Like a phoenix from the ashes Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. took to the sky with tonight’s “Making Friends and Influencing People”. This episode shows how brilliant this series can be when its television elements and comic book elements blend seamlessly. In short, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is very much back.
We open on Doctor Whitehall (you remember the Highlander of Hydra, right?), and a metronome. There is something inherently creepy about a quiet office and a metronome, or if I didn’t think so before, I’m pretty sure it’s locked in at a creep factor of 8 out of 10 now. Whitehall is using said metronome to set the tone as he attempts to brainwash Agent 33. This scene is a great example of everything this episode does right. It’s full of awesome tension and imagery. Agent 33 is strapped upright with her eyes forced open in classic Clockwork Orange fashion, and the psychedelic seeing-eye puzzle she’s stuck staring at strikes just the right balance between 70s comic book imagery and realistic television world building. Whitehall is pretty set on using something he refers to as the “Faustus” method to bring Agent 33 over to the Hydra side, but she stands defiant. And before we can launch into Whitehall and his sidekick’s next attempt at brainwashing, Whitehall strikes fear into my very soul. “At the beginning. Like the song says, ‘A very good place to start.’” A Hydra agent quoting The Sound of Music is a very specific kind of torture that I’m not sure 33 could have tolerated. Still, instead of going with ironic musical torment, they begin another round of the tried and true “Faustus” method.
Cut to what is going down in my book as one of the most well-executed reveals in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. history. Our long lost Simmons returns to the show—in non-hallucination form—with an upbeat musical montage featuring a 60 s style British pop song (It’s “God Help the Girl” by Belle and Sebastian, in case you were wondering). She seems happy and ready to take on the world as she goes about her morning routine, and reports for work at her new research job. She has a pretty typical interaction with her borderline obnoxious supervisor, but the shot that follows is where we see some real brilliance. In a camera push following obnoxious boss’s exit, our generic research lab is revealed to be… wait for it… a Hydra research lab! The giant Hydra insignia painted on the lab wall tells us pretty much everything we need to know. We’ve lost Simmons to Hydra. She’s gone. Forever condemned to the darkness. Corrupted! Why? WHY?
Okay, so it’s pretty obvious from the first, that Simmons won’t have left her S.H.I.E.L.D. family for Hydra. But what is she up to? Patience everyone. Our patience will be rewarded.
We catch up with Skye and May doing a little target practice using targets that someone has taken the time to print Hydra insignias on. Not to criticize anyone’s fictional coping tactics, but someone in the S.H.I.E.L.D. armory is taking the whole “enemies among us” thing a little personally. I’m looking at you Koenig. Skye is proving to be a bit of a petulant student, but when concerns come up (mostly because Hunter is being, well, Hunter) about how she’ll deal with the first time she has to eliminate a target, May lets her know that experience doesn’t make it easier. Well, no one ever accused May of sugar coating the realities of covert ops. The moment is played just subtly enough that we aren’t instantly put on alert that it might come back later. Very nice.
Donnie Gill is back from last season, which shows a lovely sense of world building. It seems his previously hinted-at ice powers have grown more powerful, and his temper more volatile. Now Hydra is trying to recruit him, and not in the nice-lobster-dinner/football-scholarship way. No, more in the come-with-us-or-we’ll-murder-you-and-destroy-all-you-hold-dear way.
Now, I’m not sure how they want us to feel about Donnie. Obviously, we’re meant to admire his continued resistance to Hydra, but in less than three minutes of screen time, he murders two people—only one of whom is actually a Hydra agent. The other is, for all we know, a very nice innkeeper. No seriously—that’s all we know because he doesn’t quite get a chance to identify himself by a job…or a name. And to add insult to injury, Donnie knocks his body over, shattering it to pieces as he flees. So yeah, Donnie needs to put in a call to the Bruce Banner anger management hotline ASAP.
Simmons gets home to hear someone creeping around her apartment, and decides to take the investigation route instead of going for help. She gets an F in horror movie survival tactics, but an A+ in sneaking up on cat burglars, I mean… Coulson? Yep he’s here and he’s none to happy with Simmons. We have half-a-second of implication that it’s because she’s been hiding her Hydra work from him (I’m about 99% sure it was in there just for the promo). But in a really nice move, this episode doesn’t ask us to hold onto the idea of Simmons’ possible betrayal for long. Coulson turns out to be more worried about our lost scientist’s diet than her loyalties. This opens the story up for a really great character moment, as we see Coulson, good dad that he is, in action. It’s a nice reminder that the things we love about Coulson—the things that make him a good leader—are the exact opposite of the things we admire in Fury. In contrast to Fury’s suspicion and manipulation, Coulson is warm, trusting, perceptive, and whenever possible, honest. This is his Steve Rogers showing, the man you would choose to follow into battle instead of the man you are ordered to; the man you trust to keep you alive rather than the one you rely on to avenge your death.
Simmons lets Coulson know that Hydra is after Donnie Gill, and without revealing her as his source, Coulson let’s the rest of S.H.I.E.L.D. team six in on Hydra’s plans. In their continuing journey towards becoming my favorite Marvel duo since Barton and Bishop, Fitz and Mac have found a way to work around Fitz’s speech aphasia by having Mac rattle off a lineup of words, with Fitz picking out the one closest to the point he’s trying to make. We also get a glimpse at how Fitz’s perceived lack of trust from his teammates is making him suspicious, particularly regarding Coulson’s “source” and Skye’s “asset.”
Speaking of Ward, he’s back tonight for more quality time with Skye. He’s feeling chatty in a back-story kind of way. He was never loyal to Hydra, just Garrett. His family is secretly horrible and broke him down. Hey Skye, speaking of family, your family—Hold it right there buddy, I see what you’re trying to do there. And so does Skye. Usually I find her petulant routine off-putting, but here she’s using it to great effect to shut Ward down. Petulance with a purpose looks good on her. In the end, Ward breaks down the Hydra recruitment strategy, which can pretty much be summed up as join or die. He also gives us a nice look into the Hydra mentality. “And that’s why Hydra will win,” he explains, “Because while a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent is considering right and wrong, Hydra’s already taken the shot.” It’s a moment not to be dismissed, as it sums up, quite simply, the difference between our protagonists and antagonists. And isn’t it just terrifying to know that the line between the ultimate evil and the protectors of good is so thin that instinct could make someone cross it without even thinking?
Meanwhile, Donnie Gill freezes a Hydra ship.
Simmons is about to put her new tactic of making friends to the test when she gets hauled upstairs due to a security matter. She’s confronted by Whitehall’s assistant, whose name is Bakshi, but who I’ve decided for tonight’s episode to rename Mr. Ominous because, let’s face it, the man has a gift for dropping vague looming implications. So Mr. Ominous starts interrogating Simmons about the information she neglected to mention (I only just realized that Donnie Gill was that Donnie Gill), being nervous (I’m well aware of who I work for), and her loyalties (My loyalties are with science). He leaves off with the idea that loyalties can be tested, and seriously, did this guy major in maintaining a darkly vague overtone in theater school?
Back to Agent 33, who is quickly becoming my new girl crush, as she attempts to escape Hydra by wiggling until she is able to break through one of the metal restraints. Note to Hydra: maybe stop buying interrogation equipment at IKEA. Whitehall catches her, though honestly he seems to be enjoying this just a bit too much. Not in a sadistic torture way, but more in an “I really like the sound of my own voice” way that is somehow creepier.
That test of loyalty Mr. Ominous was going on about turns out to be using Simmons to lure in Donnie Gill. She’s understandably concerned about how Ice Hulk might take her perceived alliance with Hydra, but Mr. Ominous reassures her that he has her back every step of the way. Please excuse me while I don’t hold my breath.
Though Ward may want to, as Fitz has decided enough is enough, instead of playing X-Box with Mac he is going to find out who Skye’s mystery asset is. And find out he does, by breaking into Ward’s not-really-secret-at-all holding area. Even Ward knows this is a bad idea when Fitz appears in front of him. The scientist goes straight into a panic attack, and Ward’s first response is to talk about how good it is to see him. Uh yeah, Ward, just no. Not helping. He explains he didn’t want to hurt Fitz, that he dropped Fitz and Simmons into the ocean to drown because he wanted to give them a fighting chance, and he knew they’d make it out like they always do. Ward, I’d hand you a shovel, but it seems you’re digging a mighty fine hole all on your own. What follows is one of the most tense and most beautifully-performed moments Agent’s of S.H.I.E.L.D. has ever produced, as Fitz decides to show Ward just what he lost. Hypoxia is what happens when the brain doesn’t get enough oxygen, and Fitz cranks the oxygen down in Ward’s cell to give the ex-Hydra operative a taste of what Fitz has had to live with. Ward pleads for Skye, which humanizes him more than anything else possibly could have. This results in Fitz revealing that the team has gone off in search of Donnie. And Fitz can’t go with them because of what Ward has done to him. “I’m damaged.” And there it is. Fitz’s truth. It’s the first time he’s expressed all the anger and frustration he’s dealing with as there being something truly wrong with him, and it’s heartbreaking.
Simmons isn’t doing so great either. “I’m looking for Donnie Gill,” she calls out to the ice ridden corpses of Hydra sailors as we watch the collision of Hydra’s capture-or-destroy-Donnie mission with S.H.I.E.L.D.’s rescue-Donnie mission. Hydra is feeding Simmons lines that we find out go back to their brainwashing technique as Fitz breaks in to tell Coulson that Gill has been in Hydra custody before, and that all this is an attempt to re-trigger his programming. To stop that from happening, Hunter is going to shoot Simmons. No, bad Hunter. If you want to shoot one of Coulson’s ducklings you better watch out for—Ouch—Melinda May who will shoot you right in the chest, which she does. The gunfire freaks out Donnie, who proceeds to chase Simmons right back towards Ominous. A couple of trigger words, and Hydra has their ice pop assassin back. They order Donnie to freeze the ship, and everyone on board including Hunter and May. It looks like there’s no way out until a sniper shot sends Donnie over the side, apparently dead. This came from Skye, and with that kind of reaction time I doubt she was considering very much in terms of right or wrong. So there’s that pesky thin line between hero and villain again. Skye fires another shot to give Simmons the opportunity to rescue Ominous and maintain her cover. Hydra flees and S.H.I.E.L.D. is able to claim the tech on board their ship.
For an episode where so much has happened already, it’s hard to believe that two of the best scenes are still to come. First, Coulson confronts Fitz about almost killing Ward. Yes, almost—Ward will be safe until he redeems himself at least. Coulson admits that he personally can’t stand to look at Ward and hates that he’s in the facility. Fitz counters that Coulson should have told him about Ward. “Maybe.” No, no Coulson, I’m going to agree with Fitz here and say you should have. Definitely should have. If, at the very least, so we could avoid all the emotional trauma and near-murder. Coulson does admit to lying to Fitz and tells him that Simmons is out of reach because she’s on an assignment. He also tells Fitz, quite plainly, that as Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. he will be keeping secrets from the team; that he is no longer operating on the same level as they. And in one unforced, honest line, he manages to convey last week’s premise of “heavy is the head” beautifully.
Before we get to that last big scene, let’s check in with hero of the day, Agent 33. She’s right over here, still fighting—Aw, Agent 33, no. Hydra brainwashes another one folks. And as Ominous gets permission to move Simmons further up the chain of command, it looks pretty obvious who might be next.
Finally, we go back to Ward who is surprisingly Zen after being almost killed in what amounts to a dungeon. Skye does us the favor of asking the obvious question: “Was Ward brainwashed like Donnie?” Ward says no, and says that his choices were all his own. This is all leading up to that issue of trust, you see, because Ward has something he needs to tell Skye, and when he says it he needs her to believe him. This is where many shows would cut off, but surprisingly not Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., not today. Ward goes ahead and drops his ace. “Your father is alive. He’s looking for you. And someday if you let me, I’ll take you to him.” And right there is where Skye’s world falls apart.
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.