Next week will be very, very big for Marvel. We're just nine days away from the release of the megablockbuster Avengers: Age of Ultron, which is poised to shake up the company's status quo and trickle down to every other franchise within Marvel's massive, interconnected media universe.
Maybe that's why I watched this week's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., "The Frenemy of My Enemy," with a question I couldn't shake from my mind: How will the release of Marvel's biggest-ever blockbuster impact its small-screen cousin — and is there any way it won't feel like an imposition onto an already complicated narrative?
Don't get me wrong. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s interconnectedness with the rest of the Marvel universe is one of its strongest hooks, and it's impressive that the show works this well as a stand-alone while simultaneously serving the whims of its corporate overlords. But while the events of last year's Captain America: The Winter Soldier happened to give Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s first season the shake-up it so desperately needed, I'm a little wary about the impact that Avengers: Age of Ultron might have on its second. This has become an insanely overcrowded show; between fake "real S.H.I.E.L.D." and real real S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra and the Inhumans and Ward/33 and Cal, there's a ton of plot to resolve in the three episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. that remain. Call me crazy, but I don't think this globe-spanning robot attack is coming at a very good time.
Unfortunately, the dizzying number of ongoing stories make this an episode without much breathing room as the show maneuvers all its characters into place. Throughout the episode, you can practically feel Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. checking off bullet points as it races toward its season finale.
The problem with this rushed approach to storytelling is the number of story points that are either lazily elided or dropped altogether. As the episode begins, Fitz evades his followers by using Hunter's advice for evading a tail — but we never find out what that advice actually was. Later on, Ward warns that Deathlok won't be allowed into a high-level Hydra meeting — but no one seems to mind when he shows up anyway. Skye's earthquake powers, which she basically couldn't control just a few episodes ago, never come into play, despite the emotional turmoil of her situation. (Apparently Jiaying's Jedi-style superpower training is effective after a single lesson.)
The biggest casualty of the story churn is Coulson's reluctant team-up with Grant Ward, which feels rushed and underplayed. In theory, this should be a huge moment for both characters. But when Ward and Coulson actually sit down face-to-face near the beginning of the episode, their temporary truce is struck within minutes: Coulson proposes a get-out-of-jail free card if Ward consents to a mind-wipe once their mission is complete, and Ward agrees. (He's almost certainly lying — maybe Coulson is, too — but that's a conflict for another episode.) With so much history to build on, the temporary partnership happens too quickly, too easily, and too emotionlessly. I can buy that Ward would poker-face his way through the meeting, but not Coulson. As desperate as he is right now, Coulson has never been the type who could face down a traitor so emotionlessly.
Why reach out to Ward in the first place? Because Coulson has decided that this chaotic moment is the ideal time to infiltrate what remains of Hydra. His plan requires an inside man, and Ward has the perfect person for the job: Bakshi, the onetime Hydra baddie he brainwashed into a kind of proto-Renfield.
Fortunately, Coulson's plan is remarkably well-timed. Hydra's interest in experimenting on Inhumans has led them to Skye, and Coulson's interest in Hydra puts them all in the same room, resulting in a brief convergence of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s many competing factions. Gordon teleports in to pull Skye to safety, but Deathlok and Lincoln end up in Hydra custody; meanwhile, Coulson sits back and waits for Bobbi and Mack, who take him back to Gonzales.
With Coulson and his team rushing around in the field, most of the emotional content in "The Frenemy of My Enemy" comes down to the relationship between Skye and Cal, who spend the episode enjoying a long-awaited daddy/daughter day in Milwaukee.
For both Skye and Cal, this reunion has been decades in the making, and "The Frenemy of My Enemy" is most compelling when it slows down to let them have it — allowing for the simple (but emotionally fraught) pleasures of an estranged father and daughter walking around in the city they almost called home, imagining the life they could have enjoyed together. With so much complicated emotional baggage to sort through, it's almost a shame when S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra show up to spoil the day.
This is the kind of ground, personal story I'd like to see Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. tackle more often — and there are clear opportunities to do it. Skye's actions in "The Frenemy of My Enemy" hinge on the conflicted feelings she developed for her father during a very unconventional family dinner in last week's episode, which took place almost entirely offscreen. Given the importance of this event in Skye's overall arc, it would have been nice to see more than three minutes of it. Imagine, say, an entire episode set during that dinner, as Skye, Cal, and Jiaying — each holding their own motives and secrets, and none of them quite trusting each other — openly discuss their memories and the strange circumstances that have led them to this point.
The problem, of course, is that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn't really have time for anything like a character-driven bottle episode right now — but once Avengers: Age of Ultron has come and gone, the series should have a valuable window to stop getting pushed around by the needs of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and start doing its own thing. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has firmly and successfully established a reliable weekly baseline for adventures that fit into the greater Marvel universe. But if it ever gets the chance to start breaking that format, we'll see what this show can really do.
• Earlier this week, it was widely reported that the proposed Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. spinoff would focus on Bobbi and Hunter. It's not the worst idea, but I'd rather see them stay on the mothership. Both characters are great, but their "clever" banter usually tips into grating by the time an episode ends, and it's not like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has an infinite supply of charismatic actors who can do top-tier stunt work.
• Once again, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. packs in several references to Hydra baddie Wolfgang von Strucker, who plays a key role in next week's Avengers: Age of Ultron. The subjects of his experiments, as originally teased in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, are Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Unfortunately, both of those actors are probably above Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s pay grade — but we'll see if Lincoln and Deathlok fit as neatly into von Strucker's plan.
• Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. finally confirms that Skye's full birth name is Daisy Johnson — so if you had any lingering doubts that she was Quake, you can drop them.
• Next week: Our heroes team up with Ward for "a mission so vital it could save S.H.I.E.L.D. and the world at large," which is either an actual Ultron reference or a cruel, misleading tease.