Ah, the time loop episode. A proud mainstay of genre TV, the conceit has proven remarkably fecund through the years, creating some of the finer outings for the series that have chosen to employ it. Buffy The Vampire Slayer had an awfully good one, though it only lasted for part of the episode. The X-Files’ version of the time loop was a lot of fun. Star Trek: The Next Generation does a take on it that’s one of the best. But Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s execution of the twisty premise? It can stand toe-to-toe with any of the installments I just mentioned. This was the best episode yet of the final season, and arguably a contender for the list of best S.H.I.E.L.D. episodes, period.
This would be a hell of a way to kick off your directing career, so kudos to Elizabeth Henstridge for doing just that. Not only did she get to film her own death scene, but she brought an excellent and light touch to material that could’ve easily gotten too precious by half, and waited until those final minutes to really let the camera sit with the characters, holding back on trying to force any pathos until the story had earned it. It helps that Enoch, by definition, is a character engineered to avoid any mawkishness; the Chronicom’s death is affecting precisely because his demeanor prevents hokey sentimentality, instead feeling truer and rawer precisely because his utterances are spoken with the detached affect of simple truth, not soporific crocodile tears. When he pulls out his equivalent of a heart in order to fix the time drive and save the team, his brusque efficiency is far more moving than some drawn-out gesture, and Henstridge’s crisp but mannered direction serves that tone well.
But that’s how they end the time loop, not what they do inside of it. And the true joy of this episode comes from the combination of playfulness and anxiety generated by the cast (with a lion’s share of the credit going to longtime MVP writer Drew Z. Greenberg) as they imbue the team with a perfect amount of world-weary “great, we’re all about to die, AGAIN” stress. The “blips” of the continual resets don’t muck about with trying to draw out the opening routine, which is a pitfall a lot of time loop episodes stumble into; after the second reboot when Daisy realizes what’s going on, we quickly move to a structure in which the narrative jumps right to wherever things left off the previous time, letting character dynamics create the humor, rather than can-you-believe-this nudges in the ribs from watching her and Coulson go through the motions repeatedly. (In fact, the one time they do kill Daisy, forcing Coulson to deliver his exasperated speech bringing her up to speed for the second time, it’s all the funnier for being the exception to the rule.)
The setup is simple, as is the eventual solution: The time drive is glitching, which made the Zephyr pull a jump inside of a jump, thereby setting them into a vortex that will eventually pull them in and...annihilate their existence somehow. (Even Deke’s not sure just what will happen, besides them all dying horribly.) After running out of ideas to stop it from happening, they ask Jemma to remove the memory implant blocking her full knowledge of the ship’s history, which is when she realizes what could fix the drive: the whatsit inside Enoch. (It has a long and unmemorable name.) The realization that Jemma programmed Enoch to prevent the implant’s removal at all costs is a great wrench to throw in the works, and adds to the fun as every attempt to keep the Chronicom away from the situation—including everybody trying to fight him at once—all fail. (There’s almost no way Daisy couldn’t have quaked him to a pulp, given what we’ve seen her do in the past, but sure, let’s pretend.) And when Enoch learns his insides are the key to saving everyone, he doesn’t pause to blink: He just pulls it right out, as he hopes anyone would do for him. Cue the emotional climax.
But cleverly built into the time loop gambit are several other veins of long-running character development that pay off thanks to the threat of impending doom. The most impactful belongs to Coulson (and Daisy by extension), who finally erupts with his feelings about being a Life Model Decoy, an inorganic container for all of Coulson’s thoughts and feelings who will have to slowly watch everyone he cares about die. (His frustration over being a machine with programming also ends up being the way he figures out Enoch is the culprit who keeps killing anyone trying to remove Jemma’s implant.) What’s great about the scene as written is how it speaks to the complete series arc of experience for both characters: Daisy hits back by reminding him that some of them already have experience watching a loved one die more than once, before Coulson points out it’s a little different this time. “It’s soul crushing,” he says, before raging about the fact that he may not have one. Best of all, it comes back around at the end, with Coulson’s words to Enoch about being a part of the universe applying to himself, as well.
And then there’s Daisy’s chat with Sousa. This couldn’t help but feel a little less meaningful, given we just haven’t spent enough time with the guy this season to give this as much weight as it tried to hold (yes, those of us who watched Agent Carter have additional affection for the guy, but still). He calls out Daisy’s character, putting her squarely in the realm of heroes he’s known (paging Peggy) and making a lovely point about how people like her will always need support from people like him. It’s a clever admission of not just the vital role supporting players fulfill, but an acknowledgement that he’s precisely that—someone who knows his place belongs in a secondary role, holding up those who do the big deeds, and he’s okay with that. The world needs more Daniel Sousas.
Exciting, clever, often laugh-out-loud funny, and ultimately moving, “As I Have Always Been” was a superlative episode of the show, expertly doing everything the series has struggled a bit to get right in this freewheeling final season. At this point, the time loop premise is practically an old-fashioned conceit, but to quote Phil Coulson from once long ago, when telling another hero why something was important: “People might just need a little old-fashioned.”
- So many good deadpan lines between Coulson and Daisy here. To wit: On trying to just tell Enoch about the irony of the implant situation: “He did not see the irony in it.” “He did not.”
- Technically, Jemma didn’t make up the word “Phlebotinum”: It’s a term meaning an impossible or imaginary device in fiction used to move the plot along. She may as well have said “time drive.” Still, the command was to make up a word, Simmons, come on, now.
- Jemma’s reaction to Daisy telling her that she’s stuck in a time loop: “Oh, well, that’s fun!”
- Coulson is a little miffed that Daisy dared to raise a millennial eyebrow at his “record skipping” comparison. “Vinyl is back!”
- May looking worried is still so unsettling.
- Okay, let’s just bite the bullet and say it: Fitz is already dead, isn’t he? Jemma bursting into tears when her memory was restored seemed a little too intense to be anything else. She didn’t block the memories of him to prevent the Chronicoms from finding him; she did it just so she could function in order to complete the mission. Dammit.
- ...I mean, I hope I’m wrong about that, it’d be a real bummer of an ending to that character, that story, and that emotional investment. But I don’t think I am.