A weird thing about how AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D has evolved as a series is that the more both the series and the audience seem to have accepted its position as the redheaded stepchild of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the more cavalier it's gotten in playing around with the worldbuilding. Throughout most of Season 1, when the audience was still assuming/hoping that the series was going to be a mythology-packed weekly geek-out setting up dominoes for the movies to knock down, it operated strictly on the fringes of its own universe until it was more-or-less forced to use the good silverware because CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER's storyline made it unavoidable.
But now, with the audience effectively resigned to the idea that AGENTS is mostly going to do it's own thing as "NCIS: MARVEL UNIVERSE" and not have any real noteworthy impact on the movies (example: Multiple friends/colleagues of The Avengers know Coulson is alive now, but not The Avengers themselves for absolutely no good reason) ...the show is somehow now more emboldened about play with what feel like big, essential moving-parts of the Universe that you'd think the movies would get first-dibs on messing with: Last season got to introduce The Inhumans (whose movie doesn't come out until 2019) and start early on Marvel's long-term goal of turning them into Mutant/X-Men replacements; and now along with continuing that work Season 3 now gets to re-write a huge part of the MCU's history (on Earth, anyway) with a single conversation.
Specifically: HYDRA, the villainous group whose shenanigans have driven the plots of (so far) four movies and lurk (retroactively) in the background/mythos of all the rest, now has a brand-new, way way out there origin-story - which could be a signal that the movies are done using them or that the movie and TV sides of the MCU are about to start playing nice(er) with eachother.
"Many Heads, One Tale" is, like last week's "Chaos Theory," for the most part a plot-plot-plot affair (we are now racing toward the mid-season finale) with some long-awaited character moments dropped in for seasoning: Fitz/Simmons finally cry it out and kiss, Coulson and Price both show all their cards, we get official confirmation that Gideon Malick is the Security Council member Powers Boothe played in AVENGERS and a HYDRA bigwig to boot, we (apparently) learn what the ATCU is (and isn't) actually up to and May and Lincoln bury the hatchet...
...oh, and it turns out everything we thought we knew about HYDRA, one of the essential building-blocks of Marvel's continuity-experiment, is not only wrong - they're actually up to something that sounds (conceptually) like the biggest-scale villain plan any MCU villain has had outside of whatever Thanos is up to.
So let's get that out of the way first: As revealed to Ward by Malick, HYDRA is actually over a thousand years old, with The Red Skull's "Nazi Deep-Science Division" incarnation being merely HYDRA's "thing to do" in the 1940s. As it turns out, HYDRA's actual origin is a cult that worships an unnamed all-powerful Inhuman from ancient times who was exiled from Earth using The Monolith - their entire purpose, encompassing everything the organization has ever done, is to find a way to bring this Inhuman "god" back to Earth so he (she? it?) can conquer it.
In light of that, the major revelations otherwise almost seem kind of perfunctory - even though they're directly tied-in: The ATCU has been run by HYDRA via Malick the whole time, but (apparently) without Rosalind Price's knowledge - oh, and they aren't "curing" Inhumans, they're working to make and conscript as many of them as they can. Astronaut Will's portal-crossing mission? HYDRA as well, with heavy implication that the shape-shifting, mind-controlling entity that bedeviled Will and Simmons on the alien planet is the unnamed Inhuman "god." Lash? Now in Malick/Ward/HYDRA's hands, seemingly on-track to be re-weaponized. So... a lot going on to deal with.
On the non-plot side, the reveal that Price has been played by the outfit she was supposedly running felt so weirdly clunky that I almost want it to be a double fake-out. I mean, seriously? All this time she's been confidently/assertively running an operation whose supposed sole reason to exist (warehousing and attempting to cure Inhumans) she was just "taking on faith" as existing because the work was being done in a room she wasn't supposed to go into? That's dumb.
I get the purpose of the fake-out: Get the audience all riled up to see Coulson pull a stone cold "Gotcha! I played you before you could play me!" move, then yank it away by contriving a scenario where Price was actually duped and acting in good faith - making Coulson (kind of) the asshole this time... but there had to be a better way. On the other hand, the actual reveal of this was a fine acting turn for both of them. It's always uncomfortable, in a modern context, to see a "good guy" doing the 60s James Bond seduce-to-manipulate thing; and it's especially strange when the perpetrator is a character like Coulson who's typically played as a boyish do-gooder. Credit that they pulled off what's a pretty dark turn (Coulson basically used and manipulated Price in an overall pretty cruel way in order to get at intel she wasn't hiding and didn't know herself) in a way that leaves new places for characters to go rather than just ruining the character (Coulson) forever.
Elsewhere, the "let's go undercover" infiltration scene with Hunter and Bobbi was fun, but it's also the kind of well the show has gone to too many times when it needs a "fun" was to dump a bunch of exposition and place-setting. Apart from the "Oh, it's HYDRA again and they're making their own Inhuman army" discovery, we get the debut of a new recurring Inhuman villain in Mark Dacascos "Giyera;" and while Dacascos is one of those hardworking B-movie martial-arts pros action fans are always glad to see (depending on your age/region he's immediately recognizable as either Wo Fat from the newer HAWAII FIVE-0, The Chairman from IRON CHEF AMERICA, Mani from BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF or Billy Lee from DOUBLE DRAGON) it's a little dissapointing that his Inhuman power turns out to be "Magneto, just without the name and outfit."
- Who/what is the ancient Inhuman that HYDRA has apparently been trying to bring to Earth this whole time? I don't know. I still have trouble believing that it's going to be one of the marquee Inhumans at this juncture, and it really could be any Cosmic Marvel fixture not yet claimed by the movies re-worked as "actually an Inhuman." So for now I guess everyone from Immortus to Death is on the table ("Ma'Veth," Hebrew for "Death," is the title of the mid-season finale.)
- That having been said, it could more narrowly be The Unspoken, who was the Inhumans' king before Black Bolt. OR, if we're supposed to glean anything from HYDRA's logo apparently having evolved from a ram skull, Pazuzu technically exists in Marvel as well.
- THAT having been said, some of the dialogue from Fitz/Simmons laying this all out mentioned "inspiring legends of devils." I wonder... could this be where/how we get an MCU version of Mephisto (who is not technically *the* devil, in the comics)?
- Over in Entertainment Weekly, Clark Gregg (Coulson) coyly refers to talk of the (now pretty obvious) emerging storyline of S.H.I.E.L.D and HYDRA both having Inhuman armies as "a war of some kind that will not be civil in nature, while at the same time being very civil in nature." Heh.
- But wait - it won't exactly be a surprise if AGENTS has to mention/incorporate the events of CIVIL WAR similarly to the way WINTER SOLDIER and AGE OF ULTRON worked, but does this mean S.H.I.E.L.D and HYDRA are taking "sides" in it? Hm. In the comics, "Civil War" was an organic ideological schism, but I can see the movies going with "HYDRA did stuff to trigger/escalate this fight."
- See also: Bret Dalton (Ward) has been teasing a "WINTER SOLDIER-level" twist for the mid-season. But short of "Coulson has been evil this whole time, somehow" I'm not sure what's left to do that could meet that challenge (and that would be stupid.)
NEXT WEEK: Nothing, because Thanksgiving. But the week after next brings "CLOSURE," the penultimate episode before the series breaks for Winter (and Season 2 of AGENT CARTER.)