[This is a Review of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 2, Episode 3 – There Will Be SPOILERS!!]
From its premiere episode, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. made its goal clear for season 2: to drop the cast into a brave new world where secrecy was their only hope of survival, and above all, start to deliver on the potential established in the show's turbulent first season. With a number of subplots, budding relationships, and half-truths among a group once designed as a family more than a strike team highlighted in Episode 2, this week's episode begins to set the wheels turning, and putting even more members of the remaining team in harm's way - from HYDRA just as much as each other.
In "Making Friends and Influencing People," written by Monica Owusu-Breen (Fringe, Revolution), the assignment given to Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) is revealed: pose as a HYDRA recruit in an attempt to infiltrate their hierarchy, while supplying Director Coulson (Clark Gregg) with intelligence on the still-largely-unknown organization; a task that Skye (Chloe Bennet) is also pursuing in her ongoing sessions with an imprisoned Ward (Brett Dalton). Meanwhile, the villainous Whitehall (Reed Diamond) shows that brainwashing captured S.H.I.E.L.D. agents is how he spends at least part of his time, while his underlings race Coulson's team in an effort to track a familiar 'gifted' - Donald Gill (Dylan Minnette).
If the previous episode was one of the best yet in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s run, then it's compliment enough to say that "Making Friends..." sets its sights merely at keeping the story moving forward from its predecessor. From the show's opening moments, it's clear that the characters on either side now occupy their very own self-contained universe, thankfully removed from Marvel's cinematic spectacles. Beyond allowing for some workplace humor that helps to humanize the people within HYDRA's lower ranks, that division allows what truly matters to the immediate plot to take center stage - not an endless number of veiled forces at play.
Where "Heavy is the Head" built its emotional core around Fitz's ongoing struggle to regain his place in the team (in his eyes, not those of his colleagues), "Making Friends..." spreads the affection across the cast, including some unlikely pairings. Fitz's new friendship with Henry Simmons' 'Mack' still shines in its brief screen time, but it's the slight (slight) softening of May (Ming-Na Wen) towards Skye that will stand out to longtime viewers. In fact, it may even be more accurate to say that the camaraderie seen is a result of Skye hardening, growing ever closer to a skilled operative that May could believably begin to trust.
With the new members and faces of the team being more or less cemented alongside the old (and Hunter still working to convince his team that he's on their side for good), the time is right to let Coulson remove the weight of his director role. And how better to remind viewers of Coulson's fatherly side than a secret dinner with Simmons? Thankfully the proposed 'twist' of Simmons' character is brushed aside immediately, and although the face-to-face contact between the two is also kept to a minimum, both characters get a chance to show that they still remain the warm, personable people they always were; even if the war they're fighting has drastically shifted.
Elizabeth Henstridge deserves special credit, leaving behind her labcoat and academic monologues for some certified covert intelligence-gathering. There was a time when the idea of either Fitz or Simmons behaving secretively would be scoffed at (and viewers got to see how hopeless Simmons was at Skye's brand of espionage in season 1), but she sells her mission from the very start. Her pained expressions and sidelong glances to the audience may remind us that she would likely be happier in a lab next to Fitz, but this episode is hers, and proves that the writers have managed to create their characters with enough depth to now move them across the board, and out of their defined spaces.
Following that same logic, this week's episode also showed Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) in a brand new light. Just as he seems to be taking a step forward in regards to his mental state - acknowledging that his Simmons is only in his head - he's dealt a crushing blow. Not only being brought face-to-face with a friend turned traitor, but realizing that those closest to him have kept him in the dark. De Ceastecker is given a chance to bring something new to his character, and doesn't disappoint. And as he's reduced to tears, viewers will be just as unsure of which is worse: Ward's betrayal, or the secrets being told for his sake.
The weakest part of the episode, unfortunately, is the 'gifted' Donnie Gill, a character that was shown to be at least somewhat remorseful or understood when his prior arc came to a close. Since he is used in this episode merely as a plot device to get HYDRA and S.H.I.E.L.D. to the same location, and thrust Simmons into their midst, his character treads back into the well-worn 'monster of the week' of the prior season. Amounting to little more than an angry murderer boasting some impressive special effects, there's little emotion to his arc at all.
Luckily, the writers seem to be aware of that, keeping his role to the background, and instead placing the emphasis on the broken, wounded, and all-around complicated team Coulson is attempting to build into a functioning team.
The reason there's enough meat on those bones is thanks to the time spent building to this point. The dynamics between Fitz and Coulson, May and Skye, Skye and Ward, and Ward and Fitz are all grounds for some gut-wrenching drama. And "Making Friends..." succeeds by simply allowing those elements to play to their strengths, while keeping a 'pseudo-sci-fi' subplot as some added flavor, not the story around which every character must shift.
Those who tuned in to see just that in season 1 are unfortunately not returning in the numbers ABC would hope, which is a shame. Because three episodes into season 2, it finally feels like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has the chance to carry its own weight, without the added bulk - or help - of the larger Marvel universe.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. returns next Tuesday with “Face My Enemy” @9pm on ABC. You can check out a preview of next week’s episode below:
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