Television has a long and dubious history of "backdoor pilots," those episodes that double as launchpads for potential spinoffs. When it works, you get a brand-new series with a built-in fan base: Laverne & Shirley out of Happy Days, or A Different World out of The Cosby Show, or Private Practice out of Grey's Anatomy. But if it doesn't work, you end up with an awkward, format-breaking episode that knots up one show in service of another that may never arrive (as fans of Gilmore Girls, Smallville, and The Office can attest).
For better or worse, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had already launched the Bobbi and Hunter-centric spinoff Marvel's Most Wanted long before this week's "Parting Shot" wrote them out of the story; ABC ordered a pilot for the series all the way back in August, before this season had even premiered. And while I'm still a little skeptical about Marvel's Most Wanted, I'm relieved that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. managed to give Bobbi and Hunter a send-off that does justice to their time on the series.
"Parting Shot" picks up shortly after last week's "The Inside Man," which ended with Bobbi and Hunter hitching a ride on Gideon Malick's private jet to Russia, where a team is essentially building a gulag for Inhumans. Though the episode jumps back and forth in time, the actual narrative is pretty straightforward: Bobbi and Hunter stake out the base, uncovering a plot to assassinate Russian Prime Minister Olshenko (Endre Hules), replace him with a more amenable political rival, and square off against General Androvich (Kristof Konrad), a fearsome Inhuman whose Peter Pan-esque powers enable his shadow to move independently and beat the snot out of people.
All of this is basically a means to reach the true conflict of the episode: Bobbi and Hunter are captured and dumped into separate interrogation rooms, where a Russian agent plays bad cop with them over many Styrofoam cups of water. The Russians are eager to railroad Bobbi and Hunter into admitting that the United States still permits S.H.I.E.L.D. to operate off the record, and even the personal intervention of President Ellis (William Sadler) — joined by Coulson, who openly disavows any knowledge of S.H.I.EL.D. — can't get them to cough up Bobbi and Hunter unscathed. "What matters here is only how things appear," insists Olshenko, who views the captives as ideal scapegoats for the embarrassing infiltration of a top-secret government outpost.
Coulson manages to negotiate some monitored one-on-one time with the prisoners, then uses technology hidden inside his robo-hand to zap out the cameras for a very urgent 90 seconds. He has a plan all worked out. First, Fitz will use an EMP to break them out of the cell. From there, they'll be ushered back under the protection of S.H.I.E.L.D., where they'll be given new identities and permission to work behind the scenes, far away from any field work that could expose them again.
Too bad Bobbi and Hunter already worked out a plan of their own: Fall on the sword, agreeing to be disavowed by the United States, banned from any kind of government work, and left without any resources to start a new life together.
It's a political compromise that doubles as an obvious jumping-off point to a spinoff series, and it's easy to see how Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. strains to gloss over less-drastic solutions. Over the past few seasons, Coulson and his team have gotten out of tighter jams than this, and there's surely a more creative bit of strategy — whether diplomatic or spy-based — that could get Bobbi and Hunter out unharmed. Why doesn't Coulson find one? If you're feeling generous, you could say that he recognizes and respects that Bobbi and Hunter are willing to make this sacrifice for the greater good. Perhaps they're even ready to leave S.H.I.E.L.D. — whether they want to admit it or not — so they can focus on building a new life before one or both of them ends up dead. Alternately, you can accept the duller, more realistic answer: ABC wants to launch Marvel's Most Wanted next fall.
Or you can just decide that it's okay to have it both ways. At the very least, the sudden decision leads to a touching send-off for Bobbi and Hunter, as the S.H.I.E.L.D. team quietly scatters around a crowded bar for one last silent, tearful toast with their departing allies before filing out one by one. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a dense, busy show that rarely spends this much time on an emotional beat, but in scenes like this, the actors always rise to the occasion. (I hope the show's writers take notice.) Of course, there's plenty of reason for everyone to be sad — Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. just lost two of its strongest players. Whatever happens next, they'll be missed.
- How is everybody feeling about Marvel's Most Wanted? I'm intrigued by the idea of Bobbi and Hunter headlining the Marvel Cinematic Universe version of Hart to Hart, which might well turn out to be the lighter, sleeker, and sexier series I've been craving. But I'm also wary of an Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. without Nick Blood's much-needed comic relief and Adrianne Palicki's action chops. (Good or bad, I hope this spinoff doesn't come at the expense of Agent Carter, whose fate remains in limbo.)
- It's a little annoying that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. wrote out Hunter without ever resolving his skepticism of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s methods and motives. Who's left to challenge Coulson and May on their dogmatism now?
- Per the Marvel Wiki, there is a Russian villain named Androvich in the comics, who operates under the sobriquet "Iron Curtain." As far as I can tell, there's no concrete connection between the two characters.
- Androvich's shadow is actually composed of "sentient Darkforce" — a cute little tie-in to Agent Carter (where it was called Zero Matter) and to the upcoming Benedict Cumberbatch-starring Doctor Strange, which will prominently feature the mysterious energy source.
- In one of many interrogation quips, Hunter identifies himself as "Amadeus Ravenclaw Hunter," laying the groundwork for the Harry Potter/Mozart crossover fiction I never knew I wanted.
- Next week: S.H.I.E.L.D. squares off against an anti-Inhuman group called the Watchdogs.