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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. confronts its past as the future starts to collapse

James Paxton and Elizabeth Henstridge
James Paxton and Elizabeth Henstridge
Photo: Jessica Brooks (ABC
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“Sometimes trying to do the right thing comes out all wrong.” Jiaying may have been talking about motherhood when she said this to Daisy (unknowingly imparting words of wisdom to her future daughter, while talking about her current one), but the sentiment applies to so much more. What the team hoped would be a straightforward rescue mission goes disastrously wrong. At the end of this episode, Jiaying and Gordon are both dead, Nathaniel Malick and a young John Garrett have stolen the Zephyr and taken Simmons hostage, and the timeline as we know it is coming apart. It may be the best day ever for Garrett, but it’s a pretty shitty one for our heroes.

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This season has been a steady progression of references to storylines and characters from throughout the show’s history, and now it looks like it’s going to culminate with a final arc that returns the S.H.I.E.L.D. team to Afterlife, the secret Inhuman haven that was run by Jiaying during the back end of season two. Instead of that trip to reactivate Yo-Yo’s powers being a one-off, Malick and his new protege Kora have taken control of Afterlife, using it as a base of operations where the young sadist can transfer Inhuman powers to his handpicked goon squad. And his latest recruit calls back even further, all the way to season one’s eventual Big Bad, S.H.I.E.L.D.-turned-Hydra operative John Garrett. Malick recruits the young Garrett into his group with the promise of immortality and superpowers, and soon enough, Garrett has absorbed Gordon’s teleportation, using it to ‘port himself and Nathaniel into the Lighthouse, kidnap Jemma, and make off with the Zephyr.

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While this was all done with a strong script, fleet pacing, and some especially good character dynamics from Daisy, Simmons, and Coulson, my concern is that this can’t help but feel like an underwhelming struggle. I can’t tell if it’s due to Thomas E. Sullivan’s performance or simply the way the show has established his character, but Nathanial Malick lacks the imposing malevolence necessary to make this showdown as monumental as it wants to be. Sure, he’s got Daisy’s powers, and the threat of draining Inhumans of their abilities to give him a miniature army of super-powered evildoers is a compelling one, but the show hasn’t conveyed the scale of this threat in an effective way. It feels like a step down from the Chronicom plot we’ve been dealing with; yes, Sibyl is working with Malick, and he has the Timestream, but still, the villain comes across like a man out of his depth. Also, if May hadn’t clumsily butted in and badly fired two shots (a weird choice to make her look less competent than she is), clipping him, it’s obvious Daisy was about to quake the guy to smithereens.

Illustration for article titled iAgents Of S.H.I.E.L.D./i confronts its past as the future starts to collapse
Photo: Jessica Brooks (ABC
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But larger concerns aside, “Stolen” is a good episode of S.H.I.E.L.D., in part because it doesn’t play coy with the possibilities teased by the previous installments. (When you’ve only got four episodes left, there’s not exactly time to draw out intimations of the endgame.) So Daisy walks right up to Jemma and basically says, “Anyhoo....is Fitz dead?” She immediately begins gaming out the potential that the love of her life has been dead this whole time, that the Time Drive was never communicating with anyone, just automatically following in the wake of the Chronicoms’ jumps. It’s a depressing thought, but by acknowledging it, the show seems to be guaranteeing he’s still among the living—especially once that stinger scene has Malick admitting that the only outcomes where he loses are when Fitz shows up.

But the heart of this episode is given over to Daisy and the family who doesn’t know she exists. It’s surprising that Daisy seems more freaked out by the fact that she has a sister than by her mother reappearing after having been killed by Daisy’s father. At least that balances out a bit after Jiaying and Daisy have a heart-to-heart about mothers and daughters, the former assuring the latter that parents sometimes screw up not out of anger or dislike of their kids, but purely from love that they don’t always direct in the best ways. It makes it all the more potent when Malick kills Jiaying right after telling the Afterlife leader that Daisy is her daughter—it’s the kind of knife twist that makes the whole thing more painful, and Whitehall that much more hatable.

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Given that Malick has the Timestream, the show could stand to do a little more with it, because the small ways he utilizes it—like instantly surrounding Gordon and Coulson when they teleport into Afterlife—show the potential for it to really stack the deck against S.H.I.E.L.D. in these last few episodes. Of course, the team now has its own X-factor in Kora, who will presumably be brought around to the good guys’ way of thinking next week, as they regroup and figure out how to rescue Jemma (Deke trapped on board the Zephyr, unbeknownst to Malick and Garrett, has the potential to be a lot of fun). But hopefully bigger than Malick will be the problem of the timeline coming apart; unless the team can stop the past from being completely altered, there’s going to be much bigger problems than the Triskelion arriving a decade or two ahead of schedule.

Stray observations

  • If you thought the actor playing young John Garrett was doing an eerie job channeling the late Bill Paxton’s creepy-smile energy, that’s probably because it’s Paxton’s real-life son, James.
  • Nice to see wannabe agent Roxy Glass is a wannabe no longer. Apparently it took awhile, what with Deke not actually being permitted to appoint new agents.
  • That was a good bit of comedy with Mack taking the gun from blind Gordon. “Nope.”
  • Daisy hits Sousa with some unfortunate news about the 21st century: “Fascism’s back.”
  • Jemma seems more annoyed than anything by these two smirking assholes taking her prisoner.
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Alex McLevy is a writer and editor at The A.V. Club, and would kindly appreciate additional videos of robots failing to accomplish basic tasks.

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