Photo: Mitch Haaseth (ABC)
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In the opening minutes of “Code Yellow,” Deke Shaw (Jeff Ward finally returning to the series) arises from his latest incarnation of The Framework, the virtual-reality environment created by Fitz and Holden Radcliffe that the time-traveler had originally rebuilt in the future. (It’s now a VR game called “Remorath Rumble.”) He breezes through the hallways of his new tech startup, lecturing his girlfriend about his big plans to disrupt “actual food,” and getting complimented by his employee for his latest proposal, a synthetic hand with its own energy shield. Eventually, the girlfriend, Sequoia, asks, “Babe, you are such a genius—where do you come up with this stuff?” And Deke looks straight into the camera with a knowing smile.

What show are we watching, again?

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At this point, I’m starting to suspect that after receiving a surprise renewal in the wake of two very strong but emotionally fraught seasons of superhero dramatics, the writers of S.H.I.E.L.D. decided they deserved to have some fun. Last week’s “Fear and Loathing On The Planet Of Kitson” had some very broad laughs but didn’t ground them with much of anything. This installment introduces some very clear—not to mention disturbing—stakes for our heroes, but it does it against a background of silliness that tips over into straight-up camp. You have to earn the right to have a character look straight to camera without creating a diegetic reason for it (we’re not all Fleabag, people); more importantly, you can’t casually do it in your sixth season, apropos of nothing, and expect it to land. The easy comedy delivered by Deke’s startup and the satirical swipes it takes at both digital and social media culture are fun, but pretty lazy, and feel teleported over from some other, less interesting show. Mack seemed about a half-second away from shaking his head and muttering, “Young people these days.”

The big development here is the reveal of the unsettling threat being awakened by Sarge inside humans: Powerful winged beasts that fly down your throat, and, if left unchecked, can apparently cause a massive explosion. Or, if someone (read: Yo-Yo) stabs you to prevent that outcome, rips you apart in a gruesome display of Cronenberg-esque body horror composed of crystalline stalagtites and metallic-looking rods of organic material. Keller finds this out the hard way, after Doc Benson opens up Sarge’s victim and the creature flies out, breaks through the metal opening to the vent, and eventually forces its way into Keller’s body, as Yo-Yo looks on in horrified disbelief.

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Screenshot: ABC

And disbelief is an understandable reaction. To effectively have such a repulsive nemesis, with such gross effects, dropped in the middle of a lighthearted goof about bringing Deke back into the fold would require a nimble touch, and much like last week, the episode doesn’t feel meticulously planned enough to pull off the tonal juggling act. I’m not sad to see Keller go (the whole “he isn’t over you” love triangle with Mack and Yo-Yo has been a soap-opera clunker from the start), but it would’ve been nice to see a longer setup, with clearer explanations of the parasite and its potential, before having literally the first one we’ve seen on earth pull apart the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent into a thousand disgusting strands. It’s a cool and potent effect, and I look forward to the ensuing narrative fallout, however.

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Sarge and his people, meanwhile, are still in the midst of their mysterious mission, even if the endgame is getting clearer. There’s no explanation of how they’re assigned their “marks,” as Sarge refers to the first victim, and Benson’s description of the guy as being a regular person who suddenly went AWOL doesn’t shed much light, either. Deke is on their radar, though (literally, as we see Pax tracking him via future-iPad), even if his signature is different from their other targets. And watching Sarge pretend to be Coulson, as Deke prattles on, is an effective way to have the character start to be more curious about this past (we already know these new antagonists have awareness of past lives, though Sarge keeps his under lock and key). Kidnapping May should hopefully shed some more light on the situation for both the characters and audience, as five episodes seems like sufficient time to start paying off so many teases.

Screenshot: ABC

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The S.H.I.E.L.D. assault on Deke’s startup in an attempt to capture Sarge allowed for a few good action sequences. As usual, Ming-Na Wen’s fight choreography is a highlight, even with the gratuitous slo-mo conclusion. And Mack finally gets to flex his muscles this season, going HAM on Jaco and (I assume) landing S.H.I.E.L.D. a prisoner of its own in this struggle. Which was immediately followed by Deke unloading the entire stun-gun clip into the baddie, leaving it empty for Pax’s appearance seconds later. It’s a pretty nice analogy for this episode, really: Committing hard to a wacky clash-of-tones premise, without having enough ammunition left to finish the job.

Stray observations

  • The grid in the sky from last week’s stinger? Yo-Yo thinks it’s a map.
  • “If you consider the infinite complexity of nature, maybe strange is the norm.” Jaco, poet laureate of the planet destroyers.
  • Good to see Deke is still basically an overgrown man-child, who has matured in no discernible way during his time on earth.
  • Seriously, the crystals erupting from the body? Gross.
  • At least co-showrunner Maurissa Tancharoen was obviously having a lot of fun playing Sequoia. The stinger was silly but enjoyable.
  • My next sure-to-be-wrong prediction: This is totally Shi’ar technology, right?

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