Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. became a better show in season 2, but it still struggles to be great television. The cast has started to gel into a cohesive ensemble, the plots have a larger impact on the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the action has become much more engaging, but it has difficulty with balancing fantastic genre elements with grounded emotional storytelling. “S.O.S.” is a prime example of this, rushing through the character work in order to spend more time on the big sweeping plot developments. The major thrust of this episode of Jiaying’s war with S.H.I.E.L.D., which has considerable consequences on the newly formed family dynamic between Jiaying, Skye, and Cal, but these consequences aren’t explored as deeply as they could be.
At the start of “S.O.S.”, Skye is caught between S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Inhumans and decides to side with her mother. That internal conflict of allegiances gets a bit of attention, but writer Jeffrey Bell has a shortcut to get Skye back to S.H.I.E.L.D. in the form of Raina, who tells Skye about Jiaying’s true intentions. I’ve expressed my dislike of Raina’s visions as a convenient plot device, so I can’t say I’m entirely disappointed that she’s killed off in this episode. If her cool-looking character is only going to serve as an oracle instead of playing a more active part in the narrative, then I’d rather see her leave the series and force the writers to advance the story without handy precognition.
Jiaying switches into evil mastermind mode very quickly, and Dichen Lachman doesn’t go far enough in her performance to make Jiaying a convincing villain. She was much more believable playing the softer, more motherly Jiaying, and if that is all an act, there should be a bigger contrast when she shows her true face. Kyle MacLachlan has become one of this show’s most captivating characters by really committing to his character’s dual personality, and Lachman should have followed his influence and played up the monster inside Jiaying. This is a superhero world, so Lachman has that freedom to heighten her performance. Bill Paxton did it as John Garrett. Brett Dalton is doing it as Ward. Ruth Negga did it as Raina and ultimately made for a much more intriguing villain than Jiaying, which makes Raina’s death at Jiaying’s hand especially disappointing because it removes a talented performer from the cast. (But not unexpected considering Negga is slated to appear as Tulip in AMC’s adaptation of Vertigo Comics’ Preacher.)
Jiaying wants to unleash the Terrigen crystals on the rest of the world, and she almost gets away with it before Cal snaps her neck and breaks her back. It’s a climactic moment that would be more effective if the changes in this family dynamic didn’t come so quickly, but MacLachlan does solid work showing a combination of sadness and compassion as Cal takes the life of the woman he loves. In the grand scheme of Marvel villains, Cal and Jiaying have gotten a lot more development than pretty much any of the bad guys in the Marvel films, who rarely have any significant personal relationships beyond their rivalries and grudges with the heroes. We’ve seen different sides of these two antagonists, learned what they care for and why they fight to protect it. These are important questions for any character, and answering them helps create much more multi-dimensional villains.
ABC canned its Bobbi and Lance spin-off because it renewed S.H.I.E.L.D. for another season and feels those characters are more valuable on this series, which is absolutely the correct decision. Adrianne Palicki in particular is too valuable an asset for S.H.I.E.L.D. to lose, and her scenes with Ward and Kara are the best parts of this episode. Her comic timing lightens the mood as Bobbi is bound and tortured, and her casual delivery shows how cool and collected Bobbi is under pressure. Kara wants an apology from Bobbi, who had to give up a S.H.I.E.L.D. safe house in order to protect her Hydra cover when she was a double agent, but Bobbi has no remorse for what she did, reminding Kara that the needs of the many outweigh those of the individual. Kara subscribed to those ideals when she joined S.H.I.E.L.D., and deep down she knows that Bobbi is right.
The finale’s best action sequence comes in part one when Bobbi breaks loose from her restraints, stabs Ward with the needles he had jammed under her fingernails, bangs his head into the desk, then kicks him in the chest toward the hallway where the fight continues. It’s a brutal showdown that becomes even more intense when Kara jumps in, forcing Bobbi to take on two opponents at once. She’s not successful, but she goes down swinging, and her struggle makes for one spectacular fight. The action in the first part is generally stronger; the May/Skye brawl at the start of the episode continues to establish Skye as a believable ass-kicking secret agent, and with so many complaints against Marvel regarding female representation, it’s refreshing that this finale gives us multiple scenes of powerful women that don’t take shit from anyone.
Director Billy Gierhart tries to get a little flashier with the action direction in part two, but the faux-single-take action sequence of Skye versus Ginger Ninja is a sloppy attempt to inject style into the series. I appreciate that Gierhart is having more fun with the direction, but the camerawork is very chaotic and he doesn’t have a strong handle on when to incorporate slow motion beats. It’s clear that Gierhart isn’t especially comfortable with this type of action staging—I’d love to see what Kevin Tancharoen could do with the same concept—but I’d rather see a director take a chance on something more interesting and stumble a bit, instead of relying on the same old tricks.
Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is the most romance-heavy property in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and romantic love plays a huge part in this week’s episode. Ward’s love for Kara motivates him to torture Bobbi in hopes that she’ll give Kara the closure she desperately wants. Cal’s love for Jiaying allows him to be used as a pawn in her war, a gift horse that goes wild and keeps Coulson and his team occupied while Jiaying and a small team of Inhuman’s take the S.H.I.E.L.D. aircraft carrier. Hunter’s love for Bobbi forces him to track her down in the middle of the Inhuman mess, and Bobbi’s love for Hunter pushes her to take a bullet in her shoulder to protect him from Ward’s booby trap. Lincoln has a change of heart in the heat of battle, likely influenced by his burgeoning romantic feelings for Skye.
Having those connections helps elevate the stakes of the story, even if they aren’t the primary focus, and romance plays into two of the bigger developments at the very end of the episode. First, May leaves active duty, seemingly to spend time with her ex-husband Andrew. It feels like a natural endpoint to Agent May’s story, but considering all the strong work done to May’s character this season, I’m hoping Ming-Na Wen sticks around for another season. There’s also some major forward movement on the FitzSimmons front as Simmons reveals that she’s started to develop romantic feelings for her lab partner, getting the audience’s hopes up before the cliffhanger throws the couple’s future in question by having Simmons get sucked into the liquid stone alien artifact.
“S.O.S.” sets up a season three that will likely feature many more superpowered characters, with Coulson putting Skye in charge of forming a new covert team of enhanced people. It sounds a lot like the plot to Secret Warriors, a comic book this series has already borrowed quite a bit from, and it will be interesting to see just how many names from the comics end up appearing on this show. It may be quite a few, because this finale opens up a big can of worms by releasing Terrigen into the environment. A crate of Terrigen crystals lands in the ocean and starts contaminating the nearby fish, which are swept up by fisherman and processed into fish oil that is sold on shelves, leading to a shot of fish oil that is supposed to be ominous, but comes across as hilarious.
This development brings up a lot of questions: Is fish oil the only way to be exposed to the Terrigen? What about eating a piece of sushi made from a Terrigen-infected fish? Did all the Terrigen get absorbed in fish, or did it mix with the water and is now making its way to the shore? Limiting exposure of Terrigen to just fish oil is very restrictive, and if that’s the case, are all the new Inhumans going to be transformed health nuts. No matter the specifics, I hope the writers of this series have been watching The Flash, which has set the bar high in terms of depicting superpowered characters on television. With a surge of superpowered beings on the horizon, S.H.I.E.L.D. shouldn’t be afraid to have some fun with this new climate, but most importantly, it shouldn’t lose sight of character development as it goes to work expanding the enhanced population of the MCU. Bringing in new characters can be a lot of fun, and hopefully the show will spend adequate time showing them as people before casting them as superheroes or villains.
- Agent Carter is coming back next season, and it’s relocating to Hollywood. I’m hoping this means Millie The Model will be Peggy’s new best friend.
- Kyle MacLachlan’s Mr. Hyde make-up is pretty rough. The prosthetic forehead looks awkward, and it’s not necessary because MacLachlan does a good enough job bringing the monster inside Cal out without any cosmetic changes.
- What happened to Fitz’s brain damage? Is that just not a plotline anymore?
- Coulson’s new hand should be an Iron Man hand, complete with repulsor technology.
- Mack looks like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and it definitely feels like the writers are writing the part for Johnson at this point.
- “I’m a present, a gift horse. A peace offering from my family. I’m also an excellent Shanghai rummy partner.”
- Ward: “To heal. The way I’ve healed.” Bobbi: “Good luck with that.”
- “There’s a piece that Ward doesn’t understand: when I find him, I’m going to kill him.”
- “Tell me you figured out what drugs Cal took because my guts saying, ‘Everything ever made.’”
- Ward: “I’m helping her heal. From wounds you inflicted.” Bobbi: “Then take her to Hawaii.”
- “There goes the feeling in my legs!”
- “Science, biatch.”