There are two things that drag down any episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: relationship drama and jargon-filled exposition. "Ye Who Enter Here" featured plenty of both — and very little of anything else. At best, this was a throat-clear of an episode; now that the characters have been maneuvered into place, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. can do something interesting with them in next week's mid-season finale.
"Ye Who Enter Here" splits its time between two separate missions. In Puerto Rico, Agent Coulson leads a team investigating the mysterious pit that leads to the secret city; in British Columbia, Skye leads a team working to protect Raina from Hydra. Both missions are straightforward enough that they're basically resolved by the midpoint of the episode, which is probably why "Ye Who Enter Here" spends so much of its story vamping for time.
Yes, S.H.I.E.L.D. has finally uncovered the location of the secret city, but Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. isn't ready for our heroes to set foot in it yet. Consequently, Bobbi and Coulson spend the first part of the episode wandering around San Juan in comfy-looking beachwear. Bobbi periodically steps away from Coulson to enlist the help of a local politician, Diego — a character that's such a blatant plot device that the show doesn't even bother to introduce him.
When Coulson's team does reach the pit, they send Mack rappelling down to check it out. Within seconds of landing, he activates a piece of alien technology that sends him into a bout of hysterical pain. When the group hauls him back up again, it's obvious that he's not the Mack he was before. (The bloodred eyes are a pretty clear giveaway.) He attacks his former allies in a blind rage. After a nasty fight, Bobbi finally shocks him unconscious, and he tumbles right back down the pit he came from.
Is Mack dead? On a normal show, the answer would be yes — but Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has always been reluctant to kill off one of its heroes. (Even Patton Oswalt, last season's most memorable casualty, was quickly revived as two separate characters for season two.) It's a principle that has saddled this otherwise-strong season with Fitz, who skirted death at the end of season one and has done absolutely nothing interesting in the nine episodes we've spent with him since.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. made bold choices with both Fitz and Simmons as it began its second season, and it worked well enough when they were apart. Unfortunately, both characters have been maddeningly dull since Simmons returned to work alongside Fitz in S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ. Fitz loves Simmons, Simmons thinks of Fitz as a friend, neither of them feels comfortable working together — these are points that have been hammered home again and again, without any clear resolution in sight. Wherever their story is going, it needs to get there soon (if only to spare us another endless scene in which one of them mumbles about the other).
Back in British Columbia, Skye's team was spared the relationship drama in favor of a dense heaping of Marvel mythology — but that offered plenty of its own problems. The biggest moment in "Ye Who Enter Here" came in the midst of one of Raina's monologues: the confirmation, at long last, that the blue alien was a Kree. She also came this close to confirming that she and Skye are Inhumans. ("We're humans, Skye. We just have the potential to be more," she said, somehow resisting the urge to turn to the camera and wink.) Whatever the larger implication of these revelations, what matters now is that Raina and Skye share a unique power: the ability to hold the Diviner without turning to stone. In their hands, it will point the way to the Kree temple within the secret city, offering access to incredibly destructive alien technologies.
Would this big reveal have been more effective if fans hadn't pieced the whole story together weeks ago? It's possible, but I'm not convinced. In general, I admire Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s commitment to embracing some of the weirder corners of the Marvel universe. I'm also in favor of anything that might end the show's most overextended mysteries: Coulson's resurrection and Skye's true origin story. But there must be some better way to reveal all this backstory than turning Raina into a walking, talking Marvel Wiki. TV is a medium for showing things, and "Ye Who Enter Here" gives us way too much tell.
Unfortunately for S.H.I.E.L.D., protecting Raina from Hydra also comes with a heavy cost. Ward draws on his knowledge of S.H.I.E.L.D. tactics to tap into Raina's tracking device, which leads a horde of Hydra agents to S.H.I.E.L.D.'s invisible jet. On Whitehall's orders, Ward boards the jet and takes Raina into Hydra custody, but he adds his own wrinkle to the plan: If Skye comes along with him, he'll let the rest of the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents escape with their lives.
Ward's promise is enough for Skye, who agrees, promising her allies that she can take care of herself. But Whitehall didn't make the same promise Ward did, and as soon as he hears that the S.H.I.E.L.D. jet is still flying, he orders his Hydra planes to blow it out of the sky.
It's a solid cliff-hanger, and a likely sign that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is saving most of its heavy-duty ammo for the actual mid-season finale. One bum episode is just one bum episode, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has built up a lot of a good will in its much-improved sophomore season. But with this lackluster offering in the rearview mirror, let's focus on the silver lining: the hope that they're saving everything really great for the last episode of 2014.
- Now that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has unleashed the manic energy of Kyle MacLachlan, the episodes without him feel much duller. Fortunately, it looks like he'll have plenty to do in next week's "What They Become."
- On the bright side: Patton Oswalt always manages to lighten up an episode, and invisibility-cloak-umbrella Patton Oswalt is Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s best version yet.
- "Ye Who Enter Here" also scores extra points for splitting up Bobbi and Hunter, which instantly made both characters 100 percent less insufferable.
- Agent 33 is still wearing May's face, because one actress is way cheaper than two actresses.
- Bobbi and Mack have a quiet conversation about "the other thing" they're involved in together. It's possible they've been on Hydra's side all along, but that feels both predictable and unsatisfying. Is it possible there's a third faction in play?
Scott Meslow is the entertainment editor for TheWeek.com.