Screenshot: ABC

It’s basically a twist on the classic philosophical experiment: Do you let someone you love die in hopes of saving many, or do you save the one, knowing it will almost certainly result in the deaths of untold more? Oh, but in this case, you’ve also seen the future, and you know the wrong choice means the earth explodes. No pressure.

Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been playing the long game with Coulson’s illness for the majority of the season, which naturally meant the penultimate episode was the perfect opportunity to accelerate the condition in order to force a Sophie’s Choice scenario on our team. What makes it effective is precisely the ambiguity of the show’s situation going forward combined with the timing: While it would’ve been unthinkable in years past to have the series carry on without Clark Gregg, five years is a long time to build a team, establish a narrative, and set up the potential for major shifts among your core cast. I’ve said repeatedly that this season has demonstrated Phil Coulson’s irreplaceable role among our heroes, but it’s no longer outside the realm of possibility for ABC to consider a shake-up if S.H.I.E.L.D. is going to continue, something that’s equally uncertain, even at this late date. So the make-or-break moment in the narrative works, in part because of non-diegetic information the average viewer could intuit. Disaster could strike; say it ain’t so, Clark.

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After “The One Who Will Save Us All” depicted Glenn Talbot’s transition from combative ally to unstable killer (imbued with the power to crumple people into little balls of pulp, no less), this episode is mostly spent moving people into position for the endgame. Battles are fought, and blood is shed (ably captured as always by Kevin Tancharoen’s superb direction), but it’s all in service of next week’s finale, a rearranging of the chess pieces in order to make sure everyone is where they need to be to finally face down Talbot and hopefully save the day. Adding an additional layer of uncertainty to it all is whether the events of Avengers: Infinity War are going to make themselves felt here as well. There’s a lot up in the air right now, is the general bullet point; getting Talbot and the others back down to earth is important, but it by no means gets us any closer to answers regarding the big questions on everyone’s minds.

The story of Glenn Talbot goes to some fairly predictable places in “The Force Of Gravity,” but in ways that feel more inevitable than lazy. He’s “the hero of his own story,” as Mack notes, and that means proving himself to be the superhero he always wanted to be in the eyes of his son. However, after returning home, barely a minute goes by before he’s flinging his wife up against the wall and scaring the shit out of his boy, just in case anyone was worried there was still anything left of good-guy Talbot in there. Even his desire to demonstrate his worth to his son has become little more than an excuse for his vainglorious avarice and the need to be the savior of humanity, especially if it means laying hands on more gravitonium. This is perfectly encapsulated by his encounter with Carl Creel: Talbot’s remnants of humanity make him want to help the good soldier silence his painful voices, but it’s really a front for the acquisition of more gravitonium, and more souls in the process. Murder has become a Thanos-like equation for Talbot, something that brings peace for the obvious reason that it snuffs out all alternatives.

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Photo: Mitch Haaseth (ABC)

Coulson, meanwhile, can’t help but hold himself accountable for this situation. “He put himself in that machine—for us,” Phil tells May, the weight of Talbot’s plight bearing down on the already-ailing S.H.I.E.L.D. leader. True, he seems to go from 60 mph to death’s door in seconds, but we can chalk that up to Coulson’s stubborn need to resist admitting when he needs help. His sense of obligation to his team extends to everyone except for himself, which is what leads him to his current near-death predicament. The show is now openly toying with the back-and-forth regarding his leadership that saw him inexplicably take a backseat to Daisy’s authority even after rejoining the gang (and Daisy previously saying she wanted Coulson back in charge the instant he returned), but at least here it’s in service of a nice character moment. The kiss between Phil and Melinda was a long time coming, and other than it being done while using his energy shield to deflect bullets (seriously, what kind of idiot enemy wouldn’t see what was happening and think, “Oh, guess I’ll shoot their legs, instead”?), it was handled adroitly, from their brusque exchange afterwards to Daisy’s bemused reaction. One guess which use of the centipede serum May votes for next week.

The other characters spent most of their time delivering exposition and moving from one place to another. Fitz and Jemma spend their scenes debating the merits of their actions, including Fitz suggesting for the first time that they might actually be able to break the loop by succeeding in saving Coulson, as opposed to letting him die. Mack and Yo-Yo discuss ethics and the nature of forgiveness, Mack bringing up his ability to meet Creel as someone other Hartley’s murderer, and uses that as a reason to again argue why they look for every possible way to defeat enemies without delivering a fatal blow. (A topic on which Coulson, for one, is in total agreement.) And Daisy gets to kick ass, first breaking Papa Kasius’ mental hold on her, and then helping the others escape.

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Screenshot: ABC

As is often the case with Tancharoen’s episodes, the centerpiece wasn’t plot, but kinetic action, showcased in Daisy’s scenes and the climactic fight between May and Qovas, the Remorath alien who for so long served as Hale’s contact with the Confederacy. It’s a good fight, made better by having Deke ducking and rolling in and out of the struggle while he attempted to set the transportation coordinates, adding an element of absurdist shenanigans to the sequence. There will be additional masked aliens next week for people to punch, but the threat of Talbot seems unlikely to be resolved via violence—sneak tactics will be in order, unless they just want to fire another round of bullets to let swirl around the gravitonium-infused General. More so than in seasons past, where it was usually just a question of how to win, the finale of season five will be about the why: What’s the right thing to do, why it should be done instead of the alternative, and—most important—will it even matter?

Stray observations

  • Mack sees the destruction in New York on the news tonight. They may not know about Thanos, but the clock is ticking toward a reckoning with the larger events in the MCU.
  • Mack and Fitz have a good exchange here, largely based on both of them knowing the relationship is tense, but that there are bigger, telekinetic fish to fry.
  • And now Deke is geeking out about Agent Davis’ incredible story, as well? This is a funny running joke, but it’s also very unlike Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. to give a mostly anonymous background character such a noteworthy bit of comic relief.
  • Deke’s excellent and succinct summary of how he managed to change the missile’s coordinate and blow up the alien ship, killing Qovas in the process: “I know zero.”
  • R.I.P., Carl Creel. We’ll miss your visually appealing powers.
  • I can live with Daisy periodically referring to Coulson as “Hot Lips.”
  • This final arc hasn’t been stellar, but it’s been consistently good. I’m genuinely curious how they plan to wrap this up—it’s ambiguous in a way no other season-ending storyline on this show has been.

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