Spy dramas are built in part on paranoia – the constant threat that at any minute, the person you trust most could become your greatest enemy. And while everything about the post-Hydra era of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has skirted that issue, last night's episode "One of Us" spent more time testing the loyalties and the mental states of its various characters and factions than ever before.
The headliner on the psychological front is Cal – Kyle MacLachlan's comically unhinged father of Agent Skye. The buildup promotion to this week's episode highlighted Cal's assembling of a "supervillain team" to take down S.H.I.E.L.D., and while the final version delivers that in a fashion, the fanbait aspect of the story is its least appealing element. Consisting as it does of characters who barely register a blip on even the most extensive Marvel Wiki (the "big name" here is Z-list Daredevil foe Angar the Screamer), the team's real draw is the way the various escapees from S.H.I.E.L.D.'s somewhat oppressive index of super people are broken, burnt out misfits. From Cal's deranged sales pitch to the razor-fingered Karla Faye Gideon (Drea De Matteo in fine cat lady form) on through his mission to attack Coulson's hometown, these villains feel as much like escapees from the funny farm, all dirty hospital gowns and bunny slippers, as they do the Masters of Evil. And while Marvel Studios' movies have made a practice of tapping screen legends to bring gravitas to their big budget spectacles, it's a joy to watch a pair of actors from two of the all-time great TV dramas chew their way through the company's TV scenery.
A little less demented but every bit as much of a character piece, Skye's own story for this week sees her own crossover with a different kind of past TV royalty. As the young agent struggles with her superpowers and the implication that she too will be added to S.H.I.E.L.D.'s shadowy index, she gets a visit from psychiatrist and ex-husband of Agent May Dr. Andrew Garner. That premise offers up plenty of easy gags on how the stoic bad ass that is May could have ever been a blushing bride, but aside from the occasional comedic spark, the story is mostly another way to engage whether or not Skye can be trusted or if she can trust her teammates. The late episode revelation that her suppression of her earthquake powers ended up bruising her badly from the inside out skirts close to being a commentary on self-harm, but the show veers quickly out of that territory and into a much easier "You've got a friend in me" finish. As all that swirls, eternal primetime heartthrob Blair Underwood doesn't do much to make Garner a memorable addition to the cast, but his easy-going nature with both his ex and her protege gives the character room to grow in the week's ahead.
The third plank in the "Who can be trusted considering their crazy action?" trifecta revolves around Bobbi and Mac's continued secret mission. Since Hunter got too close to their subterfuge last week, he's been trussed up by Mac in a hotel bathroom while Bobbi deflects as best she can with Coulson. Really, the conflict spins its wheels as best it can until it can take over the show's primary plot in the week's ahead, but much like the continued tension between former science pals Fitz and Simmons, the double agent status of the show's newest cast members makes for a few pleasant moments in a somewhat slight episode overall. The eleventh hour revelation that the pair are actually working for a group that considers themselves to be "the real S.H.I.E.L.D." (complete with newer, tougher logo!) is an intriguing twist for sure, but most viewers will be wanting the series to just get to it already.
As S.H.I.E.L.D. twists all these stories together in a mission-oriented Mexican standoff (now a common practice for Season 2), Bobbi, Skye, May and Coulson himself arrive at the Director's hometown football field for a showdown with Cal's crackpot crew. The battle is barely joined when our eyeless Inhuman mystic teleports in and absconds with Cal, effectively killing the drama of a father-daughter reunion as Skye struggles with her new status. Such a move was probably inevitable (hell, Eyeless Joe wasn't even on S.H.I.E.L.D.'s radar yet), but pulling out the exact same deus ex machina ending as they show did a few week's back weakens the hour's drama significantly. And that's to say nothing of the fact that Cal's arrival at whatever Inhuman homebase there is serves as just another tease of a big bad to come. (Don't get your hopes up. It won't be Black Bolt.)
But despite this week's installment being a little to jittery for its own good, there's reason to trust that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will works its way to some major payoffs before the season is out. The series will wrap its 2015 run just ahead of Avengers: Age of Ultron, so a late game tie-in doesn't sound that crazy, does it?