Don’t you just love tanker ships for action scene settings? It’s a giant boat with everything a director needs: a dank, dark underbelly crawling with pipes and hidden corners; a cavernous, metallic construction perfect for ricocheting gunshots off of; and a multi-levelled deck perfect for your outdoors-y shots and a sniper to loom over his or her targets with aplomb.
The evergreen (well, ever-rusty gunmetal) backdrop is where we spent much of “Making Friends and Influencing People,” which features Donald Gill, the tortured science student comics fans will know as Blizzard. Having developed the ability to turn objects (and people) into ice via sub-par visual effects last year, Gill has upped his game and takes a stand by freezing solid a tanker to its mooring in Morocco, North Africa (we know where he is because of a single fancy tea shop earlier in the episode).
Both HYDRA and S.H.I.E.L.D. are after Gill (Dylan Minnette) because his powers can be both incredibly useful and extremely dangerous, depending on whose side he’s on. It’s a good use of what might ostensibly be a villain-of-the-week episode, especially since we’ve seen Gill last season, and his progression from a student struggling to find friends to a paranoid killer has a bit more gravitas knowing what he’s been through.
It’s a shame, then, that Minette, despite his affinity with ice, is given completely wooden lines to work with. “I’m done hiding. It’s time HYDRA learned once and for all: I’m not interested. I’m not afraid. *flash-freezes a guy* I’m pissed off.” He sounds like an Avengers supervillain written in the 1960s, and that’s not a good thing.
But the real meat of “Making Friends and Influencing People” comes from the two former students of S.H.I.E.L.D. Academy Gill knows best: Simmons and Fitz.
Simmons is shown to be working at a science research lab for HYDRA, brilliantly introduced with a “morning routine” montage of Simmons walking to work with a smile, set to the peppy God Help The Girl, only for a gigantic and brand-aware HYDRA logo on her workplace wall to dampen the mood. The misdirect is short-lived, as people who saw last week’s preview can probably guess: she’s working in deep cover for Director Coulson, both to gain information on HYDRA’s operations but also to give Fitz some space while he tries to recover from his emotional and physical injuries.
Simmons’s expertise brings her in direct contact with Sunil Bakshi (Simon Kassianides), the dapper and vaguely Commonwealth-flavoured representative of HYRDRA we’ve seen before as the right-hand man for this season’s big bad, Daniel Whitehall. She’s tasked with bringing back Gill to HYDRA, inadvertently putting her right in the middle of a conflict as Coulson’s team tries to do the same.
Simmons’s gradual improvement at working the espionage angle is entertaining, but nothing else this week compares, once again, to Iain De Caestecker’s performance as Agent Fitz. Seeing his team mobilize to make contact with Donald Gill, whom Fitz spent a significant amount of time last season talking to, he feels left on the sidelines more than ever before.
His solution? Confront the former Agent Ward and slowly suck the oxygen out of his cell.
It’s all brilliant, really. Fitz has a minor meltdown the first time he sees Ward’s face since he tried to kill him and Simmons. Ward has a moment of sympathy, being faced with one of his most heinous actions last season – while, I believe, lying to himself and Fitz by saying that because he didn’t shoot Fitz and Simmons in the head, he was really trying to save him, instead of avoiding literal blood on his hands.
Fitz starts to sound like an unhinged man out for revenge as Ward wheezes, thanks to shockingly convenient environmental controls that allow him to partially suffocate his prisoner, but still speaking with that uncertain staccato we’ve come to know him by this season. It’s a masterful performance by the both of them, and frankly bewilders me when compared to the stock buddy-cop adventure that kicked off their relationship in last season’s “The Hub.”
The rest of our cast mostly make way for the ongoing FitzSimmons plot, but a few other things of note take place. Agent Skye is slowly learning more from Agent May, this time taking position as the team sniper, ultimately taking out Gill in a classic “they never found the body” shot. Ward later tells her that he knows her father, which of course deeply unsettles her, but we won’t know exactly where this leads until later.
And Whitehall, HYDRA’s high-ranking big bad, spends most of this episode establishing his threat level on the Marvel Cinematic Insane-O-Meter by subjecting a former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent to mental conditioning and brainwashing, along with some classic supervillain monologue about how the world needs control or some other nonsense. With Simmons getting more attention from Whitehall and Bakshi, we can probably look forward to seeing more scenes from HYDRA HQ in the future.
- – Mackenzie the mechanic (seriously?) works well as Fitz’s conscience, helping his recovery in a believable way thanks to his relative newness to the team. That transition shot from agents moving into the tanker, to him playing Gear of War on the couch was clever, too.
- – Comparatively, Agent Triplett appears to have been sidelined to doing little more than comedy relief, saying stereotypical lines like “Aw, hell naw” and “Thass crazay.” I’m not liking it, plus why on earth is Coulson putting Skye in the field without also putting all of his proven fighters out there first?
- – Bakshi’s interrogation of Simmons, imploring her to “Stop. Lying,” about what she knew about Donald Gill, gave me flashbacks about Coulson saying much the same to Skye last season, when we first learned about her dead-parents history. The implications this week, while clearer to the viewer, are also much more sinister.