Like most shows, Marvel’s anchor ABC drama “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” has established a number of repeated story beats. From undercover ballroom dancing episodes to the last-minute mission successes, the series has a few ideas that it returns to with regular frequency. And this is not a complaint. It’s the nature of genre shows to build their stories on the backs of expected formats. But one way that “Agents” pushes this idea forward more than any other is in the overall shape of its seasons. Each and every year, the show heats up its long term story and then lets is simmer in a perpetual crisis state for the last handful of episodes. In Season 1, it was the fallout of Hydra’s reveal in “The Winter Solider.” Season 2 saw a showdown between the competing remnants of the spy organization and the hidden Inhuman community.
And now that we’re in the home stretch of Season 3, the big battle has become apparent with tonight’s “The Singularity” episode. Though unlike past years where the fight to finish the story took place largely against the backdrop of a S.H.I.E.L.D. base, this year’s battle is a global manhunt. With the alien Hive that wears Grant Ward’s face already in control of Daisy Johnson and growing an Inhuman army to help him overtake earth, the stakes are as high and as personal as they’ve ever been on this show. Most importantly, the heart of conflict twists the established formula of the series just enough to keep things interesting. While we’re used to seeing a season end with a battle where the S.H.I.E.L.D. team is suddenly overtaken by a secret force, this year the crew knows what they’re up against yet feel twice as overwhelmed by their foe as ever before.
Appropriately, the story this week starts in familiar territory with the S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ morphed into a near deathtrap by Daisy’s defection last week. Her earthquake powers not only knocked out the base’s electronics but also sealed the hangar doors shut making the location a literal tomb. That setup could have driven an entire “bottle episode” itself, but the producers put the pedal to the metal and coast past that setup within moments. It allows for some awkward moments to be sure (the supposedly daring escape the team makes when May navigates their rocket-hovering jet through a tiny opening feels like flat CG filler), but once we push past it and into some individual cat-and-mouse dynamics, all else is forgotten.
The first thread to pull at in this global chase is the mission set before Mack, Fitz and Simmons. Thanks to a theory from the resident S.H.I.E.L.D. super geniuses, this story is nominally about an attempt to track a rogue scientist whose research may be able to break Hive’s mental spell. But really, the mission is a narrative smoke screen to spend more time unpacking the kiss Fitz and Simmons shared last week. The way the show plays this is pure FitzSimmons and by extension pure fan service. He stammers through speeches about their “work relationship” while she directly addresses their sexual relationship. But ultimately, he breaks the tension with an extended metaphor on the titular Singularity and how their relationship is a scientific point of no return for their lives.
It’s all well and good, though the one disappointing aspect of the story is that the spy mission relegated to B-status is actually one of the more intriguing pieces of the world-building the show has ever concocted. A high end club catering to Marvel Cinematic Universe denizens who are desperate to enhance their bodies with super technology could be a fascinating set piece, but as our pair get closer to meeting directly with the enhancement-obsessed doctor they think can break Hive’s spell, this idea becomes an afterthought.
More direct and predictable (but no less satisfying for long term viewers) is Coulson and company’s own half of the mission. With no leads on Hive and Daisy’s whereabouts, the Director takes May and Lincoln on a wild goose chase after potential Inhuman targets. Along the way, Phil makes every desperate and dangerous choice he can thanks to his singular focus on saving Daisy and bringing her back to the fold. First he insists Lincoln where an explosive-rigged vest that can be set off if he ends up being mesmerized by Hive, and then he gives May the kill switch in his latest use of her as the agent of his revenge. When he’s confronted with the selfishness of his choices, Phil begins to soften to May’s point of view, but Lincoln is increasingly distraught over his lost love – the kind of move that marks him as the primary candidate for the promised big death in the season finale. Regardless, the main focus this week is Coulson coming to his senses, and that involves the hard choice of shooting the duplicating Inhuman he himself sent into hiding in the head when it becomes clear that the woman has already fallen under Hive’s influence. It’s a quick but brutal moment in the show that doesn’t flinch from the legitimate moral horror that spies sometimes have to commit to.
The third plank in the episode’s competing manhunts is Hive and company’s own search for not only Inhumans but a mystery Kree artifact. Yes, it turns out that the piece that Daisy formerly stole from Inhuman reject James is only a piece of the puzzle, and after they return to the trailer of the crude outsider, he is transformed into an Inhuman and brought to heel by Hive. James reveals that by digging underneath his home they’ll find…something else. Bets are on for what exactly the backpack-sized metal device is supposed to be from the Marvel Comics Universe, but whatever it is, it ain’t good.
More importantly for the characters in the show, an extended discussion between Daisy and Hive seems to shed some light on the nature of the alien’s manipulation. Sure, we get our pseudo scientific explanation that he floods the brain’s pleasure centers in order to get his victims on board, but as Daisy searches to reconnect with the part of Hive that may still be Grant Ward, something else begins to happen. Deep within the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent’s mind, she begins to realize that Hive’s love is a lie. It’s ever so subtle, but the show is dropping hints that there may be a way to break out of the alien’s control without the aide of science.
Everything comes to a head late in the hour when Coulson and May track Hive’s trail to James’ trailer just in time to realize that Hive’s already taken off to cut Fitz and Simmons out of the action. The twists are fine excuses for there to be some more interesting action and sci-fi in the hour -Â Coulson’s robot hand has a force shield! Mack and James go toe-to-toe with the latter’s new fire powers! -Â but the most important fights are emotional ones. Daisy nearly strangles Fitz to death while demanding he back off their trail, though a part of her clearly still cares about her former compatriots. Meanwhile, Hive confronts Simmons with the memories of Will – the man she fell for on his own alien prison planet. Both encounters leave the characters and the audience a bit shaken thanks to some sharp acting, particularly from Hive’s Brett Dalton who has mastered the genteel monotone of his alien character.
But like all past season’s of “S.H.I.E.L.D.,” this particular ramp up portion of the final run serves to shake the foundations of the team. Even as Fitz and Simmons consummate their relationship as relief from their ordeals, it’s clear that everyone is terrified of what Hive can do and no one has a clue how to stop him -Â especially now that he’s run off with the geneticist that S.H.I.E.L.D. believes can find a cure. The deck is so stacked against our crew that Coulson barely has time to celebrate when General Talbot destroys the remaining Hydra infrastructure essentially off screen. It’s a somewhat bewildering choice given Hydra’s status as the core antagonist, but it does leave things feeling broken beyond repair with three episodes left. It’s a familiar place to be in for this show, but one that’s just strange enough to keep us tuned in.
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