It's pretty safe to say that the one thing Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. could do at this point in its second season that no one would see coming is open up an episode with a pretty unsubtle homage to the framing sequence of Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. Though in its own way, the move makes a kind of sense. The director's breakout movie (and the rest of his oeuvre) had an irreversible effect on our mass media, pushing pop culture references and visceral, unexpected plot mechanics to the forefront of all things. Though their movies include less explicit language, stylized violence and sexual content, Marvel Studios films like Guardians of the Galaxy and Iron Man swipe more than a few moves from the Tarantino playbook. Why not make the connection concrete in Marvel's marquee network drama?
The problem is that despite letting its characters bond over red liquorice, kill time with mid-Century detritus like Operation or debate the age limit for Old Yeller references, last night's episode (the uber-winkily titled "Love In The Time of Hydra") never brought the gonzo filmmaking entertainment value that either Tarantino or Marvel's best work so often delivers. Instead, fans were treated to another set of vaguely overlapping "Who can be trusted?" spy shenanigans that never elevate the heart of their tropes.
Start with that opening coffee shop shootout scene. The return of Grant Ward and the scarred, scared brainwash victim known as Agent 33 never had to swing so well between wickedly fun and tragically romantic as Tim Roth saying, "Honey Bunny" (really, what could?). But from the cold open, the pair of former Hydra pawns show a shocking lack of chemistry. Months after 33 nursed Ward back to health from being shot by Skye, the damaged duo are finally ready to get back in the game. For Ward, that means paying back his savior by finding the Hydra scientist who can fix the facial mask that both ruined her face and can give her the illusion of a new one. For 33, a new mission is a chance to redefine herself as Ward's lover and confidant since her own identity was strip-mined by Hydra. But really, under the surface Ward is looking to reinvent himself as the kind of benevolent mentor that John Garrett was to him years before.
To accomplish that, Ward not only turns down 33's desperate attempts to seduce him wearing Skye's face (which he professes to despise in one of many unconvincing character moments from the usually ace Brett Dalton), but he also sets her on a path to defining herself via vengeance as he once did. This means a mission deep inside Air Force command to kidnap the captured Hydra captain Bakshi who was instrumental in tearing her mind apart. While the premise is sound enough, nothing about the storyline ever comes together from the show's latest "Let's play General Glen Talbot as the boob of the universe" run to increasingly flat scenes between Ward and Agent 33 in whatever guise she wears. The half-baked idea that 33 remains stuck with Agent May's voice as she tries to become other women is likely a major contributing factor to the stiff nature of the character work.
Meanwhile, Agents Hunter and Morse try to keep their flame alive event as he is forced to sit back and hear the pitch from the so-called "real" S.H.I.E.L.D. that Bobbi's been working undercover for all season. The reveal is meant to make us believe that Coulson's inheriting every secret base Nick Fury ever dreamt up is just the tip of the iceberg of things Phil has done that are just too shadowy for a heretofore unseen organization with its own Helicarrier to stand for. While the always welcome Edward James Olmos as Robert Gonzalez gives the pitch of why Coulson could never truly lead S.H.I.E.L.D. some much needed gravitas, the rest of the story feels shoe-horned into a season that has a lot of other (more promising) balls in the air. At least when Hunter make his completely improbable escape, it's only one of a few turns that indicates the two S.H.I.E.L.D.s will be coming into direct conflict sooner than later.
As Ward and 33 build their trust by leaning into the spy like and Hunter and Bobbi break theirs apart thanks to it, the afterthought elements of the episode's plot are the one involving our actual lead characters. Coulson and Skye demonstrate that their unshakable level of trust goes beyond the alien DNA that courses through both their veins even as he's forced to put her up in a remote superpower safehouse. Alternately, Fitz and Simmons see their connection severed worse than ever before as he finally strings enough sentences together to tell her that she's changed for the worse since watching the dangers of the job get too real.
All of this material plods along without major derailments, but after an hour of boilerplate moves, this show could use a syringe of adrenaline to its chest. In its best moments this year, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has delivered the kind of heightened pop drama that Marvel fans want. The early scene where Whitehall hooked 33 up to his brainwash system was one of those unexpected, insane genre exclamation points. But when 33 and Ward troed to recreate the move on Bakshi at the end, it likely made viewers want to strike down upon the series with great vengeance and furious anger until things get back on track.