Who says you need to go to a movie theater to get a feature-length Marvel adventure?
Okay, okay, "S.O.S." wasn't exactly Age of Ultron. But as a supersize episode that successfully wrapped most of the show's dangling threads and paved the way for season three, the episode provided a fitting capper to what was, on the whole, a much-improved season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
"S.O.S." picks up right where last week's episode left off, as Jiaying sets the stage for a war between S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Inhumans by falsely claiming that Gonzales tried to kill her. At first, it seems like the ruse is going to work; forced to choose between her mentor and her mother, Skye chooses the latter, engaging May in a quick fistfight that ends when Skye uses her superpowers.
But when the dust settles and everyone takes a breath, it becomes obvious almost immediately that Jiaying has underestimated the wits of her would-be adversaries. Her story doesn't really make any sense. Why would Gonzales open fire on an Inhuman — let alone the one Inhuman he knows has the power to heal herself? What does he stand to gain? As Coulson says, the whole plan is way too sloppy for Gonzales — and while he knows something is rotten, he refuses to retaliate against the Inhumans until he can figure out what's really going on.
Back at the Afterlife, Skye has an encounter with Raina that shakes her own faith in Jiaying. "My true purpose — my destiny — is to help you become what you're supposed to be," she tells Skye. "You want answers. You're just not prepared to hear them." She's right: When Raina actually reveals Jiaying's deception, Skye refuses to believe it. (If you ever end up in a similar situation, here's a friendly piece of advice: If you hear something from a person who has definitively proven she can see the future, you should at least consider whether it might be true.)
Skye's disbelief is inevitable, but it also sets Raina's own plan into motion. When Raina provokes Jiaying by threatening to reveal the truth, she gets stabbed in the neck — and Skye arrives just in time to witness it, realizing that her mother is far more ruthless than she appears. In a roundabout way, Raina did help Skye become what she's supposed to be: the one person who can accept both sides of herself, thwart Jiaying, and bridge the gap between S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Inhumans.
Skye may be at the center of it all, but the war between S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Inhumans — which really turns out to be more of a skirmish — is fought on several fronts. Jiaying allowed Coulson to "capture" Cal Zabo in an effort to smuggle a deadly inside man into the S.H.I.E.L.D. base. It almost works; Cal finally transitions into the (very disappointing) "Mr. Hyde" comics readers have been clamoring for all season, demonstrating a little of his superstrength in the middle of a supertantrum. But rather than putting Cal down, Coulson appeals to his better nature. "What we both want is to protect your daughter," he assures Cal, and it's enough to swing Cal onto S.H.I.E.L.D.'s side.
The rest of the Inhumans are busy with the rest of S.H.I.E.L.D., led by Agent Weaver after Gonzales's death. The liquid rock in the aircraft carrier's hold is a major target, and Jiaying unleashes several of her best — Gordon, Lincoln, and a woman who can make and control exact copies of herself — in an attempt to subdue S.H.I.E.L.D. and capture it. Most of the team plays a part, and while it takes the combined efforts of Coulson, Mack, and Fitz to take down Gordon, they manage to come out on top. But Gordon leaves a cruel parting gift: a Terrigen crystal. Coulson manages to catch it before it shatters on the floor and spreads its deadly gas, but it instantly begins to turn him to stone; Mack, thinking fast, uses an ax to sever Coulson's hand from his arm before it can spread any further. (This is just as shocking as it sounds, if not as bloody.)
Meanwhile, in another major setback for S.H.I.E.L.D., Ward and Agent 33 have captured Bobbi, employing torture in an effort to break her spirit before they kill her outright. Ward has devised a particularly nasty drug cocktail: a mix of paralytic and anesthetic that will allow her to endure enormous pain without feeling anything — until the drugs gradually wear off and the pain floods in all at once.
Amid all the superpowered bustle of the Inhumans conflict, Ward and 33 versus Bobbi is a refreshingly grounded story of wills — something that could essentially be grafted into an episode of a show like 24 or a Mission: Impossible movie without anything seeming out of place. Despite the torture, Bobbi refuses to apologize for the cold logic of the decision that led Agent 33 to be captured and brainwashed by Hydra; she made a hard judgment call, but that's what being a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent is all about, and she'd do it again. Sensing that their unstoppable force is crashing against an immovable object, Ward sets a trap for Hunter, hoping to inflict emotional pain on Bobbi. May, seeking revenge on Ward, comes along, too.
Unfortunately for Ward, his own plan backfires when he corners "May" and empties a clip into her stomach. Surprise! It's Agent 33, wearing her favorite Melinda May disguise. Meanwhile, Bobbi protects Hunter from Ward's trap by taking the bullet meant for him. It doesn't look like a pleasant experience, but it's enough to save Hunter's life, and he pays her back by rushing Bobbi to the S.H.I.E.L.D. base in time to save hers.
In the end, the ultimate conflict in "S.O.S." comes down to a family feud, as Skye and her parents, Jiaying and Cal, reunite for the last time. With Skye firmly committed to the S.H.I.E.L.D. side, Jiaying gives up on winning her daughter's actual support and settles on her raw energy, which she begins to drain away. It's a devastating moment for Skye, who dreamed of meeting her real mother all her life and presumably didn't imagine her literally sucking the life out of her. Fortunately, Cal intervenes, killing Jiaying to spare Skye the trauma. Get that man a Father of the Year mug.
In the end, it's a hard-fought battle, but S.H.I.E.L.D. emerges as the unequivocal victor. And Coulson manages to give Cal a thank-you gift: a full memory wipe that enables him to start a new life as a veterinarian, with no memory of the horrors he witnessed — or, unfortunately, of his wife and daughter. (I guess this means Coulson gave Cal a full pardon for all those murders he committed earlier this season, which doesn't really seem like the kind of thing a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent should do — but hey, who could argue after seeing a cheery Kyle MacLachlan petting a golden retriever?)
Of course, there are still plenty of battles on the horizon. Ward is out there, and eager for revenge. S.H.I.E.L.D. has plenty of threats left to face, and Skye has a team of Inhumans to assemble. And then there's the matter of the Terrigen crystals that fell into the ocean — which are revealed, in a fun little montage, to have leaked into bottles of fish-oil pills, ready to pass superpowers on to anyone who takes them.
I try to take Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on its own merits, but it's hard not to look at all those leaking Terrigen crystals without thinking about Marvel's already-announced Inhumans movie, bound for theaters in 2019. But maybe the best thing I can say in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s favor is that the season finale left me excited not for the next big Marvel tie-in but for season three. Right now, the little, self-contained universe of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. feels like it holds as much promise as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and I'm already eager to see where it takes us next.
Final character grades for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s second season:
Grant Ward: A
Last year, Grant Ward instantly went from one of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s least interesting characters to one of its most when it revealed he had been a mole for Hydra all along. Though Brett Dalton remained a part of the main cast, the second season wisely used him more sparingly, building anticipation for each appearance while keeping his true motives under wraps. Ward's deviousness means that every scene in which he appears crackles with an inherent tension — you simply don't know what he's going to do. (I wasn't even convinced his feelings for Agent 33 were genuine until he privately mourned her death at the end of "S.O.S.") I'm not entirely sold on making him the next head of Hydra, but given how well Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has used Ward so far, I'm giving it the benefit of the doubt.
Cal Zabo: A-
Easily the best new character of the season. Kyle MacLachlan's weird, manic energy was exactly what Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. needed: a veteran character actor dropping in to add a splash of color to a palette of blues and grays. Cal proved a remarkably versatile character, effectively carrying moments of menace, pathos, and comedy. Unfortunately, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. squandered an entire season of buildup with Cal's laughably unconvincing transformation into Mr. Hyde in "S.O.S." — but until then, the character was note-perfect.
Bobbi and Hunter: B+
I was very happy to hear these star-crossed lovers won't be leaving for their very own spinoff after all — as ABC clearly realized, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. needs them. Their early Mr. and Mrs. Smith banter was a little grating, but as the actors settled into the roles (and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. locked down their core dynamic), the pairing became one of the series' most fruitful. As Hunter, Nick Blood provides a welcome dose of roguish humor. As Bobbi, Adrianne Palicki is probably the show's most talented physical performer, carrying off a slew of action scenes that make Bobbi feel like the fighting powerhouse she's supposed to be.
Melinda May: B+
Steady as she goes. Never the flashiest character on the series, May is consistently compelling, offering top-notch fight scenes and ice-cold line deliveries in equal measure. Attempts to deepen her character, which included the introduction of her ex-husband Andrew and the use of some flashbacks, felt a little undercooked — but Ming-Na Wen is still the most charismatic actor in the original cast.
Between her long lost parents and her superpowers, Skye had the biggest arc of the season — and all things considered, it went pretty well. Chloe Bennet is still a little shaky during the show's more dramatic beats, but her work in the show's action scenes has improved immensely. Now that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has disposed with her tragic family backstory, I hope she can drop some of the angst and focus on Skye's talents as a superpowered, super-talented S.H.I.E.L.D. agent.
In early episodes, Mack could be a little bland and self-righteous, but by the end of the season, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. embraced Henry Simmons's natural strengths by making him the fun, Über-charismatic guy. Mack spends most of the finale running around the ship, tossing out quips, and dispatching Inhumans in his own little game of Die Hard. It's great.
Phil Coulson: C+
Coulson may be the glue that holds S.H.I.E.L.D. together — but following the nuttiness of his resurrection by alien blood, his actual character arc has grown a little fuzzy. Clark Gregg is a talented actor, but even he can't make Coulson's whiplash jumps between dad-joke quippery and the angst of leadership feel natural. Still, the process of rebuilding S.H.I.E.L.D. should be plenty of fodder for compelling stories, and there's no reason Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. can't delve into the process more deeply in season three.
Fitz and Simmons: D-
What was Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. doing with these two this season? Fitz started the season in a state of trauma, unable to communicate with the team — a trait that turned out to be more annoying than tragic. (The problem was eventually, inexplicably dropped.) Simmons started more promisingly, as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent embedded within Hydra, but the series burned through that story far too quickly. Her later evolution into a kind of ruthless sociopath felt totally out of character and was barely addressed by the show. After teasing 'shippers with a Fitzsimmons romance, the finale ends with a baffling cliff-hanger, as that weird Kree liquid rock bursts out of its cage and sucks Simmons into it. I hope she reemerges as a character who makes sense.
And a final roundup of side notes:
- Raina, Gordon, Agent 33 … we lost a lot of solid characters in "S.O.S.," but there's no one I'm going to miss more than the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent with the thick, bushy beard, who gets killed by Jiaying and her Terrigen crystals. We never really got to know him, but his background appearances always inspired me to cheer "beard guy!" and that's definitely something I'll miss in season three.
- "You're better than I imagined. I imagined you perfect. You're way more interesting than this." Cal's final scene with Skye was lovely — a poignant moment made more poignant when it became clear that he was about to lose the memory of his "best day ever" forever.
- Coulson's suggestion that Skye lead a team of superpowered S.H.I.E.L.D. agents certainly seems like a hint that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will introduce its own version of the Secret Warriors next year. Lincoln seems like an obvious place for Skye to start.
- Per Simmons's analysis, Cal's drug cocktail includes a wide range of substances, including methamphetamines, gorilla testosterone, and a drop of peppermint. Tasty!
- Notable blink-and-you'll-miss-it credit: "Loki as Thug #2." No, not the Avengers villain — an actual actor, whose other screen credits also include Hancock ("Prison Inmate"), Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie ("Tattoo Artist"), and The Bunny Game ("Belt Whip John"). That said: If you write fanfic about Loki posing as one of Ward's new henchmen, please send me the link.
- Thanks, as always, for following along with these recaps — it's been a pleasure deciphering season two with you. I'll catch you next fall!