The slow boil has been a mixed bag in the past for ABC’s Marvel Studios drama Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. While the series’ tendency to hold back vital info fits well into its espionage vibe, the results have gone from “Holy shit! Agent Ward is evil!” to “Yeah, we all guessed that Skye was Daisy Quake.” As Season 3 has gotten underway, the show has doubled down on its approach, however the enjoyable but inconsequential “A Wanted (Inhu)man” did little to indicate how strong this year’s material will be even as it had the cast drawing line after line in the sand.
The episode starts with with the eponymous Inhuman – Lincoln Campbell. Once the steely eyed guide to Skye’s own transformation, the electronically powered doctor has seen his stock fall bad. Now on the run from the “use lethal force if necessary”-happy agency called the Advanced Threat Containment Unit, Lincoln has few people he can trust. Luckily, the Inhuman is still pretty adept at using his bioelectric charges to escape danger, and most of his hour is spent shocking off everyone from A.T.C.U. to some random veteran he meets on the bus.
The one group he’s not allowing to get close enough to get burned is S.H.I.E.L.D. Despite Daisy’s burning desire to bring Lincoln in to join her growing team of Secret Warriors, Coulson and Mack fear the consequences their teammate’s former mentor will deliver on the beleaguered agency. And from the tracker the S.H.I.E.L.D. men planted on Lincoln on through the rest of the hour, the episode is mostly an exercise in testing the bonds between Daisy and her friends. None of these moves are particularly earth-shattering, but all are played with confidence and a feeling of genuine stakes by the cast. In particular, Luke Mitchell’s turn as the harried and hunted Inhuman is far stronger than anything he did as the mysterious mentor last season.
Elsewhere, the stories of S.H.I.E.L.D. both at home and in the field feature similar standoffs to Daisy’s jockeying for a place at the big kids table. The recently recovered Simmons is suffering from a bit more that PTSD from her trip across the galaxy to a barren alien planet. Largely shutdown from the experience, her tour through the lab with Fitz continually flashes out of her head and…seemingly into the mind of the broken monolith that was destroyed in the rescue? It’s hard to tell, but several shots appear to be looking at Simmons from the POV of the broken rocks, hinting that her connection to the other world runs deeper than anyone expects and ultimately divides her from her friends. An emotional breakdown during dinner with Fitz later in the episode assures the viewer that this is still the Jemma we know and love rather than some body snatched bad guy. But whatever the connection she shares with her otherwordly transportation, the most we get as far as answers this time out is a “We have to go back” moment of later season setup.
Meanwhile, Hunter and May’s attempt to go undercover at the leaner, meaner Hydra mines some similar character work out of another plotline that’s otherwise puttering along. After meeting up with Spud – a hard-drinking mate from Hunter’s former undercover life with criminal scum – our pair set a plan to earn their way into a Hydra meeting via an undercover fight club. While the “you can move up the ladder if you survive this ass-kicking,” concept is about as contrived as they come, the move does work on two levels. For one, Hunter’s showdown with his old pal (who he never realized hated him for years of unsubtle romance mocking) plays as a rather brutal brawl that pushes Hunter into the kind of “over the edge” territory he expects of May (who’s own fight with three interchangeable dirtbags seems superfluous, but whatever). Secondly, the setup at the very least reinforces the new Hydra’s “earn your keep” mantra that stems from Ward’s own worldview. How exactly the S.H.I.E.L.D. pair’s cover will be kept when they get to the point where Ward sees one of his new recruits is his old friend with benefits May is worrisome, but for now we’ll see how it goes.
The episode’s main action wraps with the final (or final for now) fate of poor Lincoln. After meeting up with his previously unmentioned AA sponsor, the Inhuman feels like he has a chance to escape, but A.T.C.U.’s cable news warnings about his alien nature turn Lincoln’s friend against him. This time, a bit of pyrotechnics does more than scare a potential captor off as Lincoln causes his pal to go into cardiac arrest. Saddled with the guilt of becoming the monster they’re painting him to be, Lincoln reaches out to Daisy too late. Though she tries to bring him into the fold with an admission of love (hooray soap operatics!), Coulson is one step ahead. The director first tries to sell Lincoln out to A.T.C.U. in order to save Daisy from the now favored spy agencies thugs, but then when Lincoln escapes again (where does he go exactly after setting off his sparks anyway?), Phil is forced to team up with rival superspy Rosalind rather than let their competing agendas distract from the bigger mission of saving Inhumans from Hydra.
All of these moves are really incremental movements in the show’s latest long-running drama. But they do leave the cast a bit more shaken and split. Can Daisy trust her bosses to stick true to her values? Can Simmons convince her friends to follow the path set by her alien experience? Can Hunter keep a hold of who he is when battling his way up the Hydra ranks? All of these are worthy questions for the moment. But let’s wait and see how big a payout the payoffs provide.
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