For an episode titled "A Hen in the Wolf House," last night's installment of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. zeroed in on its various women trapped between two extremes.
Chief among them is Agent Simmons. Most of her time at the evil spy cabal has been spent at the mercy of her bumbling lab partner, but now Simmons is on the radar of Hydra heavy Daniel Whitehall. His search to harness of the power of season MacGuffin, the Obelisk, has Hydra putting the pressure on screen print-happy villain Raina. When Raina spots Simmons outside Hydra headquarters, the agent's undercover status becomes the pressure point for a web of power grabs.
Meanwhile, Skye is grasping for info on what Director Coulson is hiding from her. Last season, the computer hacker with the mysterious past was the show's audience-identification character – the entry point into the weird world of Coulson and company. But in Season 2, the script has been flipped: Coulson so far has been the lead we're meant to sympathize with while the secrets of Skye's father (a still in-the-shadows Kyle MacLachlan who insists of his daughter, "That's not her name") drive the mystery.
When Skye and Coulson finally get on the same page about the secret alien DNA that's both rewriting his brain and potentially a part of her family tree, the scene sparks. It sets up maybe the first intriguing part of Skye's backstory, as she's torn between her loyalty to Coulson and her desire to find her dad.
Less impressive was the night's debut of Marvel mainstay Mockingbird. As played by one-time (briefly) Wonder Woman actress Adrianne Palicki, the character shows up as a Hydra security chief meant to ratchet the tension on Simmons when the organization suspects a traitor in its midst. Instead, every scene between the two women falls flat with-on-the-nose "Maybe you aren't loyal?" eyebrow-raising.
Standing in pretty sharp contrast is Raina's confrontation of Coulson. Although she's arguably in the toughest position of any woman in the episode, Ruth Negga's performance presses the character to keep a cool face under pressure. That is, she does until the Director calls her bluff on a time-bombed offer of "Skye for Simmons' safety." Raina's breakdown provides the most thrilling drama of the episode by a mile.
When Simmons' cover is blown, Palicki transforms into a budget version of Scarlett Johansson's role in Iron Man 2. Revealed as Agent Bobbi Morse -- wait sorry, "Never agent, call me Bobbi" -- the character sees some minor improvements. Her banter with ex-husband Agent Hunter (the increasingly charming Nick Blood) works.
With Raina cut loose as bait and Simmons brought back (for a satisfying reunion with Fitz), Skye heads out to find whatever trace she can of her father. MacLachlan's manic twists in the final moments of the episode provide the most fun of the hour. He rages as he spies on his daughter's revulsion at his human experiments, and then bumbles his way into a truce with Whitehall all with a dark, unhinged undercurrent.
But it was the ladies of S.H.I.E.L.D. who owned the episode (and the season to date, really). If the pressures they experienced wrap the season's opening arc as soon as it looks, we'll be in for a long wild ride in Season 2.