[Requisite spoiler warning: This recap discusses "Paradise Lost" at length.]
When a character isn't working, a TV show has two choices: Cut them loose or devote precious screen time to make them more interesting. This week's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. takes a shot at the latter by digging into the buried secrets of this season's least compelling characters, Gideon Malick and Lincoln.
The two characters, while similarly ill-defined, don't begin on a level playing field. Malick, a generic conniving evil billionaire, has been hard to pin down since his brief cameo in The Avengers, but the character benefits from Powers Boothe's natural gravitas. With apologies to Luke Mitchell, Lincoln doesn't even have a strong performance to distract from his fundamental flaws as a character; he's just a wet blanket, alternately smirking and pouting his way through every scene.
In "Paradise Lost," neither attempt at character rehabilitation is particularly effective. Let's start with Gideon Malick, whose tragic back story is doled out through a series of flashbacks set in 1970. The first one begins shortly after the death of Gideon's father, who raised his sons to be loyal Hydra nutjobs. Without a family patriarch, the teenage Gideon (Cameron Palatas) and his brother Nathaniel (Joel Dabney Courtney) are expected to pick up where he left off; it seems that portal sacrifices are a centuries-long tradition.
Shortly after the funeral, the brothers reluctantly accept an invitation to visit Daniel Whitehall (Reed Diamond, reprising a role that dominated the first half of season two). Whitehall rolls his eyes at their father's "archaic blood sacrifice," in which Hydra members randomly draw stones until a "chosen one" receives the honor of traveling through a portal to be devoured by Hive. When Gideon responds with anger at this insult to his father's memory, Whitehall urges him to go back to their fancy mansion and check out their dad's copy of Paradise Lost.
The truth is an uncomfortable one. Inside the book, they find a hollowed-out hole containing a rock — the same rock their father used to cheat his way out of the ritual every year, which he managed through sleight-of-hand. But if this secret shatters the Malick boys' illusions about their father, it also offers them motivation to be better men. (Well, more honorable in their villainy, at least.) "Together to the end," they agree. As Gideon throws their father's trick stone into the pond, they promise to do the Hydra sacrifice the right way.
On the day of the ritual, though, Gideon proves to be his father's son more than Nathaniel realizes. Using the same sleight-of-hand ruse, he tossed a different stone into the pond, saving the trick stone for the blood ritual. It gets worse: When the key moment arrives, he allows Nathaniel to draw the unlucky stone, dooming his brother to a horrific death on the other side of the portal.
Of course, Hive's recent emergence on Earth means that the horrors of the past have literally come back to haunt Gideon. Hive doesn't just consume its hosts; it absorbs their memories, which is how it nearly convinced Fitz to bring it back through the portal. Although there's no longer any need for Hive to play its own sleight-of-hand with its human hosts, its memory retention is still pretty horrifying. It still remembers everything Nathaniel Malick did, and it's ready to square the record with Gideon.
Based on the vision of his own death he saw in last week's "Spacetime," Gideon spends most of the episode assuming that Hive is about to kill him — but in the end, Hive targets and consumes his daughter Stephanie (Bethany Joy Lenz), a starry-eyed Hydra believer. "What happened to, 'Together to the end,' brother?" Hive says, while channeling Nathaniel in a genuinely creepy standoff.
We can only imagine how much more effective the scene might have been if S.H.I.E.L.D. gave us a reason to care about Stephanie. It's finally clear why Malick and his daughter were awkwardly shoehorned into the otherwise Hunter-and-Bobbi-centric "Parting Shot" — it was a last-ditch attempt to create some sense of history between father and daughter.
Despite that gambit, Stephanie's death is at best meaningless and downright offensive at worst. In comic-book parlance, this is the supervillain equivalent of a "fridging" — when a female character's horrific death basically serves a plot point in the arc of a male one. In this case, it doesn't help the character in question who also happens to be paper-thin; Stephanie is written like a naïve teenager with no interior life of her own, and her relationship with Malick is uncomfortably affectionate enough that it could have easily played as a sugar-daddy arrangement. (If the show didn't constantly remind us they are actually related, that is.)
Clumsy as it is, at least Malick's story will lead to an interesting standoff with Hive. Meanwhile, I'm still not sure what to make of the episode's B-story, which follows Daisy and Lincoln as they track down a scummy wannabe Inhuman, only to detour into a totally needless anecdote about Lincoln's past. In short: Lincoln used to abuse alcohol to drown his pain. One night, he nearly killed an ex-girlfriend when he chugged a bunch of vodka, drove off, and wrapped his car around a pole.
This revelation — which makes another woman into a footnote in the tragic arc of a man — has the dubious distinction of being horrible and clichéd. I'm all for redemptive story lines, but Lincoln hasn't even justified his presence on the show yet, so it's hard to feel all that's invested in his turn from heel to face. I beg you, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: If you're going to keep Lincoln around for a while, the last thing he needs is another reason to brood.
I'll say this for Lincoln, though: He gets to deliver the episode's coolest line. While he and Daisy are busy on their mission, the rest of S.H.I.E.L.D. is taken out by Giyera, the sinister Inhuman employed by Malick. With their usual allies out of commission, what's the best way to mount a rescue? "You put together the Secret Warriors initiative for a reason," Lincoln reminds Daisy. The dialogue is clearly engineered to make Marvel comics fans squeal, and it suggests promising roads ahead. Despite the best efforts of "Paradise Lost," Lincoln is nowhere near compelling, but luckily, there are plenty of Inhumans waiting in the wings. Next week, we'll get to see them in action.
- If it wasn't clear before, Daisy's explanation settles it. That ominous vision of the space shuttle is meant to imply that one of our heroes will be killed off by the end of season. Who does everybody think it'll be?
- Do all the memories of Hive's victims exist simultaneously? Does it have enough of a sense of irony to appreciate the connections between them? Malick's betrayal of his brother is remarkably similar to the backstory of Ward, Hive's current host.
- That Kree artifact Daisy and Lincoln recover isn't meant to be some variation on the Orb from Guardians of the Galaxy, right? My screener was pretty blurry, so I couldn't get a good look. It's hard to believe that S.H.I.E.L.D. would drop such a major detail in such a blasé manner.
- In a conversation with Fitz, Coulson finally admits that his decision to murder Ward crossed a line. "I knew it would come back to haunt me," he says. "I just didn't think it would actually come back to haunt me."
- Whitehall's speech about men of science and faith … the black-and-white stones … all those Malick flashbacks have a serious Lost vibe, huh?
- If Malick's dad were trying to hide his cowardice, he should have picked a less predictable, thematically resonant hiding place than a copy of Paradise Lost.
- Next week: Daisy leads the Secret Warriors on their inaugural mission.