Oh, the bottle episode! Some of you already know where I’m going with this, but for those who don’t, allow me to explain. Back in the early cowboy days of science fiction television (essentially, up until the ‘90s), our beloved Start Treks, Red Dwarfs, and Quantum Leaps were action packed, SFX-filled visual extravaganzas, and this was expensive. Television budgets being what they were (::cough::are::cough::) all these very expensive elements put shows over budget in no time. Thus the bottle episode was born. In theory, it’s an episode where costs are pared back as much as possible. Minimal cast, single locations, and shortened time frames are characteristic of such episodes. The name comes from the cast and crew of Star Trek’s tendency to label them “ship-in-a-bottle” episodes, a reference to how claustrophobic they can feel both in their lack of multiple locations and in their separation from the overall season plot.
But more recently, bottle episodes have taken on a new purpose. Often they are produced as contrast episodes; an opportunity to break up the pace of a series that tends to be action packed with a quieter, more intimate story. Where once they were seen as a chore, now they can be some of the strongest episodes of a television series (see the Doctor Who episode “Midnight”).
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. follows in this tradition with last night’s episode. Far from the usual motivation of saving money, this bottle episode is used to give us insight into Jemma’s time away from her fellow agents. We start with the adorable Fitz-asking-Jemma-out scene from the end of last season, which hasn’t lost any of its “ahhh” factor over time. Once Jemma is pulled through the portal, she immediately tries to get a cell phone signal, and surprise, surprise there is none. I have to say, I admire how calm Jemma stays once realizing she’s trapped on another planet. She gathers scientific data, updates her research and even takes a nap… that is until she realizes the sun isn’t rising. This is what finally pushes her over the edge. It’s funny the things that make you lose it in these situations.
So alone and needing to search for water, Jemma goes wandering. It’s here that this episode really begins to shine. Writing an episode where a character is forced to be alone for an extended period can be difficult. Having them not speak at all can be tedious and off-putting, but having them talk to them self can read like they’re losing their mind. It’s why Cast Away needed Wilson—so that Tom Hanks had someone to talk to, and we as the audience could be emotionally traumatized by a volleyball. RIP Wilson. RIP.
In Jemma’s case she talks to Fitz, which is perfect in two ways. First, there’s what she says; essentially telling him what she’s doing, asking him about their date, and updating him on her day. It keeps her grounded, and it’s funny, which is a pretty good way to help hold your sanity together. What’s even more important is that by giving her the opportunity to address Fitz directly, we get a much better view of Jemma’s feelings for him. Often their love story has been told from the point of view of Fitz pining for Jemma. We’ve never really had a moment where we see Jemma get giddy with the idea of Fitz pulling out her chair for her. It’s oddly reassuring to see her as moony as Fitz can be.
We also get the chance to see Jemma’s mad survival skills. And Jemma, if you murder a sentient vine, cook it, and eat it, and you want to burp? You burp, girl. You’ve earned that. Also I’d like to take an opportunity to applaud her self control, because while there’s a head nod towards Fitz having upgraded her phone battery, let’s be honest, most of us would have killed that battery playing candy crush about a week in.
The story takes a bit of a turn with the appearance of Will, a stranded NASA astronaut. Now I like Will—he’s got a kind of “what if Grant was a decent human being vibe,” but just so we’re clear—his timeline doesn’t quite scan. If we assume he’s the same age as the actor playing him, Will is 32. To be trapped on Planet X for 14 years means he was sent there when he was 18, which is pretty unlikely. On the upside, at least he’s not from the future, which would have added a level to all this intergalactic travel I’m not sure I’m ready for.
Still, I really enjoy Will. He serves as a great counter balance to Jemma’s hopeful outlook, by being understandably a bit more negative about their plight, and not so “science-y.” Will’s ability to take things out of the realm of science is a necessity for those of use who don’t think in terms of bimolecular engineering. He describes the planet as “moody,” the luminescent core is “hell fire,” and the dust storm as “evil.” He is the pure emotion to Jemma’s pure logic; a necessary balance when confronting Lovecraft levels of cosmic horror.
It’s no surprise then that after their failed attempt to get a message to Fitz and the team, Jemma turns to him in her moment of hopelessness. I will forever ship Jemma and Fitz, but honestly, Will’s proved himself to be a good balance for Jemma. He tries to be practical, to keep her safe, but at the same time allows her enthusiasm to bring hope back to him. And he gets her graveyard wine. It tastes horrible, but really it’s the thought that counts. So knowing that he doesn’t make it back with her is a bit heartbreaking especially when we see how close they came to finding Fitz together. Will’s willingness to sacrifice himself to help Jemma escape is certainly noble, and it’s just enough for me to hope we can get over the inevitable awkward love triangle and keep Will around as a permanent cast member soon.
As it turns out, the entirety of the episode is Jemma recounting her adventure to Fitz. Here the writing takes a moment to set us up for some stereotypical man pain. See, often in shows where the geeky beta male pines for his female best friend, there’s a tendency towards being petulant when confronted with the idea that their new girlfriend may have even passing feelings for someone else. It’s an immature kind of love, but one repeated often enough that I find myself rolling my eyes as Fitz stalks off at the end of Jemma’s story. But bless Fitz, seriously bless him, because instead of stalking away and sulking, instead of treating Jemma’s attraction to Will as a personal betrayal, instead of worrying that Will has replaced him as Jemma’s one true love, Fitz does what he does best. He gets to the lab and he makes a plan; declaring that they’re going to go back. Because in the end, regardless of how it may effect his love life, saving Will is the right thing to do. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what makes Fitz the best TV boyfriend ever. It’s a good thing too, since Will is alive and all out of bullets for his plan B.
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.