With a plot about the hunt for an unburnable painting and liberal use of tango scenes, it might seem as if Marvel's Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. leaned back on its Season 1 status as "B-version of Mission: Impossible with dollop of snark." But while it was a slight entry in the series, "Face My Enemy" still completed its mission in line with Season 2's expanded world.
Still struggling to keep his mind after interaction with alien DNA, Director Coulson is getting desperate for answers. When the same strange language he's compelled to carve into walls appears on the back of mysteriously indestructible art treasure, he and Agent May have to dance their way through a high-class Miami soiree. The upshot is that it gives Coulson the chance to discuss contingency plans for his impending breakdown with the typically tight-lipped May. The trouble is that his rival Glenn Talbot is also on the scene.
That's a pretty standard set of quip-ready spy-show tropes for an opening act, but in the hands of veteran Buffy writer Drew Z. Greenberg, moments like Coulson's first interaction with a slightly tipsy Talbot play with some subtlety. Yes, there are a few too many jokes that lean on "competence porn" – from the wacky idea of May actually laughing because she's undercover to a deadpan "Why is it always laser grids?" eye roll. But overall, the slight nature of the story allows for some more character work.
And the real focal point on that front is May. Never quite as fleshed out as the young "discovering our destinies" cohorts who make up the S.H.I.E.L.D. team, Melinda May is still frequently entertaining in the hands of Ming-Na Wen. And here, the show plays off the character's stern, ultra-professional mannerisms to dig into her point of view without adding a lot of backstory clutter.
As Talbot is revealed as a Hydra agent in disguise, the plot kicks up a bit into a more actiony "Spy Vs. Spy" kind of story. May is captured and replaced (those Winter Soldier holographic face masks sure are nifty) by brainwashed former S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent 33. The twist allows for Coulson to open up about his desire for May to replace him if he has to be taken down (and let slip his status as director to the enemy), and it gives May a chance for some badass revenge fights. The story tears at her character a bit without pushing the overall arc of the season in a significant way.
Speaking of torn characters, the other major thread of the show sees Fitz – still out of sorts in a vocabulary sense – feeling out of place with the new crew of agents hanging in the The Bus. The story just builds some bridges for the character out of the severely depressing arena he's been in since the season premiere. As he rediscovers his place on the team by saving the plane from Faux May's sabotage (in a wacky "you be my hands" bit with Agent Hunter), things click into place in a minor but fun way.
While the double-crossing and face-stealing that rolls into the final act doesn't do much more than build up Big Bad Whitehall and open the door for another character affected by Coulson's alien blood, it's a clean finish. May refuses to kill and replace Coulson under any circumstances, and the audience can all go, "Aw shucks, she sure is nice." They're waiting for something bigger on the horizon, but it likely won't take long to get here.