Agents May and Simmons make their way back into the fray in this week’s Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., and the show takes two very different approaches for their returns. May appears throughout “Purpose In The Machine” and has an actual arc, starting with her caring for her recently injured father and ending with her partnering with Hunter to stop Ward from rebuilding Hydra. Writer DJ Doyle spends significant time on May’s emotional state—her confusion about her future with both S.H.I.E.L.D. and her ex-husband, her fear over Ward’s threat to her family—which helps the viewer understand the circumstances that have kept May out of action and gives Ming-Na Wen some meatier material to perform. May gets the kind of intimate story that this show doesn’t attempt very often, but Simmons isn’t as lucky.

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Last week’s cliffhanger suggested that this season would feature an off-world Simmons plot, but it’s sadly short-lived and contained to the sandy blue desert where we last saw the lovable biochemist. Simmons gets the smallest amount of screen time in the story of her return, which is unfortunate considering all the narrative opportunities introduced by the ending of the season premiere. If a show like Once Upon A Time can have character jumping between fairy tale dimensions, S.H.I.E.L.D. can spend a few episodes following a character on an alien adventure, right? Wrong. Instead, there’s a lot of discussion of the teleporting monolith, much of it facilitated by Peter MacNicol’s Asgardian professor Elliot Randolph, who conveniently remembers the exact location of where he saw the Hebrew word that appeared on the scroll Fitz procured last week.

The opening flashback to Gloucestershire, England, in 1839 is a refreshing change of pace for the series, starting the episode with a suspenseful sequence executed with more style than usual in both the direction and production design. Director Kevin Tancharoen emerged as this show’s most exciting visual storyteller last season, and while this episode doesn’t give him very many chances to flex his action muscles, it still greatly benefits from his dynamic camerawork. The direction on this series can feel very static, but Tancharoen understands the value of movement, giving his episodes a cinematic feel that compensates for TV’s budgetary restrictions by putting more thought in the shooting.

Ward’s first appearance of the season has him delivering an expository speech while speeding through an empty building with a man on the hood of his car, and Tancharoen’s direction gives the scene an exhilarating energy even though it’s really just Ward driving around, filling viewers in on what they missed. It’s an infodump, but it’s paired with exciting visual flourishes that keep the momentum of the episode moving forward over the course of the recap. Ward is also at the center of this week’s big action sequence, beating up the security detail of Werner Von Strucker before abducting the Hydra heir off his yacht. Tancharoen excels with close quarters hand-to-hand combat, and the tight confines of Werner’s yacht are the perfect setting to show off Ward’s formidability in a fight, punching, kicking, grappling, and throwing his opponents until he eventually decides to speed things up by whipping out his gun. Tancharoen’s direction highlights Ward’s strength and speed to increase his threat level, and it will need to keep rising if Ward wants to establish himself as the leader of a new Hydra.

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“Purpose In The Machine” offers more substantial character work than the season premiere, likely because Doyle’s script doesn’t have to cover a bunch of exposition establishing the new status quo. May’s storyline catches the audience up on her trip to Maui with Andrew and her new role as her father’s caretaker, but more importantly, it explores May’s relationship with her parents and her history of perseverance. Little moments like May’s father commenting on her similarities to her mother bring extra dimension to the character, and showing May in a situation far from her former S.H.I.E.L.D. routine provides an entry point into the conflicted woman behind the ass-kicking spy.

While Simmons doesn’t get the same kind of attention, her final scene suggests that there’s going to be some significant character changes on the horizon. To start, she wakes up in the middle of the night in a panic, brandishing a sharpened wooden stick as if she’s being attacked. What happened on that alien planet? What did Simmons have to do to survive? Her situation shares some similarities with early developments of Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s sixth season, which begins with the team resurrecting a dead Buffy by bringing her spirit back from what they presumed to be an alternate hell dimension (but was actually more like heaven). The viewer doesn’t see Buffy’s experience in that mystical realm because the show doesn’t have that kind of budget, but her time there has a significant impact on her character when she returns, changing the way she interacts with the people around her.

Simmons has spent the last few months lost in space, and it’s clear that she’s brought back some new emotional baggage from her trip. She’s home now, but she’ll probably be dealing with her recent trauma for a while; luckily, she’ll have Fitz by her side to help her through it. Their final scene is one sure to excite Fitz-Simmons shippers, and Simmons finds solace from her nightmare by resting her head in the sleeping Fitz’s lap, a tender moment of much-needed relief for the couple. These smaller, more personal touches are what make “Purpose In The Machine” an improvement on the season opener, proving that the best way to build a captivating story is by focusing on the characters and their relationships.

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Stray observations

  • This episode’s opening flashback made me think how cool it would be if this show folded in elements of Jonathan Hickman and Dustin Weaver’s centuries-spanning S.H.I.E.L.D. saga into the story. A season with Leonardo Da Vinci, Nikolai Tesla, and Isaac Newton would be fascinating, although this show’s budget definitely couldn’t handle the more spectacular elements of that run.
  • Blair Underwood reprises his role as Dr. Andrew Garner, who has the misfortune of being the person that introduces the term “Secret Warriors” to describe the team Daisy is assembling. Yeah, it’s the name of the group in the comics, but it sounds really silly when said out loud, despite how hard Underwood tries to sell it.
  • Anyone else hoping Coulson ends up being the Big Bad of this season? Garner’s conversation with Daisy made me think of that possibility.
  • Bobbi saying “ginormous” doesn’t feel right. Some of her banter dialogue is a bit awkward this week.
  • As a huge Joy Luck Club fan, I was hoping that May’s father would pull a swan feather out of his box of memorabilia.
  • Melinda May: “That’s why I switched to martial arts: padded floors.” William May: “And you could hit people!”

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