After last week's nonevent of an episode, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. spent its mid-season finale on a series of twists designed to make the heads of Marvel fans explode. Let's count down the revelations in last night's "What They Became." The character played by Kyle MaLachlan is actually named Cal — or, in Marvel Comics terms, Calvin "Mr. Hyde" Zabo, a genius who uses a special chemical formula to grant himself super-strength. Cal's daughter, Skye, is actually Daisy "Quake" Johnson, a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent with the ability to generate seismic waves. ("What They Became" doesn't actually spell any of this out, but there's no way the show would introduce a father-daughter combo named Cal and Daisy if they didn't want fans to make the connection.)
Meanwhile, the episode's stinger introduces a mysterious man with no eyes, who responds to the news of Skye's superheroic awakening by saying, "I'm on it." The Twitterverse had roundly assumed that the mysterious, eyeless man is Reader, an Inhuman so powerful that his fellow Inhumans blinded him to keep his abilities in check. Broadly, it's safe to presume that all of this is a push toward introducing the Inhumans as a sizable force in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — a force that will likely grow to include Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, who will formally debut in this summer's Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Were those last couple paragraphs a little dense? That's because "What They Became" was much more interested in teasing hard-core Marvel fans than building a coherent hour of television. In some ways, that's not a bad thing; speaking as a relatively hard-core Marvel fan, I'm thrilled to see these characters on the small screen; there are plenty of intriguing stories for the back half of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s second season to explore, and I can't wait to see the greater impact these characters have on the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But speaking as a critic, I can't help but wonder if "What They Became" would be as compelling — or even coherent — to someone who wasn't steeped in Marvel lore.
That calls back to a question that this series has raised over and over again: Whom, exactly, is Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for? In its earliest episodes, ABC openly courted family audiences; when that didn't work, the show came through a creative shift to become the more adult-oriented (and better) series we have today. But "What They Became" targets an even narrower demographic: the Marvel comics faithful who will actually understand all the deep cuts it drops — or, barring that, the viewers who will care enough to Google all the references after an episode ends.
Take all the Marvel lore out of this mid-season finale, and what do you have left? The episode's sole emotional beat: the long-awaited reunion between Skye and her father. After a brief, awkward reunion in which Skye calls him a monster and a murderer, Cal gets down to business. "I'm sorry I couldn't be there for you," he says. "That I couldn't protect you. That I couldn't teach you about the stars, or sing you to sleep. I know I'm a terrible disappointment, but I'm here now, and everything that's about to happen is supposed to happen. I'm going to take care of you." It's a quiet, poignant scene, and it's worthy of the time the episode spends on it, as well as the top-notch performances of both Kyle MacLachlan and Chloe Bennet.
But that scene stands apart from the rest of "What They Became," which is all information and no emotion. Consider, by contrast, the perfunctory way in which the show dispatches with Antoine Triplett, who has appeared in no less than 18 episodes. His death should matter. But in the episode's closing moments, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. lets him literally crumble into dust — an afterthought in a scene that's designed to highlight Skye's new superpowers. It's a missed opportunity, and a disservice to both a character and an actor who deserved better than the series ever gave him.
Though the other examples are much less dramatic, the rest of the episode spends just enough time with the ensemble cast to remind you they exist. May takes control of the Quinjet, maneuvering our heroes away from their Hydra pursuers. Coulson survives a battering at the hands of Cal (and reunites with Mack, who seems to return to normal after the Obelisk goes off). Fitz and Simmons reach a tentative, unspoken reconciliation, clinging together as the tunnels rumble around them. Bobbi and Hunter flirt. None of it is bad, but all of it is perfunctory; there's simply too much plot to burn off for every character to get an equal slice of the pie.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. does nail its big cliff-hanger: Now that the Obelisk has been activated, it's clear that Skye will be both a greater asset and a greater target. The decision to introduce a superpowered agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. can't have been made lightly, and it's exciting to imagine an Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. that can actually get ahead of the movies, preparing viewers for the greater story on the horizon.
But less promising, "What They Became" also demonstrates the other show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. could become: a ponderous, pandering show that pushes all its major characters to the sidelines in favor of deep cuts and Easter eggs, where the death of a major character is an afterthought in the journey of a buzzy comic-book character.
That would be a mistake. This is, after all, a show that premiered on the promise that "not all heroes are super," and there's no reason that our newly superpowered heroine should overwhelm her human-size allies in the episodes to come.
- Also on this episode's death tally: Hydra boss Daniel Whitehall, blown away by a single shot from Coulson. Turns out no amount of immortal organs can block a bullet.
- Unlike Skye, Raina seems to undergo some kind of physical transformation after the Obelisk goes off: claws, spikes, and reptilian-looking eyes. The shots were brief and murky, but I think it's safe to say that her flower-dress days are over.
- For the second week in a row, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is weirdly coy about Diego — an ally of Bobbi's, essential to S.H.I.E.L.D.'s big plan, who never shows up onscreen. Are they setting up some kind of twist down the road, or did they just want to spare the hassle of casting another major guest-star?
- Ward survives a barrage of gunfire from Skye and slinks away with Agent 33. Adjust your swoony fan-fiction accordingly.
- Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. won't be back until March, but ABC plans to fill the gap with Agent Carter, a limited-series prequel following Captain America alum Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) as she works to establish S.H.I.E.L.D. It premieres on January 6.
Scott Meslow is the entertainment editor for TheWeek.com.