This review contains spoilers.
Back before Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. returned from its midseason hiatus to start in on a new story arc, I wrote a piece outlining some of the basic history of the Secret Warriors in Marvel comics. In that piece, I expressed my desire to see Hive and the Secret Warriors used to move away from the S.H.I.E.L.D. versus HYDRA status quo that is now woefully played out, and perhaps borrow a page from the ‘Secret Invasion’ storyline to do a paranoid Invasion of the Body Snatchers-type story. Instead, even with Hive around, most of this half-season has been playing the same ol’ tune we’ve been hearing since Season Two: S.H.I.E.L.D. versus HYDRA with a dash of Inhuman drama sprinkled in for flavor. If you’ve been keeping up with these reviews, you’ll know how tha has absolutely bored me to tears.
This week, though, feels like something resembling forward momentum. With the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in HYDRA’s custody, Daisy and Lincoln light the S.H.I.E.L.D. signal to assemble the Secret Warriors for a rescue mission. Daisy and her team of Inhuman agents infiltrate the HYDRA base and burn through the opposition with an almost surprising ease. They capture Malick, rescue their team, reclaim the Zephyr One, and even kill off Lucio (Medusa-Eyes) for good measure. Back at S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ, Coulson promptly gets to work interrogating Malick, and in the process learns of Hive’s capability to influence the minds of other Inhumans. Too bad for Coulson, he has four of them in his base, any of whom might have had a run-in with Hive during the rescue operation.
So, yeah, the setup this time is S.H.I.E.L.D. versus The Thing (John Carpenter’s, not Ben Grimm). The agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are trapped in their base as they try to suss out who among them is infected with an alien parasite. There are even blood test and autopsies, just to make the parallels as clear as possible. While I admit that riffing on one of my favorite movies is an easy way to win my heart, I think this episode has a lot going for it beyond merely being a pastiche of The Thing. Because this episode is about an internal threat, not an external one, it forces the show to slow things down a bit and explore these characters on a level it normally doesn’t have time for. That’s not to say all of the character issues are resolved in this episode or that it provides any particularly deep insights, but at least it’s dealing with these characters’ fears and biases in a way that guides the narrative instead of having their motivations pivot on a dime to acquiesce to whatever the plot needs at that point. May is the least trusting, having had her world undone by Inhumans on more than one occasion, while Mack is the most sympathetic, wanting desperately to trust his team, even as he’s fearful that they’ve been turned. Coulson falls somewhere in the middle of that spectrum – neither as angry as May, nor as fearful as Mack, instead doing his best to keep a level head despite being thrown into this sea of fear and paranoia. As for Fitz/Simmons, they’re just content to keep trucking along with the world’s slowest courtship.
The paranoia escalates into hostility when someone cuts the power in the base and uses the opportunity to murder Gideon Malick. Coulson orders that the Secret Warriors be confined until they can figure out a way to determine which of them is under Hive’s control. Lincoln wants none of that, refusing to be locked in a cage waiting for someone else to determine his innocence, while Daisy insists that they trust S.H.I.E.L.D. and their process. As things start to heat up, Daisy finally agrees to help Lincoln escape, only to lead them into the Inhuman containment units to await further testing from Coulson.
The strongest part of this episode is when the paranoid tension is starting to heat up, and once things finally spark into action mode it doesn’t have quite the same impact. Moments like the one where Mack is staring at security feeds of the four Inhumans, realizing that under this kind of observation they all look suspicious is the part of this that really works. You’re forced into that position of uncertainty just like the characters are, and it’s incredibly compelling. When the action starts in earnest, though, the identity of the traitor quickly becomes clear. The show tries to throw the spotlight on Lincoln as a diversion, but anyone with a drop of genre savvy will recognize that Daisy is just way too eager to lock herself in a cage. It’s a shame, really, because with a better constructed story arc, this paranoia could have been woven into the episodes leading up to this point, but instead each episode has been more-or-less self contained with virtually no forward momentum in terms of the larger story arc. The reveal of Daisy as the traitor would have had more impact if that possibility had been lingering for more than 20 minutes.
Still, credit where it’s due, this is the best episode Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has had this half-season. It doesn’t erase my larger issues with the show – I still don’t really care about any of the characters, and the long form storytelling is still messy and unfocussed – but at least it puts us in a more interesting place heading into the final stretch of episodes for the season. HYDRA has (yet again) been defeated, an agent has turned traitor, the Secret Warriors have assembled, and we’re heading towards a showdown with an Inhuman god. I just hope they don’t immediately drop the ball with all of this next week.