We live in an era of interconnected film universes, unending cliffhangers and super serialized storytelling. Yet even when the fan thirst for continuity seems unquenchable, there are still pleasures to be found in a classic stand alone episode of superhero TV. Last night, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. came as close as it has to the case of the week format since Season 1, and the results were breezy fun.
It begins with that classic TV trope: an amnesiac washes up on the beach. Though as the fan favorite Thor supporting player Lady Sif comes into focus, the true theme of the show's "Who You Really Are" episode came with it. Namely, this installment is all about the question of who knows what and when they'll let the truth slip out.
The amnesia of Sif herself can only sustain its drama for a few fish out of water moments, for one. Jamie Alexander plays her gruff warrior persona up well even as she continually feigns whether her instincts represent her true self, but those jokes are just window dressing as the real mystery unfolds. What Coulson and his team want to know once they land in Portugal where she washed up is who she came to hunt and why. This time out, Sif's prey is a Kree warrior with a memory-stealing weapon and a mission to disrupt the newly activated Terrigenesis process that's secretly affecting Skye and who knows how many others across the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But luckily, what could be a convoluted mish-mash of convoluted comic terminology is carried along by a snappy cast and some swift action amongst the "Am I a warrior?" shenanigans.
The third rail running through the S.H.I.E.L.D. team as they hunt down the memory-erasing Kree remains Mockingbird's conspiracy with Mac. While she gets closer to a real relationship with her former husband Hunter, he plays the part of the pacifist mechanic nervous about stepping in to field agent status perfectly. But as the pair face down the dangers of their mission, both fronts begin to falter. Despite Mac's convincing (if frustratingly vague) argument that keeping their secret from Hunter will ultimately keep the peace between them all after an inevitable betrayal takes place, Bobbi begins to put up a wall between herself and her lover rather than pull him deeper into a relationship she knows she can't be honest about. Meanwhile, Mac himself is forced to play tough guy again and again until Hunter has to confront the towering strongman about the secrets he's holding. Mac's late-episode sleeper hold on Hunter is undoubtedly a worse response to the pressure than Bobbi's relationship games, but all the secrets tied up in this plotline must remain so until at least next week.
The real revelation on tap this week is Skye's own status as an Inhuman. An early scene where she works out her post-tragedy anger with Agent May while her co-conspirator Fitz watches on shows just how interminable Skye's secret could be if strung out over several episodes. Luckily, the show's writers (led this time out by Buffy alum Drew Z. Greenberg) turn that particular screw quickly. After almost losing control of her earthquake powers in one showdown with the Kree escapee, Skye's secret stays hidden just long enough for the refugee to lead the S.H.I.E.L.D. team to the origin site of the crucial MacGuffin the Diviner and then deliver a quick info dump on its purpose. That latter scene feels a bit clunky even to those well versed in the Inhuman's "hidden amongst earth's history" back story, but again it's nice to see the show speed through plot turns that could easily be plodding.
The final fireworks arrive as Sif's memory is restored just as Skye starts to lose control of her Inhuman powers in front of her team. The ensuing showdown lets Bobbi and Mac prove their loyalty at least to the safety of the teammates they're deceiving as they cut the Kree warrior off at the pass. More importantly, it pushes the limits of how the team can trust Skye now that her secret is in the open. Fitz stands by her even as it likely sinks his slowly recovering relationship with Simmons. May backs her in the moment until Sif can be conveniently convinced that S.H.I.E.L.D. is suited to handle the crisis but later admits to Coulson that the problem may be bigger than the spy organization can handle. And the rest of the team stands torn between their love of their teammate and their fear of what she's become.
As our reconstituted Asgardian rockets back to the stars with an incapacitated Kree in tow, the episode completes its stand alone journey. One character's secret stands revealed. Another pairs' twists into a dangerous complication. And the overall thrust of the season is pushed forward as the team learns that several more Diviners are out there...somewhere. If every episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. could deliver such quick thrills while carrying the load of its super story so easily, we'd know our place in this universe no problem.