[Requisite spoiler warning: This recap discusses "Emancipation" at length.]
"Emancipation" is the sort of episode that makes you wish Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had shorter seasons. Everything about this week's installment feels familiar and tired — more blustery General Talbot, more clipped monologues about collectivism from Hive, more halfhearted shout-outs to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and more heroes and villains treading water while the show sets the table for next week's finale.
The episode starts, as Marvel presumably mandated it must, with an awkwardly shoehorned tie-in to Captain America: Civil War. As Coulson and May sit in an empty bar, a conveniently timed news report helpfully summarizes the key plot points of the movie. The Avengers are now under the jurisdiction of the U.N., which is a pretty big deal! Not as big a deal as Hive, the ancient space alien threatening to wipe out the human race — but hey, these are the kinds of awkward discrepancies that arise when a media company builds a cross-platform universe.
Several weeks ago, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. made one of its best storytelling decisions of the season. Daisy's betrayal of S.H.I.E.L.D. raised the stakes exponentially higher — her (artificially induced) devotion to Hive came at the expense of every other meaningful relationship in her life, and for her longtime S.H.I.E.L.D. colleagues, who were forced to grapple with the possibility that they'd need to kill her for the greater good. Three seasons deep, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has built a rich vein of relationships between every member of its ensemble cast. Unfortunately, "Emancipation" is built on the show's dullest one: The romance between Daisy and Lincoln.
We rejoin Lincoln in the midst of his S.H.I.E.L.D. quarantine — a response to his ill-fated decision to use himself as a guinea pig in the search for a cure to Hive's brain parasite. Even at the best of times, Lincoln has been a reluctant S.H.I.E.L.D. member, so it's not exactly shocking when he surreptitiously contacts Daisy and asks her to arrange a breakout. Relying on Daisy's technical expertise about the base, Lincoln slips away and commandeers a Quinjet, which soars off to rendezvous with her. But just when it looks like Hive is about to add another Inhuman to its growing collection, "Emancipation" drops its big twist: Lincoln has been playing Daisy all along. It's a top-secret plot designed to win her back from Hive for good. (Of course, this twist only works because Lincoln is ill-defined enough that it's actually plausible he would turn on S.H.I.E.L.D. to join Daisy, but Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has always been pretty good about turning its weaknesses into strengths.)
In the end, all the S.H.I.E.L.D. stuff is pretty boilerplate — neither impressive nor infuriating. The episode's Hive-centric subplot is the true disaster. A half-dozen episodes ago, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. introduced the Watchdogs, a thinly veiled Tea Party analogue hellbent on stopping Inhumans from crossing American borders and taking American jobs. "Emancipation" reintroduces the Watchdogs as flies caught in Hive's web, abducted and subjected to the latest round of its Inhuman experiments.
When the Watchdogs emerge, they don't resemble the Inhumans we've come to expect, each with its own distinct identity and set of superpowers. Instead, they've devolved into primitive, melty-faced subhumans, doomed to follow Hive's every whim. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. routinely delivers some impressive CGI and action sequences on a TV budget, but the transformed Watchdogs look absolutely ridiculous — less a terrifying new threat than a handful of extras who accidentally wandered over from the Power Rangers back lot. This story thread really hinges on these effects, and they don't work. As hard as it is to comprehend, Hive is thrilled with these new Watchdogs, and makes plans to detonate a warhead that will subject much of the rest of the human race to a similar transformation.
And that's when Lincoln and May's secret plot comes into play. When the Quinjet arrives, it's not carrying Lincoln; it's carrying Lash, the homicidal monster previously known as Andrew Garner. If you squint, you can kind of see why an idiot might think this is a good plan. Sure, Lash is an unpredictable serial killer — but his preferred victims are Inhumans, which makes him a logical choice to take on Hive. On the other hand, Hive exists to turn Inhumans into servants, which would seem to make Lash the worst choice for this mission.
"Emancipation" doesn't even bother to address that potential snag. As soon as Hive emerges from the Quinjet, Lash instantly and inexplicably morphs from wild-card villain to noble superhero, attacking Hive and absorbing the parasites out of Daisy's brain in a kind of energy cloud — which is, apparently, another power Lash has. He even says something about setting her free. (Between Lash and Daisy, there's a kind of thematic runner — villains digging deep to discover their long-dormant goodness — but it's too undeveloped and ill-defined to land with any real impact.) In the end, Lash carries Daisy to the Quinjet, sending her off just moments before he gets killed by James, Hive's fire-wielding right-hand man.
And so the story ends, with S.H.I.E.L.D., battered but reunited, preparing to take on Hive once and for all. I sympathize with the flaws in an episode like "Emancipation," which clearly had a long list of plot points to resolve before next week's finale: liberate Daisy, tie off the Lash story line, establish Hive's master plan, and set up the long-dangling cliffhanger regarding which S.H.I.E.L.D. agent is marked for death. The episode manages to maneuver all these chess pieces into place, though it could hardly have done so more clumsily.
- The episode's stinger sets up Mack as the likeliest S.H.I.E.L.D. agent to die in the finale. Per Daisy's vision, the victim's corpse is near a tiny gold cross. This feels like a feint, though: Mack has too many stories left to be resolved, and there's no good reason for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to spoil the actual victim at the end of this week's episode. (I also can't imagine the show would kill off its only two prominent black characters in consecutive weeks.) By process of elimination, I'm still predicting that Lincoln is the agent on the chopping block — but if you have any alternative theories, I'd love to read them in the comments below.
- The newspaper headline about Peggy Carter's death at age 95 is particularly cruel for all of us waiting to learn whether or not we'll be getting a third season of Agent Carter.
- It would be a little weird to quote Edmund Burke, but "That's how evil wins, when good people begin to doubt and run the other way instead of stand up and fight" is a particularly clunky rewrite of "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing." Then again, Burke never said or wrote those words verbatim.
- Talbot, giving voice to something I've thought many times while browsing lists of superheroes: "Who in tarnation names these things?"
- Next week: With the fate of humankind in the balance, the war between S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hive comes to a head in the two-hour season finale.