Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. certainly isn't immune to tunnel vision. With the fate of the world threatened on a near-weekly basis, there's not much time for characters to just hang out, and in those rare moments when a story does slow down, the relationships between team members are typically prioritized.
But every once in a while, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. finds a way to rope in characters who know our heroes when they're not being super-spies. On the margins of the past three seasons, we've met Coulson's ex-girlfriend, Ward's brother, and May's parents. "Watchdogs" adds one more far-flung relative to the mix: Mack's brother Ruben (Gaius Charles, one week too late to share the screen with former Friday Night Lights co-star Adrianne Palicki).
[Requisite spoiler warning: This recap discusses "Watchdogs" at length.]
In the wake of Bobbi and Hunter's unexpected departure, Mack takes a vacation to hang out with Ruben at their childhood home in Illinois, swapping jokes and chugging beers while they fix up a motorcycle. Distracted by his own personal and professional struggles, Ruben believes Mack is a boring "insurance company drone," so he doesn't really get it when Mack cuts the visit short because Coulson orders him to check out a nearby place of interest. "Work friends come and go," Ruben reminds him. "Family, they're the ones you can't get rid of."
Of course, the thing about working for S.H.I.E.L.D. is that it gradually replaces your family, complete with Coulson as father figure. S.H.I.E.L.D. agents don't just work together; they live together, travel together, and spend their rare off-hours slugging down drinks together. There's a reason why the show's major romance subplots — Fitz and Simmons, Ward and May, Ward and Daisy, Lincoln and Daisy, Bobbi and Hunter — have all been workplace affairs. When would these people have the chance to hang out with anyone else?
Of course, Mack can't explain any of that to Ruben, any more than he could elaborate on his grief over Bobbi and Hunter's absence. So when he suddenly leaves to tackle the latest S.H.I.E.L.D. problem — an ATCU building attacked by a group of domestic terrorists who call themselves the Watchdogs — Ruben is understandably baffled and hurt that his brother would abandon him in his own time of need. In short: He's exactly the kind of frustrated, disaffected young man who might be drawn to a group like the Watchdogs, which seeks a return to a more "traditional" America. Like, say, an America without any Inhumans.
The political parallels drawn in "Watchdogs" are not exactly subtle. It's great to see Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. explore the political implications of its narrative, and it totally makes sense that a tea-party-esque group like the Watchdogs would emerge in response to the Inhumans. Nevertheless, the concept underpinning the Watchdogs is undone by ham-fisted execution, which plays like the most on-the-nose satire this side of Andy Borowitz. To ensure no one misses the incredibly transparent subtext, the episode eventually just makes it text: A random redneck calls a talk-radio show to rail against the Inhumans. "First, it was the illegal aliens. Now it's actual aliens putting us all at risk," she rants. "And we do need to keep tracking them. We have to take our country back."
This perspective infuriates Daisy, whose response to anti-Inhumanism is giving the Watchdogs an actual reason to fear and distrust Inhumans. Her investigation into the Watchdogs — which leads to violations of civil liberties as she profiles, ambushes, and threatens random members in an attempt to track down their leader — is the episode's attempt to introduce some nuance. Despite that feint, the show still isn't willing to let Daisy truly cross moral lines, and it's always clear whose side we're supposed to be on — even if there's a totally reasonable case to be made for being wary of these random individuals and their newfound, difficult-to-control superpowers.
In any case, the Watchdog trail leads our gang to a familiar face: Agent Felix Blake (Titus Welliver), a onetime S.H.I.E.L.D. agent turned Watchdog leader. When we last saw Blake, he was clinging to life after a near-fatal encounter with Deathlok. The Watchdogs were once relegated to angry messages on internet forums, but his leadership has given them a renewed sense of purpose, and his intimate knowledge of S.H.I.E.L.D. makes him a unique threat to Coulson and the gang.
In the midst of a S.H.I.E.L.D. raid on a Watchdog base, Ruben rides up and discovers Mack's true profession. That leads to a Home Alone–esque denouement, as the two brothers hole up in their childhood home while fending off an attack from Watchdog operatives. After some of Mack's savvy tactical gambits — and the use of a terrific makeshift weapon Mack dubs a "shotgun axe" — the brothers survive, though Mack is carted off to the hospital to be treated for a gunshot wound. As the dust settles, Daisy and Ruben reach a détente of sorts: He comes to understand the importance of Mack's work through his Inhuman partner, and Daisy recognizes how a good man was thisclose to joining the Watchdogs' camp. She even offers him a job with S.H.I.E.L.D. down the line.
"Watchdogs" is an unusually self-contained episode, and I'm curious to see if the series even bothers to revisit any of it. Between Malick, Hive, and Lash, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has plenty of villains to churn through this season, and the Watchdogs feel distinctly third-tier. (I like Titus Welliver as much as the next guy, but there's no planet on which Blake will ever qualify as a major Marvel baddie.) Still, it's a reminder that the MCU is getting ever darker and politically complicated. If a onetime ally like Felix Blake can wind up so far off the grid, who knows which hero might turn next?
- The ongoing debate about superpowers will be writ large in this summer's Captain America: Civil War, when Cap and Iron Man square off to determine the government's jurisdiction over superheroes.
- Last week's stinger introduced Gideon Malick's daughter, who presumably has a major role to play at some point. Despite that splashy entrance, she was nowhere to be found this week.
- Kudos to "Watchdogs" for slipping a Chekov's gun under my nose. I definitely took note of the hideous collie statue in Ruben's house, but it never occurred to me that Mack might bash someone's skull with it.
- "Watchdogs" is the best showcase yet for Lincoln, who endures a gauntlet of field tests engineered by Coulson, and demonstrates all the appropriate strength and restraint. There's still plenty of work to do before he feels like a true member of the team, but it's something.
- That said: Once again, Daisy and Mack comes off as a considerably better romantic pairing than Daisy and Lincoln. Not too late to pivot!
- Next week: Daisy gets a grim premonition of the future, and S.H.I.E.L.D. scrambles to prevent it.