Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. Recap: ‘Emancipation’

As usual, this review contains spoilers for Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but since this episode also ties in with Captain America: Civil War, it contains some very minor spoilers for that film as well.

On the surface, the events of Captain America: Civil War appear to stem from the Sokovia Accords. The Accords – a piece of legislation put forth by the United Nations that would require the Avengers to defer their autonomy to the UN Council – bring the issues of responsibility and accountability to the fore in a way that divides our heroes along ideological lines. But from the beginning of the film, it is clear that this conflict between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark isn’t just about the Accords, in fact, the Accords themselves are little more than a smoke screen concealing the true nature of this conflict. The conflict is about death – two deaths actually. The first is the death of an MIT student who traveled to Sokovia to do humanitarian work only to be killed during the Avengers’ battle with Ultron. Tony, whose entire journey in these films has revolved around battling demons of his own creation, is confronted by the dead boy’s mother and throws his support behind the Sokovia Accords as a way to not only hold himself accountable, but also to take the responsibility for these actions off of his own shoulders.

For Steve, it’s the death of Peggy Carter that motivates him. Before Steve crashed the Red Skull’s jet into the arctic, he knew his place in the world, but ever since he came out of the ice, everything has been much less clear. S.H.I.E.L.D., the organization created by his friends to do good, became a vehicle for HYDRA to survive, his best friend was brainwashed and turned into an unfeeling weapon for his enemies, and where once he may have imagined settling down to create a life after the fighting was done, he instead finds himself in a world where there is no place for him but to fight. The only thing left uncorrupted by the passage of time – his one connection to his former life – was Peggy Carter, and when she dies near the beginning of the film, Steve’s last remaining lifeline is cut. At her funeral, Sharon Carter, Peggy’s niece recalls some advice her aunt once gave to her, and in a repurposed version of Cap’s infamous “No. You move!” speech from the comics, Peggy sets Steve on a course that will define his actions for the rest of the movie.

What’s interesting about this speech is that by taking the words from Cap – a physically perfect übermensch – and giving them to a woman who spent her whole life trying to fight for her place in a world dominated by men, it changes the entire meaning. It also marks the first time any of Marvel’s Television work has had any kind of real bearing on the movies. You don’t need to have watched Agent Carter to understand the significance of the struggles Peggy faced, but if you watched the show, and you went on that journey with her, these words have the impact of a freight train. It’s the perfect ideal for how these shows should work. Fleshing out the world of these stories in ways that subtly enhance our connection to them without leaving crucial information out of the movies themselves.

This is what Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has always tried to do, and has always, always failed spectacularly at. This week is the show’s obligatory tie-in episode, but more so than ever before, the chasm between Marvel Studios and Marvel Television could not be more clear.

The big thing everyone’s talking about this week is the Sokovia Accords, and a major part of the episode’s plot revolves around General Talbot showing up at S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ to take ‘inventory’ and register any Inhumans on Coulson’s team with the United Nations. The only problem is that registration was never part of the deal with the Sokovia Accords in the film. The Accords were meant to fold the Avengers into the existing structure of world power, and it’s unclear if the Accords had any bearing on any super-humans outside of Avengers HQ. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is treating the Accords as if they were exactly the same as the Super-human Registration Act of the comics, and that puts it on an entirely different page from the movies in the very episode where they’re ostensibly supposed to be the closest.

I realize a lot of this criticism comes across as nitpicky and shallow, and there are at least a dozen No-Prize answers to this conundrum (example: the document General Ross hands over is about as thick as a Game of Thrones novel, who’s to say there were not other facets of the Accords that didn’t apply directly to the Avengers?). The problem is that from the beginning Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been set up as a companion to the films, but that doesn’t really work when it feels like the two are operating in completely different universes. The Netflix shows like Daredevil and Jessica Jones work because they’re not trying to play in the world of the movies, so they can go off and play in their own sandbox however they want. S.H.I.E.L.D. wants to pretend like they’re playing in the same sandbox as the movies even when they very clearly are not, and it only serves to shine a spotlight on how disconnected they really are.

But aside from all of this tie-in nonsense, how was the episode itself? Fine, I guess? If you’ve been enjoying the last few episodes, this one is more of that. Hive is still trying to build his Inhuman army, meanwhile Daisy is hacking into S.H.I.E.L.D.’s security systems to look for a weakness. That weakness, as it would turn out is Lincoln, who is bristling over his quarantine and frustrated that S.H.I.E.L.D. is keeping him out of the action. While hiding her presence from the other agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Daisy chats with Lincoln, and convinces him to meet with her so they can talk things out. No S.H.I.E.L.D., no Hive, just the two of them. But to do that, a prison break is in order. The problem is that aside from S.H.I.E.L.D.’s regular security measures, General Talbot is still sniffing around, fighting with Coulson over whether or not to report these Inhumans to the President.

Meanwhile, the Watchdogs (the anti-Inhuman hate group from the episode of the same name) come back into play as Hive is looking for test subjects in his plan to turn the world Inhuman. Hive and Hellfire capture the Watchdogs and subject them to the experiment, and while they do undergo Terrigenises, the results are… imperfect. Their faces get all melty, and though enthralled to Hive, they seem to retain much less of their original personalities, becoming little more than zombies. Dr. Radcliffe insists he can rework the formula for better results, but Hive disagrees, claiming they are perfect.

That’s a potentially interesting wrinkle. Hive is virtually indestructible, but this indicates that perhaps his greatest weakness is himself. Whenever he enthralls another Inhuman, he is giving up a physical part of himself in order to do so, and perhaps he cannot bring himself to destroy the parts of him that are inhabiting these sub-Inhumans. Or maybe he’s just a maniac and doesn’t care if these poor sods are malformed messes, which is the much less interesting alternative, but this is Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. after all.

While Hive may or may not be able to fight against himself, there is something that can, and it turns out that something is Lash. See, Lincoln is a dummy, but apparently he’s not such a big dummy that he’d walk into what is clearly a trap just because Daisy makes goo-goo eyes at him. Instead, his whole ‘escape’ was orchestrated in secret by Coulson and May as a trojan horse to deliver Lash right to Hive’s doorstep. Lash does his thing, killing the crap out of Hive’s new sub-Inhumans without breaking a sweat, and he even manages to purge Hive’s parasites from Daisy’s system, freeing her from his thrall. He also gets a flaming chain through his chest, but hey, you can’t win them all, I guess.

So that’s where we’re at heading into the finale. Daisy is free (though weakened substantially), Lash is dead, Lincoln isn’t a total moron, and Hive has a virus that can turn normal people into enthralled Inhuman zombies. Oh, and he also has a warhead capable of disbursing the virus across a huge section of the planet. All things considered, this was probably the best episode of this half-season, but that’s not exactly high praise since this half-season is the worst Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been since its interminably bad premier. There’s just almost nothing about this show that really works the way its supposed to. Its connection to the films is a joke, its internal story is sloppy and inconsistent, and its characters’ motivations change at the drop of hat without reason. Even in this episode, the big climax – Lash versus Hive – just kind of comes out of left field without any real setup. Sure, it’s cool, I guess, but it should have been a huge payoff, but Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t interested in putting in the work necessary to make these kinds of payoffs happen.

But whatever, there’s just one more week left of this. Hopefully next week’s two hour season finale is at least as inoffensive as this week was.

Click through to the next few pages for some additional highlights and observations on this week’s episode.

NEXT

David Daut

David Daut

Though his taste has been described as ‘broken’, David maintains that the Fast & Furious series is the greatest cultural achievement of the modern era.