Since Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. returned from its midseason hiatus, something has felt different, and off. The show is certainly still better than the first two-third’s of season 1, but it’s settled in between the heights of the end of season 1 and the lead up to the midseason finale. Is anything wrong? What’s different? Am I overreacting and being picky and finicky like always? Yes, that’s most definitely happening, but I don’t think I’m the only one who’s been less enthused with the storylines following Raina and Skye’s transformation. I’ll seek to unpack why, as we recap this week’s episode “Love in the Time of Hydra,” that doesn’t have much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s seminal novel Love in the Time of Cholera. It’s mostly a punny title that banks on the Hydra name, even though at this point, Hydra’s barely a whisper.
We open on two characters we haven’t seen since the show returned, former Agent Ward and Agent 33, still rocking the scarred Melinda May face. They’re at an old-town diner, with 33 unable to choose a meal/face, and Ward hopping on pumpkin pancakes with pecan syrup. Considering it’s an over the top lovey dovey scene with two criminals at a diner, we’ve certainly walked into the opening scene of Pulp Fiction (Tim Roth’s character is even called Pumpkin by Amanda Plummer’s, like Ward’s pancakes). After ordering, they whip out their guns, take out the cameras and corner a nerdy looking guy. He’s willing to give over his wallet, but Agent 33 has something else in mind: “You’re going to fix my face.” This seemingly back road diner seems like an odd place to find the guy who created the facial mask technology, until you remember the delicious sounding homemade pecan syrup. Sidenote: Can you imagine if Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury/Jules Winnfield was at this same diner? The pop culture multiverse would’ve imploded in ecstasy.
Ward and 33 have certainly grown close since 33 saved his life (last we saw Ward, Skye had put several bullets in him), and they’re a welcome sight, especially if you like weird/awkward/creepy romantic vibes that make you feel dirty. It’s also going to be fun to see Ward continue to operate on his own, freed from SHIELD and Hydra, to do whatever sadistic things he has up his sleeve.
Back at (the fake?) SHIELD base, Simmons is checking out Skye’s arm injuries, giving her new casts. Fitz, as per usual, is hovering around, trying to stay positive. He compares Skye’s powers to Captain America (one of two Cap references in this ep), but Simmons quickly corrects him: Skye’s powers are closer to the Hulk’s. Fitz argues that Hulk helped save the world, so that ain’t a bad thing, but Simmons (correctly) argues that Bruce Banner would take a cure immediately. This argument, which is clearly about Skye (and FitzSimmons’ sexual frustrations), makes Skye (and the base) shaky, forcing her to stalk off into her cube again.
Everything’s about Skye! Last week, May’s ex and Skye’s therapist recommended that Skye should be removed from SHIELD. May agrees, a decision that surprises Coulson, who wants to keep Skye here. She’s not just an asset or someone on the Index… she’s Skye. She’s a whole new category, May argues, one that even she doesn’t know how to handle. Coulson, knowing May’s invincible, points out that she always finds a way. “Not always,” May mutters referencing history that is supposed to mean something but doesn’t, even if it’s referenced every episode. “This isn’t Bahrain,” Coulson responds. Can we just have the Bahrain episode already? AOS has a nasty habit of characters alluding to past history and past events in an effort to give them layers, backstory and mystery…but it really just points out with a neon sign stories and scenes that seem more interesting than the ones we’re watching. This happens between Hunter and Bobbi all the time, and again in this episode, when it comes to an apparently miserable eagle heavy road trip through Arizona. Hunter and Bobbi talking about their past relationship incessantly doesn’t make their present one more interesting or fruitful. It doesn’t substitute the characterization (or lack thereof) that we need to see to get attached.
Elsewhere, Scientist Diner Patron Guy fixes 33’s face, bringing us a normal May face. The tech isn’t perfect, he says, dissing Ming-Na’s face, but it’s good enough for a SHIELD… or Hydra mission, he adds. Apparently 33 can only store three different faces at once, but she’s having trouble recovering her original face, the one that Maya Stojan keeps getting paid for despite hardly being in the show (good gig). But hey, you “can be anyone you want,” Selwyn (the Scientist) says, about to die off screen.
Then we (finally) get back to the Mack proclaimed “real S.H.I.E.L.D.” No character, not even Simmons, has lost more oomph, flavor and fun since this whole (misguided?) plotline has ballooned than Mack, who tells Hunter to keep his voice down as he takes him to “see the wizard.” That grizzled wizard is the incredible Edward James Olmos as Robert Gonzales, the other head of SHIELD. It’s clever casting, because if there’s anyone you automatically respect as a leader, it’s Edward James Olmos. Sure we’re supposed to ally ourselves with Phil Coulson, but it’s ADAMA, man. Plus, has Coulson really been the Coulson we know and love this season?
Gonzales is joined by Agent Calderon (the ever-ubiquitous Kirk Acevedo), Agent Weaver (The Mentalist‘s Christine Adams) and Bearded Agent, who is probably Agent Oliver (NCIS‘ Mark Allan Stewart). Since Fury died (another secret that seems silly for people not to know is untrue at this point), this SHIELD has been formed out of a desire for leadership to operate with transparency. Fury had too many secrets, and Coulson’s heading down the same path, a path that has led to the death of Isabelle Hartley (remember Lucy Lawless?) and Trip as well as Skye and Raina’s transformation. They’re undeniably right, but because Bobbi and Mack have been spying on Coulson and company for ages, it feels entirely disingenuous. But that’s the point: Is SHIELD ever the answer?
Is SHIELD ever going to be as “good” as it should be or wants to be? Is it possible for a massive spy agency to be anything but corrupt? Is SHIELD obsolete? I hope these are the questions AOS asks going forward, but instead, it almost feels like they’re doubling down on SHIELD (literally) because they’re afraid to admit that a SHIELD-based show might not make that much sense anymore. They can’t jump head long into Inhumans land, and it almost again feels like they’re running around like chickens with their heads cut off until Avengers 2 comes out, Fury joins the land of the living, and SHIELD’s status is irrevocably changed again. There’s a more meta, self-aware version of this show where they realize their missions are useless, that they’re merely cleaning up the Avengers messes and that they can only battle D-level villains, one that would feel more like The Replacements in tone. That’s never gonna happen, so they have to gamble on the characters they’ve created and use other ways than CW-like lies/secrets for plot.
Either way, Hunter can’t believe that Bobbi’s a part of this, but she is. She believes Coulson’s been compromised. Cut to… Coulson and Simmons meeting in his office about their newest secret, wherein Simmons hands Coulson a briefcase of some sort that has to do with Skye. Then Coulson visits Skye, who’s failing at the game of Operation. He’s come to take her for a ride, which yes Skye, does feel very Old Yeller-y.
Meanwhile, Agent 33 is flipping through magazines and cycling through pretty faces. Ward bounces in with another surprise, the next phase in a plan. Ward’s always got something going, even if we never know it. 33 is a mess; she’s so thankful for Ward’s help but has nothing to give him in return. She’s so fragile, and it’s a master stroke to see this vulnerability on Melinda May’s face, who’s as invulnerable as Steve Rogers most of the time.
Later she realizes she does have something to give Ward, and that’s Skye’s face. She starts kissing Ward as Skye, and it’s uncomfortable for everyone. Skye has Melinda’s hair and her voice, it’s the romantic equivalent to nails on a chalkboard. Even Ward puts a stop to it. “I’m not insane,” he says, a lie that only he believes. But getting shot by Skye at least has calmed his hots for her. Plus, he clearly wants to manipulate and use 33, claiming that he wants them to be together, but not when she’s wearing May or Skye’s face, but when she has her own. It’d be beautiful if I believed it for a second.
She needs closure, Ward believes, and he has just the person to give it: Bakshi, who’s still imprisoned with General Talbot at the Air Force. And so, Ward and 33 pay the military not-so-stronghold a visit, 33 taking on the guise of Talbot’s wife. The guard, noting her awful/creepy May voice, suspects she has a cold, and Talbot, seeing her on screen, lets her in without an ID. Morons.
En route to wherever Coulson’s taking Skye, Coulson talks about his father, and his Dad forced him to spend time fixing up a car. Only afterwards did he realize how beautiful it was, and how great it was to spend time with him. That car? A 1962 red corvette, much like Lola. Aw. “I’m the car in this story, right?” Skye asks, gloriously Whedon-y. They arrive at a safe house, a cabin in the woods (that hopefully isn’t as dangerous as The Cabin In The Woods), one for people with powers. Even Cap stayed here, post-defrost. Skye’s as wary as she should be. Don’t worry, it’s a “safe place,” Coulson attempts to soothe. After all it’s got a laser fence. What’s not safe about lasers?!
Also: Here are some power inhibitor gloves Simmons made (this is what was in the briefcase), to neuter you and your powers. Coulson says she doesn’t have to wear them, that it’s up to her. They clearly have side effects, but we don’t really know what they are, beyond it controlling her powers. Eventually Skye will undoubtedly embrace her true self, but right now, suppressing it seems pretty ideal. She asks Coulson for advice, to drop the SHIELD act, and he merely says she’ll make the right decision, because she’s one of the few people he knows he can trust. Way to not answer or help at all. Coulson’s getting good at that.
Speaking of, Olmos’ SHIELD sends Mack back to Coulson’s SHIELD, as if no one will be suspicious that he’s just been MIA for days at a time. When he comes back, he makes up some BS about taking care of a drunk and heartbroken Hunter, keeping him out of bar fights. Thankfully, May can’t possibly believe the story. You’d think since Mack is an undercover agent he’d be better at lying. This story needs to move faster.
In the Air Force bunker, Talbot gathers all the women on the base, trying to figure out which one is Mystique-ing them. This gives us a hilarious scene where he tries to out Agent 33, grabbing a poor Major’s face. Instead, 33’s a dude with a hat, covering his awful hair. There, with the help of Ward, who kills the seemingly ONLY guard and waltzes in, they reach Bakshi and extract him easy peasy. Thinking she might be 33, Talbot makes his real wife cry when he sees her, and it’s the best, a sentence that makes me sound awful.
Coulson keeps the secrets coming; he refuses to tell Fitz where he took Skye. I kind of want Olmos to take over. Or at least the inevitable roster absorption between both of them.
Fitz is the only character operating at maximum efficiency and awesome right now. He goes to Simmons to ask after the briefcase, and Simmons says it’s to help Skye, to “fix” her. Fitz has never seen her so scared, and he knows she’s scared because how he and Skye have changed since their accidents, but the scariest change? YOURS. Boom. Take that Simmons. Fitz walks away, killing it.
Bobbi and Hunter have a heart to heart, where she basically admits she screwed up. I don’t know if we ever got enough of Hunter and Bobbi together to identify with this scene as much as we want to, but I do like that the roguish Hunter is in the right, that he wants out, and asks Bobbi to come with him, to leave the spy game behind, a scene we’ve seen 178 times before. She, of course, can’t, so Hunter escapes… though it’s a lot harder because they’re out to sea on an aircraft carrier (maybe a HELICARRIER?!). Or is it? He escapes super easily anyways, even though being out to sea is seen as a big Act-Out heightening reveal.
Ward and 33 have also easily escaped the Air Force base (with Bakshi), and Talbot calls Coulson to give the bad news. Plus, he gets the best line of the episode. “I’m up to my ears in edible arrangements,” to mend the rift between he and his wife. Talbot’s kind of the best, a far cry from when he first came on the scene.
That Ward is out there is obviously not a great development. But more importantly: Coulson and May both know Mack is up to something, which HOPEFULLY means we can finally hash this shit out once and for all next week. Considering they’re sending Bobbi back into Coulson’s crew, with Hunter MIA (and possibly willing to blow their cover), they damn well better.
We finish with Ward and 33, who has her original face back, even though it’s scarred. Ward’s proud of her, but this is “just the beginning.” Bakshi’s strapped down, the brainwashing visuals of the Faustus Method on the screen. It’s time for Bakshi to comply.
This is a solid episode, and AOS is by no means bad. But we saw it’s full potential last season and this season, which makes me more frustrated when it’s not living up to it.