Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. began its second season by declaring that the show was "going dark" — and it hasn't looked back since. In its quasi-rebooted form, the series has essentially redefined itself as Captain America: The Winter Soldier writ small, with a dedicated band of S.H.I.E.L.D. survivors striking back against a murky, implacable enemy. It's been a largely successful transition — but with 22 episodes in a season, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was going to need to lighten up a little bit eventually.
Enter last night's "Face My Enemy," which trades the grimmer themes of the earlier episodes for an attempted heist that could have come straight from an old Mission: Impossible episode. "Face My Enemy" is less ambitious than the trio of strong episodes that kicked off Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. 2.0, and it makes less of an overall impact — but while it may bring the scope down, it spends plenty of time laying intriguing groundwork for the show's long-term future.
"Face My Enemy" begins with a wise creative choice: bringing Coulson back into the field. Coulson was an obvious pick to take over as S.H.I.E.L.D. director when Nick Fury stepped down, but the promotion came with a cost to the show's potential stories. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is an ensemble drama, but Coulson is the heart of the narrative: the key piece of connective tissue to Marvel's larger cinematic universe, and the most intriguing and charismatic character in the cast. The series benches him at its own peril — and while there's no great reason for him to get his hands dirty on a mission any number of his agents could have handled, it's a relief to see him at the center of the action again.
The episode begins as Coulson and May enter a swanky party in South Beach, under deep cover, in an effort to recover a painting with mysterious symbols carved into it. (The decision to begin in media res is another sign of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s heartening evolution; previous episodes have blown the whole first act as the team sits around the bus, devising a plan we'd be better off seeing in real time.) The mission doubles as a chance for Coulson and May to delve into nostalgic memories of their past together (with enough romantic undertones to fuel eager shippers for the rest of the season).
The mission goes south when it turns out Coulson and May have been beaten to the punch: Glenn Talbot has already recovered the painting, though he needs Coulson's help to decipher the meaning of the symbols. Though he suspects a trap, Coulson agrees.
Unfortunately, the scheme turns out to be even more elaborate than Coulson expects. "Talbot" isn't Talbot at all; it's Sunil Bakshi, the right-hand man of Hydra boss Daniel Whitehall, wearing a nifty piece of gear that allows a person to replicate the appearance and voice of anyone they've directly encountered. As Talbot, Bakshi manages to entrap May, enlisting onetime S.H.I.E.L.D. operative Agent 33 to assume May's identity and bring S.H.I.E.L.D. down from the inside.
In some alternate-television universe, this is where Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. would go hyperserialized, allowing Agent 33 a series of episodes to embed herself deeply within S.H.I.E.L.D.'s ranks as she worms her way into the good graces of the show's heroes. Unfortunately, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is dogmatically committed to resolving each of its non-mythology conflicts within a trim 44 minutes, so it goes down the lazier road: strapping the real May to a chair in a negligee and enlisting a sinister villain to threaten her with torture. This is far from the worst employment of that tired trope: May eventually breaks free on her own strength, and dispatches her double without any help from Coulson. But it's still a little disheartening to see Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. turn its strongest female character into a scantily clad hostage; if the characters were reversed, it's hard to imagine that Coulson would spend the rest of the episode running around in his boxers.
For all the confusion of the face-changing, "Face My Enemy" concludes with an unqualified win for the good guys. Coulson recovers the 500-year-old painting, discovering that the alien writing on the frame is brand-new. He even makes a kind of uneasy détente with the real Talbot, who falls neatly into this season's burgeoning "enemy of my enemy is my friend" ethos.
But in the end, your true friends are your true friends, and "Face My Enemy" concludes by pushing beyond Coulson's gauzy-eyed nostalgia to the real heart of his relationship with May. He spends much of the episode pressing her on what she'll do if the alien blood in his system makes him go rogue, and she finally reveals her plan: a well-stocked duffel bag, complete with money, a passport, and a travel ticket to a remote shack in Australia. "No matter what happens, I'll take care of you," she says. "That's my plan."
The poignant moment speaks to the affection between the two characters, and I don't think I'd have objected if the episode had ended on that wistful note. But Coulson won't be placated so easily. If he ever becomes like Garrett, he says, May needs to kill him. "Nostalgia's fine," says Coulson. "But then life happens. It's time to deal with reality. Hard choices are coming."
It's a reminder that — even in its lighter moments — Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has undergone a permanent shift. The series is still grappling with the very real fallout from its first season, and our heroes are only scrappy because they don't have any other options. If Coulson is right, the stakes are only getting higher, and it's hard to imagine that the second season will end without any major sacrifices.
- "Face My Enemy" reintroduces Raina, who gets 48 hours to return the Obelisk to Hydra boss Daniel Whitehall. Whitehall is pure comic-book villain, in every sense of the phrase, but there's no denying Reed Diamond's skill at delivering "look how evil I am" monologues.
- Earlier this week, Variety broke the news that Robert Downey Jr. would co-star in Captain America 3, in a story drawing inspiration from the popular Marvel Comics arc "Civil War." Like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it's hard to imagine a version of that story that doesn’t have serious implications for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.; at the very least, our heroes will be forced to pick a side.
- Hydra's face-impersonating tech seems like the kind of game-changing piece of hardware we'll inexplicably never see again — but how crazy would it be if "Coulson" or whoever suddenly ripped off his face in episode 18?
- As Skye and Hunter continue their supremely uninteresting flirtation, Triplett chimes in as a kind of Greek chorus: "Not this story again. Can we not?" Note to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. writers: Listen to the man.
- Fitz Watch 2014: Fitz stops the plane from exploding, has a beer with his co-workers, tells an awkward story about Simmons. Progress!
- No appearance from Ward this week, and no sign of the real Simmons. I missed both of them.
Scott Meslow is the entertainment editor for TheWeek.com.