A single character navigating their way through an alien landscape and taking a TV program into an arena it hasn't touched over years on the air. No, it's not the latest experimental installment of "Community" -Â it's this week's episode of ABC and Marvel's "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." titled "4,722 Hours."
That time refers to the six months Agent Jemma Simmons (the series' quiet MVP) spent on an alien world thanks to the mysterious monolith set on earth by the Inhumans. While the single focus on Jemma's journey meant the episode didn't have quite the narrative complexity of the espionage drama's typical outings, it did deliver an intense and satisfying hour with character moments to spare.
Jemma arrives on the planet sure that her other half Fitz will find a way to pull her back through the portal in a matter of hours. But as the hours turn to days and weeks, she's forced to fend for herself -Â narrating her adventures stabbing the tentcles of a nearby lake monster for sustenance into the world's longest lasting iPhone (itself suped up by Fitz). But as she faces down a sinister sand storm, Simmons comes into contact with the planet's sole other human inhabitant: an astronaut named Will. Sent through the monolith on a NASA mission 14 years before, Will starts out as a shadowy antagonist but slowly turns ally as he opens up about both his own experience as well as his certainty that a somewhat mythical monster stalks the planet trying to kill them. Despite her reservations on the latter idea, Jemma warms to Will and over months provides the hopeful scientific mind he never knew he needed to try and find a way off the world. With his leftover NASA gear and her super phone battery, Jemma is able to pinpoint a possible escape route by unlocking the secret of where the wormhole to the monolith opens. Heartbreakingly, the monster of the planet works to keep the pair away from their escape route, but in their defeat they find romantic solace in each other. Finally, while searching for a last chance way out of their trap, Jemma reconnects with Fitz who's able to pull her back to earth just as Will stands guard against the monster in the wind. So while Simmons survives, she's now determined to return and save the man who ultimately saved her...a task for which she now has Will's romantic rival Fitz on board for.
So there you go. Episode recapped. Boom. See you next week.
Oh, you were expecting more?
Well, luckily despite a largely straightforward story, there is plenty to appreciate about "4,772 Hours" when it comes to the small details. Though the episode leans on the now tried and true method of showing an alien planet through a colored lens filter (see also: the Riddick originating film "Pitch Black"), the hour frequently turns what could be a tired landscape into an expansive fictional playground. The swarming sand storms and ragged tentacles of this landscape truly feel otherworldly instead of low budgety, and at various turns, the earth elements that show up from Will's act as one of "Lost's" Others through the 18th Century saber hinted in a previous episode continually feel like revelations rather than retreads. Credit this to the fine tuning of director Jesse Bochco who uses the budgetary constraints to his stylistic advantage.
But really, the star here is Elizabeth Henstridge. After expanding her range last year from bubbly brain to conflicted undercover agent, the actress used this episode to show off just how much she can mine from Jemma Simmons as a character. Yes, there's the charming monologuing and the longing looks at Fitz's iPhone pic that we'd expect from the character. But Henstridge was equally adept at letting Jemma break down from lack of sun, crackle with the energy of scientific discovery and show off her steely eyed bad ass side when testing Will's motives. One woman shows can easily turn into pompous sludge, but Henstridge never lost a step in the face of the titanic task of carrying the show entirely on her shoulders.
Most important though is what this episode represents for "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." as a series. Undoubtedly, a show in its third year can get away with table-flipping stories in a way that new arrivals never can, but the move to zero in on one cast member like this is always a bold gamble, and the producers should be applauded for making the idea pay off. In the classic Marvel Comics Universe, the early years of storytelling delivered by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and their fellow creators started with traditional superhero smash 'em ups, but over the years of Stan and Jack's close collaboration, the pair found ways to slowly open up the secret worlds of their fictional playground. From the Negative Zone to the hidden city of the Inhumans, what made the Marvel Universe a unique space in fantastic fiction was the way it was constantly evolving and opening itself up to new ideas and new playgrounds. It can be argued that once Kirby left, that work ground to a halt or at least significantly slowed down as others have come year after year to simple rearrange the toys he created.
But regardless of how successful modern comic creators are at truly defining the four-color Marvel U on their own terms, the creators of the "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." series proved this week that they're hitting their sweet spot in terms of evolving their little corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While they may not have access to huge swaths of comic characters, details like the ragged body that represents the planet's monster or the simple way this direct story endlessly complicates the Fitz/Simmons relationship are proof that the show's producers can mark their own path. Whether one character or a dozen show up next week, we'll be there to see what new horizons lie ahead for the Agents, and it's a rare treat to be so involved in a series that can break new ground.