And we are back from
outer space a one week hiatus. When we last left our heroes, Skye had the job of regaining the trust of her teammates, and Coulson had stranded an untried US citizen in a foreign country. Alright, alright, I should probably just give up on my personal hopes that Agents of SHIELD was going to have a hyper-realistic take on global border politics. And just in time, because this episode made me love all the characters, feel bad for all the characters, and want to pull them all together in a big pile and cuddle them until they felt better. In other words, I had all the feels.
Some boy scouts on a camping trip in Pennsylvania experience a strange paranormal event where metal objects start levitating (including the battery of their truck shooting out through the hood). Eventually they go looking for their missing scoutmaster Adam Cross, and find him dead, horizontally levitating at about shoulder height.
And then I really don’t know if anything happened next because my broadcast was interrupted so someone could tell me that my parents will be spending another four years under the governorship of Chris Christie.
But once that was over, I came back to Coulson on a treadmill, getting an early physical exam he says was ordered by his physical therapist. Ward argues with the SSibs about the weight of the Nightnight gun (Nitenite gun? Nite-nite gun?), and when he leaves the Kids (Fitz, Simmons, Skye) do satirical impressions of him. Fitz attempts to flirt with Skye (including by attempting to diminish the significance of his relationship with Simmons) when she confides in him that she’s chafing under Ward’s continued mistrust of her.
Our team hits the campsite, where Ward continues to nitpick Skye’s behavior. Adam Cross’ body is still levitating in the same place. The team has zero idea what caused his death, could be a freak natural event, a new weapon, someone on that Index we were introduced to last episode. In examining him, Simmons steps close enough for a spark to jump between her and Cross, and he drops to the ground.
More digging into Adam Cross’ identity yields no results. Skye can’t dig up any skeletons in his closet, though she does find out that he was a first responder at the Battle of New York. May’s interrogation (a lovely little scene where she scares the heck out of the teenage scout leader just by staring at him in silence and then offers him a cookie) turns up nothing. All that Simmons can turn up by autopsying Cross’ body is that cause of death was electrocution. The team assumes that Cross’s death must have been [relevant link] muuuuuurderrrrr.
Fitz picks up another electrostatic event at a farm near them, but it pulses and then disappears before they can get there. On arrival they find another floating victim, who appears to have fled to the barn as a defensive spot. He is also a volunteer firefighter who shares a station house with Cross, one of the fire fighters who volunteered to join other rescue workers in New York after the Chitauri invasion. Naturally, we then cut to another firefighter smugly polishing a damaged Chitauri helmet, and I start thinking “this seems like an awfully dumb way to kill people if your goal is to not draw attention to the murders and therefore not get caught.”
Our commandoes (Coulson, May, Skye) go to see the firefighters, and at this point my money was on them all being in on it somehow, which sort of turned out to be true? Okay, pretty much not really at all. Tony Diaz is Coulson’s best suspect, especially once a frying pan starts levitating around them, but then Simmons discovers that the Chitauri helmet isn’t a weapon, it was contaminated with a viral infection. Diaz and the two other fire fighters were infected when they cleaned the helmet a few days earlier.
Diaz realizes he is about to die, and Coulson orders everybody out of the room, whips out his earpiece so that the rest of the team’s chattering can’t distract him and gives the guy a genuinely effective “I’ve seen the other side” talk. “They say it was only for 8 seconds,” he says, “but I know it was more than that. I know I wasn’t here anymore. I was there.” And “There” is beautiful.
Diaz tells him to leave, he does, and the team watches the massive electric pulse from outside the fire house. The next morning, Fitz inspects the Commandoes for infection (they show no traces of the energy) and SHIELD HazMat boxes up the helmet for transportation to the Sandbox, SHIELD’s depot for hazardous substances. Coulson orders Simmons to get to work on a cure, just incase any of the other firefighters were infected by the helmet. But we’re only half way through the episode guyyyyyyzzzzze… what’s going on?
Feelings. Feelings were what’s going on.
They begin with May pressing Coulson on his unscheduled physical, which she knows about either because gossip travels fast in a plane with six people or because she’s a badass spy, I’m okay with either of these explanations. “You’d tell me if something’s wrong?” she says, and calls him Phil and an involuntary noise left my throat. I’ve decided that I don’t actually ‘ship May and Coulson as a love pairing, but as two old, damaged fighters who are learning to prop themselves up on each other.
Then, Simmons shares an exciting discovery with Coulson: the alien virus has an ability never before seen in Earth biology. Instead of traveling from host to host through fluids or airborne particles, it travels through electric connectivity. As she happily, breathlessly explains the implications of what she’s found, completely unaware of the metal instrument that has begun to levitate behind her, Coulson, who is probably remembering how she got a little static shock from Adam Cross’ body, edges slowly, sadly, to the door. Just as she notices the look on his face, he steps out of the lab, apologizes, and seals her in quarantine.
Fitz and Simmons sit back to back on either sides of the lab’s glass walls, Fitz cobbling together a device that will artificially transmit a virus that travels through electricity from whatever antiserum Simmons manages to create to an individual, and tearing up as he does it. Tearing up.
Don’t look at me. Coulson explains what this means for the rest of the team. Since the Sandbox is in West Africa, they are currently above the Atlantic Ocean, and cannot land. If she dies in the Bus, they’ll all go down. Judging by the rate of death in the other victims, Simmons has only a few hours. All of SHIELD is working on a cure, but in his opinion, the only person who’s going to be able to do it is right here inside quarantine. Unfortunately, Simmons’ first attempt is unsuccessful, leaving only a (frankly, unconvincing) levitating lab rat.
Skye finds ward watching Simmons’ progress on CCTV in the briefing area because “they don’t need an audience” (a more perceptive Ward than we’ve seen him be in other episodes), and he doesn’t even drive her off by being a hardass. They both talk about feeling helpless. Ward alludes to when they thought the victims were murdered: “I wanted it to be a person… someone I could hurt, someone I could punish.” This is another well handled reframing of a known character trait in a sympathetic way: Ward is not the “dad” of the SHIELD team, but he takes being the big brother to everyone so seriously that he can’t stand not being able to protect his team from everything. Coulson talks to higher up Agent Blake, who has nothing but bad news and is therefore this episode’s Jerk SHIELD Officer. SHIELD scientists have no more answers than Simmons does, and he is ordered to dump any “infected cargo.” At this, Coulson fakes a poor signal and hangs up. He and May share their own moment of (less plainly stated) helplessness.
The truth is, the only members of the team who are not helpless are Simmons and Fitz, and desperation drives them into a shouting match over which aspect of the cure isn’t working, Simmons’ work with the virus, or Fitz’s work on an applicator. It snowballs into an argument about how it’s all her fault that they’re in this much danger in the first place, as she was the one who pushed to get them into the field. But their anger falls apart when Simmons lists the amount of time they spend together and they both face the idea of her dying again. So, hooray for throwing some real differentiating characteristics into the Science Siblings, boo for stomping on my heart. I mean, yay, for the stomping.
Simmons gives up. There’s basically no way to create a cure for the virus right now, because she’d need an effective antibody, and “there’s no one to create an antibody from because no one has survived…” Except, of course, the original Chitauri host. Eureka! Fitz dashes across half the Bus, grabs the sealed box with the helmet in it and carries it straight into the quarantined lab for cell scraping. “I’m doing what we always do. We’ll fix this, together.”
THEY DO SCIENCE TOGETHER. The rest of the team paces outside the lab. Ward still can’t watch, the big sad baby. And then… it doesn’t work.
Simmons walks up the glass and asks Coulson to tell her dad first, because her mom would probably take the news of her death better if it’s coming from him. And I officially do not have enough gifs for this. Then she asks for a moment alone with Fitz. Fitz is still trying to make things work, and finally says “antiserum,” a term that she’s been correcting him about all episode. Simmons clonks him with a fire extinguisher, leaves quarantine, and opens the cargo hold hatch on the Bus, preparing to leap into the Atlantic ocean to save the lives of everybody else on the plane.
But, perhaps because the SSibs failed basic field training, Fitz was only out for a few moments, and he wakes up to realize that the last rat they thought had succumbed to the virus is actually fine: it was just knocked unconscious by the zap. But he only has enough time to watch and scream as his best friend gives him one last look at leaps out of the plane.
Fitz instantly grabs the cure and then the poor not-combat-rated baby grabs a parachute, too. He gets half way across the cargo hold before Ward grabs both of them from him, and leaps. (Tangent: I found Ward’s squinty eyed I-should-have-brought-goggles face funnier than I should have, probably.) Ward grabs Simmons before she hits the water, cures her, and deploys his parachute.
We cut straight to Coulson reading Simmons the riot act: jettisoning herself wasn’t her call, getting them out of the water was a huge pain that forced him to deal with the (apparently very annoying) Moroccan office. But it’s all SHIELD Dad bark and no SHIELD Dad bite, and he finishes up with “We’d hate to lose you Jemma.” Ward tells her she was incredibly brave to jump, and his unexpected kindness prompts her to confess that she and Fitz faked him out with rebalancing the Nitenite Gun earlier. He knows, and he does her I’M AGENT WARD impression right back at her just as a relieved Skye swoops in for an enormous hug, and this is the first time I’ve genuinely liked a Skye and Ward moment in a few episodes. All it took was an episode that was primarily about someone other than them.
But we’ve still got an unresolved plot thread to wrap up in a big bow of feelings. May talks to Coulson about how they basically just rescued Simmons from a suicide attempt, but she seems to be taking it well. Without much pressing, Coulson admits to May that he ordered the physical exam for himself, not because a doctor told him to. The results say he’s perfectly normal, but “I don’t feel fine,” he says. “I feel different,” and Clark Gregg manages to look so sad and scared and I ALREADY USED ALL MY GIFS. This episode contains exactly the kind of vulnerability that I’ve been hoping the show would start adding to its characters: badass action heroes are fun for about ninety minutes, and then we need to see other sides of them, so that there’s actually some tension in whether they will always be so badass.
May gets him to show her the scar from Loki stabbing him, which is genuinely ugly and rough. “Whether it was 8 seconds or 40,” she says, “you died. there’s no way you can go through that and not be changed.” She reminds him of the unspecified job-related trauma (one that I look forward to the explanation of very much) that she went through and that it took her a long time to mentally recover from. “The point of these things,” implicitly alluding to his scar, “is to remind us that there is no going back, there’s only moving forward.” He feels different because he is different, because trauma changes people. Feeling different is actually pretty normal.
In final feelings, Fitz argues with Simmons about how he totally would have jumped out of the Bus with half a parachute on to save her if the much more qualified to do so Ward hadn’t shown up, and Simmons argues right back that even if Ward technically was the person who saved her life, she never would have managed to make the antiserum if he hadn’t been there with her in the lab, to keep her from succumbing to despair. She gives him an adorable cheek kiss and leaves him in his bunk, but he still looks sad afterwards, but I can’t tell how we’re supposed to read his final look. Is he just still dealing with a long hard day? Is he reevaluating what he wants from his relationship with Simmons? I suppose that’ll be answered by future episodes.
The Stinger: In the sandbox, Coulson meets Agent Blake face to face as his men receive the helmet for the Sandbox. Blake calls him out on his obviously fake excuse of a bad connection and warns him that if he disobeys too many direct orders his dream team could be taken away. Coulson is unfazed by the threat, and when Blake remarks that this is uncharacteristic, he Coulson agrees, smiling. Blake leaves, possibly touching Lola on the way? I couldn’t really tell if he was touching it or almost touching it.
If every episode of SHIELD had the character drama of this one, I’d be happy, but it probably wouldn’t be very practical writing-wise. Still, an alien virus was an excellent plot device to force the drama to revolve around characters that don’t physically kick butt, and to make all the characters who do reevaluate their sense of usefulness, and the show took full advantage of it. Its a strong return from a week break, and look forward to more like this.
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