We’ve said it again and again, but “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” is truly its best self when it embraces the fact that it’s a spy show. The Marvel ABC drama may take place in a superhero universe, but its occasional forays into origin stories and widescreen action storytelling have nothing on the episodes where it explores the quiet, crushing costs of the espionage life.
And that’s why, despite a few missteps, this week’s “The Return” was such a winning installment. While the premise at the heart of the show is sci-fi ridiculousness – the entire team has to scramble with the birth of a new super-Inhuman allied with a missile-shooting madman while also unpacking the lives they lived in an alternate reality – the theme of the story is simple. This is all about the cast reconciling the two worlds, the two lives they’ve been living in. Much like undercover agents who “go native,” the events of the Hydra-controlled Framework reality leaves our cast struggling to find their true selves again.
The transition is somewhat easier for Daisy and Yo-Yo. The former didn’t absorb the background and memories of her Framework counterpart, so all she has to deal with in waking up is answering to the latter’s inquiries on why Mack didn’t escape the virtual world as well. The pairs arguments are heated and emotional because what hangs underneath is the question of who was closer to the still dreaming comrade. Daisy’s relied on Mack as her rock through some of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s most ridiculous adventures, but Yo-Yo has become close enough to the man to know the true history of the lost daughter he chose over returning.
The slight downside to this story is the action backdrop it plays out against. Daisy and Simmons have awoken still in midflight in a Quinjet that is low on power and under attack. Despite a valiant effort by the writers, the supporting players who pilot the mission still feel like red shirt throwaways. And despite some fast-paced filming, the final move to blow up their drone pursuer is never really a nailbiting moment. Of course they’ll all make it out alive.
But questions of survival aren’t the only way to make for strong drama in a spy show, as Coulson and May’s story reveals. Awake but physically weak in the oil platform base where Aida plugged them into the framework weeks (or months in May’s case) ago, the pair have to fight off an army of androids that look and kill like the Inhuman-hating Russian who’s been bouncing around all season. While they do, the pair of best S.H.I.E.L.D. pals and possibly romantic partners have to catch each other up on what’s happened to them in the real world and the fake one. This puts an extreme amount of awkward tension on Coulson who’s both ashamed to admit he didn’t catch May’s LMD doppelgänger sooner AND that his relationship with that double revealed feelings he’s harbored for the real May. But luckily for his fumbling, there are plenty of Russian dupes to kill. And here’s where the action ties back to the story in style. Both Coulson’s “thank God there’s work to be done” exasperation and May’s ferocious lashing out at the people who rewrote her life tap into the character’s inner turmoil much better than Daisy and Yo-Yo toppling around in a plane that’s getting shot at.
Though perhaps the most intriguing fallout from the Framework is the status of Fitz and the newly (In)human Aida – now calling herself by her chosen name Ophelia. With Leo torn up about what part of himself could have turned so evil in the Framework, there were many soap opera-esque directions the writers could have taken this story, but they smartly turn away from the idea that Fitz could go bad and onto the intriguing premise that Aida deserves our sympathy. In her own eyes, Ophelia’s actions as Madam Hydra in the virtual world were in part caused by Radcliffe’s programming and in part by a necessity to play out the scenario so she could win a real body in the real world. Now that she’s flush with human emotions thanks to the mysteries of the magical Darkhold book, Ophelia is slowly realizing the emotional cost she made Fitz and the others pay…and she’s willing to use that empathy to save Mack from drowning when the Russian takes down the oil rig.
Up to this point, the episode’s straight-on action impulses serve it well, but the story takes a series somewhat nonsensical turns in its back half. For one, the destruction of a S.H.I.E.L.D. base during the finale of last year’s arc has caused a national sensation of some kind – remaining top of the news weeks later and putting genuine idiot Glenn Talbot in the spotlight. And beside this fact, the fully reassembled S.H.I.E.L.D. team wonders what exactly they’re going to do with Aida…and Fitz too? After the former was capped with a non-lethal icer, shooting and locking up Fitz with her seems a far cry from protocol. Was the team given any indication that this was no longer their friend? Do they think that he somehow would turn them over to Aida even after his full memories had returned?
Of course, this whole thing is just a setup to get Fitz and Ophelia alone together at the shaken base for a heart-to-heart heel turn, and that part of the story is a stunner despite its nonsensical setup. As Jemma watches on through a security camera, Fitz seems ready to throw their romance away as Ophelia is gently waiting to take him into her now human arms. But it’s not that Fitz has stopped loving Jemma…it’s just that he feels he’s broken her trust beyond the point of no return. The idea that her man would choose a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent over her is too much for the newly emotional Aida/Ophelia to handle, and she lashes out in the ultimate form of a woman scorned.
There’s a decent chance that basing your entire season finale on “If I can’t have him…no one can!” would be problematic to say the least. But so far, Aida’s turn to raving villain has been anchored by the work of Mallory Jansen, who in playing multiple parts across two realities has really become the secret all-star of this entire season. Her work as Ophelia shows a person truly, tragically overwhelmed by their own emotions, and so by the time she’s torn through a platoon of Talbot’s men and reunited with the Russian, we’re willing to believe she’ll kill anyone moving forward. There’s still a chance that this story could turn into a really ugly “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” plot threat, but the show has been under such fine control that we’re ready to trust them into next week’s finale.
And there are so many good piece on the board for the final hour of the year. Ghost Rider returns from beyond reality to recapture the Darkhold from Aida and the Russian. Yo-Yo jacks herself into the Framework only to find that she’s more than likely to die in Hydra’s clutches before she can even try and find Mack. The rest of the team’s post-Framework insecurities are as raw as ever, and Leo in particular will have to figure out who he really is as Aida puts all her considerable power towards destroying the team once and for all.
So “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” is always pretty great as a spy show, but it also tends to deliver strong season finales. Let’s hope next week’s finish rates amongst the best just in case it’s the very last one.