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The past takes a heartbreaking turn on a dark Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Illustration for article titled The past takes a heartbreaking turn on a dark iAgents Of S.H.I.E.L.D./i
Screenshot: ABC
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Things were already starting to look dark at the end of last week’s episode, with half of the team captured and the other half exposed, but this is where things really got ugly. Between Daisy’s literal torture and Mack’s psychological version of the same—not to mention that gut-punch ending which saw Coulson, Mack, and Deke all left behind when the Zephyr time-jumped, the presumably still-alive Coulson for the second time, no less—this was quite the pyrrhic victory. It wasn’t always fun to watch, but for being one of the show’s periodic downer installments, it remained lively and compelling throughout, balancing the adventure and pathos more successfully than in last week’s outing. And hey, at least May is confident about Coulson’s status: “He’ll come back. Always does.”

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“Adapt Or Die” so successfully integrates its various subplots with optimal pacing, it’s not until you start reflecting back that it becomes clear how little action or heroics there really were. The fight scenes were minimalist at best, mostly Mack, Yo-Yo, and May throwing a few Chronicoms up against the wall in their respective scrapes, and the action was restricted to a few locations, but despite these limitations, it came across like a thrilling and momentous installment. A big part of that effect stems from the consequences of this mission, as mentioned above; but it’s also just a demonstration of how strong direction and a solid script go a long way toward overcoming any weaknesses. In other words, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. leaned into the fundamentals here, and it paid off.

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Addressing each narrative in turn, the most significant in terms of screen time was Mack and Yo-Yo’s infiltration of the Lighthouse to rescue Mack’s parents. Or rather, what they thought were Mack’s parents. The reveal that both were actually Chronicoms who had killed his real mother and father a while back was particularly heartrending after the dialogue cleverly established their bond; Mack getting annoyed with his father at first was an effective touch, as it highlighted the often contentious relationships we have with those we love, and it made their eventual cooperation and friendship feel that much more earned. By the time they’re flying back to the Zephyr, it plays like the end of a dinner date, with Yo-Yo hearing about the children and joking about how their “oldest sounds very serious.” But Mack’s departure after the first jump is what makes the realization hit home: Young Alphonso Mackenzie has just lost his parents, and the grown-up version has to live with it, too.

Illustration for article titled The past takes a heartbreaking turn on a dark iAgents Of S.H.I.E.L.D./i
Screenshot: ABC
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Daisy and Sousa’s imprisonment doesn’t have quite the same emotional impact, but it’s got a far more visceral one, as the Inhuman endures brutal torture, with Nathaniel Malick extracting “blood, spinal fluid, a few glands” from her in his quest to transfer her powers to himself. There’s not much to say about it—it’s nasty stuff—but it does reaffirm Sousa’s fundamental heroism, telling the story of how a guy from his deployment saved him by talking him through the injury that cost Sousa his leg, and now he’s going to do the same for Daisy. Her own heroism is displayed, too, as even in the midst of her torture she smuggles a shard into her hand in order to help them escape. Malick discovers too late the risks of Daisy’s Inhuman powers (“my bones…are cracking”), which is a pretty fitting comeuppance, but it doesn’t walk back any of the damage he caused.

Jemma and Deke have their own muted, but still important, encounter in this episode, as he (and we) learn what Jemma did in order to develop the technology needed to track the Chronicoms while keeping Fitz safe. She designed an implant to hide her memories—to magnify the knowledge she needs to keep the mission going, while simultaneously preventing her from accessing her own knowledge about where Fitz is located, in order to keep it from falling into Chronicom hands. It’s a bit blunt—and it sure makes it seem like Deke’s Bobo isn’t going to be showing up tomorrow—but it at least explains Jemma’s behavior this season, albeit in a way that’s a little underwhelming. If the episode had a weak spot, this was it, save for Enoch’s always-delightful reactions. More Enoch, please.

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Illustration for article titled The past takes a heartbreaking turn on a dark iAgents Of S.H.I.E.L.D./i
Screenshot: ABC

Finally, there’s Phil Coulson. Or rather, the Life Model Decoy that has all of Phil Coulson’s memories, effectively rendering it equivalent to the man who died. (A hell of a lot stronger, of course.) The confrontation between Coulson and Sibyl, the Chronicom Predictor, was elegantly crafted, giving him a chance to deliver a stirring speech about humanity without it feeling trite or hokey. She answers all his questions about what the Chronicoms are up to (take over Earth as a new home to ensure the survival of their species) and why humans have to go to make that happen (they’re irrational due to fear of death, flawed, and would destroy this planet if left untouched), but before he can relay any of that to his team, he realizes something else: He’s not afraid of dying. In fact, he might not die, even after setting off a massive explosion that destroys all the Hunters the Chronicoms have been using to replace humans and infiltrate S.H.I.E.L.D. That difference between human Coulson and this one, the knowledge of his fortified shell of a body, grants him the ability to roll the dice and blow up the Chronicom chamber. “Dying? It’s kinda my superpower,” he tells Sibyl, and never has such a statement been so quickly and immediately embraced.

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There was plenty of lighter moments throughout the episode, especially the exchanges between General Stoner and May, who end up in a full-blown flirtation by the end, with May getting a comic beat of adapting Stoner’s amorous intentions as her own, and struggling to shake them off. But by the end, everyone’s in a dark place, the knowledge of Coulson’s uncertain return the bleak filling between the twin experiences of what happened to Mack and Daisy. And now, with Deke and Mack gone, the question isn’t will our team find their way back together in whatever future year the Zephyr jumped to. Of course they will; the question is what they’ll look like, and how they’ll feel, when they do.

Stray observations

  • The room where the Chronicom Hunters lay in cold storage, waiting to be deployed, was the only really cool visual touch of the episode, a nice Alien-esque counterbalance to all the drabness of the Lighthouse and Malick’s cell.
  • Speaking of Malick, his response to Daisy’s bravado was solid: “Really cool thing to say, by the way. Your whole vibe is just, wow.”
  • Also, Malick isn’t Hydra evil, he’s just capitalist evil.
  • Yo-Yo’s quick interjection when Mack starts to explains to his parents how he’s dating her: “I don’t think these strangers care.”
  • Coulson pushing May to snap at him, to show some attitude and irritation, was a clever way for the script to get them to realize the Chronicoms are adapting, taking on the personalities of the people they’re impersonating.
  • Jemma, on the memory implant she designed for herself: “Her name’s Diana. She’s adorable.”
  • Here’s hoping they only jump a few years into the future. I’m not sure I’m emotionally prepared to handle old-man Mack quite yet.
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Alex McLevy is a writer and editor at The A.V. Club, and would kindly appreciate additional videos of robots failing to accomplish basic tasks.

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