Grrr! Argh! I wish I could tell you I’m quoting the Mutant Enemy production logo in celebration for a well-made episode, but no. No, that is the call of the wild critic in her naturally frustrated state. So again, I say: Grrr! Argh!
Let’s start this week with our title. “Heavy Is the Head” is a bit weighty —puns always intended—but if you’re going to use a Shakespeare reference, you should be prepared to deliver on the implied promise. This episode, I’m afraid to say, doesn’t even come close. Overall, the level of cliché is its only truly outstanding quality. I lost count somewhere around 15 separate, over-used phrases, and four standard plot devices.
Our second episode starts in the middle of the action that ended our season premiere, which should be exciting, but somehow really isn’t. We see Hunter arrested by the army, but not before we get confirmation from him that Hartley is dead. Ouch, Marvel. I didn’t even know I still had lingering hope that Hartley would pull a Coulson. Or is it a Loki now? A Bucky? A Fury. Either way, it looks like no miraculous recovery for agent Hartley. We even get a funeral and a grieving sister in towards the end.
Next is May’s motorcycle chase that made up almost the entirety of last week’s sneak peek. It’s awesome to get a look at Cavalry in lone ranger mode, but once she has a clean shot of Creel, Coulson orders her to stand down. Okay… Basically, the chase was pointless. Cool. There are a lot of scenes that go nowhere in this episode. It’s important I get that out in the open now. Look writing team—between you, me, and Michael Bay—filler scenes happen. They don’t usually make up the majority of the second episode in your season, but let’s just try not to make a habit of this.
We see Skye and Triplett land the recently liberated Quinjet at S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters. What follows is a short conversation where I think they’re supposed to be flirting. I mean with lines about Kung Pao chicken, I don’t know how we’re keeping those two off each other. It could just be the beginnings of an awkward friendship, but it’s hard to tell, as subtext seems to be a foreign concept for both these characters.
Skye reminds Coulson that the same symbols she’s been researching appeared on the Obelisk, and that this is super important, I mean she doesn’t know why, but it totally is. As you watch this scene, gentle reader, see if you can spot the exact moment where Clark Gregg wishes for magic eject button out of the show. Is it when he has to act surprised by the similarity of the symbols? Nope, not yet. Is it while trying to realistically react to a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent with the mannerisms of Cher Horowitz? Still hanging on. Is it when he has to use the phrase “five-alarm fire” in reference to a person? Consummate professional actor that he is, he sells it. For my money it’s on this gem of a line: “But if he (Hunter) talks, our entire operation is compromised. We’ll have to burn the base and evacuate. I know, and we just retiled the bathrooms.” That’s a line. A real line in this episode.
Okay, those of you Team Whedon will be familiar with the company motto of “make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke.” It’s a theory that, when applied correctly, creates beautifully resonant moments of humor and tragedy. As employed in this episode, it’s just bad. You have to earn the stakes necessary for this practice to work. In terms of the plot, ten minutes, in we will never be in the right place tonally for this move. Even more worrisome is this episode’s tendency to mistake comedic delivery for actual comedy. Coulson has at least four lines that are meant to be jokes. These are not funny lines, and it’s only Gregg’s application of the Agent Coulson deadpan that lets us know they are meant to be so. It’s the difference between an actual comedic performance and a man with a bike horn standing on stage shouting, “Laugh. This is funny!”
The hardest thing about this week’s episode is that it’s so mediocre, it almost defies criticism. Half the scenes go nowhere, the dialogue is flat in both its writing and delivery, and even the editing and visual effects feel halfhearted. There is an attempt at a bullet time shot late in the episode that shows the spread of Creel’s power over his body, but even this falls flat. At the end of the day, our heroes capture Creel, lose the Obelisk to a third party, and try to strike a deal with General Talbot. It’s all very serviceable, but it doesn’t really go beyond that. Instead, the episode moves efficiently, but perfunctorily from one event to the next. In short, filler.
On the positive side, Fitz, Simmons, and Mack have two really nice scenes; they give, arguably, the best performances in the show. This includes Mack mentioning to Fitz directly that Simmons is gone. What I find really interesting is that Fitz acknowledges this. It leads into some really thoughtful questions about how aware Fitz is of his own damaged psyche, something I hope the creative team won’t forget about as the season continues. I’m also going to go ahead and name Mack our stand-out new character this season. He’s certainly one of the most interesting and sympathetic actors on the show already.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is developing a pattern this season, where a mostly mediocre episode ends with one or two really interesting twists. Last week it was the reveal that Simmons was a figment of Fitz’s imagination. This week, it’s our mysterious third party. Raina is back, and in the chaos of capturing Creel, she manages to steal the Obelisk and bring it to her employer (of whom we had the slightest glimpse of last season). Tonight Kyle MacLachlan finally appeared, and in classic Twin Peaks style, our first look at him occurred as he carried on a perfectly calm conversation while wiping copious amounts of blood off his hands. This is Skye’s father. This is the reveal that dangled in front of us, on and off all of last season. And dare I say it; this could get interesting.
Katherine Siegel is a Chicago-based freelance writer and director and a regular contributor to Paste. You can find out more by checking out her website, or follow her on Twitter.