This is the reality of the episode we step into; the first scene also reminds us of the stakes. In the first season while enjoyable Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was hampered by being beholden to several movies for major plot points. Thor helped establish the alien artifacts and Captain America helped establish the entire final act of the season. This season though Hydra is out of the shadows and without having to maintain the façade of being a part of the good guys they are able to move on their initiatives making the threat that much worse but also meaning the show as a programme no longer beholden to any specific movie is open to hit plot at their own leisure so we don’t have a half season setting up the characters with no real payoffs and in this week’s episode we get that payoff big time.
The opening seen sees Whitehall the seemingly immortal (or at least Super Soldier Serumed up) Nazi who was first seen with the first O84 gloating over what I believe is some finally aged whisky. Do Nazi’s drink whisky? I always pictured them as more beerhall kinds of bad guys. He and his right hand evil doer Bakshi are working on converting Agent 33 to the cause using the “Faustus method” in a scene that’s reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange. Between Kubrick style visuals and the literary hammer drop that is the word Faustus not a lot of subtlety is left here for the geek in the know (though both of these may admittedly be lost on less compulsive audiences).
From here we cut straight to the first big payoff of the season, we struggled to understand how Simmons could leave Fitz like this especially given his revelation in the season finale of Season 1 and once again I am reminded why I am madly in love with the show runners of this programme. It’s like they have plundered the mental playground of my brain and extracted all the things I love. We get a little musical interlude of Simmons waking up, exercising and getting ready to go in to the office backed by the side project of Stuart Murdoch singer from Belle and Sebastian called God Help the Girl singing their titular song God Help the Girl (not to be confused with his film God Help the Girl of which the band plays a central part… he can never be accused of not making the most of a catchy turn of phrase). In short, this is kind of like they found my sweet furry belly and started rubbing it. The thing that makes it so perfect is it sets the tone. If you had to hold up a prototypical Belle & Sebastian twee fan you couldn’t go far wrong with Simmons’ peter pan collared charming English accented self. The song is about self-empowerment and being able to find pleasure and worth outside of a relationship with a man. We see her striding confidently down the street with a cute little Simmons moment with a security guard before BANG the reveal; she’s working in a Hydra lab and we’re left hanging with her working for very evil people. God help that girl!
Back at the Playground we see Skye continuing to grow in to her role under May’s tutelage. In the first season much of the complaints were about the performances of Bennet and Dalton, how they felt too flat but the last half of the first season and the start of this season really shows that these were conscious decisions that are setting the characters for growth. The entire episode is illustrates that Skye is a survivor and is adapting to the situation. She does not like it, she’s not relishing it, but she’s doing what needs to be done (in a way reflecting what Simmons appears to be doing). May on the other hand seems much more relaxed, now that she has nothing to hide and is operating as a mentor not a minder, we get to see Wen playing a much more open May. Part of the training May hammering in to Skye is about control, keeping your heart and mind reigned in and part of this is monitoring Skye’s heart rate. During a shooting range exercise Skye is able to remain focused on hitting the targets with her heart rate never popping above 61 bpm. In this same scene we get a little bit of back and forth between the rest of the team creating the atmosphere and showing the building camaraderie.
Coulson has spent his time out recruiting, and not particularly successfully. Hydra are snapping up assets faster than shoppers in Walmart on Black Friday. Meanwhile Simmons running blood tests for Hydra finds one of these assets that they are trying to recruit is Donnie Gill aka Blizzard (which they even nicely drop in to the conversation as “Project Blizzard” it’s nice when the show calls out to the comic universe).
We get to see a bit of Donnie’s current life, living on the run he’s finally found a place where he felt safe in Marrakech. During his time in The Sandbox it would appear he’s refined his skills and now has powers much like his comic counterpart able to create incredibly cold ice fields through touch. Unfortunately for Donnie Hydra have also figured out where he fled to and send two of the lamest agents to try and bring him in. In anger Donnie freezes the innkeeper solid showing rage issues apparently developed along side his powers during his time in The Sandbox. I don’t know if it was deliberate but the two Hydra agents look somewhat like Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta’s characters from pulp fiction (even down to the lame pony tail). Donnie is having none of it freezing the African American Hydra agent and making a “boo” gesture at the Pony Tail agent who runs away. Seriously though, where did they cast this pony tail guy? He has no dialogue but somehow seems to suck the air out of the scene with his weird overly earnest expression and then while Donnie is there freezing his partner does NOTHING! Seriously, you have a gun. Shoot the dude! He then runs away because Donnie made a “Come at me bro” gesture?! Hydra may be getting the best and brightest of S.H.I.E.L.D. but they’re certainly holding them in reserve if this is what they send out for acquisitions. I honestly wouldn’t be shocked if pony tail dude was Bob, Agent of Hydra (and in fact that’s I think the one way they can turn that entire scene around).
Returning to Simmons the core of this episode, she’s returning home from a day at the evil office to find Coulson in her kitchen. During an intense two seconds we are led to believe she may have turned only to find she’s actually a mole inside Hydra during a cute exchange about her dietary habits (seriously that girl must have a mutant metabolism to keep that figure and eat the way she does I’m sorry Gifted they don’t use the M word in the Marvel Cinematic Universe). The entire conversation between Simmons and Coulson sets up how both of these characters have grown. Simmons is taking a more active role in trying to bring down Hydra. I suspect it’s because she’s mad at what they’ve done and is stepping up to do the jobs that need doing while Coulson is no longer protecting his team from the tough jobs but making the kinds of decisions that get the job done even if it puts people he cares about in a position where they may not make it out alive.
Attempting to get more information about Donnie Skye has another sit down with Ward which doesn’t go so well. Dalton’s performance is masterful, Ward is truly crazy but in a way that’s incredibly disturbing. His devotion to Skye is well beyond the realm of love and in to the kind of idolatry that doesn’t border on stalker but has moved in to the neighbourhood, bought a nice house, and set up a chair on the porch of stalkerdom but we will touch on this more later. Skye meanwhile has nothing but contempt and even scolds herself for talking to him like a “normal” person talking about his family and Ward’s ability to shift blame around. Skye mentions how they are “loved” and Ward says every family has its secrets which I suspect is going to pay off later or I hope as it would be interesting to see what drove Ward to being the monster he is. We also get to understand the difference between Hydra and S.H.I.E.L.D. if they can’t get their hands on an asset Hydra would rather burn it than let it fall in to the enemy’s hands and while S.H.I.E.L.D. wastes time worrying about the “good thing to do” Hydra does what needs to be done.
Donnie sending out a “calling card” to Hydra freezes a Hydra cargo vessel in the port of Casablanca letting them know of his presence. This pushes both sides in to action to either claim Donnie or take him off the board. Simmons is dragged before Bashki who begins to interrogate her, they were aware of her relationship with Donnie and want to know why she didn’t disclose the relationship when she started on Project Blizzard. Simmons does an admirable job of not quite lying her way out of the situation only to find herself inserted in to an even deeper pile of trouble suiting up to go with Bakshi and a retrieval team to get their hands on Donnie. We do get to check in on Whitehall who is giving a great Evil Villain speech, you know sort of speech you’d expect from a Patton style character but inspiring acts of great evil through metaphor instead of acts of great good. Agent 33 is hanging on here but the struggle is pretty clear and we’re given an idea of what S.H.I.E.L.D. is really facing here.
While all this is going on Simmons has been sent in to be a “friendly face” and convince Donnie to go with her to Hydra and Skye, May and Hunter are doing a HALO jump in to Casablanca and retrieve Donnie. While everything starts going sideways on the tanker Fitz gets Mac to reach out to The Bus to tell them about the brain washing techniques and how Donnie had already been recruited. Things are not going all that well, Donnie is suspicious of Simmons who is given instructions on how to trigger Donnie’s programming that Fitz has just let the team know about and the S.H.I.E.L.D. team come across the conversation Hunter almost taking out Simmons not realizing who she was (thankfully this gave May an excuse to shoot him… so one less person he has to worry about getting him back just two more to go, please make this a running gag).
Simmons leads Donnie back to Bakshi who retriggers his programming and uses Donnie to cover their exit, Donnie protects Bakshi and Simmons as they make their way back to the helicopter when Skye decides to “remove Donnie from the board” and shows that the longer this goes on in many ways S.H.I.E.L.D. is becoming more and more like Hydra. The upside is now the team knows about Simmons’ cover (with May having previously been the only person in the know aside from Coulson) they’ve been able to ingratiate her to Bakshi. Closing out the show we see Skye have a heart to heart with May about the new nature of S.H.I.E.L.D. and also the fact that Donnie’s corpse hasn’t turned up. Coulson meanwile decides to shoot straight with Fitz saying how important he is and how he can see his progress but also explaining how he can’t even look at Ward and that he doesn’t want him there and he hid him from Fitz because he didn’t want to burden him with that. He also opens up that Simmons is on assignment while dodging answering why she went. There’s a lot more transparency in the team but that transparency includes that fact that there will sometimes be secrets.
Bakshi who was impressed by Simmons has expressed an interest in “bringing her upstairs” to Whitehall. This becomes exceptionally ominous though because we get a shot of Agent 33 bringing some files to Whitehall and Bakshi mentioning Simmons would be “made to comply” a part of the trigger phrase for the Faustus method. This leads to the episode stinger which gets back to what I touched on earlier, Ward’s devotion. Skye is not impressed by Ward and continues her cool act while asking about the brainwashing technique. Ward explains how it’s only used on high value targets but passes up the opportunity to use it as an excuse and continues to be honest with Skye finally explaining how Ward knows about her father and that he is alive and looking for her and one day he wants her to trust him enough to let him bring Skye to her father. This triggers something in Skye, all episode we’ve seen her monitoring her heart rate and keeping cool and in control but at the very mention of her father you can see her start to get edgy and when she flees the room her heart rate is through the roof. Ward’s devotion to Skye is mirrored in Raina’s devotion to Skye’s father (which surpasses her devotion to Hydra). Is there something about these O84s that can influence people or is it simply devotion? It’s hard to tell but one of the best things about this season is there’s no holding back, we’re getting plot threads paying off much faster and much more entirely than last season.
In short this is a masterful episode; we balance tension and suspense with momentum and action. We are given updates on plot threads that are running through the season without it being obvious or pounded in like a hammer blow. This is Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. at its best.