I'll say this for this week's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: At least Coulson got called out for his recklessness. In an episode that saw the S.H.I.E.L.D. director risk his entire team on a million-to-one shot to recover a long-lost agent — and simultaneously send Hunter into the wild, with an apparently unlimited budget and a license to kill Grant Ward — it took a voice as rational and sober as Andrew Garner, the team's psychologist, to call him out. "Desperation leads to mistakes," says Garner. "These are questionable decisions."
It's an astute piece of judgment — and if "Purpose in the Machine" were a sharper episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Garner's fears might come to pass. Instead, the episode ends in a moment of totally unearned triumph, with bad decision after bad decision resulting in nothing but good news for everyone involved.
Time and time again, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has given the audience reason to doubt Coulson's leadership. In season one, it was his bizarre refusal to dump Skye from the team — even after she betrayed them. In season two, it was his obsession with solving the mystery of the TAHITI project, which could hardly have more personal stakes. The second season eventually devoted an entire subplot to a rival S.H.I.E.L.D. contingent led by Robert Gonzales (Edward James Olmos), who openly challenged Coulson because he disagreed with his judge, jury, and executioner approach. But by the end of the season, Gonzales was dead, and Coulson was running the show again.
And now that S.H.I.E.L.D. is in a more precarious position than ever, what does Coulson do? Allow Fitz, his lovestruck renegade agent, to mount a no-hope rescue mission, and suck everyone else into his orbit along the way.
"Purpose in the Machine" picks up where last week's premiere left off, as Fitz — bitter about his failure to rescue Simmons from wherever the monolith sent her — flew off the handle, blasted the monolith with a shotgun, and pummeled it while screaming for answers. In a weird way, he got them; when Fitz pulls his hand away, it's covered with dust from a planet a billion years older than Earth. This is the tiny speck of hope he needs, and he proposes a mission to recover Simmons from wherever she was sucked into so many months before.
Even by the relatively lax standards of comic-book plotting, this is a pretty dumb plan. In both manpower and time, S.H.I.E.L.D. is already stretched to the breaking point. And given all the months that have passed — and the extreme implausibility of some random planet on the other side of the universe supporting human life for any amount of time — there's absolutely no reason to believe Simmons is alive. Fitz's tantrum should have been met with a stern rebuke from Coulson. Instead, it's rewarded with a globe-hopping trip that culminates in a rescue so dangerous that pretty much everyone involved is in mortal danger. And when Fitz surprises everyone by bucking the plan and jumping into the portal, Coulson doesn't haul him right back in and abort the mission; he shrugs and keeps it going, to the last possible moment, when Fitz and Simmons miraculously reemerge.
I think we're supposed to see the recklessness of this newer, darker Fitz as romantic — but even if I was totally invested in the ups and downs of the Fitzsimmons courtship, it would be hard to justify what he does in the episode. And while Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s ongoing creative push toward more adult-oriented storytelling has largely been a fruitful one, I'm not convinced the series needs to turn its cheery lab rats into another pair of grim badasses: Fitz as stubbled renegade, and Simmons as a castaway so traumatized by experience that she wakes from a nightmare and instinctively draws a knife.
The ramifications of Simmons's trip across the universe will undoubtedly play out over the rest of the season, and the story may eventually grow interesting enough to excuse these early missteps — but for now, this feels like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. doing a hasty clean-up on an idea that was ill-conceived in the first place. I didn't like the decision to end the otherwise strong season two finale on this baffling and goofy-looking cliff-hanger — and now that it's been resolved, I'm hoping to see Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. move on to other, more promising plots as soon as possible.
We get a hint of the grander arc for season two's baddies in the B-story, which reintroduces us to Grant Ward. In "Purpose in the Machine," Ward's ongoing plan to remake Hydra in his own image acquires a major asset: Werner von Strucker, a trust-fund brat spawned by Baron Wolfgang von Strucker (whom you might remember as a villain turned victim in Avengers: Age of Ultron). The baron was a major played in the older, more powerful version of Hydra, and Werner is clearly keen to learn the family business; by the end of the episode, he's already embedding himself as a mole with access to S.H.I.E.L.D. by signing up for a psych class taught by Andrew Garner.
But Ward also has a target on his back, and Lance Hunter — the one agent excused from the Simmons rescue mission — is gunning for it. Unlike Fitz, I'm fine with Hunter being a bit of a loose cannon. He's a cocksure mercenary with no formal S.H.I.E.L.D. training, so that kind of goes with the territory. But once again, it's hard to grasp the logic of Coulson's leadership here. Yes, Ward is a genuine threat to S.H.I.E.L.D., and should be treated accordingly. But Hunter's motivation is little more than petty revenge (and, if you want to get meta about it, a convenient bridge to that Hunter/Bobbi-centric Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. spin-off that Marvel has been bandying about). With no clear intel on Ward's current whereabouts, is this really the best use of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s resources and time?
Maybe it sounds like I'm nitpicking at this point, and the last thing I want to do is ding a fun comic-book adaptation for doing fun comic-book stuff. But stories like the ones in "Purpose in the Machine" stand out because Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. would be more fun, not less, if it were willing to tackle them in all their complexity. The unimaginable burden of protecting the world from an ever-increasing collection of bizarre new threats; the painful task of separating your personal desires from the greater good of humanity; and the consequences, both planned and unplanned, from looking at an impossible catch-22 and making a choice anyway. Those are the fascinating themes on which Marvel has built a multiplatform empire, and if Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is willing to follow them to their logical conclusion, there's no reason it can't become one of the largest jewels in the company's crown.
- Is this the first time anyone in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has actually dropped the name "Secret Warriors"?
- The episode marks the return of Melinda May, but it doesn't give her a lot to do beyond hanging out with her dad (James Hong, best known as Big Trouble in Little China's Lo Pan) while hemming and hawing over returning to S.H.I.E.L.D. By the end of the episode, May has paired up with Hunter, so her story should pick up again soon.
- "Purpose in the Machine" also brings back Elliot Randolph, the undercover Asgardian last seen in season one's "The Well." As before, Peter MacNicol's performance is likably eccentric, bringing some welcome energy to a shaky episode.
- "Inhumans … I have not heard that word in a very long time," says Randolph. I know what he means, but the line made me laugh. It's not like inhuman is a crazy word Marvel made up. Has he really survived so many centuries without hearing anybody say it?
- "Amazon Woman," Randolph's mocking nickname for Bobbi, just has to be a winking reference to her failed Wonder Woman pilot, right?
- Next week on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Our heroes are "betrayed by someone they trust," while Daisy and Lincoln make goo-goo eyes at each other.
Scott Meslow is the entertainment editor for TheWeek.com.