It takes a lot of confidence for a TV show to attempt an episode like "4,722 Hours." Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has aired almost 50 episodes, but it's never done anything like this: an entire hour resting on the shoulders of a single character, Jemma Simmons. In concept alone, "4,722 Hours" takes a risk, and for a series like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. — which is so often beholden to the greater needs of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — that's an accomplishment in itself.
But the truly remarkable thing about "4,722 Hours" isn't merely the concept — it's the across-the-board strength of the execution. This episode is as smart, gripping, and emotionally wrenching as anything this series has ever delivered, and a thrilling sign that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s storytelling could get even bolder and more experimental in the episodes to come.
"4,722 Hours" begins where season two ended, as Simmons is sucked into a portal generated by the mysterious monolith. But this time, we finally get the whole story from Simmons's perspective, as she lands on the other side of a barren alien world.
Elizabeth Henstridge has always been one of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s most innately compelling performers, but she hasn't always been served with the show's sharpest material — and when she has been given some meaty material, the stories have generally been cut woefully short. (Remember when Simmons was a mole inside Hydra for a hot second?)
Here, Henstridge gets to play the full spectrum of Simmons's emotional journey, and she makes the most of every moment, turning in a remarkably deft and multilayered performance. As Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. ticks off the hours, we see Simmons go from cheery optimism about the chances she'll be rescued by Fitz, to puzzlement over an unfamiliar planet where the sun never seems to rise, to a teary emotional breakdown over her desperate desire to go home.
And that's just in the first 71 hours, with a whopping 4,651 to go. As an audience, we have the luxury of knowing from the outset that Simmons will spend 4,722 hours on the planet before Fitz manages to bring her home again. For us, the real suspense of the episode isn't whether or not she'll survive; it's what she'll need to do to survive, and whether her spirit will be broken in the face of a cold and indefinite future.
After an early, rousing victory against a pond-dwelling plant monster that provides a reliable source of food and water (492 hours), Simmons hits her first major snag when she tumbles through a hole and into a cage. It's here that she meets a fellow solitary traveler: Will (Dillon Casey), a U.S. astronaut who traveled through the portal with a small crew in 2001. It takes them a while to warm up to each other; Simmons isn't thrilled about being kept in a cage, and Will is afraid Simmons is just the latest permutation of a strange alien threat that "has this way of getting inside your head." We later learn that Will had a very good reason to be afraid. Under the apparent control of the creature Will calls "death," each of his crewmates committed suicide: one by leaping off a cliff, one by setting himself on fire, and one by destroying survival equipment until Will had no choice but to kill him.
It takes 500-odd hours, but Simmons and Will overcome their initial hostility and cautiously enter into a mutually supportive partnership. Again, the structure of the episode works in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s favor. The snapshots of the burgeoning relationship that we do get to see are a kind of shorthand for the quiet intimacy that develops over the thousands of hours Simmons and Will spend together.
Of course, there's one last factor keeping Simmons and Will from playing Adam and Eve on the alien world they share: Fitz, who — as Simmons correctly assumes, despite the lack of evidence to prove she's right — is still desperately trying to find a way to bring her back. The tension comes to a head when Simmons and Will realize they need her cell-phone battery to power the computer that offers their best opportunity for figuring out how to get back to Earth. From the very beginning, Simmons's cell phone has been the thing that enables her to stay connected to Fitz; she records many, many messages for him to hear someday, and watches a brief video he made on her birthday. "If we use up the battery and this doesn't work, that's the end of Fitz and all your friends," Will warns — and it's clear, on some level, that he means she'll be letting go of more than what she has on her cell phone.
Simmons sciences the shit out of the equipment they have and discovers one place where the portal will briefly open again. Her calculations are spot-on, but the portal is too far away to reach — and when Will launches a message in a bottle designed to give Fitz the information he would need to find them, it misses the portal by a split second, shattering the space where it used to be.
When you've lost your last hope of getting your old life back, what do you do? Start a new one. Cut to 4,720 hours, when Simmons and Will have become a couple, with the happiest-looking life you can imagine on a barren alien planet. They're settling in to watch the planet's sunrise — an opportunity that comes once every 18 years — when they spot Fitz's signal flare on the horizon.
Simmons and Will run for it, but the "death" that has haunted Will all along doesn't want to let him leave. Arriving in the guise of an astronaut in the midst of a dust storm, it beckons for them. In the chaos, Simmons stumbles into Fitz, who pulls her back through the safety to the other side.
There are still a lot of questions to be answered about Simmons's experience through the portal. Where is that planet, anyway? What was the strange, apparently malevolent "death" that haunted Simmons and Will? Can Will be recovered, as Fitz selflessly promises to do — and what role will he play in Simmons's life if they're reunited back on Earth?
Those are intriguing questions, and I look forward to seeing Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. answer them — but when I reflect on "4,722 Hours," they're not the first things I'll think about. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has always been adept at stitching those kinds of mysteries into its narrative. The thing that truly shines about "4,722 Hours" is the emotional depth of this story, and the sheer effectiveness of the way it changes the stakes for both Fitz and Simmons — and, by extension, the rest of the team — in a single hour. I've never understood these characters better or cared about them more. Good TV shows thrive on consistency, but great ones are confident enough to know how to change the tempo and give us something unexpected when the story needs it most — and "4,722 Hours" is a truly great hour of television.
- For those who are interested in the specifics of Simmons's timeline: 4,722 hours is 196.75 days (or a little under six and a half months).
- Will's last words to Simmons: "Don't trust it. He'll do anything to fool you." Calling it now: S.H.I.E.L.D. will successfully rescue Will, only to discover they've actually brought the "death," disguised as Will, through the portal.
- If Will left in 2001, it was probably from a world that looked a lot more like our own. The Marvel Cinematic Universe kicked off with Iron Man in 2008 and has basically progressed alongside the real world's chronology, so Will presumably doesn't know anything about the wave of crazy superheroes and supervillains — Thor, Loki, Ultron, et al. — that have since popped up to save or threaten the world. I wonder if Simmons ever got around to giving him a crash course in Bonkers Recent History 101.
- RIP, Simmons's insanely high-tech cell-phone battery, which finally went dead after 3,183 days of semi-regular use.
- In addition to his multi-season starring role in the CW's Nikita, Dillon Casey can be seen opposite The Vampire Diaries' Nina Dobrev in the 2007 Lifetime movie Too Young to Marry, on which he was too young to marry.
- "4,722 Hours" director Jesse Bochco is the son of Steve Bochco, the legendary creator behind TV shows like Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, NYPD Blue, and Doogie Howser, M.D. (as well as the legendarily bizarre musical crime drama Cop Rock).
- Next week on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: The series pivots back to the main narrative as Hunter and May work to track down Grant Ward.
Scott Meslow is the entertainment editor for TheWeek.com.