At the climax of A Christmas Carol, as Ebenezer Scrooge follows the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come to a grave that will be his own, he asks a single question: "Are these the shadows of the things that will be, or are they shadows of the things that may be, only?"
To Scrooge's great relief, the answer in his case turns out to be the latter. His unmourned death will only be the future if he refuses to change. Imagine how tragic the story would be if the opposite were true — if Scrooge, having learned from a vision of the future, returned only to discover it was too late to alter his fate. That unsettling idea is the central conflict underpinning "Spacetime," this week's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode.
"Spacetime" begins when Daisy encounters Charles Hinton, a homeless Inhuman with the power to show flashes of the future to anyone he touches. The brief, disjointed scenes that Daisy sees are alarming: Lincoln with blood all over his face; Fitz and Simmons alone in the snow; and, most confusingly of all, Coulson walking into a room and shooting her. After a vision like that, a pessimist might just steel herself for the blow — but Daisy is an optimist, and like Scrooge, she's convinced that a vision of a grim future is an opportunity to change it.
The rest of "Spacetime" plays like a race against fate, with each of the characters occupying a prototypical role. Fitz, the diehard scientist, flatly rejects the idea that a glimpse of the fourth dimension could ever be inaccurate. Coulson, the pragmatist, does everything in his power to contradict the vision by sending May off on the mission while Daisy hangs back in the safety of the base.
Fate has other plans. May's mission is derailed by the sudden appearance of her ex-husband, Andrew Garner, better known these days as an Inhuman-murdering Inhuman named Lash. Andrew is barely holding onto the last shreds of his humanity, and he surrenders himself into S.H.I.E.L.D. custody to say good-bye before his transformation is complete. May stays behind on Coulson's orders, which leaves Daisy to take over the mission. As she storms a building swarming with Hydra members, the stage is set for her vision to become reality.
The specter of Lash has been haunting Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. since he fled from custody in the mid-season finale, and it's long past time for the show to address it. S.H.I.E.L.D.'s plate is pretty full, but it was getting increasingly difficult to believe our heroes wouldn't make a hunt for their ally turned superpowered killer a top priority.
"Spacetime" also scores points by tying the Lash narrative into the episode's larger themes about wanting to change an unchangeable future. In last week's episode, when Simmons floated the possibility that a vaccine might return Andrew to normal, May told her she didn't want any hope. But May's skepticism doesn't mean she wouldn't do things differently if she had the chance. "Every move we make changes the future," she says. "The real feat would be changing the past."
Given the circumstances, May and Andrew are forced to settle for a brief moment of connection in the present. With Andrew safely locked inside a containment chamber, May can let down her guard just enough for the wistful good-bye that they'd previously been denied. When she reminds him that none of these horrible things would have happened if they'd never met, he stops her. "I wouldn't change a thing," he says. "You're still the center of the best moments of my life."
The tenderness of their final conversation makes it all the more gut-wrenching when Andrew once again turns into Lash — presumably for the last time, and presumably for good. May was right: Simmons's vaccine was a pipe dream. Andrew is gone.
Unfortunately, the honesty and tragedy of Andrew's arc makes the solution to Daisy's conundrum feel all the more thin and dissatisfying. The visions are immutable — atta boy, Fitz — but Daisy was reading them incorrectly. Lincoln, though bloodied, is fine. Fitz and Simmons don't end up in the snow — they're on the ground, as ashes from a burning billboard fall around them (which actually seems worse to me, but whatever). And Coulson wasn't shooting Daisy; he was shooting a two-way mirror with Daisy's reflection in it, taking out a Hydra operative who otherwise would have killed her.
You could argue this is a clever middle ground between "the future is inevitable" and "the future can be changed" — that even when the future is fixed, it's too inscrutable to ever comprehend. But even that generous reading can't forgive the narrative contrivances required to make Daisy's vision seem frightening. If that random snapshot of the future just happened to imply that Coulson would shoot Daisy, fate has a pretty wicked sense of humor. Fate may be a powerful force in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s narrative, but at the end of the episode, it's the screenwriters' hands that can be felt most heavily.
- Daisy's final vision implies that she'll die on a spaceship floating above the Earth — a repeat of the same flash forward we saw in the mid-season premiere, which was set three months prior. I'm very curious to see what kind of narrative trickery Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will use to get out of this one, because there's no way they're going to kill off Daisy.
- Charles Hinton is presumably named after the real-life Charles Howard Hinton, the British sci-fi author and mathematician who spent much of his career writing about the fourth dimension (and, some claim, coined the word "tesseract" in the process).
- I know the team has seen a lot of crazy stuff, but I was hoping for a bigger emotional beat for the moment they realized Ward — or, more accurately, the thing wearing Ward's skin — was still walking around. Given the depth of the trauma associated with Ward's betrayal, and the fact that Coulson literally murdered him and left his body on an alien planet, I expected a bigger reaction.
- Once again, I'm shocked by the violence of Hive's superpower, which enables him to absorb energy while turning human beings into bloody, pulpy, red skeletons. The effect is probably gory enough to land an "R" rating for an average horror movie, and somehow Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. gets away with it on network television. (See also: Gideon Malick crushing a dude's skull with a robot hand.)
- Lincoln floats an interesting theory about Inhumans: Could terrigenesis be a kind of intelligent design? "I mean Inhumans were designed, and our powers were designed, not to be random, but to fill a need," he suggests to Coulson.
- Coulson slips up and calls Daisy "Skye" — a mistake that I constantly remind myself not to make in these recaps.
- Next week: As the S.H.I.E.L.D. war with Hydra escalates, the series digs into a dark secret from Gideon Malick's past.