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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. deals with heavy consequences by keeping it light

Photo: Eric McCandless/ABC
Photo: Eric McCandless/ABC
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Phil Coulson is getting a little too used to taking emotional beatings. The discussion of hurt in “Hot Potato Soup” may have revolved more around Leo Fitz and his repeated sense of betrayal by those closest to him, but while Jemma reassures him those internal wounds aren’t keeping him from being a good man, the team’s leader is experiencing the latest in a brutal series of having the rug pulled out from under him. He’s literally died doing the right thing, and for his sacrifices he’s had to abandon the woman he loved, lost an appendage, watched another woman he was falling for shot in front of his eyes, had the closest thing to an adopted daughter walk out on him, and now May. She’s the person he’s known the longest, feels the most kinship with, and just as he’s finally feeling there might be a long-buried romance bubbling to the surface, she pulls a gun on him and turns out to be a robot. Right after they kiss. It’s enough to make a man wonder if he’s the lead on an ABC drama.

That sense of loss is going to drive him to find May, the same way loss drove him to enact mortal vengeance on Grant Ward. This time it’s just a little…stranger. After all, he’s got a machine that literally embodies the memories and feelings of Melinda May, one that wants to convince him she’s just as much the agent he loves as her flesh and blood doppelgänger. She wants him, desires him, but Radcliffe messed with that emotion, changed the drive of her motivations to make her act on her feelings. But he also programmed her to put a bullet in Coulson once she had the Darkhold. Coulson is experiencing betrayal, then realizing it’s no betrayal at all. It’s just loss. May has been taken, and even with the reveal of a new adversary, it’s a heavy blow to sustain. Coulson has just as much reason as Fitz to be gun-shy and put up walls. But just like Jemma with Fitz, we care about him because of his refusal to do so.

Still, despite the heavy emotional undertones, “Hot Potato Soup” is a light and entertaining episode of S.H.I.E.L.D., largely because the show knows it can have fun with Patton Oswalt reprising his role(s) as the Koenig family brothers. Best of all, that light touch then bleeds into the regular cast, allowing them to show off some comic touches as well—at least, for the characters not stuck in a room with LMD Radcliffe. Oswalt’s talents were best put to use leaning into the overwhelmingly geeky natures of Sam, Billy, and Thurston: Sam geeking out over Daisy’s new guise as Quake, Billy’s hostage bravado immediately turning to fear, and Thurston’s atrocious wannabe George Carlin shtick all gave others the chance to play exasperated straight man. Chloe Bennett, as always, does great work, especially rolling her eyes at Sam’s fan-fiction nerdery, proving again that Daisy’s at her best when she’s allowed to be funny. And the plan to keep the Darkhold safe was clever, playing into the family’s talents and revealing the existence of their sister, L.T. (Who frankly is kind of a jerk, let’s be honest.)

All the multiple-Koenig shenanigans somewhat overshadowed the episode’s major reveal of the larger nemesis for the LMD arc, Anton Ivanov. The Russian financier and occasional submarine captain doesn’t exude quite the danger of villains past, probably because despite an appropriately menacing entrance that turns into a vodka swilling and onion sniffing moment, he’s just not much more than a rich tough guy. Hell, we even watch as Radcliffe gains the upper hand on him just by unleashing Aida on Ivanov’s goons. He may be referred to as “The Superior” by Nadeer, but Radcliffe isn’t having it, which means it’s hard for us to be particularly impressed by him, either. Also, we already know his obsession with Coulson as somehow being the cause of all alien activity on Earth is patently ridiculous, meaning even the stinger, meant to scare us into worrying an army of Russian goons are going after Phil, doesn’t hold much weight, because the reasons behind the fatwa don’t hold much. When the bad guys lack coherent purpose, it’s harder to emotionally invest in the battle against them.

If the Koenigs were the comic foil of the episode, Fitz and LMD Radcliffe were the dour severity. Aside from whistling like a canary, faux-Radcliffe served as a means for turning the emotional screws in Fitz, in order to reveal some more surprise history, which may as well be called the Mack-lost-a-daughter Annual Backstory Twist. The idea that Radcliffe knew Fitz’ father—in fact, has supposedly spoken to him recently—is a chance to get a little deeper into Fitz’ psychological makeup. Simmons says she thinks his father’s constant derision was partially what drew him to become so intelligent. It also explains why Fitz doesn’t just feel he may be cursed to draw people to him who will betray him, but also goes the extra distance to worry about the relationships he does have. It’s why he plans for contingency after contingency; there’s a fear it will all collapse again. Radcliffe’s treachery seems to reaffirm this, but Jemma is thankfully there to be the voice of reason, and echo to her boyfriend the same reason that we’re drawn to Coulson. Fitz and the S.H.I.E.L.D. boss share a refusal to put up walls around themselves.

But the father reveal also feels like a plan that’s been a long time coming, possibly from the very start of the series. After all, the last name “Fitz,” etymologically speaking, means “son of”—and is usually followed by another name. In this case, it’s that missing parentage (son of who?) that has driven him to become who he is. As they pursue Radcliffe, the scientist is inevitably going to bring up the same thing to Fitz (his father’s note to his son), and not just because he obviously feels a sense of paternal affection for Leo. There’s an adventure there waiting to happen, and it’s got the potential to turn Fitz inside out as a person. (Figuratively speaking, which only needs to be emphasized because this is Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. we’re talking about.)

“Hot Potato Soup” is mostly a chance to get the Darkhold into Radcliffe’s hands, which doesn’t portend great things for the character’s mortality. He wasn’t lying about it driving people mad, and he knows it. It’s just that he doesn’t care. A little bit of insanity is a small price to pay for immortality—at least by his reasoning—and now that we’ve learned the forces behind both he and Senator Nadeer are ultimately concerned with getting ahold of Phil Coulson, we know there’s a fight coming. But Coulson doesn’t care; the only struggle he cares about is the one to get Melinda May back.


Stray Observations:

  • Everything about Sam’s discussion of the Quake fan fiction is a delight. From his enunciation of Quake/Black Widow’s awful ‘ship name (“Quack”) to his sudden realization she might not want to look into the artwork and writing, it’s a great gag on both a meta and narrative level.
  • Kind of a weak fakeout with the LMD Radcliffe trying to insinuate his own innocence, no? “I’m the victim, things are not what they seem” should’ve been a portent of a larger mystery, but doesn’t seem to go anywhere as of yet. (Knowing Fitz’ father doesn’t count as some form of present victimization.)
  • This episode does, however, confirm my theory that Radcliffe abhors physical violence, immediately giving up the charade of his capture alongside Billy when Ivanov threatens to cut the agent. Too bad he doesn’t understand internal violence can be even worse.
  • Still, Radcliffe’s experience inside Billy’s head was good for a laugh, especially his mistaking the Darth Vader clock for a bomb. “Never mind. False alarm.”
  • “Welcome to the inside of my mind, sheeple.” Patton Oswalt was born to deliver that hectoring bluster.
  • Daisy’s best line delivery: “So—May’s a frickin’ robot.”
  • LMD May, I’m already feeling bad for you, thanks to Radcliffe’s parting words. “You weren’t built to last.”