I gave less-than-great marks to last week's AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D, largely because it was a "setting things up" episode and not much else beyond it. The good news? This week's episode turns out to be where almost all of that setup starts paying off immediately and without much extraneous padding: The new characters/ideas? Explained as fully as anything on this series gets explained. The worldbuilding? All functional. Subplots? All in motion. Good stuff... though with the unfortunate caveat that it looks like the show is about to take an obligatory swing on a tried-and-true comic-book story idea that almost never works.
That's the non-spoiler version. For SPOILERS, hit the jump:
This is roughly the time last year when AGENTS' first season got to "Turn, Turn, Turn," the episode that happened in conjuction with CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER and enabled the show to finally tip it's hand about the MCU's big HYDRA-infiltration subplot. That reveal (and the narrative re-focusing it allowed) is what mainly rescued the series from its iffy mid-season slump, and laid down the template that the superior Season 2 has largely adhered to. "One Door Closes" doesn't achieve nearly that level of turnaround, but it does move things forward and hint at big things to come - impressive, considering it would've been unsurprising to see the show just rest on it's "yup, we snuck the beginning of THE INHUMANS in right under your nose" laurels.
Last week, we learned that Agents Bobbi and Mac are actually double-agents for a seemingly bigger, better-armed incarnation of S.H.I.E.L.D (led by Edward James Olmos' Agent Gonzales) founded by Agents who've rejected Nick Fury's way of doing things and are looking to put a stop to the antics of Coulson's Fury-approved Agency... though they mostly seem preoccupied with Coulson's alien-blood ressurection and the secret index of superhumans. This week plays this rivalry out in a dual narrative: In the present, "Real S.H.I.E.L.D" invades and locks-down Coulson's base; while in extended flashbacks we learn the origins and ideology of the organization.
Short version: They're mainly the surviving crew of a S.H.I.E.L.D aircraft-carrier called The Iliad, who opted to disobey Fury's orders to sink the vessel (regardless of remaining crew) in hopes of keeping an unidentified precious cargo out of HYDRA's hands; instead recapturing the ship, saving hundreds of lives and deciding (somewhat reasonably, you've got to admit) that since Fury's methods didn't do anything to prevent the rise of HYDRA, maybe they should do something else. Hence why they've got a mad-on about Coulson, whom Gonzales sees as little more than a (literal) creation of Fury's built to keep his flawed vision in power (specifically, they're angry about him keeping yet-unknown Enhanced Superhumans and unexplained artificats hidden around the world.)
Meanwhile, Skye is off in what feels like her own separate episode entirely as she staves off cabin fever in the safe-house (it's actually more for keeping people/things outside the cabin safe) Coulson has her hiding out in until fellow Inhuman Gordon (aka The Reader) shows up to talk heart-to-heart. This is the first time this guy has showed up long enough to do anything other than make a cool entrace/exit and a quip, so it's a relief that he comes off as a pretty interesting character - even if all he really does, substantively, is deliver a good(?)-guy version of the "embrace your superiority" speech Skye has already gotten several times from Mr. Hyde (Kyle McLachlan).
For an episode sold primarily on the promise of the plot going somewhere again and the long-awaited May/Mockingbird fight (good, but no May/Agent 33) The flashback business turns out to be the strongest element to the proceedings, giving new insight into the "Other S.H.I.E.L.D" characters (nice move including a sort-of return for Lucy Lawless' presently-deceased Agent Hartley character from the pilot) and taking the best possible shot at the innevitably futile task of trying to make us not regard them (in the present) as the bad guys. Unfortunately, the effort expended there can't really help with what I'm worried is a "baked-in" problem to the "Other S.H.I.E.L.D" storyline. Specifically...
This story never really works.
I'm not sure there are words for it, but "wouldn't normal people eventually get paranoid about superheroes?" belongs to the roster of obvious, easily-answered questions that sound like head-slappingly great angles for this or that genre that generally don't pan out in practice. Fundamentally, what works in a "contained" continuity like WATCHMEN or THE INCREDIBLES usually doesn't every few years or so when some enterprising writer decides to try it in the Marvel or DC Comics Universes (the X-Men being the exception, as this conceit is built into their mythos). The fact is, everybody knows that in the real world superheroes/mutants/inhumans operating like they do in comics wouldn't work out, but everyone also knows that these stories don't take place in the real world.
In this case, AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D is inextricably linked to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and viewers/audiences have spent almost a decade being reinforced that the "rules" of said Universe is that superhumans doing their own thing evens out on the "positive" side. So no matter how noble "Other S.H.I.E.L.D's" origins or reasonable their perspective, it's all just so much song and dance before they innevitable wind up as the bad/misguided guys. We already know Skye/Coulson/etc are the good guys, we know THE INHUMANS will likely be the heroes of their own movie, we can guess that some of this will inform CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR and that Cap (the moral center of the Marvel Universe) will be on the "leave us alone" side, and frankly just the fact that Other S.H.I.E.L.D is preoccupied with this threat rather than HYDRA is a pretty big red flag in and of itself.
This isn't to say that S.H.I.E.L.D vs S.H.I.E.L.D can't be a fun angle to round out the season (though I have a feeling that, with Nick Fury already popping up in trailers, AGE OF ULTRON is going to blow up the last few episodes the way WINTER SOLDIER did last year, so...) I just hope they don't drag the "maybe they've got a point" business out too long, because no one is going to buy it and that get's frustrating fast.
- The digital color-grading used to differentiate the flashbacks from the present was effective... maybe too effective, as it immediately made everything look slicker and more cinematic than the CBS police-procedural lighting the series usually uses. Why not break that out more?
- The big obvious question: What the hell is this "cargo" that The Iliad is carrying that was so important Fury was willing to sink it? Well... honestly, at this point the MCU is so broadly-constructed it could be anything from another Obelisk to a tranquilized Fin Fang Foom and it'd make the same amount of sense. FYI, though: "Iliad" is the name of a repurposed S.H.I.E.L.D hellicarrier which, in the comics, currently serves as the base of operations for a Secret Avengers team that includes Maria Hill and Daisy Johnson - aka Skye.
- Two guesses for the Iliad Cargo, none the less: 1. The nascent form of whatever Tony Stark is going to build Ultron out of (in the trailers, it's described as a "reactivated program") 2. Mar-Vell, since The Kree are already part of the show's regular mythos and they've got to start setting up CAPTAIN MARVEL at some point.
- Two questions that I don't think have been asked or answered yet: Can Kree people touch The Obelisk and not die? If so, can Coulson do it because he's full of Kree blood?
- Skye finding the Hulk's fist-print hidden behind the fake "rustic" walls of the cabin was not only a perfect reveal of what's actually going on, it might be the best "Oh, right! The Avengers!" shoutout in the series so far.
- Agent Weaver supposedly fought off an "enhanced" sicced on S.H.I.E.L.D Academy by HYDRA. Any chance we find out who it was? (Probably not - it's a sympathetic backstory detail that exists to give her pledging "Team Lock `Em All Up" a rational basis.)
- Did Bobbi actually see "dickhead Agent" try to shoot Skye with a real bullet against her orders? If so, is this step 1 to ensuring that she winds up defecting from her current allegiance over to "Team Still Gonna Be On The Show Next Season?"
Gordon BAMFed in to spirit Skye off to The Inhumans' (still officially not named as such) secret space to close out the episode, which means "Afterlife" will probably explain more of that while bringing Cal/Mr. Hyde and Raina back into the story. Luke Mitchell will debut here as "Lincoln," a seemingly-original character who will apparently be pretty important.
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