If there’s one lesson to be learned from genre fiction, it’s this: nothing good ever happens in an ancient temple. It’s a lesson learned the hard way by Yo-Yo and Mack in this week’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., though to be fair Izel gives them very little choice about traveling to the Yucatan as she prepares to open up a portal to her realm of non-corporeal beings.
“From The Ashes” is a notably bloody installment of this show, especially given its 8 p.m. on ABC timeslot — even though death is a fairly common occurrence here, there’s “a guy takes a bullet” and then there’s “dude gets a bowie knife jammed into his neck.” Oh, and factor in Skye breaking Sarge’s neck (cue the obligatory South Park reference: “Oh my god! You killed Coulson! You bastards!”) and it’s not a particularly family-friendly episode.
At least, that is, on a content level. Emotionally, however, the core of the story is about Daisy confronting her grief over losing her father figure... until, that is, the real Phil Coulson manages to emerge, reveals that as harsh as the let’s-try-killing-him-again plan was, it had actually worked, giving the team new hope that their beloved leader might be able to return.
Clark Gregg hasn’t been asked to do much recently beyond play the heavy (something he’s come to do quite well) but the moment he calls Daisy “Skye,” it’s not just an important plot reveal, but a tour de force for Gregg as an actor, one which also brings out the best in Chloe Bennet; the mix of vulnerability, fear, anger and ultimately love leads to one of the most emotionally affecting scenes of the season.
In fact, overall this was a very strong episode for the actors of S.H.I.E.L.D.—while last week, some of the cast struggled a bit to communicate when, exactly, they were being possessed by Izel, this week both Natalia Cordova-Buckley and Henry Simmons made their transitions convincing—in particular, Simmons’ abrupt shift in the opening scene (while relatively predictable) was especially sharp. In addition, guest star Barry Shabaka Henley took a scene which could have been silly or overwrought in its execution, and gave his face-to-face confrontation with his deceased husband (courtesy of the monolith powers harnessed by the gravitonium device) a grounded realness that brought out the horror of the moment.
This was also an episode that invoked more than one memory of other Whedonverse projects (which proved interesting, as S.H.I.E.L.D. at times feels very separate from that world, despite Joss Whedon’s name in the credits as executive producer and the showrunners being longtime collaborators/family). A less subtle show would have shown the contents of Coulson’s letter to Daisy, maybe even with a Gregg-performed voice-over. Instead, all that’s needed here is her reaction to reading it for the first time, followed by a conversation with May about how helping Sarge (or whoever he might be at this point) falls in line with the fact that “all Coulson wanted was for us to take care of each other.”
Plus, another Whedonverse moment: Was I the only one who, watching Daisy walk down the hallway with this special sword, thought back to that part of Serenity where Mr. Universe (David Krumholtz) records his final message: “Guy killed me with a sword, Mal. How weird is that?” Probably. But still, swords in this context (really, swords in any context outside of medieval fantasy stories) are more than a little funny.
So much of “From The Ashes” is built on character moments that also function as set-up for the finale, which feels more than appropriate at this point in the season. This especially applies to Yo-Yo and Mack’s storyline, which, while not exactly revolutionary, does feature the characters trying to address their relationship like grown-ups. Which is probably good news, given the cliffhanger return of someone who appears to be Flint, the young man from the alternate future whose full backstory never got revealed before — meaning that there’s a real chance he’s got a bigger (Deke and FitzSimmons-esque?) connection to Yo-Yo and Mack than anticipated.
- Meanwhile, In Space: The recent choice to use the final scenes of episodes for catching up with what’s going on with the Chronicons is a bit of a mixed bag — on the one hand, the encroaching threat is clearly going to be important to the finale; on the other hand, every time, it seems to come somewhat out of nowhere. The fact that Atarah has been taken out of the picture (and Malachi’s hunters “have their new targets,” which will probably include some folks we know already) is an important plot point, most likely, but it lacks a certain punch as far as episode endings go.
- Deke’s tiger jacket freaking ruled. Really, all tiger jackets are great, but this one was especially nice.
- “I meant try a little emotional honesty — not murder.” Simmons, you probably should have been more specific.
- This Week in Shameless FitzSimmons Appreciation: Nothing super-romantic this week, but Deke’s addition to “Team FitzSimmons” for the first time really gelled, with the trio overcoming the innate oddness of their situation to prove that their individual geniuses can come together to achieve the impossible. The subtle moment when Deke (after previously worrying that his biological grandfather might not like him that much) took genuine pride in Fitz’s approval of his breakthrough was the sort of character touch this show handles well.
- On a show where, so often, the extreme and surreal gets casually accepted, it’s nice to have a character like Benson show up with just a slight sense of befuddlement over these scenarios. “It’s been a bit of an adventure,” he says to Izel. No freaking kidding, professor.