Why do you watch superhero TV? For a lot of non-comics readers, the answer is a simple matter of character-driven entertainment. But for the diehard fan, the current crop of comics-based shows are an interactive game where you can test your back-issue chops against the series as you hunt for Easter Eggs, compare characterization to canon and try to outguess the path the showrunners have set forth for their four-color cast.
Last night Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. trafficked plenty in both kinds of storytelling as the slow-boil plot of its second season started to bubble over.
The Paul Zbyszewski-penned episode “Ye Who Enter Here” opened with that classic network action-show staple: the prophetic dream. Skye chases a phantom Coulson through the halls of the S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ, leading to a bewildering confrontation of the memory of the current director and his then-partner Agent May giving up her infant self for adoption. The credulity of the scene would likely break the interest of any cliché-averse viewer, except that the heretofore unseen music box that turns Dream Skye to ashes plays the twinkling tones of "A Bicycle Built For Two." The song is meant to let "Daisy, Daisy" ring in the ears of comics readers already convinced Skye is really Daisy Johnson, daughter of Marvel supervillain Mr. Hyde. But for the uninitiated, it offers little more drama than the overused "creepy children's song" trope of countless modern horror movies.
Luckily, things pick up as the Easter eggs fade into the background and some honest drama takes root across the episode. The S.H.I.E.L.D. team is finally one step ahead of their Hydra counterparts with a break that points them in the direction of the hidden city that's been haunting Coulson since his infection with blue alien blood. But before the whole crew can jet off to Puerto Rico to investigate the one above-ground entrance to the supposedly underwater city, they have to split up (don't they always?) to extract rogue spy Raina, whom Coulson previously cut loose to flush out the agents of ubervillain Daniel Whitehall.
Roiling under the surface of all the moves are the travails and tensions running through the cast. Coulson and May put Skye on the Raina beat, as they still don't know whether they can trust her to handle the spooky reveals that await her in the hidden city her father was so obsessed with. More satisfying than that "on pause" plotline is at long last a real opening up of the Fitz and Simmons storyline. For her part, Simmons finally admits to someone that, despite her heartbreak at Fitz's brain-damaging heroism at the end of Season 1, she doesn't share the romantic feelings he pledged to her. Fitz, meanwhile, puts himself one step beyond a puppy-love failure when he tells Jemma he'd rather labor in the garage with all-star dudebro Mac than have to work alongside her every day. The "we're talking about work but not really talking about work" exchange between the former FitzSimmons was at turns tender and tense -- and a much-needed bit of resolution in an episode that otherwise raced its way to cliffhanger status.
Speaking of, Skye and May's mission to rescue Raina is chock-full of those fanbait moment that don't quite give any answers. The return of comic relief all-star Patton Oswalt as Agents Sam and Billy Koenig milks a few new jokes out of the "He's a Life Model Decoy, right?" setup, but they can't possibly put that explanation off much longer. Meanwhile, Skye finally confronting Raina about her father offered up no new practical info on how the Diviner works or whether they're 100 percent meant to be Inhumans, but it did allow Raina to say "Kree" onscreen. That foregone conclusion has been in the offing since the blue alien corpse showed up last year, AND it was spoiled online the other week. But just like Whitehall saying "616" when his forces overtook S.H.I.E.L.D.'s airplane, the move likely elicited a few well-placed squees from fans who got to say "I told you so."
There were far more interesting turns once the episode moved into its action-filled third act: Coulson espousing his humanistic take on being director to Mockingbird; the continually creepy inclusion of scarfaced May doppelganger Agent 33; Ward's smarmy tone as he strolls onto the plane to take both Raina and Skye captive for his own ends as much as Hydra's. All of those moments held a little jolt of characters earning their on-screen keep rather than just pushing fan buttons (and that's to say nothing of a new C-plot involving a secret mission shared by Mockingbird and Mac).
But the real fireworks of the episode arrived at the end. When Mac spelunks his way into the underground entrance to the secret city, he's infected by some kind of Kree/Inhuman/whatever-you-want-to-call-it mojo. His turn toward an uncontrollable rage monster worked not for what it could or could not set up in the Marvel Cinematic Universe but because we've come to like the character we know might not make it out of the pit alive. Whitehall's last-minute command to blow the S.H.I.E.L.D. plane out of the sky holds significantly less dramatic tension in the long term, but with the crew ending the episode far behind the Hydra hoards feels like a worthy cliffhanger precisely because it lets us know that whatever endgame awaits this half of the season, it'll be here next week.