Summary: A slower episode that builds upon the solid premiere and offers the necessary opportunity to connect with the agents as fractured people.
If you have not seen this episode yet and do not wish to be spoiled, do not continue reading!
May arrives to help free Hunter, the only survivor of Creel’s attack to get the obelisk. With soldiers quickly approaching, Hunter tells her to go after the man. He gets free in time to be taking into custody by the military. May races after Creel and nearly takes him out before Coulson orders her to let him go so that they can track him to his employer. Back at the Playground, Mac, Trip, and Skye get to work on engineering the stolen Quinjet’s cloak tech for the Bus. They debate asking Fitz to help, but Fitz wants no part of it, feeling betrayed that they didn’t let him figure it out on his own. A stressed Coulson learns from Skye that the obelisk had the same markings on it that he has her studying when Hartley touched it. That intensifies his desire to hunt down Creel.
Skye asks about Hartley and Idaho, but Coulson refuses to disclose their fates, saying they need to be worried more about Hunter. Talbot attempts to buy Hunter’s services to turn on Coulson. Hunter agrees to a $2 million fee and for Hartley’s record to be expunged and given a proper funeral for her family. He returns to Playground, losing Talbot’s tails in the process. Coulson calls that Talbot tried recruiting him and Hunter admits to the whole thing but hasn’t decided if he’s going to go through with it. Coulson wants Hunter’s help to go after Creel and offers to take care of things for Hartley for him. Skye learns Hartley and Idaho are dead. When she worries aloud about Coulson compartmentalizing everything, he asks her to pack Hartley’s things. Hunter and Skye talk briefly about Hartley’s family and how he became a mercenary. He offers that she should consider the lifestyle as S.H.I.E.L.D. is a job not a life.
While Creel awaits his Hydra contact at a drop for the obelisk, he finds that the properties of the item have transferred to him arm. He accidentally infects a waitress and she dies like others who have touched the artifact. Creel sets up another meet with Hydra and tries to absorb a number of different items to counteract the obelisk’s effect. He’s confronted by Raina, the girl in the flower dress who was working with John Garrett. She offers him an element called carbine, derived from material found in stardust, as a means to counteract the effect. He takes the carbine from her and leaves. Raina calls Coulson to tell them about the planned meet between Creel and Hydra. Coulson asks why she is offering assistance, and she mentions that Garrett was having the same visions with the alien markings that Coulson is now experiencing and the obelisk can help.
Concerned for Coulson, May tells him it’s been 18 days since he last had an incident and it’s clear that he’s fighting it. She orders him to give into it to help himself. He does and carves another series of alien markings into a wall. May documents all of the symbols so that they can study them further. Skye, May, Trip, and Hunter go to intercept the meet. Hunter stuns the other three and approaches Creel to shoot him dead in revenge for Hartley. Creel uses the carbine to repel the obelisk in his system and harden his skin to repel Hunter’s bullet. Fitz, meanwhile, has been trying to prove he is useful by finding a way to incapacitate Creel. Mac attempts helping him, but Fitz keeps muttering in frustration that he didn’t solve the problem today. Mac realizes that Fitz’s brain is telling him that he’d developed something before that could help. Sifting through Fitz’s inventions, they come upon a portable version of the Overkill device. Creel attacks Hunter in an attempt to kill him. During the commotion, Raina makes off with the obelisk and Hydra is left with nothing. As Creel prepares to beat Hunter to pulp, Coulson arrives and hits Creel with the Overkill. It manages to destabilize his ability before freezing him as stone. With Hunter safe, Coulson asks him to sell him out to Talbot.
Talbot meets Coulson in a field with the intention of arresting him. Coulson explains that he has Creel suspended in a van for Talbot to take into custody. He offers a deal where S.H.I.E.L.D. continues hunting Hydra and others and turning them over to the government for incarceration. Talbot believes the group has no resources to be able to accomplish such things. Coulson has the Bus de-cloak in mid-air in an effort to persuade Talbot that S.H.I.E.L.D. is bigger and more stable than he knows. Mac thanks Fitz for his help and asks how he’s doing since his closest partner, Simmons, left the team. Fitz looks at his hallucination of Simmons and realizes the truth, but tells Mac he is doing fine.
At an undisclosed location, Raina investigates the obelisk with a mysterious doctor. The doctor asks Raina to pick up the item with her bare hands to test a theory. Either wearing carbine or the obelisk has been tempered with it, Raina hesitantly follows the command. To her surprise, she’s able to touch it. It glows and reveals its markings. The doctor tells her the obelisk allowed her to live. She asks what’s next and he tells her to bring his daughter to him first.
Broken agents are proving to be the best.
Let’s play a quick game about the modern comic adaptation. What are the dreaded buzzwords that creators use to really sell their project to the fans and general public nowadays? All join in chorus. “Realistic.” “Gritty.” “Dark.”
We all groan and give in to the perceived “comic book fatigue” any time we hear such descriptions. I still await the Captain Carrot film that’s like a Kafkaesque nightmare with Grand Theft Auto levels of commonplace, gratuitous violence. That’s the only way it will be “relatable,” dontcha know?
Yet, there are certain properties, certain times and places, where boiling things down to essential realism and grit does actually work to allow us to connect to characters and their plights as people and stories worth investing in. The mode of operation this season on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is to go dark. We should know because Agent-cum-Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Phil Coulson is frequently telling his people on-screen to do just that. The show is still, sometimes, quite without subtlety.
But here’s the catch: it’s working. And working well.
Four key scenes in this second outing define the episode and improve upon last week’s excellent premiere. There are actually a number of fun and relevant scenes throughout the hour, but these four demonstrate how the revitalized Agents actually makes its audience care about the show. More important, we’re really coming to care about the people, even the newbies.
Skye can sense something is up with Coulson, yet even though she’s been tasked with figuring out the alien calligraphy that he’s gracing over large plaster real estate, she’s unaware that it’s coming from him directly. That Skye caught the same symbols on the original 0-8-4 when pressed to Hartley’s flesh makes the item’s relevance even more immediate. We like Action Coulson out in the field, but bureaucratic company man Coulson has always really been more his speed, all the way back to his introduction in Iron Man. It makes the action moments pop more, and certainly helps to play to Clark Gregg’s sardonic comedic strengths. His focus, not only to restore S.H.I.E.L.D. as the wall against Hydra and similar threats but now to recover this item to help solve his mystery, is helping to propel the show in its much stronger fashion. The obelisk is a MacGuffin, to be sure, but it works in the best sense of the concept.
The scene, though, that really cements this — one of the four — is Coulson’s with Melinda May. They have a very distinct history, and it was not for nothing last season when he discovered May was working for Nick Fury behind the scenes to monitor his resurrection that his trust was so viciously broken. That gives their connection even more depth now as May is the only one he can turn to with his latest secret. The whole sequence with May telling and allowing Coulson to let go and channel these cryptic messages was a powerful one that let us in to both people. We got to see how bottling this up is affecting him, basically swallowing him up. He was much looser, more the loveable Coulson audiences had come to enjoy once he got this particular spell out of his system. While they’ve played the contrast of the caring May off of the cold operator since darn near the beginning, this felt the most vulnerable for her, as well. The lighting, the direction, the cuts, all played so well in this scene to really draw us in.
That seemed to really be the order of the day. Sure, there were a number of action beats, a good deal of intrigue with new and returning players, a sense of urgency to the chase of Creel. Yet, the hour was about connection.
The best connection might have been between the misfiring Fitz and new ally Mac. The physical contrast between Iain de Caestecker and Henry Simmons already primes the odd pairing with potential, but the way that Mac digs in to both understand and connect with Fitz was engaging in a way I hadn’t anticipated. Mac is the “mechanic,” but given the special nature of S.H.I.E.L.D. vehicles, it makes sense that they would leverage technology as a way to connect the two characters and further aid in Fitz’s recovery.
What was particularly strong was that they didn’t push some cog into place that miraculously demonstrated signs that Fitz will get better. Even as they found a way to communicate and make use of Fitz’s expertise, this was purely Mac translating for him. Fitz synapses are still jumbled and it’s tearing away at his confidence, his personality, his very soul. That moment when Mac revealed to him that Simmons was gone, even as he was looking over at Mind-Simmons, was heartbreaking. It’s the scene with Fitz frustratingly repeating “I didn’t solve this today” and Mac hitting upon what he was actually trying to say that sold this connection, all the while given insight into both characters and continuing to solidify the seriousness of Fitz’s disability. I like these two together and look forward to seeing more of them.
For a bit of a change of pace, the third scene involves our continuing antagonist, Carl Creel. He has yet to be a full-fledged character, complete with an active internal life and history that breathes, but they move the needle closer. Again, one has to enjoy that they are continuing to use recurring characters rather than one-offing them. (Though, as I say that, you have to wince that they were able to sideline him by the end of the episode, momentarily taking him out of play until he can pop up again for another few episodes later in the season.) They do give him more character work this time out, in his confrontation with Reina, and in his dealings with Whitehall’s Hydra underling. It may be a tad obvious and manipulative, but I enjoyed the scene in the diner where he accidental infects the waitress as he’s absorbed the properties of the obelisk and is trying desperately to fight them. Though he’s clearly a self-interested person, there were glimpses of concern and regret upon him realizing that the static shock she got while grazing his affected arm resulted in her being infected. There wasn’t a lot but little things along the way are making Creel more than just a thug with a cool power to showcase every week. Here’s hoping he’s back sooner than I anticipate he’ll be.
The fourth scene belongs to Lance Hunter, our newest agent. There will be many who complain about the importance placed on this guy. (Or maybe not, as I have yet to meet anyone who was a rabid fan of the first season.) As often happens with characters introduced to “spice” things up, they get a fair amount of screen time to establish who they are, often at the expense of others we already know and might like to see more. The worst of this is when they are Mary Sue’d or Gary Stu’d into the story, someone of such skill and importance that they become the primary focus of a lagging series, kind of like Seven-of-Nine on Star Trek: Voyager. With as much as they give us this episode to connect with Hunter on an emotional level, one could be forgiven to think that that would be the case.
Yet, they do something quite interesting with Hunter. He’s not anything particularly special. Sure, he knows what he’s doing, and his moral compass isn’t distracting enough to get in the way of plans of those who want to hire or leverage him. From what we’ve seen, he’s not a specialist in a given form of combat or with a particular weapon. He doesn’t harbor any unique gifts or abilities that have become standard of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He’s simply a boot on the ground. Talbot wants him simply to betray Coulson so that he can capture the wayward agents. Coulson just wants an experienced gun who can work in a team environment, even if his motivation is often to be paid for his services. Hunter’s main thrust here is that it was his decision to run with Hartley and Agent Idaho, and that got both of them killed. He even encapsulates his rather plain status to Skye while packing Hartley’s things: S.H.I.E.L.D. is merely a job.
For some, it might be hard to know why to care about him, and yet it’s this sort of anonymous drone quality that really helps to sell the enormity of Coulson’s task. He needs drones. He needs the simple folk who can get the job done. He just needs lots of them. Hunter has a number of scenes that all play at the same theme and headspace in the episode, but the one that stands out to me is his first interaction with Coulson after he returns from being captured by Talbot’s men. With no pretense or bravado, and minimal prompting on Coulson’s part, Hunter admits to conditionally accepting Talbot’s deal to turn Coulson over to the military. With so much gamesmanship that often goes on in the genre, it was refreshing to have Hunter just lay it all out. Again, this was about building a connection with his soon-to-be new boss.
Can’t say it fully built a connection with the audience, but it at least made Hunter palatable. There’s plenty more to be seen to know if we like the flavor, but he’s harmless enough to keep around to explore it.
The show tried last year to sell Melinda May as broken, and gave us two mysteries in Coulson (how is he alive) and Skye (who is she and where is she from) that leaned a bit on the dark side, in an effort to rope us in and care about these people. They played with damaging straight-laced Agent Ward before revealing that he was a despicable Hydra agent in a similar vein. Most of it fell flat, but the motivation was correct. Broken agents play better for the audience. This was an hour that slowed down somewhat to allow us to sink into that broken quality. That might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it offered necessary connection. It succeeded on that end.
Odds & Ends
- It was nice to see Ruth Negga and Raina back, and it offers an internal connection to last year’s events without being tied specifically to Hydra. Playing on the show’s internal history independent of the MCU events is a good thing.
- Maybe a bit cheesy, but Trip’s “Oh, hell no,” when Hunter arrived to ice him was funny.
- The staging and execution of the scene where Fitz is talking to Mac but also speaking with Mind-Simmons was a well done bit of business.
- When you can have a scene where your two opponents can share a civil, respectful conversation without it breaking into either a fight or a takedown is always a boon. It works really well here between Coulson and Talbot.
- The scene with Coulson using what had to be Stark holographic technology to look back through and lock old SSR files from Peggy Carter on the obelisk was a fine little piece of continuity.