This season of ABC's Marvel Studios drama "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." has been a strong hodge podge of storylines. Seemingly driven by the global outbreaks of Inhumans, the show has seen its various character arcs fracture and collide in interesting ways, but up to this point how exactly the schemes of its writers fit together has remained a mystery. But while this week's episode title -Â "Many Heads, One Tale" -Â may be a pun, it's an appropriate one. Season 3 of this show has developed according to a specific design, and this lynchpin hour revealed that by playing with the concept of secret plans from all over the map.
It begins with famed S.H.I.E.L.D. turncoat Grant Ward's quest to declare himself the Director of an all-new Hydra. When old school Hydra heavy Gideon Malick declares that Ward's loose cannon ways don't mesh with his own long-simmering schemes, it sends Grant on a violent quest to discover the location of a secret Von Strucker family vault. The ruthless traitor is always fun to watch on screen, but as he tortures his way to the fact that his prize is located in Germany (origin point of Hydra and the Von Strucker clan), the show offers a sense of immediacy that the plotline has been lacking during the Inhuman hunt installments.
Meanwhile on the side of the angels, Director Coulson feels less the dupe of A.T.C.U. head (and secret Hydra agent?) Rosalind Price and more the Bond-esque super spy the audience wants him to be. While Phil doesn't yet know that Price is out to turn him over to Malick, he's on his game enough to be honey-trapping her as heÂ brings his new lover into S.H.I.E.L.D.'s base as a cover for his own crew to infiltrate her organization. The so-called "Operation Spotlight" is the kind of concept this show excels at: a cat-and-mouse game where the audience is never sure who will outwit whom.
That story allows nearly every member of the team to shine. Bobbi and Hunter do their best undercover bit as FBI agents investigating a supposed security breach that they themselves caused to gain access. May and Lincoln prove a tense partnership as she's still raw from the revelation that her ex was perhaps the most deadly Inhuman of all. And Daisy and Mack's stilted "Can we trust Coulson?" plotline thankfully turns to sharp competency porn as the team go all-in for their commander's plan.
The only story that is seemingly disconnected from the rest of the hour's tension is Fitz and Simmons' own tense thread. Still trying to find whether they can get back to the planet that served as Simmons home for months, the only question that really matters is whether everyone's favorite quirky science pals will prove more than friends. Love triangles are as pat as things come in comic book media, but this show has nailed the trope as well as anyone can as Simmons wavers between saving the astronaut she fell for planetside and finally seeing Ftiz for the fine, dedicated catch he is. When our pair light upon a clue to the ancient organization tied to the interplanetary portal, the audience truly doesn't know who they want her to pick.
As the S.H.I.E.L.D. infiltrators get deep into the A.T.C.U., the plot strings begin to tighten as quick as the show's rapid fire dialogue. Bobbi goes deep into the bowels of the Inhuman prison for answers only to uncover a horrific lab set on weaponizing the alien DNA. Malick confronts May's ex Dr. Garner/Lash on his own path to rebuilding Hydra in his image. And best of all, Coulson lays Price's deception on the line with full confidence that she's complicit in Malick's scheme.
To the show's credit, the moment of truth for Phil and Ros feels both completely surprising and head-slappingly obvious. She was never a player in Hydra's game but a pawn of Malick who's been using the A.T.C.U. as a front to build his own super powered army. It's a smart way to pull all the show's stories together in one package while opening new doors for the rest of the season. At its core, "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." should be a show about the titular agency fighting its comic book arch villains, but by never fully exposing how this conflict will play until it's too late for the heroes, the producers have kept the series interesting long after promises of an important role in the MCU have fallen apart.
After a quick alliance allows S.H.I.E.L.D. and the A.T.C.U. to band together, one more reveal waits in the wings. Ward arrives at the Von Strucker payload only to find Malick waiting with new information. Hydra's true origins lie with the secret organization that Fitz and Simmons have been researching. Even before its Nazi days, the many-headed cult has been working to make a path for an otherworldly alien god to take over earth, and now that their rivals have found a way to bring someone back from across the galaxy, the time is ripe for a final battle to take place.
So there's the real meaning of this season: an Inhuman arms race between S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra in which Simmons now plays a crucial role. Is her astronaut love secretly a Hydra agent? Will the villain's capture of Lash put them one up on building an army to take over the world? Is Ward ready to play along with Malick's alien-worshipping plan, or is there a redemption streak left in the charming killer?
Every one of these stories holds potential regardless of whether any of it shows up in a major Marvel movie to come. It's the way this show was always meant to be, and hail Hydra that it's finally here.