This an episode almost-exclusively about putting various characters into the positions they need to be in for a promised "explosive" storyline next week, buoyed by some character/relationship melodrama that was nice to see but would've worked better amid the support of a stronger overall setting. Upkeep-episodes are all well and good (and necessary, given that AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D is now clearly pacing itself with an eye on bulk re-watchings whenever the various future Marvel movies it's laying foundation for hit) but the word "obligatory" was hanging too prominently over the proceedings.
Full review (with SPOILERS!) after the jump...
The structural theme at play in "LOVE IN THE TIME OF HYDRA" was various character pairings being shaken by the continuing changes to their status-quo. To wit: Coulson and Skye re-solidify their surrogate-family bond amid his decision to remove her from active Agent duty and relocate her to a secret rural safe house. Fitz and Simmons have it out, verbally, over their unexpected divergence on the Inhumans (still unnamed as such) issue; i.e. Fitz wants to treat Skye's powers as a "difference" to be understood and accepted, Simmons sees them as a dangerous flaw to be cured (or worse?) Hunter finds out that Bobbi (Mockingbird) has been lying to him re: her and Mack being double agents for a second, better-equipped rival S.H.I.E.L.D revival.
Finally, Ward resurfaces, still seemingly in the midst of whatever long-term agenda he's been working this whole time but now with a smitten Agent 33 (the brainwashed HYDRA spy with the face-changer mask fused to her face) in tow. Their's is the "new" and more unconventional "Loves" referenced in the title, and I liking their dynamic even if they're over-telegraphing the "Hey! Remember how Ward pulled this exact same nuturing-crush thing on Skye!?" aspect. Their game-playing with Talbot was also the most entertaining aspect of the episode, re-establishing the tricky edge Adrian Pasdar has to walk with Talbot being not so much "incompetent" but utterly-outclassed as an ordinary General in a world of spies and superheroes.
"The Real S.H.I.E.L.D," on the other hand, is more of a mixed bag. The setup works: These aren't (evidently) more "bad" Agents, nor do they seem to be HYDRA (again, which would be lame,) they just represent a much larger (than Team Coulson) consortium of ex-Agents who also want to rebuild S.H.I.E.L.D but see said rebuild as an opportunity to jettison the (in their view) failed Nick Fury model of secret-keeping that Coulson (ever the in-universe fanboy clinging to the old-school) and his ownership of Fury's personal files is standing in the way of.
The problem with this setup? It's already too apparent (unless one hell of a curveball is on the way, granted) what it's there for: Real S.H.I.E.L.D's leader Gonzales (Edward James Olmos) is specifically concerned about Skye's transformation, Coulson's alien-infused blood and the proliferation of enhanced superhumans in general; which means that in addition to worldbuilding for the INHUMANS franchise we would now seem to have some infrastructure for the (MCU version of the) Superhuman Registration storyline that's expected to be the inciting incident for CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR.
All well and good. But for now, no matter how much "moral gray" AGENTS wants to feign by lampshading how haphazard Coulson's style of running a covert spy agency would seem if he wasn't a TV character on an AVENGERS spin-off, the cat is out of the bag in terms of The Inhumans being MCU's replacement for X-MEN/Mutant characters and storylines. As such, it feels pointless to pretend like "Real S.H.I.E.L.D" is going to end up as something other than variations on Stryker, Gyrich, etc.
Presumably this will all pay off handsomely moving forward, but right now we're strictly in piece-arrangement territory, and that doesn't leave a lot to actually think about.
- Also not a great sign: Ward's return mainly reminded me how not-interesting his family-issues and undefined "agenda" are. It still feels like the show made a mistake keeping him around as a semi-regular after he'd served his "gotcha" purpose in Season 1.
- Agent 33 is still more hypothetically interesting than interesting, but it feels like she'd be a better solo wild-card to have onhand than Ward's counterpart.
- I get the reasoning (budget and otherwise) but after all the buildup it was seriously dissapointing to have Skye's "inhibitor gloves" look less like gauntlets than shiny carpal-tunnel bracers. Yes, I'm interested to find out what "drawbacks" Simmons built into them, but still...
- Fitz seeing Skye as a potential Captain America while Simmons is thinking more on the lines of The Hulk is about as close to not-clunky as the movie call-outs have ever been on this series, so good job on that.
- We're long overdue for a return from The Koenigs, right?
At the very least, the ominously titled "One Door Closes" should move things along in terms of who's going to make a (likely temporary) jump to "Real S.H.I.E.L.D;" though the main attraction seems to be finally get May vs. Mockingbird. Should be fun.