For the second week in a row, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s villains stole the episode right out from under its heroes. Last week, it was Kyle MacLachlan and his team of misfit supervillains; this week, it's Grant Ward and the face-changing Agent 33, banding together in a productive, often-homicidal union that begins with a thinly veiled riff on Pulp Fiction and ends with a thinly veiled riff on A Clockwork Orange.
This week's episode is called "Love in the Time of Hydra" — but while Ward and Agent 33 make a pretty excellent team, I'm not yet convinced we're actually seeing the first stirrings of true romance between them. Grant Ward isn't exactly a sociopath, but he's somewhere in that spectrum, and his affection for Agent 33 is suspiciously coincident with her ability to help him in a series of high-risk missions. Whatever the future of their relationship, Ward and Agent 33 make a productive duo; over the course of a single episode, they shoot up a diner, infiltrate a military base, and subject Hydra alum Bakshi to the kind of debilitating hypnosis that erased Agent 33's mind in the first place.
"Love in the Time of Hydra" paints Ward and Agent 33 as a kind of 21st-century Bonnie and Clyde — complete with their own warped brand of sizzling sexual chemistry. The episode's best moment comes when Agent 33 — who, unlike Ward, is clearly and genuinely in love — attempts to seduce Ward while wearing Skye's face. The scene is terrifically unsettling: creepy, kinky, and, given Agent 33's naked desperation to please Ward, a little tragic. The show's only mistake is not letting the whole bizarre scenario go a little further.
It's certainly more interesting than what's happening with the actual Skye, whose out-of-control earthquake powers finally get her kicked off the bus. On the advice of Dr. Andrew Garner, Coulson confines May to a remote cabin, giving her time to work on controlling her powers while everyone else at S.H.I.E.L.D. decides what to do with her next.
Of course, we'll need to start clarifying which S.H.I.E.L.D. we're talking about — the ragtag team led by Coulson, or what Mack calls "the real S.H.I.E.L.D.," led by Robert Gonzales (Edward James Olmos). Mack and Bobbie may have a secret agenda, but it's not as sinister as the real story behind Grant Ward. It's a mere difference of opinion between two men who want to return S.H.I.E.L.D. to its former glory, and Gonzales spends much of the episode trying to convince Hunter that his approach is better than the cloak-and-dagger method pioneered by Nick Fury and continued by Coulson. As Gonzales sees it, S.H.I.E.L.D. can only regain its purpose (and the public's trust) with absolute transparency, and Coulson's "increasingly more troubling" behavior is enough reason to shut his branch of S.H.I.E.L.D. down.
There's a kernel of a great story here. Gonzales is right; despite Coulson's well-intentioned soccer-dad routine, he has made near-constant missteps over the course of the series. Ward — whose beef with Coulson is notably in sync with Gonzales's complaints — is also right: Coulson did act like a father while pushing him into situations where he'd be forced to kill or be killed. And the vast majority of Coulson's decisions — trusting Skye after she betrayed everybody, using vast resources to uncover the mystery of his own resurrection, engineering the deaths of pretty much every Hydra leader — have been reckless at best and indefensible at worst.
Unfortunately, this promising concept is largely undone by its execution. Agent Coulson is a fan-favorite character, and Clark Gregg is the face of the show — there's no way that this group is anything but another mini-arc in our heroes' larger journey. If Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. actually wanted us to be on anyone but Coulson's side, this story might have some bite, but in the meantime, it's obvious that the "real S.H.I.E.L.D." is just another organization that will eventually collapse or be subsumed into Coulson's gang.
It doesn't help that the Gonzales's S.H.I.E.L.D. feels like it was consciously engineered to be as dull as possible. One of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s biggest flaws is the drabness of its regular locations: high ceilings and windowless walls, in various shades of gunmetal gray. (The costuming, which ranges from dark gray to dark black, isn't much better.) I'm all for realism, but there's no reason S.H.I.E.L.D. needs to channel the uniform drabness of an actual government building.
That lack of visual flair is part of the reason Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. roars to life when it pivots to focus on its more colorful bad guys. Take the past two weeks. On the villain side, we have a charming sociopath and his face-changing partner. We have a twitchy psycho at the head of a team that includes Drea "Knife Hands" de Matteo and some guy whose jaw-dropping screams can knock birds out of the sky. On the hero side, we have a bunch of boring pretty people in suits. This week, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had a golden opportunity to give us an alternate group of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, and it went with more dark-suited people in poorly lit offices. Where's Edna Mode when you need her?
- Many thanks to the great Sulagna Misra, who filled in for me last week. If you haven't read her Agent Carter recaps yet, clear some room in your reading schedule, ASAP.
- Underrated use of Skye's new powers: ending boring conversations. Fitz and Simmons arguing about the Hulk? Earthquake!
- I wouldn't trade stoic, scowly Melinda May for the world, but it's nice to see Ming-Na Wen show her range as the more openly emotional Agent 33.
- With apologies to Edward James Olmos, my favorite of the new S.H.I.E.L.D. agents: that guy with the hilariously bushy beard who spends the entirety of the episode sitting at a conference table, staring blankly at everybody. Alas, he doesn't have a single line of dialogue, so he's probably just a background extra — but I couldn't help but spend most of that boring Hunter-Gonzales scene thinking, Man, what's that guy's story?
- Hunter allegedly "escapes" from Gonzales's S.H.I.E.L.D. aircraft carrier in a pod, but there's something fishy about how the whole thing unfolds offscreen. Maybe Hunter released the pod to throw the agents off his trail while he stows away on the ship. Or maybe Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. just crashed against the limits of its budget.
- We get it, Coulson. Something happened in Bahrain. Until you're actually ready to tell us what it is, you can stop dropping obnoxiously oblique references to it.
- Two episodes, and two specific references to Coulson's father. Given Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s ongoing infatuation with daddy issues, is this mere backstory, or a hint that Coulson's dad — whom he says died when he was 9 years old — might emerge from the shadows somewhere down the line?
- Next week: Agent Coulson discovers Mack and Bobbie's deception, leading to a high-stakes game of S.H.I.E.L.D. versus S.H.I.E.L.D.