It’s no surprise for viewers at this point that a lot of superhero TV dramas -Â Marvel’s ABC mainstay “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” most of all -Â split their seasons down the middle. This isn’t just a matter of taking a break from airing new episodes during the middle of winter, but season-long stories usually get pushed to the back in favor of a pair of arcs across the year. What “Agents” has been doing of late that pushes this story style even further is letting the practice bleed into its single episodes. And last night, the series once again dropped an hour of TV that spent half its time winding things up before letting its characters ricochet off each other.
And this time out, the aptly titled “Failed Experiments” found a way to lean into this split story format and actually leave a little room for surprise. But at its heart, the episode only had one major question hanging over it: how much of Daisy is still Daisy?
The hour begins with a pre-credit origin story for The Hive, tracing the villain’s roots back to earth as he was one of the original Inhumans created when the alien race called the Kree landed to earth thousands of years ago. It’s a somewhat overlooked piece of Marvel history on the page as well as on the screen, but sadly the show does it no favors here. The “native-looking warrior with no specific cultural signifiers” cliche bounds onto the screen as a modern actor slightly stooping his way around with spear in hand as if he’s in a Freshman improv class. And while the crux of the origin is the idea that the Kree have kidnapped this poor soul, the low budget afforded a network drama means that we never see anything that connects as a true moment of wonder and terror.
Still, completing the circle of the character’s creation oddly gives Hive a little more sympathetic qualities. No longer a cosmic god trolling the galaxy in hopes of eating a whole planet, the villains plans for earth seem…if not less horrifying for the characters more understandable for the audience. There’s still a hint of menace when he gathers the remaining architects and true believers from the fallen Hydra and declares that in order to save the world for Inhumans, they’ll be next up on the experimentation slab.
But beyond that teasing start, the first half of the hour belongs to the core S.H.I.E.L.D. cast. Still shattered and shaken from Daisy’s betrayal, the entire team rushes around trying to work through their wounds while solving the two biggest problems on the table: how to save Daisy and how to destroy Hive. May is determined but perturbed by her teammates tendency to blame themselves. Lincoln is so reckless in his desire to reconnect with his love that it’s a wonder they’re even keeping this guy around. Fitz & Simmons navigate the scientific possibilities on the table alongside their newfound relationship. Coulson seems driven to the point of militaristic thought while his counterpoint Mack walks into the hunt with the belief that Daisy can be saved with or without FitzSimmons’ plans.
When the crew finds Daisy via a sophisticated program that combs security footage, the promise of the episode is set in place. The S.H.I.E.L.D. team will head to the small ghost town that Hive and Hydra have taken over with a shock and awe attack plan -Â whether it’s a trap or not. The wheels are in motion for a seemingly straightforward battle, and all the pieces that tumble out over this phase are perfunctory at best. May’s “I’m just a starstruck Hydra agent” bit in order to pull info from the brash Inhuman James is mild fluff. Daisy’s own insistence that her friends can be turned into Hive followers once his process for turning modern humans into Inhumans with Kree blood indicates that there’s more of her real self inside than we think. A few random agents we’ve never met before get some time to stomp around on screen for no seeming reason at all.
On the whole, this kind of storytelling is what we call “padding.” There’s nothing particularly bad about any of this character work, but instead of driving us towards a conclusion it just seems to take up some air time until the real fight begins. And while that’s not the best way to spend an hour this late in the season, at least “Agents” zigs when it could zag back into the expected. When the Hive’s experiments to infuse his Hydra stooges with Kree blood totally fails, the villain both pulls the trigger on the mystery machine that’s been our prime McGuffin for the past few weeks and lures the agents infiltrating his town into a trap. The Kree device was actually a homing beacon for the pair of “Reapers” responsible for creating the first Inhumans. Once activated, the beacon pulls them out of thousands of years of orbital stasis to crashland in our agents lap and pretty much wreck shop for half an hour.
The move is a fun twist that both brings a bit more of the Marvel U onto the smalls screen without stepping on the toes of a movie like “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” in any way. But as the Reapers slash their way through nameless Hydra villains and our underused duplicate Inhuman before zeroing in on Daisy and Hive as their primary targets, things fall a bit flat again. This is mostly because the swerve in story sidelines all the heroes we’ve actually been following, but it also telegraphs that this is not going to be the episode where anything we’ve been invested in comes to any kind of head.
In the end, Hive destroys his Reaver – the one thing in life he truly feared -Â and seems poised to be more powerful than ever. Meanwhile Daisy kills the other Kree warrior only to see Mack destroy its scientifically valuable body before it can be drained of blood. The showdown between the former S.H.I.E.L.D. partners has a lot of pathos and by the end we get our big answer: Daisy is fully under Hive’s sway. Her worship takes her so far that after S.H.I.E.L.D. backs off to lick its wounds, she offers up her own Kree-infused blood to make Hive’s experiments a reality. But what hangs over the choice is less about whether the villain will succeed (spoiler warning: he won’t) and more about how the hero at the heart of our show can ever recover from this. If Daisy has so fully bought into the mission presented her that she also spits resentment and recriminations at Mack, can she fully return to herself once the Hive’s brain cloud is removed? The writers have opened up an interesting quandary for a character that will be sticking around on TV for one more year. Fingers crossed they’ve got another curveball in their pocket for when shit really hits the fan.
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