On the surface, this week's installment of Marvel's ABC drama "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." looks like a throwback to the show's opening season. It involves an exotic locale, an undercover mission and the ragtag team of agents being outnumbered. That kind of mission-oriented, one-and-done format did the series no favors in its early days as it felt less and less like a piece of the broader Marvel Cinematic Universe or an interesting spy-fi adventure show in its own right as a result. But with this week's "Inside Man," the show made an honest attempt to resurrect the format in its new style.
The setup is simple: S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Phil Coulson and his team are infiltrating a high-level international meeting on the growing Inhuman phenomenon in an attempt to track down Hydra head Gideon Malick, who's been working behind the scenes to put as many Inhumans as possible under his thumb. Working against Coulson are the fact that his own Inhumans will be kept out of action due to genetic testing at the door, a contrived "no gun" policy that hampers his remaining human operatives and, oh yeah, a tagalong in the form of new A.T.C.U. head/longtime frienemy General Glenn Talbot who is America's official negotiator on the (somewhat nonsensical) G8-style gathering.
Talbot is having more troubles of late than simply having to put up with a smarmy S.H.I.E.L.D. operative who has made the fool of him at these events before. Apparently his wife Carla is walking out on him, which is probablyÂ not a sign that producers are trying to fit the character back into a future Hulk-themed love triangle.
In a much spookier corner of the show's existence, the Hydra-worshiped death god that inhabits the body of Grant Ward is looking to beef up his own undead physique. Infecting minds of Malick's right-hand judo man and the mesmerizing Inhuman our agents lost last week isn't enough to help unWard regain his strength. He can't quite absorb the power of Inhumans (who he tellingly refers to as being of his same ilk), but the glassy-eyed god promises Malick that with a little help from some innocent humans, he'll soon be in tip-top shape.
Back on the side of the angels, things seem to be going pretty swimmingly all around as well. Daisy and Lincoln are enjoying the flirty fruits of their exclusive S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent/Inhuman romance. Fitz and Simmons are back to being a brainy duo in service of Coulson's big plans. The only folks out of sorts as the mission to the Inhuman symposium begins are Bobbi Morse and Hunter. She's unsure that the group has a chance at doing anything but turning the world against the growing superpowered population. He's foaming at the mouth knowing that their official backup on the case will be Carl Creel - the so-called Absorbing Man who killed a few of his black ops pals at the start of Season 2 who is now serving as Talbot's muscle.
But all these facets are mostly character spots that poke up through the drive to get our field team out and doing espionage-y action. At the symposium, Coulson goes undercover as Talbot's Inhuman expert as the pair put the smell test on a rotating cast of international delegate cliches with names to match (Anton Petrov! Nakamura! Shen!). The show gets some comedy mileage out of Talbot's bone-headed assumption that every single one of the delegates must be Malick's silent partner and Hunter's grousing about going in sans protection. But as the conference gets down to brass tacks, we're fully in "single episode mission" mode as Coulson feels out the symposium on Inhumans while his team breaks into the rooms of every single delegate looking for clues.
Lo and behold, none of our red herrings are the undercover Hydra ally. Instead, a Hunter-led mission breakdown reveals that Talbot himself has aligned himself with the uber-villain after Malick kidnapped his newly Inhuman 12-year-old son. The reveal is a good moment in part because it pays off Talbot's longtime feud with Coulson and because it swerves against the diehard Marvel Zombie's expectation for his role in this world. Comic book Talbot was often a crazed antagonist but less often shown as a real human. The way "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." works to humanize him elevates this episode above the flat mission of its earlier years. Even though most of what goes down at the symposium doesn't drive the show's super story to the moon and back, it certainly flips over a few useful cards while still telling a standalone adventure.
But of course, the show can't outrun every element of the mission-oriented network drama, and things play out as they always do: with a cowboy-style shootout where our heroes are improbably bad ass in every way shape or form. The way that Hunter leads the charge to save the day only to be saved by the hated Absorbing man. The way Malick escapes with a new Russian ally buying his tripe about supporting an Inhuman safezone. The way Coulson and Talbot find a grudging respect for each other (isn't this the only time we use the word "grudging"?). All of those are clockwork plot motions that only deliver us to the point we always knew we'd arrive at.
But to the show's credit, there are a few twists awaiting us by episode's end. For one, the quick rocks Daisy and Lincoln hit when Fitz/Simmons discover a potential Inhuman vaccination puts a nice personal spin on what is essentially a stolen X-Men plotline. And that scene drops a promising Easter Egg in the naming of "the Watchdogs" - a classic four-color hate group in Marvel's "world outside your window" manner that could bring some relevant political stories to the small screen. And of course, there's the tease that potentially spinning off stars Bobbi and Hunter are on the track of Malick, whose Russian partner Anton Petrov may prove an Easter Egg all his own (Crimson Dynamo, anyone?). All of this is fun material to be teased out in the weeks ahead.
And of course, the biggest moment of promise in the episode came on the unWard front as the godlike Hydra monster murders his way through some innocents to a goo-covered rebirth of dooooooooom. If you've been following the talk online, this is supposed to mark the character's transformation into The Hive -Â a comics concept associated with Hydra that can waffle between terrifying and ridiculous like so many of the best comic ideas. Ward's own take on the character isn't nearly as visually monstrous as all that, but the show does a convincing job of making him scary enough to give pause to the Inhumans he's supposedly already brainwashed. Every good superhero show needs a great villain, and The Hive is shaping up in more ways than one.