Any weakness can be exploited. A tender spot can be poked, a past failing can be dredged up. Personality quirks aren’t cute if you’re a special agent. They’re dangerous. This week on Quantico, every character is evaluated. Alex is the hero who always has to be the hero. Ryan is a good soldier until his personal life intervenes. Shelby needs everyone to like her, and Nimah isn’t a real member of the team.
On the heels of one of the show’s best episodes, the writers continue a rebranding effort to strip Quantico of its notoriously confusing reputation. What was once a show with dozens of unresolved story lines all flying past each other is quickly turning into a show that carries as much emotional weight as its characters do. The rebranding effort is working, and “Mockingbird” develops the plotlines set up in last week’s episode without trying too hard to overshadow them.
Our (now smaller) team of special agents is still working as a covert task force trying to bring down a terrorist organization made up of eight different people, all of whom they need to identify. This week, the mission has a particularly relevant theme: fake news. In the past year, fake news has become a defining aspect of political rhetoric from both sides of the aisle, as well as a newfound journalistic problem. The mission for our team in “Mockingbird” is to find the meaning behind the fakest of fake news.
A chemical plant in Brookwell, Virginia, has exploded. Residents are being evacuated, the cloud of smoke is broadcast over and over on the news, social media is blowing up with takes and fears. Terrorists are accused. Initially, the team thinks this will be their mission: to find out who blew up the plant and poisoned the water in this town. But what they find is that it is all a ruse. It’s fake news as a cover for something else.
“A story like this is the handiwork of a vast and organized web brigade, otherwise known as trolls,” Owen tells the team, and they quickly begin an online quest to find the people behind it. Shelby traces several of the fake news sites to the same warehouse in Virginia. Dayana traces hundreds of Twitter accounts to the same IP address, and Ryan discovers a fake video backdrop. Together, they realize that the trolls are part of a larger troll farm — and that this farm is only a branch office of a larger group of Russian trolls. All of this is particularly relevant to the current political atmosphere, and “Mockingbird” is not exactly subtle about it.
To infiltrate the trolls, the team needs Harry Doyle’s help since he has a connection with them. Alex and Harry walk right into this farm and just start asking questions. This is pretty unbelievable. Alex Parrish is presumably one of the most recognizable cultural figures in America! Although their cover somehow isn’t blown and they get the information they need, it’s all quite a stretch.
The team ultimately realizes that the explosion was a ploy to evacuate the town, and the enemy team is looking for something in the houses. Nimah, doing research at home, realizes that their enemy isn’t looking for an object, but a person. That savvy research earns Nimah a place on the team she wasn’t really ever a part of. With that knowledge, Alex and Ryan go undercover as EPA officers and find Mallory Haines, a former Hill staffer, who “created stories that weren’t always based in facts.” One of those stories (about a bakery that was unsupportive of veteran homecomings) led to 11 civilian deaths, and so Mallory’s senator is trying to get rid of her before the fake news events are traced back to him.
This is where “Mockingbird” gets its most political. With Mallory in custody and the fight still on to figure out who is responsible for the plot to kill her, the team is angry. As special agents used to getting things done immediately, they want justice. The most explosive comment of the night comes from Ryan: “The press may call this fake news, but it’s disinformation,” he says. “They’re turning the public against each other and fostering whatever hate is inside of them.” The episode ends with another face on the board: the speaker of the House, who funded the campaign to find and kill Mallory.
Of course, there’s much more going on in this episode. Last week, while on a mission at a party, Ryan interacted with an arts reporter who smelled a story and is now on his tail. Sasha Baranoff finds Ryan’s number and contacts him, promising to publish photos of him and his friends at the party if he doesn’t tell her what he’s up to. She follows him on his mission to the exploded plant. After some very lucky shoe-leather reporting, she spots him dressed as EPA in the front seat of a van. This is enough blackmail to get Ryan to hand over another story unrelated to the mission “on background.” It’s a relationship certainly unsanctioned by the leadership of the team, and one that near the close of the episode seems like it might become romantic as well.
The last ten minutes of the episode — with the mission solved and Harry Doyle added to the team — consists almost entirely of one-on-one heart-to-hearts between various members of the cast. This is a break from Quantico’s normal obsession with group scenes and three-way dialogue, and it gives the characters a little more room to open up about what’s going on with them. In these scenes, we learn that Nimah’s sister still hasn’t spoken to her, that Clayton finally asks Owen for his help, that Harry wants to join the team, that Shelby is starting to get along with Clayton, and that Ryan and Alex are finally putting their relationship behind them. It’s an emphasis on relationships over explosions that’s helping Quantico root itself in emotion instead of shock, and it’s a much better show in that space.
The episode ends just like the last one, with an open-ended shock. We see Léon’s wrist hanging out of his tub, covered in blood, while two people leaving a faked suicide scene as Shelby’s call goes straight to voice-mail. It’s a little tangential from the episode’s main thrust, but it’s a good hook to keep viewers interested. For the first time in a while, Quantico is a show I’m anxious to keep watching.