Two episodes in, and it looks like Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is working towards a fine balancing act. On the one hand, while the ABC series may never flesh out the particulars of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in a way that will have a major impact on the studio's blockbuster films, it wants to go in depth on the areas that are part of its purview. On the other hand, it's also working to own the espionage dramatics inherent in its "spy vs. spy" premise. When both of these goals work in lock step, S.H.I.E.L.D. provides up riveting television. But when they go it alone, the results can be tepid. And all of that was on display in last night's "The Purpose In The Machine" episode.
The opening moments of the hour take us back to a Hellfire Club-esque meeting of a late 19th century cabal of English lords who for some reason (likely the uninformed pursuit of "science") are voting to send one of their own to certain death inside the mysterious, occasionally liquified Inhuman monolith. It's a brief scene but evocative and indicative of the kind of scope the series wants to bring to its network TV budget.
Once we fast forward to the present, as in many past installments this week's show leaned hard on the practice of splitting the S.H.I.E.L.D. team into solo mission groups, and first among them is a rescue mission. Driven by Fitz's single-minded desire to prove that his partner Simmons has survived absorption by massive rock, the dedicated scientist, Director Coulson and Agent Mockingbird set off to unlock the morphing stone's secrets. Thanks to a lucky break from Fitz's emotional breakdown last week, the trio believe that the monolith is a portal to an ancient planet. That extremely quick (and surprisingly solid) guess aside, the storyline serves as an excuse to pull back in veteran character actor Peter MacNicol as lost Asgardian Professor Elliot Randolph. While Randolph's part in the series was criticized back in Season 1 for being a weak sauce connection to the Thor movies, his reemergence not only makes for some fun "ho hum, do I have super powers?" banter but also proves how Agents has improved in the intervening years. When the only connection the show has to the broader Marvel Universe is through one-off supporting players, the thrill is gone. But when the cast can instead lean on any number of weird Marvel castaways to lead them to science labs beneath abandoned English castles, viewers get a wacky sense of verisimilitude more in line with the comics.
At the other end of the tie-in spectrum, Daisey and Mack continue their mission to assemble a team of so-called "Secret Warriors" from newly born Inhumans. This week, the story is less about the recruiting of potential warriors and more about Daisy's drive to build her team fast and furious. Returning guest Blair Underwood has earned his easygoing place in the show as super psychiatrist Dr. Andrew Garner as he flips the script from his reasons for rejecting new Inhuman Joey as field ready to Daisy's own hang ups in a heartbeat. Garner makes the solid point that the agent needs to embrace her role as leader with confidence and caution rather than trying to force a team out of her own fears. Once again, the time spent with these characters has strengthened the writers' ability to invest us in the latest evolution of their story.
That evolutionary sense pays off less in the episode's pair of B-plots. On the one hand, the return of Hydra turncoat Grant Ward is a welcome ballast in the season that had yet to show off a true villain. Ward's likable smarm is in full effect as he puts privileged former Hydra agents through their paces in order to make the evil empire a leaner, meaner organization. This is a welcome turn not only for the show but for the entire MCU. While the reveal of Hydra as a big bad threat in Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a memorable turning point, the cultish group has rarely had a driving ethos beyond a thirst for world domination and some high science spookiness. Now with Ward, Hydra has a real purpose to fight moving forward – namely that control of the world belongs to those willing to work for it. This working class brand of terrorism is not only a fascinating thematic twist for the show on its own, it's a storyline full of potential with the introduction of a snotty teenage Werner Von Strucker. The latest Marvel Comics villain to appear on the show is all potential both as a pawn Ward can play to get back at S.H.I.E.L.D. through Dr. Garner but also as the spoiled brat scion of Avengers movie villain Baron Von Strucker (and it doesn't hurt that actor Spencer Treat Clark embodies every dickish country club member you ever saw in a bad '80s movie).
But faltering in this half of the show are the scenes involving vacationing Agent May and her pal Hunter's attempts to get her back in the game. While May's interaction with her elderly father earn a few solid chuckles, this story feels far removed from all the depth that the more universe-based elements of the episode were able to pull off. Instead, we get the played out spy genre cliché of the formerly bad ass agent who has taken herself out of the game but is being pulled back in to "the lifestyle." There's never any doubt that May will help Hunter infiltrate Ward's new Hydra, and there's little new about her character we'll learn watching her hem and haw. Just make your plan of attack and get on with it, already.
Luckily, the peak moments of the rest of the team's quest more than make up for May's wheel-spinning. Once Daisy and Mack have brought the monolith to the English castle Dr. Randolph led S.H.I.E.L.D. to, we're treated to enjoyable competency porn as the team collectively realize that the vibrational impact of the castle's century old machine isn't the only way to tap into the monolith's portal. Daisy's powers can open a path to the alien world briefly (of course, at great risk to her health), but only when Fitz impulsively dives into the inky transdimensional doorway to save his friend does the scene start to pay off with some dramatic sparks. It's never a question of whether they team will save Simmons that makes the scene worth watching. Instead, we stay invested both because the scale of a mission that lets a gathering of quirky Marvel elements impresses and because we care when Simmons finally gets pulled back home – shellshocked as she is.
As Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. continues on, let's hope that it keeps packing its stories with odd corners of Marveldom, quirky c-listers and real character depth. It deserves our attention on those fronts rather than our scorn for paint-by-numbers spy action.