As a big fan of the comic-book Bobbi “Mockingbird” Morse and an even bigger fan of Adrianne Palicki (Friday Night Lights’ Tyra Collette is a brilliant TV character), I had very high hopes going into “A Hen In The Wolf House.” I knew Palicki had the charisma, attitude, and action chops to play a great Bobbi, but would the show give her a story that mines her full potential? Palicki’s had bad luck with superhero casting in the past; could Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. make us all forget about that unfortunate David E. Kelley Wonder Woman pilot?

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Yes. Yes it can.

Not only does Palicki kick ass with Bobbi’s signature battle staves this week, she also gets some invisible jet action to prove that she could have been a totally killer Wonder Woman given the right creative team. To fully utilize Palicki’s versatility, Brent Fletcher’s script gives us multiple sides of Bobbi Morse, establishing her as a badass undercover operative before showing her chummy S.H.I.E.L.D. agent side and ending with the reveal that she’s Lance Hunter’s ex-wife (surprise surprise). The character makes a big impression, and hopefully Coulson’s decision to bring Bobbi on to the team means that Palicki will become a recurring, if not regular, presence on the series.

Considering that anyone who knows Bobbi Morse’s comic-book persona knows that she’s a hero, her scenes as Hydra’s chief of security aren’t particularly suspenseful, but there’s dramatic irony at play that makes her scenes with Simmons highly entertaining. We may know that Bobbi is an undercover S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, but it’s a lot of fun to see Simmons squirm when confronted by Bobbi’s aggressive personality.

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Without prior knowledge of her S.H.I.E.L.D. agent status, Bobbi cornering Simmons in the bathroom to ask her questions about her loyalty comes across as a Hydra intimidation tactic, but for those familiar with Bobbi’s comic-book character, the scene has a completely different subtext. This isn’t Hydra’s chief of security grilling a new recruit, it’s an undercover S.H.I.E.L.D. agent testing the resolve of her secret ally and telling Simmons what she needs to do to adequately protect herself.

The big negative about this episode is that it pulls Bobbi and Simmons out of Hydra when it feels like the undercover story was just beginning. Keeping with the Alias influence, Bobbi could have been the Jack Bristow to Simmons’ Sydney, playing the older, wiser double agent that assists her protégé without getting caught. Having an agent in Hydra’s camp gave the show the opportunity to delve into how Hydra functions as an evil organization, and the addition of Bobbi could have expanded that view into the world of this show’s villains.

One of my favorite moments of this episode happens when Simmons is sitting in a conference room after a distressing meeting where she learned that Hydra is trying to obtain the Obelisk to create a WMD that could kill millions, potentially billions of people. When she expresses her disbelief to her lab partner Kenneth, his response summarizes the mentality that makes Hydra such a threat: “Pretty awesome, huh?” It’s a great moment of dark comedy, and the first thing it makes me think of the excellent workplace sitcom Better Off Ted, which focused on the employees of a Hydra-like corporation that was shameless about its evilness. (I’m now choosing to view that show as a prequel to Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. with Veridian Dynamics as a Hydra front; I would love to see scientists Phil and Lem appear on this series as Hydra’s equivalent to FitzSimmons, and now that Jonathan Slavin and Malcolm Barrett’s new series Mission Control is canceled, they’re both available.)

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The Bobbi and Simmons intrigue highlights how this show’s focus on Hydra in the second season has provided a much stronger sense of direction for the story, and all of this season’s myriad plot threads move forward this week. The most significant developments surround Skye, who comes very, very close to meeting her estranged, homicidal father this week and also learns that she may be an alien. She has a rough time—something that Coulson openly acknowledges at the end of the episode—but this is exactly what Skye needs to become a more interesting character.

Tired of being left out of the loop regarding the mysterious carvings given to her by Coulson, Skye goes to Ward for information and discovers the connection between her assignment, Coulson, and Garrett, which causes her to ask a bunch of questions about why she hasn’t experienced the same reaction to the alien DNA in her veins. Coulson hypothesizes that it could be because she already had the DNA inside her, and when Skye wonders if this means she’s an alien, Coulson can’t deny the possibility.

If memory serves me correctly, this is the first explicit mention that Skye could be an alien, and after the massive success of Guardians Of The Galaxy, it makes sense that Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. would tap into the cosmic side of the MCU for one of its characters. But I’m not sure that’s what is happening here. In a piece for Comic Book Resources earlier this month, Meagan Damore looked at the evidence for Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. introducing Inhumans into the MCU, and I’m inclined to agree with her. Coulson’s carvings bear a striking resemblance to the patterns in the current logo for the Inhuman comic series, and I believe Skye’s epiphany that the carvings are a map doesn’t mean that they’re a map to a place, but rather a map of genetic coding.

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We know that the next big Marvel movie will involve Hydra and Baron Von Strucker’s superhumans Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, but we also know that the word “mutant” is off-limits thanks to Fox owning the X-Men film rights. It’s long been rumored that the Inhumans would be Marvel’s way of getting around this, and there’s definitely a feeling that this season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is moving toward that development, even if it’s a drastic reinvention of the Inhuman concept.

The Inhumans were originally created when the Kree (the blue guys in Guardians Of The Galaxy) experimented on prehistoric humans, creating a superhuman race that was hidden away for millennia. That’s not much harder to swallow than Norse gods, but it still requires a lot more work than the explanation that Inhumans are humans that have been experimented on by an evil terrorist organization. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that Skye’s isn’t an alien, but was actually exposed to the alien DNA as a child, permanently changing her physiology while she was still developing. When fully grown adults like Coulson and Garrett are exposed to the DNA, their systems can’t handle it and they start to deteriorate, but because she was exposed so early, Skye experiences no ill effects. This is all theorizing, but it’s not unsubstantiated, and the fact that Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. can now support theories like Meagan’s shows just how much it’s grown since its rough beginnings.

By the end of tonight’s episode, Simmons is out of Hydra and back with Fitz, Bobbi is now a part of the team, and Skye knows that her father is alive and even has a picture of his face. A lot happens, but there’s one major element that has me especially giddy for the future of this season: Kyle MacLachlan. There’s a lot of mystery around his character, who appears to be some kind of clandestine doctor for criminals with a deadly temper, and MacLachlan brings just the right amount of exaggeration to the role. Skye’s father has the classic trappings of an insane supervillain, but there’s a human element to the character that shines through in his love for his daughter, and emphasizing that aspect of his personality gives him a stronger motivation.

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When Skye’s father sees his daughter receiving comfort from Coulson after learning what a monster her real dad is, he becomes obsessed with taking down the head of S.H.I.E.L.D. To make that happen, he joins forces with Hydra at the end of the episode in a scene that showcases why MacLachlan is such a great addition to the series. After stabbing one Hydra guard in the neck and beating another with his metal briefcase, Skye’s father delivers a brief apology before wiping the blood off Daniel Whitehall’s desk, and MacLachlan nails those transitions between raging violence and understated humor.

With two excellent guest stars and a script that accelerates the season’s overarching narrative while offering deeper insights into the characters, “A Hen In The Wolf House” stands out as an exemplary episode of this series. Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is finally on the right track as it forms own identity separate from the other Marvel properties, yet it feels more connected to the larger MCU than ever before. Part of that is thanks to the presence of Hydra, but more importantly, the writers have figured out how to give the stories weight by finding ways to explore character through plot. The series is much more engaging as a result, and hopefully the writers will be able to keep this streak of strong episodes going.

Stray observations:

  • The first trailer for Avengers: Age Of Ultron will receive its broadcast premiere during next week’s episode of S.H.I.E.L.D. I’m eager to see if that will have a significant impact on ratings.
  • Imaginary Simmons leaves Fitz this week just in time for Real Simmons to walk back into her old partner’s life, but before the figment departs, she makes sure to comment on Mac’s handsome, ripped physique so that we can all start shipping Fitz and Mac. I will have a lot of respect for this show if it decides to explore bisexuality through Fitz, although I doubt that will ever happen.
  • Bobbi definitely comes across as a threat when she’s pummeling Hydra agents with her batons, but Holly Dale isn’t a particularly dynamic action director, especially once the battle moves away from close-quarters and onto an unconvincing rooftop set. I’m hoping we’ll eventually get the chance to see what Kevin Tancharoen can do with the character.
  • Skye’s real name isn’t Skye. I wonder if her real name is one that Marvel fans will recognize. Who could she be?
  • “I’m a man trying to put my family back together!”
  • Simmons: “What sort of hell cow produces carmine milk?” Kenneth: “I don’t know. File just says ‘Bessie.’”
  • “‘Wherever she goes, death follows.’ Yeah, that was a memorable quote.”
  • “If it hadn’t had been for Bobbi, I would never have made it out. Probably be brainwashed. Happy to comply with who knows what. She’s amazing.”

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