The opening moments of this week’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” installment are about as run-and-gun as it gets. With Daisy Johnson now every bit as superpowered in the virtual reality “Framework” that they’re linked into as she is in real world, she and Agent May have to shoot their way out of the Hydra-controlled Triskelion. The fight scene is full of the requisite slow motion shots and backflips, and it ends with a dramatic display of Daisy’s power: blowing the Framework’s Madam Hydra out the back of the base’s movie famous elevator and onto the street below. In that moment, it seems for a moment that this is the hour we’ll be getting of the ABC Marvel Studios drama – all action, nor room to breath. But instead, things from there turn a bit more paranoid – showcasing a story that’s almost as exciting in how it slowly boils its way towards an endgame rather than explode its way there. The key word in that sentence being “almost.”
That’s because while the “All the Madame’s Men” episode makes a lot of headway for the “Agents of Hydra” arc – packing in more Easter Eggs, character reveals and general intrigue than we’ve seen in a while – it still lacks a big wow moment to carry it all the way home. There are much worse problems the show could be displaying at this point, to be honest.
Though it’s not quite the action epic it begins as, the escape of Daisy and May makes for an “all hands on deck” story. Back at S.H.I.E.L.D.’s secret HQ, Agent Ward is keyed up to find Daisy at any cost even if he doesn’t have a clue of where to start. Jemma and the resurrected Agent Trip find a break in the hunt for Madame Hydra’s reality-warping but still-mysterious super weapon and fly off in the Quinjet to shut it down. And Coulson and Mack try to step up and keep S.H.I.E.L.D. together after the death of their leader and superhero, Jeffrey “The Patriot” Mace, even as every TV broadcasts the face of Hydra propaganda foil Sunil Bakshi (welcome back, this week’s obscure character!) declaring their imminent demise.
What elevates this maneuvering are the little moments gluing the team together. Daisy’s frustration with the boundaries of the Framework aren’t quite enough to rattle the ever-ready May, but they make for a few cheap laughs. Coulson and Ward bond over their respective histories with S.H.I.E.L.D. in this reality – the former bailing before his career ever began and the latter being tapped by an honest influence in Victoria Hand (another unseen but comics-appreciated Easter Egg) rather than the Hydra corruption he faced in the real world. Even Jemma’s “Let’s piece together the psuedo-science” adventure has its own character charm thanks to the inclusion of the much missed Trip. But while Daisy and May eventually find their way to S.H.I.E.L.D., Jemma’s race to the oil rig base of Hydra’s design is an empty vessel – like a spot in a video game that never got fully developed.
That’s because in the real world, the location is full of a mad machine being built by Framework overlord Aida’s robot henchman based on designs the brainwashed Fitz is pumping in from the other side. The reveal of this fact is played up with a clever bit of headfake film editing making the viewer believe Jemma and Trip will burst in on the Russian good at any moment, but beyond that trickery what will entice fans more is the final explanation of what Aida’s been up to all along. For one, she can’t kill of the Agents plugged into her VR machine because as an LMD, she’s still bound by the First Law of Robotics. But (as Simmons surmises) once Fitz is done cracking the code on a matter-making machine straight from the Book of Darkhold, Aida will be able to grow a real human body for her in the real world and then slit the throats of all remaining S.H.I.E.L.D. Agents as they dream away in the Framework.
As reveals go, it’s much more of an “it fits” situation than a “Who could have seen this coming?” scenario, but then again all reveals can’t be show-stoppers. Luckily, while the drama on the outside world is a bit direct, a more intriguing secret story is being built up back in the Framework.
That’s because what’s really happening as the team comes back together is that every “real” person we know is locked in Aida’s illusion begins to wake up to their true selves, one way or the other. May is still the conflicted, guilt-ridden – just that now it’s over the very real death of Mace. Mack is still picking the hard but good choice when he leaves his daughter behind to risk his life to save Daisy – and he’ll have to leave his daughter again real soon. Coulson still the compassionate leader – one whose other life may come back to him with less tension than the other Agents. But as these characters lock in to place as personalities, the big question mark still hangs over Fitz. If his core is seen at all, it’s in the idea that he’ll do anything for love. But by loving Madame Hydra instead of Jemma so much that he wants to follow the former back out into the real world, it makes the viewer wonder whether he’ll keep hold of his mad scientist persona long after he wakes up.
The back half of the hour embraces these character discoveries as the S.H.I.E.L.D. team races to Bakshi’s studio to set the Hydra-verse right with a bit of investigative journalism worth of the movie the title is riffing on. By showing the world what Hydra is really up to with footage of the true cost of Mace’s life and death, they hope to throw enough resistance support at Hydra to open a window for Daisy and company to sneak to the exit point revealed by the still-captive Radcliffe. Around this scheme swirl plenty of questions: mostly revolving around what happens to those NOT waiting with bodies on the other side of reality. Will the truly good-natured Ward find the love we’re starting to feel he deserves if the framework stands? Will Fitz’s psychotic dad exert his influence on his son from beyond the boundaries of the Framework? Will Trip have to die another tragic death?
The episode ends with few answers on this front, instead relying on the show’s latest not-so-subtle jab at our current political moment to carry the episode to its conclusion. There are plenty of strong ideas running here, and the end tag promise that both Phil’s team and the Daisy/Jemma duo are in the sights of Aida as soon as she’s reborn makes for a high-stakes finale. But for now, this is a lot of pot boiler sideshow to the main attraction we really want.