Looking back at my notes from tonight’s episode, I’m beginning to have serious concerns about S.H.I.E.L.D.’s relationship with the cruel and unusual punishment. I’m the first to cheer when S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t operate with 100% white hat morality. Still, when it comes to dealing with captured prisoners you’ve got to be a little gracious with the win. Let me show you what I mean.
It starts when we meet Karla Gideon, who has been locked into a set of what can only be described as finger cuffs. They’re a bit of a Man in the Iron Mask style accessory. By that I don’t mean they’re French, so much as permanently affixed to her. Overall this is pretty nightmarish, but when Skye’s good ol’ doctor dad shows up to remove them we get so see her scarred up hands, rubbed raw from years of wear. Karla will prove herself very dangerous later on, but our first view of her fingers is a bit underwhelming. She basically has tiny little Swiss army knives instead of nails. Put this rather sympathetically shot scene on top of the Doctor’s speech about how S.H.I.E.L.D. tends to go to extremes with its treatment of those they deem dangerous, and this episode is blurring the line between villain and hero pretty early.
It doesn’t help that when we turn to our heroes, it’s immediately to find Skye under observation. While they’re being kind to her, no one seems to be ready to explain that her life can never be the same. And when she figures this out later, it’s going to hurt in more ways than one.
Simmons is being a bit petty with regards to forgiving Fitz for last week’s cover up. In general, Simmons has been a bit off the last few episodes, so I just want to say: Really Jemma? Really? The fact that Fitz didn’t tell you Skye’s secret is what will end your friendship? Not the awkwardness between you after he confessed his feelings? Not you going on a deep cover mission without so much as a goodbye? Not your super pushy suggestions about sedatives every ten minutes?
Oh, and Hunter is handcuffed to a bathroom sink. Somehow I’m pretty sure this is not the first time he’s lived through this scenario.
So, while most of our heroes are spending the episode being either subversive or petty, Melinda May is on the case to find a good psychiatrist to evaluate Skye. Turns out the best of the best is none other than ex-Mr. May, Blair Underwood! Yay—and he doesn’t like S.H.I.E.L.D. either? Okay just for the record, did anyone agree with any decision S.H.I.E.L.D. made while Fury was in charge? I mean, basically ex-Mr. May—or rather Dr. Ex-May, ugh, fine his name is Andrew—is hinting at the idea that S.H.I.E.L.D. lied about previous cases he’d worked on and hid evaluation results from his patients. That’s a pretty big no-no.
Meanwhile, the Doctor and his merry Winnebago of misfits are recruiting more teammates. They find David Angar in an underground holding facility. It’s a bunker underneath an insane asylum which seems a bit harsh, though it suddenly occurs to me that this may be where they threw Ivchenko at the end of Agent Carter. So maybe it’s a tradition.
We find out from Coulson that Angar has the ability to cause a catatonic state simply by speaking, which explains the nasty looking muzzle he’s wearing. We get a little back story on the other members of the Doctor’s band as well, but it all comes back to Karla. I’m trying to decide if this episode’s production team is purposefully making us feel for the villains, or if it just never found the right balance of tone. Basically, we find that Karla’s extreme manicure is her answer to self-defense against an abusive boyfriend. Even Coulson admits that he’d be sympathetic toward her if she didn’t have other victims. Okay yes, the other victims thing should tell us that she’s bad, but it’s a pretty thin thread to hold onto when we still have the visual of her raw fingers from earlier in the episode.
In fact, the next time we see our Winnebago of horrors, Karla is advocating that they all forget about S.H.I.E.L.D. and get on with their lives. At this point I expect her to have at the very least a turn towards the good by the end. The Doctor of course will have none of this because his obsession with getting Skye back is pretty much all he has. Can I just say once again how fun and well developed this character has become? Generally I’m not a fan of the foaming at the mouth, blatantly crazy villains, but the Doctor has been so well built up that all his snarling and coffee mug breaking seem motivated and, at least through the Doctor’s logic, sensible.
We get some time with Andrew and Skye, during which Skye manages to start a minor earthquake in her sleep. Andrew seems to suspect that this is because Skye’s coping technique of pushing her emotions down (taught to her by May) is not helping her actually deal with them. So that makes two things Melinda isn’t good at: cooking and dealing with her feelings.
Oh and Mac gets Hunter pizza for dinner.
So the Doctor and his Winnebago pull up to a high school in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. Here’s where things get really uncomfortable. Karla and the gang have to cut the mask off Angar’s face. I’m not saying I have a better solution for S.H.I.E.L.D. when it comes to keeping control of someone whose voice puts people into comas. I really don’t. But it’s hard to have anything but sympathy when we see Angar’s mangled face and eroded teeth. It’s here more than anywhere else that you can really feel the visceral nature of the Doctor’s argument. Treating the “monsters” like monsters may just make S.H.I.E.L.D. the biggest monster of all. But then that moral pendulum swings us right back. The villains are going to hold a bunch of kids hostage.
In the end, we have an epic showdown. The Doctor’s Winnebago of Horrors fighting Coulson, Bobbi, May, and—due to a huge lack of logic on May’s part—Skye. It’s tension galore! And it’s broken awesomely by the Doctor when he asks Skye how her powers have altered her. “What’s your thing? I was hoping it was wings!” Of course you were hoping it was wings, Doctor. Any good parent would hope it was wings. Alas he’ll never get an answer as bamfy-mcgee (You remember No Eyes, right?) spirits him away before the fight even begins.
The fight itself is well paced, though I never got that turn to the light side I expected from Karla. Its abrupt ending with Skye passing out was actually a welcome change in tactic. Though the reveal that Skye is literally breaking her own bones when she suppresses her powers is pretty heartbreaking. Both figuratively and possibly, at least for Skye, literally.
So here’s the question. Who really is the bad guy here? The answer in tonight’s episode seems to be: we don’t know. Is it those on the gifted list? I mean, maybe so, with regards to people like the Doctor and Angar, but what about Karla? She certainly feels compassion for others and seems to be looking for an escape rather than more carnage. Or Skye? Is it possible that just to stay alive she’ll be forced to use her new powers for destruction? How about Mac and Bobbi? Pretty sure betraying your teammates and handcuffing a friend in the bathroom doesn’t exactly make you the most sympathetic characters. Is it Coulson? I mean, probably not, but Andrew certainly didn’t see a difference between this S.H.I.E.L.D. and the one he cut ties with a while ago. In the end, we just don’t know. Everyone’s point of view this week was sympathetic and well crafted. It’s hard to pull off in under an hour, but this week Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. pretty much nailed being a smart, three dimensional action series. So let’s all go celebrate with some super secret grilled cheese. Or bathroom pizza. Mmmmm pineapple.
Oh wait; maybe the bad guy is going to be Edward James Olmos!
Katherine Siegel is a Chicago-based freelance writer and director and a regular contributor to Paste. You can find out more by checking out her website, or follow her on Twitter.