How did HYDRA manage to stay hidden for decades? If this week’s episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is any indication, their agents are absolutely horrible at playing spy vs. spy.
This week’s episode “I Will Face My Enemy” starts with a classic heist setting: Director Coulson and Agent May, the latter in an astonishingly out-of-character flashy dress, attend a high rollers’ auction that features one item of note: a painting that somehow survived a catastrophic church fire, its canvas inscribed with the alien script we’ve seen before (usually scraped into a wall by Coulson).
Coulson and May’s efforts at working the crowd mean the latter smiling, laughing and flirting with half a dozen unimportant aristocrats, as the rest of the team, listening in on comms, stand agog at the bizarre spectacle.
But HYDRA’s after the painting too, seemingly with a turncoat General Talbot at the auction. Coulson stops by to say hello, hopefully to prevent the general from blowing their cover, but the interaction from the very beginning seems off. Talbot swigs a tumbler of whiskey, and appears far more in composure than we’re used to seeing him. And he answers to all of Coulson’s comments with a muted affirmative or cautious response.
It’s classic undercover protocol for cheesy spy shows like the ones this episode emulates, and later we find out why: it wasn’t Talbot at all, but HYDRA agent Sunil Bakshi using one of those high-tech disguise masks you might have previously seen in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Things go south, of course, surprisingly early on in the episode: Coulson finds out that Talbot-but-not-really-Talbot already swiped the painting, and May gets captures in short order. Agent 33, who we saw was recently brainwashed by HYDRA’s Daniel Whitehall, then disguises herself as May to infiltrate S.H.I.E.L.D.
Her attempts at enemy roleplay are about as unconvincing as Bakshi’s. Some short conversations with Coulson, who’s worked with May for potentially decades, give her away early enough to allow Coulson to literally punch not-May in the face before he walks into a trap set by HYRDA.
I think I remember a spy show or film that espoused the idea that if you’re undercover, saying “yes” to the things that people you’re talking to is the best way to go – it’s theoretically the path of least resistance, and you’ll end up having to answer questions that the person you’re impersonating will know less often. Of course, we know by now that May is the total opposite of a yes-woman agent, so it was a disaster just waiting to happen.
All of this, in the end, is a moderately convoluted plot to get the best damned fight scene in the series yet, as May fights Agent 33-as-May in what I must assume was hell for Ming-Na Wen and her stunt double to shoot. You’ve got everything you need for a classic spy action fight scene: giant kitchen knives, drop kicks over the kitchenette, and close quarters provided by the uber-chic hotel suite, whose ultimate destruction serves to show just how good these two fighters are at breaking stuff.
Earlier, Agent 33 managed to get into the S.H.I.E.L.D. base long enough to sabotage the team’s plane – once again The Bus is under sabotage, and Fitz is the key to figuring out how to fix everything before the plane’s fuel reserves blow the whole thing up. We’ve got our first real interaction between Fitz and newcomer Hunter here, and it’s quite brilliant: Fitz instructs Hunter how to jury-rig an unstable circuit board because Fitz’s hands are far less steady than before.
Success means that Hunter begins to warm up to Fitz, further building the team’s cohesion, which will hopefully help Fitz’s recovery – as the spectre of Simmons in his head says, he hates being alone.
“I Will Face My Enemy” is mostly a done-in-one story, but we do get some hints about other season-long concerns. Coulson is growing increasingly worried that his erratic behaviour, spawned from the alien procedure that brought him back to life at the series’s outset, may turn him into the same kind of murderous psychopath as John Garrett. He is adamant that should it happen, May must kill him.
I’ve been a little frustrated about Phil Coulson and Melinda May’s relationship over the show’s history. We know that they’ve worked together in the past, and trust each other near completely. There’s obviously a close bond, and we know May cares about Coulson, but in ways that her character, so far, has been unable to express in any meaningful way.
This week’s revelations up the ante considerably, and for once I’m interested in how their relationship will impact both their futures, and the direction of SHIELD as a whole.
Meanwhile, Daniel Whitehall corners Raina in her car (seriously, any scene with an agent of any affiliation getting into a car telegraphs bad news), and makes a play for The Obelisk, which she whisked from HYDRA’s grasp earlier. If Bakshi and Agent 33’s incompetence did anything this episode, it helped amplify Whitehall’s credibility as the most dangerous big bad. Calmly recalling torturing a victim over the course of a week is textbook comic book villain exposition, but Reed Diamond’s icy portrayal is growing on me more every week.
With Raina facing an ultimatum, her associate, Skye’s mysterious father, is due for an appearance next week. So as we step from May and Coulson doing the tango to presumably more serious matters, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. ably proves that it needs no big-time Marvel Cinematic Universe tie-ins to make itself worth watching.
- Best line: After mingling with the guests and letting out a hearty laugh, May tells Coulson, “My face hurts.”
- Biggest tease: May knocks out Agent 33 by shoving an exposed electrical wire into her face, leaving a wide and hideous burn mark. If that means anything – and I’m sure the showrunners want Marvel Comics fans to believe it does – we could have just seen the seeds of an origin for either Madame Hydra, a.k.a. Viper, or less likely Madame Masque, both of whom are known to have facial scars at one point or another in the comics.