A late viewer to last night's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. might assume that the series had been canceled and replaced by a quirky sitcom. Who's that girl? It's Agent Jemma Simmons, making her triumphant return to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the very solid "Making Friends and Influencing People."
Director Bobby Roth shoots Simmons's formal reintroduction to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in an unmistakable rom-com style (with a major assist from the upbeat pop song "God Help the Girl"). Like Mary Tyler Moore, Simmons's morning routine includes turning the world on with her smile. Unlike Mary Tyler Moore, Simmons occupies a world controlled by a demented ex-Nazi group bent on world domination. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s first season indicated that Simmons had dedicated her life to fighting that group, which is why we're presumably meant to gasp when she walks into an office bearing the Hydra logo.
Of course — as pretty much everybody predicted after last week's preview — Simmons isn't really a turncoat. To its credit, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. only tries to pretend Simmons has switched sides for about six minutes. When Coulson shows up in her kitchen, he's not trying to throw her into a cell next to Ward; he's there to brief her on her next job as his deeply embedded mole within Hydra.
It's a smart storytelling choice in a second season that has been full of them. For most of its first season, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. didn't know what to do with Fitz and Simmons, which meant that the characters ended up spending a lot of time standing around in the lab. The new mission highlights the desperation of Coulson's situation, gives Simmons a much bigger job to do, and raises the stakes for her survival accordingly.
Simmons is just one of many agents assigned to the field in "Making Friends and Influencing People," which puts both S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra in a race to recover with the same would-be asset: Donnie "Blizzard" Gill, whom you might remember from season one's "Seeds." In the comics, he's a mid-range supervillain at best, but he's a perfect fit for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Blizzard's ice-based superpowers aren't a stretch for a TV budget, and he's unimportant enough that the series can do whatever it wants without stepping on the movies' toes.
S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra track Blizzard to a cargo ship in Casablanca. (The heroes wear black. The villains … also wear black.) Simmons reluctantly takes point in a Hydra unit designed to determine her loyalty; May, Skye, and Hunter attempt to get to Blizzard first while the latter two exchange flirty quips about Trainspotting. (And while we're on the subject: From Skye-Ward-May to Fitz-Simmons-Triplett, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has never done shipping all that well. I'm watching the flirtation between Skye and Lance Hunter with a very wary eye. Making Hunter into a hunky, rebellious love interest for Skye would basically make him the equivalent of a pre-Hydra Ward — and we all remember how that turned out.)
Fortunately, Skye might have too much on her plate for a new romance. Skye spends much of the episode interrogating Ward, who continues to feed her info as a warped kind of atonement (unless, of course, he's in the midst of a bigger, more selfish scheme that hasn't been uncovered yet). But for all Skye's anger, the real revenge comes when Fitz confronts Ward and cuts the oxygen to his cell. It's a brutal eye-for-an-eye stab at revenge, but it gets results: Ward reveals that Blizzard has already been brainwashed by Hydra, and that a few key phrases will rehypnotize him into one of their puppets. Fitz manages to pass the info to S.H.I.E.L.D.'s field team, but it's already too late. Blizzard is reconverted into an unquestioning Hydra servant, and Skye has no choice but to shoot him, sending him over the ship's railing to an (apparent) watery grave. Still, the mission is some kind of success; Simmons is promoted up the Hydra ranks, giving Coulson an even better source within the organization.
Of course, more opportunity comes with more risk. "Making Friends and Influencing People" reveals that Hydra can brainwash even the staunchest of S.H.I.E.L.D. loyalists into becoming one of their agents. It's a narrative crutch I hope the series doesn't lean too hard on; brainwashing is a cheat, allowing any number of characters to blamelessly switch sides without consequences. (Fortunately, the episode also made it clear that Ward's motives won't be retconned as brainwashing.)
But while there are a few elements that could theoretically spin out of control, it's safe to say that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s second season has its hands firmly on the wheel. This three-episode run is the most consistent this show has ever been, and there are no shortage of intriguing threads to revisit in the weeks to come.
- Incredibly minor comic-book character alert! According to the Marvel Wiki, a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent with the same designation as the newly brainwashed "Agent 33" has appeared in the comics under the name Kara Lynn Palamas. (She appeared in just two Hercules comics in 1997, so unless Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is aiming for the deepest of cuts, this is probably a totally new character.)
- Hydra leader Daniel Whitehall's metaphors of choice: whiskey, cleansing forest fires. Throw in a speech about a phoenix rising from the ashes, or how heroes and villains are just two sides of the same coin, and you've got a hat trick of supervillain clichés.
- The sad contents of Simmons's refrigerator: Sriracha and beer, which is more or less what you'd find in most college-dorm refrigerators. If only everyone had a Coulson to buy steak for them.
- "Is there anything more I don't know?" "Yeah. I'm the director. There's a hell of a lot more." Snippy Coulson is my favorite Coulson.
- Blizzard certainly appears to die, and Skye's arc in the episodes doesn't make much sense if he doesn’t. But true to form, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. leaves the door open for the supervillain to return again when Skye notes that his body hasn't been recovered.
- Next week's "Face My Enemy" appears to feature Coulson and May doing an extended tango routine, so yeah, you're probably going to watch that.
Scott Meslow is the entertainment editor for TheWeek.com.