For a show about a top-secret government organization, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. can be awfully fuzzy about the way its global politics actually work. Forget S.H.I.E.L.D., Hydra, that other S.H.I.E.L.D., and the ATCU. What would it be like to live in a world where elected officials were forced to table normal issues in order to address the insane, planet-threatening attacks that pop up every few weeks?
That's a large reason why I appreciated "The Inside Man," which depicts the all-too-plausible way a group of hapless world leaders might attempt to address a world full of Inhumans with potentially Earth-shattering powers: by holding a fancy, boozy, and very exclusive symposium to hem and haw over what to do. Into this affair steps Coulson, undercover as a kind of Inhuman expert, and Glenn Talbot (Adrian Pasdar), recently appointed to serve as the public face of the ATCU. Their mission? Determine which of the attendees is secretly working for Gideon Malick.
"The Inside Man" focuses on espionage over action, a choice that often produces the show's more inventive and entertaining missions. This week's silly-cool piece of spy tech is a skintight glove that allows Coulson to capture and reproduce the exact handprint of anyone with whom he shakes hands, giving the S.H.I.E.L.D. team full access to every delegate's room. As Coulson and Talbot glad-hand their way through the Inhuman containment symposium, Bobbi, Hunter, and May use the handprint printer to go from hotel room to hotel room, looking for evidence that might blow the mole's cover.
The twist is satisfying, if not a little predictable: The mole is none other than Glenn Talbot, who publicly announces Coulson's true identity and has him detained as Malick arrives to address the symposium. At first glance, it seems like the series is forging an intriguing new direction for Talbot — he has consistently been one of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s doofier adversaries, and more of an annoyance than a legitimate threat. But it isn't long before "The Inside Man" reveals Talbot's real motive for betraying Coulson: Malick has kidnapped his adolescent son, so he has to play along.
It's not only the dullest explanation I imagine; it's an explanation Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has already used. Remember why Mike "Deathlok" Peterson played along with Hydra? In the end, the team manages to rescue Talbot's son without any bloodshed, converting Coulson and Talbot's reluctant bond into something a little more grounded and substantial. Although the resolution feels a little pat, S.H.I.E.L.D. could use a few more colorful heroes among all the leather-clad super-spies, and the likable, blustery Talbot is an ideal choice for an expanded role.
But as interesting as it is to watch S.H.I.E.L.D. amass both human and Inhuman allies for the battles ahead, the most interesting material in "The Inside" comes from the villains, not the heroes. I was skeptical when Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. finally killed off Grant Ward in last December's midseason finale, then immediately revived him as the new host for Hive. At the time, it felt less like the logical progression of the narrative than a budget-conscious attempt to keep one of the show's contracted principal actors in the mix for the rest of the season, even as the story had evolved beyond him.
But over the past couple episodes, I've warmed to this chilly new villain. Since Hive came to Earth through the portal, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has made the wise decision to sequester it both figuratively and literally, giving both the villains and the audience a chance to process just how massive a threat this Lovecraftian monster might eventually pose. It's certainly wasting no time coming up with a strategy to expand its power. Last week, Hive took a crash-course in human history, watching eight TV screens simultaneously while gorging on raw meat. This week, it upgrades to piles of thick books, and — perhaps more notably — consuming human victims, who collapse into horrifying-looking red skeletons as Hive gains strength from their involuntary sacrifice.
Between Gideon Malick, Lash, and the younger von Strucker, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. hasn't exactly lacked for villains lately, but Hive is easily the most promising baddie the series has introduced this season. I'm not sure how much credit belongs to Brett Dalton — Hive's default mode is "affectless," and the makeup is doing half the work anyway — but nevertheless, the show has never had such a genuinely creepy villain.
We don't yet know much about Hive's ultimate goal, but it's clear that no one is actually prepared for what it might do when it reaches full strength. Malick, who presumably expected gratitude, is stuck monitoring a creature that's growing both more powerful and more independent with every passing moment. And the various members of S.H.I.E.L.D. — clearly relieved to have Ward and his betrayal in the rear-view mirror — don't even know Hive is on Earth, and will eventually be forced to contend with the horror of an unknowable creature wearing the skin of a onetime ally.
Of course, it might be a while until we actually get to see that standoff. There are still ten episodes left in the third season, and Hive seems like the kind of Big Bad you save for a climactic battle. The question, of course, is just how much more growing it has left to do. If Hive is already this powerful, what will it be like by the end of the season?
- One development that did come out of the symposium: Anton Petrov, the Russian delegate, is still collaborating with Malick on a community designed to keep all the Inhumans in one place. Nothing sinister about that!
- Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. continues to push Daisy and Lincoln as a couple. I continue to find Lincoln as interesting as a sack of rocks.
- Given Marvel's total lack of interest in using elements from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on the big screen, I'm surprised the showrunners were allowed to depict Hydra as an organization originally dedicated to bringing Hive to Earth.
- How did it take this long for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to make a "gimme a hand" joke at Coulson's expense?
- Where is Andrew Garner? Our heroes have their hands full, but it's hard to believe S.H.I.E.L.D. would put that investigation on the back burner unless Garner was totally over his impulse to track and kill Inhumans.
- Next week: Bobbi and Hunter follow Gideon Malick to Russia in what might be a backdoor effort to lay groundwork for the long-rumored spin-off, Marvel's Most Wanted.