The A.V. Club might be having a slight sense of pride at tonight’s episode of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., however misplaced it may be. See, we’ve made our feelings rather clear regarding two particular agents on Phil Coulson’s team. It was all the way back at the end of last season when I said, rather publicly, that Alfonso “Mack” Mackenzie should be fired. As an agent, he was utterly derelict in his duty of keeping watch over the monolith that swallowed up poor Gemma, and nobody ever called him out for it. This season, he’s been most useful at getting knocked out during fights, and being inexplicably promoted to acting head of S.H.I.E.L.D. during Coulson’s brief absence, despite having literally the worst track record of any agent.

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Save one, of course. (Although, as “Watchdogs” made clear, Daisy’s boy toy isn’t an agent yet.) Lincoln Campbell has been a grumpy, out-of-control wet blanket for the majority of his time on the show—or at least since they left the Inhuman refuge in the mountains. I singled out his lack of appealing characteristics just a couple of weeks ago, when noting that a forced, charisma-free relationship with Daisy does not make for a compelling hero. Between him and Mack, the team seemed to have a significant drag, in that neither one offered much reason to root for them. Henry Simmons’ portrayal of Mack was charismatic and fully realized, but the role gave him nothing of value, so he often felt like an empty vessel. Luke Mitchell may be handsome and talented, but whether it’s his performance or the material, Lincoln is a drip, no fun to watch and even less enjoyable when shoehorned into an Inhuman fauxmance. (Thank you, commenters, who decided my assigned couple name of “Dincoln” was too polite, and pitched “Laisy” instead. I like the “dink” sound in mine, so I’m keeping it, but “Laisy” is a solid burn.)

Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. heard us! “Watchdogs” devotes its A-story almost wholly to Mack, while the B-plot sees Lincoln being put to the test. It’s an old tactic to wheel out the family member when we need to care about somebody we don’t, but in this case, Mack’s brother Ruben (we’ll get to that nickname discussion at the end) was just what the tallest member of the team needed to demonstrate his value and appeal. The relationship between the two slightly estranged brothers felt lived-in and natural, the years of affection between siblings worn down by uncertainty and distance. When Ruben exploded at Mack for lying to him, you could sense the long-simmering resentment boiling to the surface, and during the struggle to escape the house, the nods and unspoken moments between them demonstrated the familiar shorthand of people who know each other better than anyone else. When Daisy tells Ruben that if she needs someone to watch her back, Mack’s the one she calls, this was the first time in a long time the sentiment didn’t make me roll my eyes. There’s a humanism inherent to Mack’s value, but it’s a quality that was never articulated properly until this week.

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But articulations of humanism took many forms in “Watchdogs,” some of them none too friendly. While Ruben’s speech to Mack about his attraction to the Watchdogs felt a little abrupt, Felix Blake’s certainly didn’t. “I signed up to protect the world,” Blake says, and his sense of outrage is understandable—especially once that final scene revealed he hadn’t fully healed after all, and was stuck in a wheelchair. Here’s someone who thought he was defending the world against alien threats, and when he wakes up, he finds out his government is giving them badges, instead. To Blake, it doesn’t matter that his information may be coming from Hydra; S.H.I.E.L.D. was already rotted from the inside, and its collaboration with Inhumans is nothing but evidence the agency has lost sight of its mission. He wants the alien invasion neutralized, not bartered with, and hearing him tick off the reasons proffers at least a reasonable case, if not a correct one: The Chitauri. Dethlok. Ultron. In his mind, these are failures on the part of those who thought we could work with superpowered individuals, and the fallout is proof that Blake’s mission is crucial. Which is why he needs some attack dogs.

The Watchdogs storyline is the most topical and relevant to our real-world situation Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. has ever gotten. Frustrated and dispossessed people with no economic prospects for improving their lot in life, the men who populate the Watchdogs are a lot like the internet trolls who take their feelings of insecurity and anger to the next level, be it via doxxing or physical violence: They’re vicious bullies who fancy themselves freedom fighters. You can hear shades of Cliven Bundy’s antigovernment militia fanaticism in the Watchdog rhetoric, as well as the worrying echoes of those who shout for violence at Trump rallies. It’s the sound of people who feel powerless, and want a target for their anger. But rather than the difficult and lengthy work of political activism and policy development, they want a shortcut, and if it happens to cause some pain to those they see as different…well, so much the better. You can almost hear the argument in Age Of Ultron between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark playing out in the air between Ruben and Mack. “Every time someone tries to win a war before it starts, innocent people die,” Captain America warns. “Every time.”

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It’s heartening to see the series laying this much groundwork in anticipation of mirroring the events of Civil War. We’ve all talked about how the films affect the shows, but not vice versa. This narrative means S.H.I.E.L.D. is taking full advantage of its medium in order to tell the story the upcoming Captain America film can’t: A full and fraught exploration of the need to protect freedom and privacy, even for those with extraordinary abilities. Tonight’s discussions—between Mack and his brother, Blake and Coulson, even Mack and Daisy—are smart inroads into this thorny, ongoing knot of a problem, one that even pits members of the team against each other. If we’re going to do justice to the depth of conflict and dilemma raised by the basic question, “What rights are Inhumans deserved?” it’s going to pull in real-world allegories and issues of minority rights, prisoner rights, even questions of terrorism and the government’s role (or lack thereof) in transgressing the law in its pursuit of security. This is the feel of a show finally getting serious about injecting some compelling layers to its frothy super-powered fun. I have no idea if it can stick the landing, but damn, it’s good to see the ambition.

Stray Observations:

  • Consider my lack of discussion about Lincoln’s role investigating the safe house to be a cautious sign of optimism. Pairing him with Coulson allowed some important facts to be said aloud, and slapping Lincoln around like that was a critical step for both Coulson and the show in trying to kickstart the character.
  • In the wake of Hunter’s departure, it looks like Fitz’s dry wit may get a boost in presence. “What does he think you do?” “Insurance.” “Well, not any more, I’d wager.”
  • Poor Gemma is so guilt-ridden, primarily because of Lash’s murders, she’s spending time at the gun range. A sensible move, but not as sensible as taking May’s advice and using that guilt.
  • Speaking of May, talk about a revealing line: “Don’t give me hope, Gemma.”
  • Watching Daisy start to bend the rules in exactly the way she doesn’t want the government to when it comes to her own people was a clever and intriguing wrinkle.
  • “Alphie? Thank you for that.” We all thank you for that, Ruben.

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