Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 2 Recap, Episode 3: ‘Making Friends And Influencing People’
We live in thrilling times, friend; a miraculous age where Agents of SHIELD isn't awful and I don't dread recapping it. Yes, the show continues its second season renaissance with an episode that uses the characters, the villains, and the SHIELD versus HYDRA dynamic to good effect.
'Making Friends And Influencing People', directed by Bobby Roth and written by Monica Owusu-Breen, reveals what Agent Simmons has been doing this whole time when she hasn't been Tyler Durden-ing Fitz. She's been working for HYDRA! OMG! Plus, the return of a nearly-villain from season one.
Yes, it's true, Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) has a new job; junior scientist at HYDRA. But this is so implausible that the show quickly assures us that no, it's not true; she's undercover for Coulson. Unforunately she's so low level that she doesn't have much useful information, but she does know that HYDRA is on the trail of Donnie Gill.
We met Donnie (Dylan Minnette) last season; a brilliant young SHIELD scientist who built a weather machine and tried to sell it to HYDRA. He now has Elsa-from-Frozen powers as a result of touching his machine (don't question it; this is the sort of nonsense this show needs more of), and he's very, very quick to kill anyone on his trail by insta-freezing them.
Because Simmons dealt with Donnie when she was at SHIELD, HYDRA sends her after him as a test of her loyalty, while Coulson dispatches May (Ming-Na Wen), Skye (Chloe Bennett), and Hunter (Nick Blood) to bring him in.
Back at base, brain-damaged Fitz (Iain DeCaestecker) visits evil traitor Ward (Brett Dalton) in his cell. Fitz threatens to inflict the same damage on Ward that Ward inflicted on Fitz by sucking all the oxygen out of the room. He only stops when Ward reveals there's something SHIELD doesn't know about Donnie. It turns out HYDRA has sophisticated brainwashing technology -- we see Whitehall (Reed Diamond) using it against another SHIELD agent -- and they programmed Donnie when he was last in HYDRA custody.
At a showdown on a docked ship, May shoots Hunter to stop him killing Simmons; HYDRA triggers Donnie's programming and uses him to try to kill the SHIELD agents; and Skye shoots Donnie to save her colleagues, sending him overboard into a frozen sea. Simmons manages to save her HYDRA boss Mr Bakshi's life (Simon Kassianides), earning her a promotion. An evil promotion. But Whitehall says they can always brainwash her if she proves unreliable.
In the kicker, Ward tells Skye that he was never brainwashed; he is just an actual douche. Oh, and her father is alive and looking for her. No big.
This new season is three-for-three on decent episodes, and I'm as shocked as anyone. I'm so used to this show being bad, I can't help but expect the showrunners to drop the ball -- so it's almost the inverse of last year, where I kept thinking the show could turn itself around and get good.
Now, none of these episodes have been breathtaking hours of television, either in a Good Wife "so smart it's amazing" way or in a Scandal "so dumb it's amazing" way. But the show has learned to use minor villains effectively without shying away from their powers, and it's also learned to give each member of its cast different roles in the story, rather than just different job titles on the plane. There is a confidence to Agents of SHIELD that it lacked before. I'm almost at the point where I'd consider telling my friends to check it out again. Almost.
I have some quibbles about Simmons at HYDRA -- it's an established character trait that she's a bad liar, and having Skye remind us of this doesn't get the show off the hook for then ignoring it in practice. But her go-to-work montage set to a soundtrack of 'God Help The Girl' by Catherine Ireton and Belle And Sebastian was delightful, as was the gold HYDRA pin she wears on her jacket at the lab.
Also, bonus points for having a Nazi quote The Sound of Music. ("At the beginning. Like the song says, a very good place to start.")
Three episodes in, the lack of anything substantial plot for Mack (Henry Simmons) is really grating, especially in an episode where the other black guy, Triplett (BJ Simmons) is also left on the bench. Last year, this show had a diversity problem. This year, it's developing a tokenism problem. By contrast, Lance Hunter already feels well established, and adds a lot to the team's dynamic; Mack is still a cipher. Maybe the show is saving Mack for something amazing, but I'd rather they used him than saved him.
Also, once again agents are solving problems by shooting people; this time May shot Hunter with a real bullet, and he was saved by his vest. Presumably this was the only way May could save Simmons, but it's played as an "I got you back" moment, and shooting people is not a healthy basis for tit-for-tat rivalry. Proportionality, people!
Agents of SHIELD is also still a little clumsy, a little shoddy. Maybe we can call it charming? But when Donnie Gill kills a guy and his partner is standing there with a gun and doing nothing, that's a bad writing, bad acting, bad directing trifecta. There was also a laughable moment when Donnie was walking the docks of Casablanca, and the concrete and storage containers were so generic that someone decided to overlay what sounded like the muezzin call to prayer on the soundtrack to reassure the audience that, yes, we're in Morocco. Clumsy.
Welcome to the Marvel Cinematic Universe "Agent 33", aka Kara Lynn Palamas, created by Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz in Hercules: Heart of Chaos in 1997. At least, the Agent 33 seen getting brainwashed by Whitehall in this episode is presumably based on the one in the comics? I have to confess, I haven't read Hercules: Heart of Chaos, but I'm sure she's a big deal.
This episode also reintroduces Donnie Gill, aka Blizzard, created by Stan Lee and Don Heck -- though he's not yet known as Blizzard on the show. Blizzard is not a marquee villain, but he's exactly the caliber of villain that this show ought to make use of, and bringing him back is an important part of the show's world-building. That he actually has powers this time, and is using them to kill people (really at the drop of a hat), means he's just a mask and a code name away from full super-villainy, and that's great. Can't happen soon enough, Agents of SHIELD.
Seriously. Can't happen soon enough.
I know, I know; evil as opposed to what other kind of Nazis? Well, exactly. Julie Andrews quotes aside, Reed Diamond's Daniel Whitehall is a little too "generic Nazi" right now, with his little round spectacles and his appreciation for vintage tipple. Nazis make for pretty lazy villains. I need to know more about this guy than that he's a sadistic sophisticate. All movie and TV Nazis are sadistic sophisticates. At least the sadistic sophisticate Nazi bad guy in The Strain is an actual vampire!
And on the subject of Nazis; the 'diabolical organization/office bureaucracy' banality-of-evil trope reoccurs in a lot of Joss Whedon-related work, from the Buffy-verse to Cabin In The Woods. I think it might be wearing a little thin for HYDRA, which is both a nefarious Nazi... you know, hydra of insidious evil, and also a psuedo-corporation that plasters its logo on everything and accepts job applications from SHIELD agents. HYDRA knows it's evil; its logo has a skull on it. It doesn't need to pretend it's a Silicon Valley start-up.
What's the big deal about Ward's family? This mystery has been going on for a while, but apparently it isn't a mystery. Skye says, "We're all aware of who your family is, Ward." No we're not! Keeping a secret from the audience that everyone knows in the fictional world is not building a mystery, it's being obnoxious. You can withhold anything from the audience and pretend it's a mystery.
Where's Faustus? Whitehall refers to his brainwashing technology as "the Faustus method", which must be a reference to Captain America villain Dr Faustus, the self-styled "master of men's minds". Hopefully this means we'll see the character himself -- though I wouldn't rule out his appearing in Agent Carter instead.
Did anyone else get brainwashed? Donny Gill's programming is triggered by a series of key phrases. That's probably a device that's going to come back at some point, used on some unsuspecting hero -- though that would be something of a retread of season one and Ward's defection. (Ward might even be brainwashed and not know it. Please, no. Let Evil Ward be Evil Ward.)
Is Donny Gill dead? Yes! (No.)
Who is Lance Hunter's ex-wife? She's now been mentioned enough times that it has to be a thing, right? The popular fan theory is that it's Mockingbird, who we all know is coming up, and who, in the comics, has a different roguish ex in the form of Hawkeye. There's no reason to rule out the Hawkeye connection, but the Hunter connection gives the show more to play with.
Come to think of it, where's Mockingbird? It's been three whole episodes, Agents of SHIELD! Ugh.