For all the bemoaning that “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” took in its first season for a format that leaned hard on “defuse the bomb of the week” style episodes, the ABC Marvel drama doesn’t always get credit for how it leans on individual episodes in a strong way. Sure, genre fans love their stories serialized, but if a series pushes too far into long-term plotting it can lose the pleasures that a simple hour of television can provide.
And so tonight, “Agents” took on the task of pulling its increasingly complicated super story back from the edge of a hyper-complex serial and delivered a classic high-concept hour to nudge things forward. But as the show dished up the core spy trope of “a traitor among us,” the question became whether the episode known as “The Team” would deepen the big ideas on hand or distract from them.
Appropriately for the episode’s title, we begin with the first fully-fledged mission for the so-called “Secret Warriors.” Aside from a shared name with their comic counterparts, this team is entirely an invention of “Agents.” Yes, Daisy Johnson still plays a vital role, but beyond her stewardship these Secret Warriors are an assemblage of the obvious Inhuman characters from this season that were telegraphed to appear again. There’s current co-star and Daisy’s love interest Lincoln. And who could forget the melting man struggling to own his identity Joey? Rounding out the crew is the Latina radical called Yo-Yo. Each of these characters have their own personalities and roles to play in a shaky team, but mostly they serve the story well because they’re just interesting enough to care about while also being totally expendable.
It wouldn’t seem that way from the episode’s opening salvo. As the Warriors arrive at the Hydra base where the rest of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been ambushed, the team is in hyper-competency mode. The various major domos under the guidance of the cosmically empowered villain that sits in the body of Grant Ward topple like dominos, and Daisy seems incredibly adept at guiding her guys to the prize of saving Coulson and company. Of course, some cracks are showing. Joey has to deal with the fact that he murders Ward’s mesmerizing Inhuman, even if it was to save Lincoln. Agent May is wounded perhaps beyond the point where she can recover. And overall, S.H.I.E.L.D. is still woefully behind when it comes to getting out ahead of Hydra.
And as the team flies out with Hydra’s supposed leader Gideon Malick in hand, their victory is short-lived as unWard reveals that he has an agent on the inside. This is the moment where (in many ways) the story truly begins. In the past the show has trafficked in undercover ops, high political drama and intergalactic survival tales. But the “locked room” format focusing on a traitor in their midsts is the kind of go-to spy story that it’s surprising the series has never attempted before. And once the entire team is back in their HQ, the show slowly winds up the tension around this mystery even as it breaks into its requisite character arcs.
What plot holds the biggest clues to who the traitor might be? Of course the obvious point of reference is Coulson’s interrogation of the captured Malick. As the men grapple both with the nature of the villains we can finally call The Hive within the reality of the show (an onscreen reveal only slightly less fumbled than the bewildering afterthought arrival of the Inhuman monicker), we focus more on how each man blames himself for the horrors of the death god. No real clues there, but Malick’s reveal that Hive can infect the minds of Inhumans is critical to what comes next. A more likely candidate for solving the “Who?” of the hour is Mack’s charming courtship of the somewhat untrusting Yo-Yo. Then again, we’ve got awkward romance covered elsewhere in Fitz and Simmons gory autopsy of the murdered mesmerizer. And that doesn’t even mention Daisy and Lincoln’s tenuous affair that’s being crippled both by his choice to be secretive around the Kree artifact that just may solve the Hive dilemma and her struggles to live up to the role of team leader. Meanwhile, Joey stalks around in regret and May feels benched at the worst possible moment.
All of these dynamics see their intensity heighten as Coulson tries to get ahead of the idea that one of his four Inhuman agents may be brainwashed by their worst enemy. The human members of the team begin to wind themselves up in watching their other teammates. Daisy pushes hard into the inner circle of S.H.I.E.L.D. that she seems suddenly removed from. Yo-Yo balks at being held under lockdown as though she’s back in the corrupt world of her home. And that paranoia seeps in everywhere you look.
It’s a smart and satisfying mystery even when it begins to fall apart. As one Inhuman secretly murders Malick (with a bomb we conveniently saw Yo-Yo introduced to), the team lock themselves in a room and argue their way through what to do in the face of an army of agents who want to put their new Secret Warriors team under lock and key. The idea that one of them is brainwashed by a spooky cosmic being should be enough to get all of them on board with a voluntary quarantine, but instead the team breaks out into melodramatic bickering. This could easily be a moment where suspension of disbelief falls apart completely, but the writing does a nice job of playing on each character’s fears in a way that has us trying to guess who the traitor is more so than critiquing their stupidity.
In the end, Daisy attempts to lead her team to freedom only to double cross them and deliver the quartet to quarantine. A last-minute piece of evidence points to Lincoln as the traitor as the Kree artifact winds up in his locker just as the team recalls that he briefly saw The Hive face-to-face a few eps back in a purposefully vague sequence. Once he’s subdued, everyone can rest somewhat easy as the Secret Warriors are all placed in lockdown while Daisy frets over her failures, May rebounds, Mack gets shot down and Fitz and Simmons snuggle up for a romantic kiss (fucking finally!).
Still, this wouldn’t be a spy show if things wrapped that easily, and we’re soon led to the truth: Daisy is our traitor. With wild eyes she reveals to Lincoln that her newfound worship of The Hive hasn’t completely erased the person she is -Â just overwritten her better instincts. But even as her lover turns away from her, our fearless leader launches her own escape and literally buries her past by collapsing most of the S.H.I.E.L.D. base in on itself with her quake powers -Â carrying the Kree artifact and a ton of Inhuman crystals to her new master.
The reveal is an obvious choice but an earned one. After all, hasn’t this show always been Daisy’s story from when she arrived in episode 1 of the series as the outsider hacker in search of a family? And who better to fall under the sway of Hive than the woman who Grant Ward genuinely loved despite his villainous madness? Best of all, the move sets the stakes higher than they’ve ever been on the show as we barrel into the last few episodes of the season. The world is literally at stake now. The S.H.I.E.L.D. team (and the audience by extension) has been wounded by one of their own yet again. And the prophetic visions Daisy had in recent weeks take on a strange new dimension as the global gospel of Inhumanity appears ready to be spread.
In an odd way, it very much feels like “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” is moving into the final phase of not just this season but of the show as a whole. Whatever happens next, when the Grant Ward saga ends is there much left that has to be done with these characters? Though a Season 4 renewal has been announced with the writers already dreaming up some future missions for the MCU S.H.I.E.L.D., this run of standalone episodes could easily cap the show’s massive story. If you quite this show this spring, it wouldn’t feel like you were cut short in the slightest. That’s a nice place to be in with a TV show.
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