This week’s episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is so densely packed with character and plot that I feel season two is starting to heat up, despite a bit of a bland subplot regarding some brain freeze…
The episode opens with Whedonverse veteran Reed Diamond (Dollhouse, Much Ado About Nothing) as Doctor Daniel Whitehall, who’s in the beginning stages of brainwashing a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent – an indicator of the plot twist of the episode hiding in plain sight. Diamond, I can guarantee, is a charming guy, so I’ll be excited to see how he can make the audience enjoy how evil he is later on in the season.
This week has its qualifying “Whedon-ing” moment right off the bat, as we see Jenna Simmons for the first time in the season, with an upbeat, gleeful montage of hitting alarm clocks, preparing coffee, eating breakfast sandwiches and catching up with the security guard at work. What has she been doing all this time? Science, of course. For whom? Well, too bad the promo reels all through last week ruined the surprise, because on the walls of her most recent job is a big, devious Hydra symbol.
Why is this my Whedon-ing pick for the week? Because there’s no one other than a Whedon who knows how to make the most evil of organizations and its staff look plain, ordinary, and even pleasant. The easiest example to point to is the folks pulling the strings in the midst of the 2012 meta horror comedy Cabin in the Woods. If you haven’t seen it, I won’t ruin any more than I have, and demand you go watch it on Netflix. The other example, of course, is on Angel, in which the do-gooder vampire moves to perform his vigilantism in Los Angeles, all the while putting up with the lawyers from Wolfram & Hart (It’s a play on words, you see), a company that showcases a corporate environment of meetings, paperwork and contracts in the background of numerous demons, blood sacrifices and apocalyptic collateral damage. Don’t even get me started on how this qualifies for Doctor Horrible’s Sing Along Blog as well. Needless to say, this had me shaking my head at the television with a smile going, “Tsk, tsk, you darn Whedons!”
What’re Coulson and S.H.I.E.L.D. up to this week? May has Skye training with weapons and her heart rate, mid-conversation proving not only has Skye become much more proficient with weaponry, but that she’s still very much holding a grudge against Ward. While doing inventory, Hunter stops by with Mack, continuing to pry at Skye about her experiences, as we’re reminded that she didn’t have an actual agent’s badge for very long before S.H.I.E.L.D. itself came crumbling down. May is opening up more this season as she mentors Skye, and the other agents, and a real weight to Ming Na Wen’s words shines through when she says that “for the record, experience doesn’t make it any easier to cross someone off.” This is a harsh piece of wisdom for May to be dishing out, especially with a rep sheet like hers.
We’re then transported to Morocco, where Donald Gill is reintroduced, the boy gifted with “Iceman” powers from last season that Fitz-Simmons once helped rescue. Keep in mind, he’s not THE Iceman of the X-Men, since that’s a copyright wall put there, but Donald Gill once was an ink-drawn character. Let’s take a look at his file:
Name: Donald Gill
Power: Cold blasts, ice missiles, ice structures, forming sleet snow or freezing rain.
Affiliation: Thunderbolts, HAMMER Industries, Baron Zemo, Mandarin’s operatives
Creator: David Michelinie, Bob Layton, Mark Bright
First Appearance: Iron Man #223 (1987)
Gill is encountered by a Hydra unit, whom he then freezes and vengefully shatters to pieces in a pretty decent looking ice effect, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen done before short of Mortal Kombat.
Coulson pays Simmons a surprise visit, with the greeting, “Did you think I wouldn’t find out?” Of course, what he meant was the contents of her refrigerator, jibing at her sriracha and beer. It turns out, of all people, Simmons has been playing double agent within Hydra as Coulson’s informant.
Of course, after Coulson instructs her to try building relationships within this Hydra business, she’s called upon for a dreaded questioning, but it’s not the right time in the season’s plot for Hydra to know about Coulson, so the questions are much more on the immediate side — her knowledge of Gill and his abilities.
Coulson debriefs the crew on Gill, and that Hydra is after him, proving Creel to be more than an anomaly. This raises questions because it proves just how deep into S.H.I.E.L.D.’s operations Hydra was, and that they equally hunt for gifted assets. In fact, along the same lines of the grey areas of evil I touched upon before, the episode tests the moral differences between Hydra and S.H.I.E.L.D. as well, particularly in visits to Grant Ward’s Psych Ward in his weekly attempt to convince Skye that he acted out of the best intentions, and made his loyalties exclusive to Garret. Although, just like a proper villain, he plays a trump card of evil’s moral compass regarding their extraction of gifted humans: “That’s why Hydra will win. When a SHIELD agent is considering right and wrong, Hydra’s already taken the shot.”
Fitz, in a single episode, makes excellent and dangerous progress, and begins to feel much more aware within the team, but also with himself. With Simmons as an unnamed informant of Coulson’s and Ward an unknown asset from Skye, Fitz feels as though he’s being kept in the dark, and while the debriefing shows his amazing progress with Mack assisting to finish his sentences instead of imaginary Simmons, she still pops in with him from time to time. But this week was different. Fitz suddenly decides that he doesn’t need her, and goes to investigate the locked room with the old SSR symbol on it. Unbeknownst to Fitz, he would find Ward’s cell inside. Instead of Ward leading this conversation, as he seems to convey complete remorse for the way he left Fitz and Simmons for dead, Fitz decides to take a defining action, struggling to find the words with every sentence, but able to convey his point all the same. Essentially, his lack of oxygen in his escape with Simmons killed enough of his brain cells, a real medical affliction to the body when it is deprived of oxygen for long enough, called Hypoxia. Not only is Fitz’s struggle now understandable, it is something tragically tangible. Fitz wants revenge, and nearly allows Ward to die of suffocation in his cell to prove the point. If Ward didn’t have information to spill about Gill’s brainwashing, Fitz may even have let him die…
Back in Morocco, Hunter, Skye and May arrive on the scene, and an action sequence ensues with revelations and decisions all thrust in between one another in an entertaining thrill, where the shots fired have more significance than a curved bullet. The reveal of Gill having already been a brainwashed Hydra asset was honestly the only sour note of the episode, not that it particularly mattered much since he was sent to drown in an icy plunge by Skye. The introduction of brainwashing as one of Hydra’s most potentially dangerous tactics doesn’t seem all that farfeched, as the Winter Soldier himself was a sleeper agent, but having it as a potential threat for Coulson in the future just seems to foreshadow something just a little bit too predictable for a future episode, and I hope that the show, and Jenna Simmons, can prove me wrong.
Oh yeah, and Ward is also totally playing the “I know who your father is” card on Skye. He better be careful or ol’ beard-y isn’t going to have any chips left to put down.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Episode 2.3. “Making Friends and Influencing People” (8/10)