This review contains spoilers.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is such a weird goddamn show. Despite being a serialized prime time drama, the show is structured more like a sitcom with a consistent cast of characters being thrust into a new situation each week, often with little to no bearing on the events of the week prior. One week Coulson can appear to be descending into super villainy, while the next week he’s a level headed voice of reason. One episode establishes a team of Secret Warriors only to have them disbursed by the end of the hour, while another sets up a discussion over Inhuman powers that mirrors the abortion debate only to have the follow-up episode drop the Inhumans angle almost entirely to do a Cold War throwback espionage thriller.
That’s where we are this week with an episode devoted to Bobbi ‘Mockingbird’ Morse and Lance Hunter. This episode is odd for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its non-linear format in which the separate interrogations of Bobbi and Hunter by an Interpol agent are intercut with the failed mission that led to their capture. The mission in question is a continuation of the weirdly tacked-on stinger to last week’s episode with Bobbi and Hunter following one of the delegates from the Inhuman summit back to Russia. You’ll recall that this particular delegate put forth a plan to create a ‘sanctuary state’ for Inhumans to live separate from the rest of humanity, and when S.H.I.E.L.D. arrives on the scene, they realize that this ‘sanctuary state’ is more work camp than reservation. But none of that actually matters this week. The Inhumans stuff is essentially flavor text that has no real bearing on the plot, Gideon Malick’s role in this is basically non-existent, and the other agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. have what amounts to little more than cameo appearances. That’s because this episode isn’t about Inhumans or HYDRA or even about S.H.I.E.L.D.; it’s about Bobbi and Hunter.
For anyone who has not been keeping up with the rumblings online, I imagine this episode is going to feel like an incredibly odd left turn – and it is – but it makes more sense when you realize that this episode is serving as a sort of backdoor pilot for the planned (but as of yet not officially picked up) spin-off series Marvel’s Most Wanted. This spin-off featuring Bobbi and Hunter as rogue agents dodging enemies and uncovering conspiracies has always struck me as being somewhat redundant when the same log line basically describes Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but after this episode I might have to change my tune a bit. As odd and ultimately flawed as this episode is, I actually enjoyed it a lot more than any other S.H.I.E.L.D. episode in recent memory, and it really sold me on how Marvel’s Most Wanted might distinguish itself from the show it’s spinning out of.
The big change here is tone. The best way I can think of to describe the tone of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is ‘Joss Whedon cover band.’ It’s not just that Joss had a hand in the show’s inception before passing it off to his brother and sister-in-law*, the whole thing is consciously riffing on that loquacious yet breezy style Joss is known for, but without the depth of deftness of The Avengers or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This episode is not that. It’s a little bit harder and a little bit more serious, while still having one foot firmly planted in Silver Age comic book pulp. It’s occupying a space somewhere between the lighter, fluffier Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the grimier, grittier, grown-up Netflix shows like Daredevil and Jessica Jones. When I called it a throwback to Cold War espionage thrillers at the top of this review, it wasn’t just the presence of Russians that I was citing. This is more tense, more paranoid, with Bobbi and Hunter having to infiltrate this compound and suss out which of these people are allied with Anton Petrov and his plan to round up the Inhumans, and which ones are loyal to Prime Minister Dimitro Olshenko and the Russian government.
The weakest parts of this episode are actually the ones that have the most S.H.I.E.L.D in them. There’s one scene in particular where we’re learning that Anton Petrov is planning to stage a coup against the Russian Prime Minister, and this reveal is cross-cut with Coulson explaining to the dummies at home exactly what it is we’re seeing. Not to mention the embarrassingly directed fight scene with an Inhuman who can manipulate Darkforce** to control his own shadow.
Ultimately, Bobbi and Hunter are forced to break cover to rescue the Prime Minister, which leads to their capture. Despite the fact that they saved his life, they also killed the only two people who might have been able to confirm the conspiracy. In order to avoid war between the United States and Russia, President Ellis is forced to disavow Bobbi and Hunter, and revoke their status as agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. While Coulson tries to plan an extraction for them, Bobbi and Hunter turn him down, saying that the only way out of this is to face the music and leave S.H.I.E.L.D. for good. There’s just one problem with all of this: S.H.I.E.L.D. is already a rogue agency, officially disavowed by the President. Yes, President Ellis supports S.H.I.E.L.D. in secret, but it’s just that: secret. Whether or not they are S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, they’re still working outside the recognized establishment of power. This is all clearly meant to move these two characters into a position where they can launch their own spin-off show, but the pretense for doing so is really flimsy. It’s that very flimsiness that undermines the big teary-eyed send off the show tries to give these characters, because it’s all so blatantly manipulated.
While this is deeply, almost fatally flawed as an episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., it accomplishes surprisingly well its real purpose. As a backdoor pilot for Marvel’s Most Wanted, it has finally convinced me that there’s a real reason for this spin-off to exist. Focussing on the espionage and conspiracy angle in Most Wanted frees up S.H.I.E.L.D. to move into a space that’s more explicitly about low-level super hero antics, and allows Most Wanted to take the aspect of S.H.I.E.L.D. that never really worked, divorce it from the tone and style of The Avengers, and allow it to explore more interesting, unique territory. Or maybe it’ll just rob Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. of two of its more interesting characters and further cripple a show that’s been hobbling along since day one. I guess we’ll find out soon enough.
*Not throwing shade here. However I feel about the show, it’s undeniable that Jed and Maurissa have elevated its quality a great deal since that initial (and, quite frankly, dismal) Joss-directed pilot.
**Has Darkforce ever come up in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. before? It was obviously a big part of Agent Carter this season under the name ‘zero matter,’ but here they’re just casually mentioning it like it’s something that has already been firmly established in-universe.
UPDATE: Our own Shawn Madden kindly reminded me that Darkforce was, in fact, established all the way back in the Season One episode ‘A Light in the Darkness.’