It’s been a rollercoaster season on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. We’ve had some high highs—Cal’s shockingly emotional portrayal of a scenery-chewing villain and Jemma’s turn from innocent to double agent to murderer. We’ve also hit some pretty low lows—Kara’s sudden change into a sex object with no agency and some extreme underuse of Lucy Lawless. But making a television show is a big job. You’re rarely going to land a perfect 10. So why this week? Why on this night of all nights did Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. achieve the near-impossible? Well, let’s break it down.
Two-Hour Run Time
It’s a little thing really, but having that extra time to expand on characters and ideas makes all the difference in the world. A standard episode of Daredevil runs a solid 53 minutes (compared to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s 43 minutes), and that only focuses on the actions of one hero and his antagonist. It would make sense that an eight-member S.H.I.E.L.D. team would need a lot more time than that to cover all the necessary plot points.
Jiaying may be an evil immortal hell-bent on perpetrating genocide, but she’s an evil immortal with motivation and backstory. No one would expect us to like her choice to start a war with S.H.I.E.L.D. I’ll even agree that it’s a hard choice to understand or sympathize with. Still, a lot of thought has clearly gone into the creation of this understated super villain. Her backstory reveal, her loss of emotion after Cal puts her back together and her Darth Vader overtones make Jiaying a well-crafted villain who’s certainly a great match for Skye and the team.
Oh Cal. If Jiaying hides all her evil under well-crafted calm, Cal is hiding all of his good under well-crafted insanity. Furniture-chewing villains can sometimes get a bit frustrating. Their emotions are over-the-top and can often feel as though they belong on a different show than the rest of the characters. Through a great partnership between the writing team and Kyle MacLachlan, Cal has developed into an over-the-top villain with just the right backstory. All of that culminated in this week’s episode, where his extreme devotion to Skye certainly paid off. He even confronts Jiaying about her murderous rampage, while staying calm and collected. This, folks, is called a character arc. Even his final fate as a vet is a wonderful resolution to a common comic book problem. How do you neutralize a threat when lifetime imprisonment doesn’t sit well with their situation? Wiping their memory seems to be a good start.
And did anyone besides me think “evil” Cal looked like a sleep-deprived Quentin Tarantino? Just checking.
Mack bringing an axe to a super powered gunfight
Mostly, just Mack in general, but you’ve got to admit he’s pretty handy with that axe when the need arises. As brief as it is, Coulson’s sudden amputation is what pushed this episode into a 10 for me. Seeing consequences in a universe that can sometimes play a little to liberally with character immortality (R.I.P. Pietro) is great, and the fact that the writers took a chance in playing that result fast and with little commentary really made the moment stand out.
Also in contention for best part of this week’s episode are Mack’s greatest hits: “How’s it going, Tremors?” “I’m in a crack heads first, ask questions later kind of mind.” “You must be Gordon. I’m the guy who kills Gordon.” “We’re never opening that damn box in a thousand years.”
NOOOOOOOOOO!!!! Gordon, why?!? Never have I been so heartbroken to find out a character is one of the bad guys. He’s gone now. I won’t miss Gordon. I’ll just miss the Inhuman Gordon used to be.
Hunter and Bobbi’s dysfunctional love
These two. I mean, I know Hunter can be a bit annoying sometimes, and certainly their set up at the beginning of the season was a little underwhelming, but come on. Their love is so dysfunctional and pure that it makes this nerd girl want to forgive all the canon divergence that follows in its wake. Heck, it almost makes me want to forgive domestic Hawkeye. Almost.
They also serve as a great foil to Ward and Kara. While Bobbi and Hunter risk life and limb for each other, Ward and Kara can’t even get past their own need for vengeance long enough to escape the scene. When vengeance puts you in a “shoot violent multiple rounds first, ask questions later” kind of mood, someone’s bound to be murdered accidentally. Seriously, Ward, just stop. Just take some you time. Get yourself figured out before you leave another girlfriend either dead or emotionally scared.
Bobbi and the Moral Grey Zone
So Bobbi made a tough call. It’s a call any S.H.I.E.L.D. agent may have had to make. And the result of that call was that Hydra intercepted Kara. And that’s sad, but Bobbi isn’t sorry. More importantly she’d make the same call again. And most importantly, she’s not about to let Ward and Kara suck her into their “lovers on the lam” crime fantasy. Because that can really only go one way. She’s better at operating in the spy world while retaining her humanity than any other agent we meet. And that, everybody, is why Bobbi is getting her own spin-off.
Also Bobbi. Just Bobbi.
I mean, did you see her fight? Not just physically, which is amazing, but psychologically. She waits out the pain of the fingernail torture and never once reveals that she can break free before stabbing Ward in the neck.
And more importantly, she knows when it’s time to move on. Her deciding to leave S.H.I.E.L.D. at the end of the episode is huge, regardless of her feelings for Hunter. She’s a company woman, so that can’t be an easy decision for her, but she’s recognized it’s time to leave. Character arcs, everybody. They’re all over the place this week.
Don’t take it. Or maybe do? That all depends on weather or not you think you may be Inhuman.
Nerd Love and the Supernatural Forces that Interfere
We finally get some resolution with Fitz and Jemma this episode. It was getting to the point where I was beginning to doubt they’d ever speak of it, but just before Fitz goes off to do battle with Jiaying’s pirate band, Jemma decides it’s time to get their emotions out in the open. This scene is great because it shows just why some things we may think of as cliché are common for a good reason. Fitz even points out how ridiculous it is to want to talk about their feelings right before a big battle. And Jemma does what we’d all do if someone were to point out how melodramatic this action is. She stops. She doesn’t tell Fitz how she feels. She agrees to wait, to talk about it later. And even as Fitz walks out the door, we know this is a horrible idea. We know that even though it’s melodramatic, she needs to tell him now. It’s a brilliant example of proving the cliché by subverting it.
Of course, Fitz makes it back and it looks like our two favorite scientists will finally get a chance to go on that date we’ve all been waiting for, but no such luck. Because this wouldn’t be a season finale without a big cliffhanger. So obviously this would be a great time to accidentally open the containment unit we’ve been keeping the dangerous black rock in. The rock eats Simmons. No, seriously, we’re running out of ways to keep these two apart. Alien artifacts were bound to intervene at some point.
Katherine Siegel is a Chicago-based writer and director, and a regular contributor to Paste. You can find out more by checking out her website at www.KatherineAnneSiegel.com or follow her on Twitter