Picking up after last week's enjoyable but frothy Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode, "A Hen in the Wolf House" wastes no time getting back to business. By the end of the episode, S.H.I.E.L.D. has brought two undercover agents back into the fold, and Hydra has formed an alliance with Skye's father — the one man who has the power to bring Agent Coulson down.
"A Hen in the Wolf House" opens with another chillingly successful Hydra mission, in which six Navy officers who work for an anti-Hydra squad are murdered during a wedding. But despite the casualties, Daniel Whitehall isn't happy; the method of execution was reverse-engineered from the obelisk, which is exponentially more powerful than the pale imitation Hydra's scientists have created. The real obelisk still lies in the hands of Skye's father (Kyle MacLachlan, returning for a meatier role after a brief introduction in "Heavy is the Head").
It's an intriguing new character brought down a few notches by an already-overplayed backstory. The very idea of "Skye's father" feels like the vestigial tail of a duller, lumpier version of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., pegged to a time when the show was going all in on mythology stories. (Unfortunately, it also turns out to represent a step backward for Skye, who responds to a near-encounter with her dad by having an extremely ill-timed breakdown in the middle of a high-stakes mission.)
All that said: MacLachlan is excellent as Skye's father, projecting an eerie, destabilized menace that adds another fascinating wild card into Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s mix. MacLachlan's character is a desperate man, performing back-alley surgery for lowlifes as he gathers information on his daughter. He's also the kind of villain who refuses to see himself as a villain. "He's a butcher!" he says, referring to Hydra's Daniel Whitehall. "I'm a man trying to put my family back together!" The argument would be more convincing if MacLachlan wasn't strangling Raina while he made it.
MacLachlan tasks Raina with recovering Skye, which leads her back to Hydra to collect a little leverage. In an astonishing coincidence, Raina manages to notice Simmons — still working within Hydra as a double agent — as she leaves a secret message for Agent Coulson. (Friendly advice for the director of S.H.I.E.L.D.: If you want to protect your mole, don't set up a dead drop within 50 feet of your evil enemy's headquarters.) Raina catches Simmons in the act and uses the opportunity to blackmail Coulson: Hand over Skye, or she'll send an email revealing Simmons's treachery to every person who works for Hydra.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has spent the first episodes of its second season setting up a powder keg. Everyone is desperate, and nobody wants to tip their hand and reveal just how bad things really are. Coulson and his broken team are falling apart as S.H.I.E.L.D. tries to go forward with ridiculously limited resources. Hydra is plagued by internal squabbling, lashing out blindly at anyone it considers a threat. MacLachlan has some kind of Incredible Hulk–esque condition that keeps him constantly on the verge of snapping. Even lesser villains, like Raina or Glenn Talbot, are desperate enough to turn to onetime enemies like Coulson for help.
At the midpoint of "A Hen in the Wolf House," that powder keg finally explodes. Coulson calmly watches while Raina's counter ticks down, sealing Simmons's doom. There are a number of ways the show could have cheated this moment: Coulson could have backed down, or Raina could have stopped the timer. It could have been a bluff, designed to test Coulson or to get him to crack.
Instead, the show simply steps back and lets the consequences unfold. Simmons is immediately outed as a mole to her co-workers, and she'd be either brainwashed or dead without the aid of Coulson's second Hydra mole: Bobbi "Mockingbird" Morse, a beloved comics character brought to the small screen by Adrianne Palicki. Even in its darker 2.0 version, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. never really punishes its characters, and it was obvious that Simmons would escape alongside Bobbi unscathed. But given the show's original "we're all a family" worldview, it's intriguing to see Coulson risk one of his most trusted agents in a situation he has no direct control over.
After a little baton-twirling and a well-timed jump onto an invisible jet, Bobbi and Simmons escape to rejoin their S.H.I.E.L.D. allies at the base. Meanwhile, MacLachlan — enraged to see Coulson, a surrogate father figure comforting his own long-lost daughter — reaches out to Daniel Whitehall, offering the obelisk in exchange for help killing Coulson. ("Along with, you know, everyone else," he shrugs.)
Despite those grand aspirations, it's unlikely that Hydra will actually manage to use the obelisk to kill billions of people, as Simmons calculated earlier in the episode (if only because we wouldn't have much of a TV show after). But I wouldn't expect things to take an upswing anytime soon, either. Next week's "A Fractured House" will be the culmination of everything Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s second season has done so far — and based on that ominous title, the bad times are bound to continue.
- Until the show gives him a name, I'll be referring to Kyle MacLachlan's character as Kyle MacLachlan. Feel free to substitute Agent Cooper/Trey from Sex and the City/the Mayor of Portland as you see fit.
- Agent Coulson stops just short of telling Skye that she's an alien. "It's a theory," he insists, though it's clearly a theory he's confident about. Then again, Marvel is never afraid to zig when it seems like it's zagging — so if you have any alternate ideas, drop them in the comments.
- And while we're on the subject of needlessly convoluted mythology, Skye theorizes that the weird symbols Coulson can't stop drawing are supposed to be a map — and since Skye is pretty much never wrong on this show, I'm inclined to assume she's right. But a map to what? Whatever planet Skye is from? Wherever the Guardians of the Galaxy are hanging out? Glastonberry Grove? Again, feel free to chime in below.
- After a promising spotlight episode in "Heavy is the Head," Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has failed to do anything worthwhile with Lance Hunter. His relationship with Skye is interesting when they're not flirting, but his lingering tension with Bobbi — who, in a not-so-surprising twist, turns out to be his ex-wife — is a total non-starter.
- Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. did use Hunter and Bobbi's annoying argument to offer a wink to the comics fans: Hunter complains that he preferred Bobbi when she was blonde, as she appears in the original Marvel comics.
- More fun for Marvel fans: Simmons makes a brief reference to a notoriously bizarre Marvel character named Hellcow, who first encountered Howard the Duck in 1975. Hellcow was living a peaceful life as a dairy cow named Bessie when Dracula bit her and turned her into a bloodsucking vampire. The Marvel Universe is a place both wonderful and strange.
- The first trailer for Avengers: Age of Ultron will air during next week's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., so triple-check to make sure your DVR is in working order.
Scott Meslow is the entertainment editor for TheWeek.com.