Photo: Mitch Haaseth (ABC)

The occasional tragic death is a fact of life for a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. When you’re risking your life on a near-daily basis, fighting some of the most powerful bad guys on earth (and elsewhere), it’s inevitable that colleagues will fall, loved ones will die, and you might have to end someone else’s life, even if you don’t want to. But even among all that nonstop drama and danger, deciding to cut the throat of a scared and misguided young woman is dark as hell.

The back half of the fifth season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. has already had more than its usual share of doom and gloom. Yo-Yo’s arms got severed; Fitz’s evil doppelgänger was revealed to just be a manifestation of his own troubled mind, torturing his friends and teammates for the greater good; Phil Coulson is slowly dying of the injuries sustained long ago, and he’s not even trying that hard to avoid it. These are not fun, feel-good storylines, nor even normal “we’re in peril but that’s always the case” narratives. All of this is unfolding under the ominous portent of a prophecy in which the world cracks apart, and they might be responsible. It would take a massive amount of montages of Deke getting drunk on Zima to counterbalance all this somber desperation.

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“Yo-Yo killed her,” Daisy announces when our heroes come rushing into the Hydra facility to see Ruby lying dead, her throat slit, bleeding out on the floor. “No,” Yo-Yo replies firmly. “I saved the world. Unfortunately for her, that’s not really an either/or proposition. Even knowing the pain it would cause her—the pain we’ve spent all episode watching her grapple with, primarily by herself in the escape ship—Elena Rodriguez chose to murder Hale’s daughter in hopes that it would prevent the destruction of the planet. What makes it strange is that Yo-Yo was the most fatalistic of them all, the one who believed she couldn’t be killed, who time and again reassured Mack and others that it didn’t matter what they did, the future was assured. Now, suddenly, when faced with the possible Destroyer Of Worlds (I’m a little skeptical Ruby could’ve done it, with only eight percent of the gravitonium absorbed into her body), she decides maybe she’s wrong, after all. Maybe it can be changed. And she kills a troubled young woman in the process.

Had it been an impulse to revenge, it would’ve been more understandable. Who wouldn’t want the person who took your arms from you to pay for what they did? But this was methodical: Yo-Yo thought about it, she made her choice, and she ended Ruby’s life. Admittedly, Daisy and Hale were there, pleading with Ruby to get the voices under control, and it didn’t seem to be going well. Maybe taking Ruby out was the only option—it’s possible the situation could have gotten worse. But the manner of execution was so grisly, and when combined with Ruby’s sad, agonized cries for help, the whole thing took on a disturbing air.

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Photo: Mitch Haaseth (ABC)

In the interest of fairness, let’s acknowledge that Ruby brought this misfortune on herself. I find a villainous arrogance of desire, of hunger unencumbered by reason or caution, to be one of the most frustrating of tropes. There’s something so obnoxious and inexplicable about watching an antagonist ignore the most obvious alarm bells of restraint, and Ruby’s single-minded wish to have her body infused with gravitonium was the kind of jaw-dropping stupidity that makes you slap your forehead. True, she’s a headstrong young woman being aided by an equally headstrong man (R.I.P. Werner Von Strucker/Alexander Braun), but even the most fervent zealot would watch what happened to Carl Creel after touching the gravitonium and think to themselves, “Hmm, maybe let’s wait for a few more tests to be done, huh.”

As if that weren’t enough bleakness for one episode, “All Roads Lead...” also continues the tragedy of Glenn Talbot. Hydra puppet Talbot is almost sadder than regular Talbot, as his jittery double-agent machinations are so obviously fused to a desperate desire to please his wife and son, to again become the husband and father he wanted to be. There’s always been an edge of the ridiculous to Adrian Pasdar’s portrayal of the General, but now we see the flip side of that attitude, how quickly it becomes pitiable when he’s being used as a pawn against his will. By the time he’s got his gun to his own head, preferring to kill himself than be played like this, his story is practically Greek myth in its poetic sadness.

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Screenshot: ABC

Were it not for the tonally jarring moments, this would be an above-average episode of S.H.I.E.L.D. Perhaps it’s because of those very instances of strange emotional upheaval that the series recruited Jennifer Lynch to shoot this one, as the Boxing Helena director (who has suddenly become an incredibly prolific—and unsurprisingly excellent—TV director in the past couple years) leads this story down a visually effective road, staging Fitz and Simmons’ worried glances—not to mention some of the better reaction shots the show has gotten this year—for maximum unsettling emotional impact. Even some of the more humorous asides, like May’s brusque avoidance of Coulson’s attempt at a heart-to-heart (“Good talk, Phil”), have a slight edge to them, simply thanks to Lynch’s camera slowly pulling up in front of him from below as he reacts. It’s not terribly fun, but it’s effective.

The centerpiece of action comes early, but it’s a nice character beat for Melinda May. Daisy and May take the containment unit down to infiltrate Hydra’s base (aided by a clever use of the missile blasting open a path for them), and the ensuing fight is kinetic and thrilling, with sharply choreographed action, even if the camera doesn’t always find the best perspective. But watching May unload her frustrations on these goons is terrific—there’s a edge to her grunts and growls that we rarely see from the oft-stoic character, and it tells us everything we need to know about her anger—and helplessness—in the face of Coulson’s blithe disregard for his own life. I shudder to think what she would have done, had she seen Coulson order Talbot to turn the gun on him.

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Melinda May, in mid-delivery of a beatdown.
Screenshot: ABC

Thankfully, Fitz and Simmons still maintain a steadfast warmth that helps leaven some of the darkness. When discussing their options, Fitz just comes right and and makes clear what we already suspected. “I can’t choose anything over you. Not even—” “I feel the same way,” Jemma finishes the thought for him, closing off any avenue that would lead them to refuse to fix the Infuser at the cost of one or the both of them. Hale may have gone off to offer the impending alien allegiance S.H.I.E.L.D. on a platter (turns out they want that gravitonium, too), but the show, and audience, need a minute to process all this. And as long as we have Fitz and Simmons, not leaving one another’s side, it’ll make everything a little easier.

Stray observations

  • Deke’s eager-beaver routine gets called out tonight, in excellent fashion. First is Mack’s sniff: “Are you wearing body spray?” Then, Deke’s rapid-fire denial of his feelings for Daisy, with Coulson’s low-key response: “That was convincing—I believe him.” I look forward to his delivery of lemons to Daisy’s quarters.
  • Robin looked to have drawn all of this. The prophecy, I suspect, is still very much on track.
  • Hale’s instant surrender to Daisy was another sign she doesn’t want to be the enemy; too bad Ruby’s death changed all of that.
  • Incidentally, why isn’t Coulson back in charge? There’s no reason for Daisy to be calling the shots; hell, she was the one who said Coulson could have his job back as soon as he returned. May telling Phil, “That’s not your call” felt wrong for precisely that reason. Shouldn’t everything be his call?
  • Poor Von Strucker—that was a gruesome way to go. Add it to the list this episode, I guess.
  • Any theories about where that gravitonium went when it seemed to explode out of Ruby’s body like a bomb, anyone?

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