Last night's episode of Agents of SHIELD delved a lot deeper into one of the main themes of season two: People who have lost themselves, or had their identities wrecked, and the absolutely terrible relationships they find themselves in. And it turns out dealing with people who aren't true to themselves carries a high cost. Spoilers ahead...
True to its name, "Love in the Time of Hydra" focused on a handful of relationships, mostly romantic but also platonic. And the theme of identity crisis played out in a pretty fascinating way, thanks to the juxtaposition of the incipient "real SHIELD" coup against Coulson and the twisted Ward/Agent 33 crime spree.
So let's look at the main pairings in the episode, one by one:
Agent 33 is pretty much the poster child for identity crises — a formerly loyal SHIELD agent, she was brainwashed by Whitehall into becoming his puppet, to the point where she no longer knows who she was. And then she was given a "nano-mask" that allowed her to masquerade as Melinda May — who then electrocuted her in the face, breaking the mask and leaving her scarred and stuck as a broken duplicate of Melinda.
But now that Agent 33 has saved Grant Ward after he was shot by Skye, he's determined to pay her back in his own inimitable fashion. So he helps her to kidnap a guy who can fix her mask (via a very Pulp Fiction-y diner robbery). But once she's got control over her face again, the hard part begins — helping her to reclaim her actual identity, something she believes is lost forever. In fact, she tries to seduce Ward by turning herself into Skye, something that actually creeps out the creep, a little:
But instead, Ward tells her that he wants to be with Agent 33 — but as herself, Kara, not as someone else. Ward believes that Kara can regain her sense of identity, by getting closure — which involves breaking into Talbot's base and busting out Bakshi, the man who dragged her out of her safehouse and gave her to Whitehall to brainwash.
Ward recounts the story of how his family hollowed him out and broke him down, leaving him vulnerable to the questionable influence of John Garrett. And Ward didn't start putting himself back together, he claims, until he was locked up and had a chance to think — and then he reconnected with his family, and they really got together and dug in and worked through a lot of their issues, and it was great. (He carefully leaves out the part where he killed them all.)
Ward is SO well-adjusted now.
The point being, Ward was in the same situation that Agent 33 was in — he was a blank slate, and he was controlled by someone, and he didn't know who he was, but then he was able to get past this and become whole again, thanks to the restorative power of killing all his closest relatives.
Agent 33 is an amazing combination of neediness and insecurity and rage. She's apparently gotten past her programmed loyalty to Whitehall, but she hasn't been able to rebuild at all. This is the sort of thing that's often portrayed as part of undercover work and double agents and spy games, only magnified a hundred-fold.
The whole sequence where Agent 33 uses her face-changing powers to get inside Talbot's base gives us the comic-relief version of her angst — she impersonates Glenn Talbot's wife and a few members of his staff, and his efforts to catch her only make things worse. The bit where he eliminates one possible mole by having her accurately state the number of times he's gotten her name right (zero) is pretty great. And he also gets a little too personal with poor Meredith's cheek:
But after Talbot makes his real wife get down on the ground with her face on the floor, his marriage seems to be in somewhat worse shape. Poor Talbot — although I'm still mad about the way his comics counterpart treated Betty Ross when he was married to her, so I'm happy to see the TV version suffer.
Anyway, Ward and Agent 33 catch up with Bakshi, who tries to reactivate Agent 33's brainwashing — but gets knocked out. And apparently kidnapping the man who ruined her life is good for Agent 33, because she remembers her real name and regains her real face. And then, as the episode ends, they're turning the tables on Bakshi, subjecting him to his own brainwashing:
Meanwhile, Lance Hunter has been taken prisoner by the "Real SHIELD," which wants to take down Coulson. And his ex-wife and current lover, Bobbi Morse, is part of this gang of conspirators, as is Mac. They're led by William Adama, who apparently never learned anything from all the disastrous coups that happened on board the Galactica. (Also on the team: Annie Weaver, last seen at the SHIELD Science Academy. Plus a new character played by Kirk Acevedo.)
This new revelation takes Lance's existing trust issues with Bobbi and amps them up to 11. All season, he's been saying that he can never tell who he's really dealing with, and whether she's lying to him or using him — and now, in spite of her best intentions, she's wound up lying to him again. It's just like when they first met and she was just trying to get intel out of him while he was falling for her. He's just a big sad puppydog who keeps falling for her tricks.
But even Lance has to admit that Coulson hasn't been perfect — and the list of indictments sounds pretty impressive when Robert Gonzales (Edward James Olmos) lists them. He led the team on a wild goose chase, looking for an alien city whose location came from the drawings he felt compelled to make after he was shot up with alien DNA. As a result, Tripp died and Raina and Skye got turned into Inhumans — plus Hydra nearly got their hands on some serious firepower.
And they say that SHIELD was originally founded with transparency and accountability, which I find somewhat hard to believe — and it was only Fury that turned it into a nest of secrets and skullduggery. They want to take SHIELD back to its roots.
In the end, Lance's trash talk about his relationship with Bobbi gains him one thing — she doesn't try to stop him escaping the Real SHIELD base, but warns him that everyone else will. So he makes a break for it, and discovers he's on an aircraft carrier:
Lance still manages to escape in a submersible, but it will take him 12 hours to reach land and warn Coulson about the coup. So Bobbi proposes to go back to Coulson and finish this — and she says she'll only need six hours. (See above for a GIF of that moment.)
Meanwhile, Mac has already gone back to the Original Recipe SHIELD HQ, to keep tabs on Coulson and keep him from becoming suspicious about Lance and Bobbi disappearing. (And Mac seems kind of perturbed about Skye being sent away to a safehouse — see below for that.) When Mac tells Melinda his cover story about babysitting a drunken, heartbroken Lance, who's gone AWOL because love makes people do crazy things, etc., etc., Melinda shrugs it off.
But later, it turns out neither Coulson nor Melinda believes Mac — and they're finally keeping an eye out, a little too late.
Unfortunately, Coulson has just sent away one of the handful of people he trusts unconditionally, leaving him with fewer allies at a really crucial moment.
Coulson tells May that he believes in his gut that he's "mishandled" something important with Skye — but by the time he decides this, it's already a day late and a dollar short. Melinda has agreed with her ex-husband Andrew that Skye ought to leave SHIELD, now that she's got uncontrollable earthquake powers that fracture her bones when she tries to repress them. But Coulson doesn't just want to cut her loose.
So instead, he gets Simmons to put together some kind of gauntlets, or vambraces, that suppress her powers a bit, while her arms heal. And given Simmons' zeal for solving the problem of people like Skye, and how weird and tentative the scene between Coulson and Simmons is where they discuss those devices, it seems likely they do more than just reduce the severity of Skye's quakes a bit.
In any case, Coulson flies Skye out to a fishing cabin in the middle of nowhere, that Fury set up to contain people with powers — there's a powered fence to keep her from leaving, but otherwise it looks sort of cozy. Kind of. And then Coulson just sort of dumps her there — he promises Simmons will tell her about the side effects of the gauntlets later, and that Melinda May will visit, but then he just scrams.
And while en route to the cabin, Coulson tells Skye a weird story about the 1962 red corvette that his father and he worked on — which the young Phil Coulson considered a waste of time, until it was finished. And this story means... what? Skye concludes that she's the corvette and worth working on, but she could just as easily be the child working on something with her "father." It's a weirdly oblique story.
Earlier, Melinda May warns Coulson that Skye's changes go beyond just some new superpowers — she no longer knows who she is. She's changed, on the inside as well as the outside, and her whole identity has been rearranged forever. Which is a pretty explicit parallel to Agent 33's situation, making it interesting that Ward does a better job of taking Agent 33 under his wing and helping her to rebuild than Coulson does with Skye.
And finally, the rift between the two science geeks continues to widen. Early on, they have a big argument about whether Skye's powers could be a good thing (in front of Skye, which seems like a bad idea for sure.) Fitz argues that Skye could be as powerful as one of the Avengers — but if so, Simmons says she's the Hulk because she can't control her destructive powers.
Later on, Fitz once again brings up the parallesl between the changes he went through after being drowned and the changes that have happened to Skye — and in both cases, Simmons couldn't accept that her friend had changed, and kept trying to "fix" them.
But this time around, Fitz turns this comparison on its head — because the one who's changed the most isn't Fitz or Skye, but Simmons. She's the one who's being ruled by fear and is going to extremes out of a basic intolerance for people who've gotten empowered or disabled through no fault of their own.
In any case, the episode gently hints that Simmons is another person who's lost some of her sense of identity, or core values, and her relationships are being dragged through hell as a result.
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