether thanks to Hive’s control or her own blindspot, doesn’t yet see she’s looking at failure in exactly the wrong way. In her argument with Mack, she tries to show her ex-partner that nothing he believed was quite as it seemed. Mack was almost “a big brother,” she claims, but not really. There was something missing in the relationship. But that gap is what defines human connection. Her relationship with Hive is all-consuming, the equivalent of an unending success with no apparent downside. And that itself is the downside. The failures and mistakes are what allow people to create bigger and better trust, to forge bonds stronger than those that can be articulated smoothly, or even supposedly unbreakable ones. Hive doesn’t allow for failure, for missteps, in understanding. And that, ironically, is the flaw: His method of unification can only see other paths as hopelessly lesser—which is just how the Kree viewed him. Right before he melted its face.
As usual, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. has started absolutely racing to the finish line in the last arc of the season, with episodes stuffed to the Inhuman gills with story. It doesn’t allow much time to catch one’s breath, and the momentum rockets forward with minimal concern for the subtler niceties of the characters. But in this case, there‘s no loss of quality from stopping to investigate more thoroughly the interpersonal exchanges that take place, because “Failed Experiments,” and its sharp script by Brent Fletcher, nails the conflicts absorbing each member of the team. Even Lincoln, who doesn’t endear himself to anyone this week, nevertheless comes across accurately shaded and upset—so of course he does something stupid, because that’s just who Lincoln is. And while his impulsive idiocy may have truly been for naught, with Simmons telling him the antitoxins failed, I’m not so sure that’s true. Maybe he didn’t succeed in achieving what the team hoped, but look again at the title of this episode, and what it means. Failures often turn out to be far more important and successful than anyone realizes at first. Lincoln’s so-called failure isn’t done yet.
The assault on Hive’s small town forms the bulk of the episode, and manages to give almost everyone a moment in the sun. (Although Alisha, with her ill-fated attack on a Kree Reaper, probably wishes she hadn’t had that particular encounter.) May gets a nice scene with James (a.k.a. “Definitely not Gambit, X-men lawyers!” as a few of you observed), playing the role of a starry-eyed Hydra employee in order to learn Hive’s whereabouts, at which point she promptly decks him. She also echoes Coulson’s warnings to Mack, telling him to get his head in the game and leave his damn feelings out of it.
But Mack won’t be deterred this week, and happily, he isn’t knocked out for his troubles. His conversation with Daisy is heartfelt and honest, and their discussion highlights the failings on both sides of the human/Inhuman divide, not to mention the Hive/everyone else gap. “What we feel…is reality,” Daisy tells him, but Mack’s not having it. For him, there’s a world beyond just what they feel in any given moment. Despite his realization that Daisy is on the side of Hive, he persists in his faith of their bond, consequences be damned. It seems to fail him, but again, not really: Without that loss, he may never have been able to eliminate the Kree body, and with it the blood Hive so desperately wanted. Of course, this just puts Daisy even more at risk, as the episode ends with her demand to have her blood drained, in service of the cause.
This episode is the best exploration of Hive the show has given us all season. Ever since “The Inside Man,” the show has been filling in aspects of the parasitic Inhuman’s backstory. But here, we get a proper origin sequence, and even more importantly, we get an expression of Hive’s messianic sense of mission. To be other than Hive is to fall victim to ideologies of violence, of difference and disagreement. He sees himself as a means of helping the world as a whole, and his critique sounds plausibly noble. S.H.I.E.L.D. exists to do violence, he argues, and only by removing the causes of violence can you hope to stop the endless bloodshed that defines existence. Coulson suggests running if you can’t stop Hive, but I get the impression Hive isn’t terribly concerned with pursuit. He’ll get to you soon enough; he’s got a few more failed experiments to run, but that’s the price of success. If only he could see that his own existence is a testament to that failure, he might not be so single-minded. Of course, for that to be the case, he’d probably also have to not be an evil parasite.
- Daisy’s devotion to the cause, while briefly thrown into question by Mack’s lack of resistance, nonetheless seems unnerving this week. From her flat order to “Drain it” after smashing the Kree’s spine with her powers, to her teeth-baring claim that she’ll “rip their hearts out” if the team threatens Hive’s plan, our fallen agent is quite the fanatical true believer.
- Most of the quips in this installment are more of the breezily witty variety than laugh-out-loud, although FitzSimmons have a few good beats comparing whose experience with Hive and/or Daisy was worse. “I had to shoot him three times just to shut him up.”
- Mack also had some solid one-liners. “Maybe he’s hoping to form some type of creepy-dude alliance.”
- Fitz and Gemma still got to have a brief relationship powwow in the midst of all the chaos, which is the most important thing, really.
- Boy, they really hit the Civil War references hard this week, huh? As Hive notes, only billionaires can make iron suits, and only the military can make a supersoldier—“which only leads to more war.” Buy your tickets, audience!
- Informal poll: Was the Raiders-style face melting of the Hydra leaders in Dr. Radcliffe’s experiment the grossest effect the show has ever done? I might vote yes.