Now, this is how you do a film noir homage. Unlike last week’s Area 51 caper, which mostly used a fun intro and the tweaked title card as set dressing to then tell a standard-issue S.H.I.E.L.D. story, this week’s throwback aesthetic commits fully to its premise, going far beyond mere black and white imagery to utilize hardened gumshoe voiceover, a bevy of canted camera angles, and even an unabashed repurposing of Sunset Boulevard’s iconic opening of the dead body floating in a pool. Best of all, it turns out that what seems like a deviation—after all, in that film, the dead man himself is narrating events, not some other guy (or LMD)—isn’t one after all. That really is Coulson in there. He just doesn’t need much in the way of air.
“Out Of The Past” isn’t a perfect episode, but it’s so much fun that it manages to coast by on the strength of its numerous charms. Right at the outset, the show justifies the framing device in a clever way, explaining that the damage LMD Coulson suffered after the team triggered the EMP last week is causing him to see things in black and white and hear his own thoughts in his head. (Justifying a fanciful conceit with a sound in-universe explanation is a bit of a Whedon family specialty, it seems.) From there, we get tough-talking killers, femme fatales, even a McGuffin in the form of the briefcase containing a S.H.I.E.L.D. item that Jemma describes as the “Rosetta Stone” of future tech for the agency—it’s all there, and nearly all of it is delightful.
The storyline also has a bit more resonance this time around, as the team grapples with the knowledge that by not messing with history, they’ll be letting Daniel Sousa die. The famed agent is supposed to deliver a package to Howard Stark, then get killed immediately afterward, securing his place in history as the first S.H.I.E.L.D. agent killed in the line of duty, someone whose legacy will inspire subsequent generations. But ultimately, Mack decides they can’t let it happen; they need a workaround to the rules protecting the flow of time. So they save Sousa, bringing him aboard the Zephyr, while simultaneously engineering a cover story so that “Sousa” still dies in that pool, keeping history the way it was. It’s a nice exploration of one of the show’s key themes, thoughtfully articulated by Mack: “It’s easier to let a bad man live than to let a good man die.” That kind of thematic resonance hasn’t always been in play this season, so it’s enjoyable seeing it get worked out in such entertaining fashion.
While Yo-Yo’s problems with her powers get back-burnered this week (as do superpowers in general; seriously, how many episodes in a row are we going to get with no one using their abilities?), May’s situation is finally a little clearer. The Cavalry is only feeling emotions when she touches someone else and picks up their emotional state, and is otherwise completely devoid of them. Neither of those are good for her, long-term, but it’s a solid narrative thread to follow, and helps make things like her panic attack last week avoid being a tired grab at a PTSD storyline that the show doesn’t have time to unpack. This is much more interesting, and gives us moments like that wonderfully unsettling bit where May walks up to the piece of S.H.I.E.L.D. tech and giddily enthuses about how fascinating it is—a far creepier beat than her panic attack last week.
Similarly, watching the others begin to push against the constraints of their mission holds compelling narrative possibilities going forward. They all know they can’t mess with the timeline, but certain injustices are making it very difficult. “The racism and sexism,” as Deke succinctly puts it, are grating on them. “We’re the agents of status quo,” Yo-Yo says, and in that moment, it’s easy to see why the two of them decide they may have to mess with history just a tiny little bit, if it means sticking up for some fundamental values. Again, it’s odd having these scenes play out during this historical moment, but at least here it’s nothing more than a Captain America-esque stand against wrongdoing, rather than facile explorations of the issues behind those oppressions.
Really, the most affecting emotional beats in “Out Of The Past” went to poor Enoch, stuck behind a bar listening to a blowhard prattle on about his life. After two decades of patiently waiting for S.H.I.E.L.D. to reappear, he’s stuck doing nothing more than connecting members of the team to the Zephyr. And even when someone tries to convey how happy they are to hear his voice—Deke is genuinely excited to reconnect with the Chronicom—the damage from the previous two brusque exchanges has already left Enoch dispirited. “I must accept that I am alone in this world, as I have always been,” he flatly states, and it’s a little bit heartbreaking to hear from someone who has come so far in his interpersonal relationships. It’s akin to if you heard Spock on board the Enterprise, musing, “Why doesn’t anyone like me?” See? Sad.
Everything else, though, was fleet and fun. Deke’s encounter with Malick, now grown up and carrying out the Hydra infiltration of S.H.I.E.L.D., was a good callback, and all the little moments of film noir tweaking, such as the canted cutting back and forth between Coulson and the Chronicom assassin during their conversation on the train, were skillfully deployed by director Garry A. Brown. It’ll be interesting to see if Sousa becomes a member of the team, now, or if he’ll get dropped off at the nearest ’70s rock club. Let the 1973 wayback machine fire up.
- Hearing Enoch answer the phone with a placid “The Crazy Canoe” will never not be funny.
- Still no Fitz.
- Sousa is appropriately taken aback when his portentous announcement that he believes Hydra is infiltrating S.H.I.E.L.D. is met with an abrupt chorus of, “Yep.” “Yep.” “Yep.”
- If Coulson says he’s not worried, he’s actually worried.
- I wonder how long it’ll be before the Chronicom who stays behind to aid Malick changes history, and whether that will inspire some Back To The Future-style shenanigans to try and fix things.