There are two kinds of great TV episodes. One kind, like this season's Simmons-centric "4,722 Hours," is bold enough to break format and do something totally different from any episode before. The other kind is less flashy, but just as effective: an episode that follows a TV show's boilerplate format to the letter, but pulls it off with unusual intelligence, grace, and strength.
This week's "Chaos Theory" is one of the latter. On paper, there's nothing that separates this episode from your average Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. outing — but the execution makes all the difference. "Chaos Theory" feels like the culmination of everything Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has accomplished so far this year, building a thoughtful and emotionally wrenching narrative out of three pairs of star-crossed lovers: Melinda May and Dr. Andrew Garner, Fitz and Simmons, and Agent Coulson and Rosalind Price.
It doesn't get much more dramatic than May's relationship with her ex-husband, Dr. Andrew Garner. Divorce is difficult at the best of times — but splitting up, getting back together, and discovering the man you love is moonlighting as a homicidal Inhuman Sonic the Hedgehog? There's no therapist in the world that specializes in that. "Chaos Theory" picks up shortly after the event of last week's "Among Us Hide," when May learned that Andrew had been Lash all along.
But before we rejoin May and Andrew in the turmoil of the present, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. reminds us what the stakes are by showing us May and Andrew six months earlier, on a Hawaiian vacation together. After the pain of their divorce, May is understandably wary about giving things another go. "We're older now. Wiser," he insists, raising a glass in a retroactively unfortunate toast. "To new beginnings."
May is the most levelheaded member of the S.H.I.E.L.D. team, but even she can't blow the whistle on Andrew without confronting him face-to-face first. Unfortunately, May's trust turns out to be a little misplaced. Andrew kidnaps her and chains her up in an old building at Culver University, to try to convince her he's still someone she can trust and love (and not, say, the kind of dude who would kidnap her and chain her up in an old building).
Andrew does everything he can to convince May that he's not beyond saving: explaining his motives, invoking their shared past, and discussing the secret pains that only he would know. But May, pragmatic to the last, isn't swayed. When allies show up and she gets the chance at the upper hand, May blasts Andrew into one of the ACTU's cryogenic chambers, freezing him — and condemning herself to a life without him — unless a day comes when his Inhuman psychosis can be cured.
Back at headquarters, things are much less intense but just as emotionally fraught. Since Fitz dramatically rescued Simmons from the alien planet, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has wisely focused on smaller, more intimate stories for both characters — a strategy that pays dividends once again in "Chaos Theory." This week, Fitz and Simmons's story hinges on Simmons's cell phone, which made it back through the portal damaged but intact. As Fitz recovers the data for her, he's able to track the joys and pains of her journey in real time. It begins as a series of video and audio logs that are literally addressed to him; progresses to video and audio logs that function more as diary entries, addressed to Fitz only as a way for Simmons to feel less alone; and finally, a glimpse into the life Simmons was beginning to build with Will, with Fitz serving as an important but increasingly distant connection to the life she had and lost.
Fitz's belated discovery of the intimate feelings Simmons had for him serve as yet another complicating factor in this enormously dicey situation. He loves Simmons enough to do anything to bring Will back safely — even at the expense of his own happiness. But what is Fitz supposed to do with the knowledge that she felt the same way about him? And what is Simmons supposed to do with her feelings for two completely different men — only one of whom is even within her solar system? In the end, the pair does the only thing they can do right now: table their feelings and watch the sun rise.
But if Fitz and Simmons are still figuring out the boundaries of their intimate relationship, Coulson has officially thrown himself into an extremely complicated relationship with Rosalind Price. After weeks of professional gamesmanship mixed with flirty banter, Coulson and Rosalind finally consummate their attraction at the end of "Chaos Theory." Given the very, very uneasy alliance between S.H.I.E.L.D. and the ACTU, it's a reckless move. But it's also easy to sympathize with how these two characters — alone at the top of two top-secret organizations, with no one else who truly understands what their lives are like — would give into temptation and fall into each other's arms.
And then the big twist drops. The morning after Rosalind and Coulson hook up, she steps away to call the exceptionally sinister Gideon Malick (Powers Boothe), who literally just finished listening to Grant Ward, S.H.I.E.L.D. traitor turned Hydra head, explaining his plan to kill Coulson. Rosalind apologizes to Gideon for missing their meeting, and gets off the phone just in time to take Coulson out for a post-coital breakfast.
It's no great surprise that Rosalind isn't quite on the up-and-up — after all, who on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is? But her connection to Gideon is one of those great twists that raises more questions than it answers. Is this one of those Edward James Olmos alterna-S.H.I.E.L.D. situations, when two separate teams of good guys are seeking the same goal through totally different methods? Is this a double-blind situation, in which Rosalind doesn't realize that Gideon Malick is also dealing with Hydra? Or is Coulson on the cusp of yet another devastating betrayal by someone he has come to trust?
Judging purely from history, I'm betting on betrayal. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is uncommonly cruel to its lovers, and given the sheer number of threats out there, it's hard to imagine him happily riding off into the sunset anytime soon. At least Coulson, like the rest of the episode's lovers, has one thing he can count on: He'll always have S.H.I.E.L.D. to come home to.
- Though they hardly interact within the episode, "Chaos Theory" offers one more pair of star-crossed lovers: Daisy and Lincoln, who are presumably still crushing on each other after kissing a few weeks ago. Now that Coulson has offered Lincoln a slot on the team, they'll have the chance to clarify their weird thing to both each other and the audience (and convince me that Daisy/Lincoln is a more compelling pairing than Daisy/Mack).
- And then, of course, there's the one semi-functional couple on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: divorcées turned lovers Hunter and Bobbi, who are going to stop pursuing revenge so hard that one of them ends up dead. Hooray!
- Despite his newly revealed connection with Rosalind, Gideon Malick still lingers far on the edges of the narrative — but despite his relatively marginal role, he has cast a long shadow over the last two episodes. I'm eager for him to stop sipping his (presumably very expensive) whiskey and have some actual contact with Coulson and company.
- Hunter, on seeing a picture of Simmons's ruggedly handsome lover Will: "Just gonna say what we're all thinking: He has a hog face." Next time I need a wingman, I want him in my corner.
- Next week: Ward takes the first step in his plan to take down S.H.I.E.L.D.