This was a romance-heavy episode of Agents of SHIELD, which turned out to be a very good thing. This show has been about the costs and dangers of superpowers since we first met Mike Peterson in the pilot, but in “Chaos Theory,” it’s clearer than ever that if you touch the uncanny, your heart will be broken.

Spoilers ahead...

Of course, lots of other shows are more romance-heavy and soap-operatic. But Agents of SHIELD has been slowly layering in more romance as the show has developed its characters, and “Chaos Theory” shows how this is paying off. In particular, there’s only one relatively short scene between Bobbi and Lance, which mostly plays like a billion other similar scenes you’ve seen before—but the characters have been through enough that it carries a lot of water.

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The episode sets out its main idea early on, when we see a flashback to Melinda May and Andrew in Hawaii, on their romantic getaway after the events of season two. They’re happy again, rebuilding their shattered relationship, and Melinda suddenly offers to leave SHIELD forever. Andrew basically deflects this idea, telling her that they’re older and wiser and that he’s not going to lose her a second time. But Andrew doesn’t actually consider what she’s saying: that being in SHIELD imposes huge costs and liabilities, and might turn her into the reason why their relationship fails this time around.

The big irony is that SHIELD does end up dealing a probably fatal blow to Melinda and Andrew’s relationship—but not because of anything that happens to Melinda. Instead, Andrew’s role as consultant to SHIELD leads to him looking at some Inhuman files, which Daisy’s mother Jiaying booby-trapped with terrigen crystals. This is what leads to Andrew turning into Lash, the big blue Inhuman-killing machine who has a primal need to rip holes in his own kind.

The sad thing is, Andrew tries to justify his killing spree by concocting an ideology in which he’s helping to sort the good Inhumans from the bad ones, and kill the bad ones. (So he doesn’t kill Daisy when he has the chance.) He even sees his “mission” of slaughtering all the covert Inhumans on Jiaying’s ledger as an extension of his work with SHIELD. He’s clearly just rationalizing an uncontrollable bloodlust—as shown in the scene where he’s “evaluating” Joey Gutierrez the nice metal-warping guy, and we see Andrew’s fantasy of tearing Joey open. But he seems to have convinced himself—even though, as Coulson says, it’s “a pretty poor interpretation of a therapist.”

The most sickening moment is when Andrew invokes Melinda’s biggest trauma, the time she had to kill a small child in Bahrain, to save a lot of other lives. He tries to claim that this is the same decision he’s been making in killing all those Inhumans, and that he’s “the same” as Melinda—like, they’re both doing the hard-but-right thing, in the line of duty. He’s become this weird distortion of a SHIELD operative, and is the embodiment of the worst-case scenario: turning into a monster in the line of duty.

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To make matters worse, Lincoln claims that Inhumans can’t go back and forth, or “Hulk out,” the way that Andrew has been doing as Lash. He’s still in transition, and eventually he’ll become Lash permanently, and Andrew will be gone.

In the end—in spite of Lincoln’s bone-headed interruption—Melinda manages to talk Andrew down by forcing him into a situation where he has to kill her to get to Lincoln. She appeals to his love for her, but also his kindness and empathy, and this gets him to transform back into human form—so she can shoot him. Asked how she knew this wouldn’t kill him, she says she didn’t.

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And this leads to the episode’s other big reversal: The SHIELD crew, including Daisy, are suddenly in favor of putting Andrew in stasis for his own good, until the ATCU can find a “cure” for Inhumanism. (Prediction: With an Inhumans movie still supposedly in the pipeline, there will be no cure.) Previously, Daisy and some of the other SHIELD peeps were somewhat horrified by the ATCU’s penchant for turning Inhumans into popsicles, and earlier in the episode Daisy has a tense conversation with Rosalind Price about what to do with Inhumans who are a danger to themselves or others—something that comes full circle when Daisy saves Rosalind using her Quake powers, proving that superpowers can help as well as hurt.

So that thing of becoming a monster in the line of duty comes up in that one scene that we get between Bobbi and Lance. Lance is all gung-ho to go after Grant Ward, now that they’ve taken out some of his key people, but Bobbi startles Lance by saying she doesn’t want either one of them to go after Grant.

Lance sees killing Grant Ward as an act of love—he’s doing it to protect Bobbi from ever being hurt by that bastard again. But Bobbi responds that going after Ward is making Lance crazy and reckless, and that she’s worried they’ll “become so obsessed with revenge that we turn into monsters like him.”

But at least Phil Coulson is having a happy love life, right?

Poor Coulson—he’s supposedly dead, and the cellist love of his life still believes he’s gone. It’s a lonely life, running a secret organization that everybody thinks turned evil and then disappeared.

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So yay, he finally found a strong confident woman who appreciates him for who he is—Rosalind Price, the head of the ATCU. The flirty rivalry between the two of them has been interesting to watch for the past few episodes, even as it’s been unclear just where the ATCU storyline was going.

But in this episode, it finally gels that Coulson and Price are on the same team, and on the same page, and all that. They’re even going to go meet with the POTUS together, and talk about how to cope with the outbreak of Inhuman powers. Coulson lets Price on his flying base! And he arranges for Price and Daisy to have a chat, so Daisy can show that not all Inhumans are bad, something that’s cemented by Daisy’s aforementioned save of Price at the end of the episode.

And then, at the end of the episode, Coulson and Price finally hook up, cementing their relationship and the alliance between SHIELD and the ATCU. Yay! Romance is so beautiful.

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Except... oops. In the episode’s final “stinger,” we see Grant Ward talking to Gideon Malick, the Hydra bigwig who handed over Werner von Strucker to Ward last week. Ward is obsessed with bringing down Coulson, but Malick warns him against being too obsessed with revenge—in a callback to what Bobbi said about the dangers of vengeance earlier in the episode. And then Malick reveals that he already has a plan in place to take down Coulson and kill SHIELD for good.

Becuase Rosalind Price is actually working for Malick, who has somehow gotten an “in” with the head of an organization that reports directly to the U.S. president. (My guess? Maybe he used the brainwashing technology that he stole from Hydra and previously used on Bakshi, to turn Price into his loyal operative.)

So now Coulson is heading into a trap, and he’s also handed the incredibly dangerous Lash over a Hydra goon. Whoops.

Interplanetary love triangle

And meanwhile... Simmons turns out to still have her phone from the alien planet where she was trapped for six months. And she asks Fitz to try recover its data, in the hopes of finding clues to how to reopen a portal to the planet and rescue Will, the NASA astronaut that Simmons hooked up with there.

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And Fitz does find a clue—the patch on Will’s uniform looks rather a lot like a symbol that was on the floor of the chamber where the Obelisk had previously been used to travel to the mysterious planet. So maybe Will’s “NASA” program was actually part of an ancient secret organization that knows something about the secrets of that world.

But Fitz also finds all of Simmons’ messages that she recorded on the other planet, when she was dying of thirst and disoriented in the planet’s endless night. And once again, Fitz and Simmons provide the episode’s most powerful emotional moments, as Fitz watches Simmons confess her feelings for him and talk about how she followed him around when they first met at school. Fitz realizes that Simmons spent a huge chunk of her time on this alien planet talking to him, in messages that she thought he would never see and also just when she was talking to herself after her battery ran low.

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In the end, Fitz and Simmons are watching the sunrise, and Fitz offers her an out: Maybe she said those things about him when she was disoriented and didn’t know what she was saying. But she says she was “as clearheaded as I’ve ever been.”

But in keeping with the episode’s running thread of perfectly good relationships getting jacked up by the dangers and complications of life in SHIELD, there are a lot of unsettled questions. Like Will, the other man in Simmons’ life, who’s trapped on that other world. And also just how much that experience changed Simmons. For now, Fitz and Simmons just watch the sunrise together, and put off any questions about the future for later.

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This show being this show, there’s bound to be something else getting in the way of Fitz and Simmons—maybe one of them will be eaten by a grue.


Charlie Jane Anders is the author of All The Birds in the Sky, coming in January from Tor Books.Follow her on Twitter, and email her.