For a moment there on last night’s Agents of SHIELD, I thought I was going to have to throw my TV set out the window and possibly set fire to some stuff.
Luckily, everything turned out okay. But this was very nearly a “burn everything down” situation.
The big fakeout in “Purpose in the Machine,” as immortalized in the gif above, is that you think that Fitz has come within a hair’s breadth of rescuing Simmons from the evil alien planet where she’s been trapped since the end of season two. The team is pulling Fitz back, not realizing he’s actually got a tenuous grip on Simmons, and you see him torn away from her. But phew—it’s okay. They got Simmons back, after all, after the alien monolith thingy explodes into a million chunks.
But at what cost? Is Simmons really going to be okay, after being trapped on an alien planet for months and months? (However much time passed on that other planet.) The last we see of her in this episode, she’s waking from a nightmare, to find Fitz sitting by her bed. And then she curls up with her head in Fitz’s lap, which is incredibly sweet. But I’d be amazed if we don’t see some long-term fallout from her getting stranded.
And even though Fitz pulled off an incredible miracle, he did it by taking a huge, crazy chance, on top of all the longshot chances that he and the rest of the team took to get him there. (Something that Andrew, the team’s resident shrink, keeps pointing out.)
And there’s a sort of theme running through the episode: That you can do great things if you push yourself to your limits. But that doing this, over and over again, can turn you into a monster. This theme gets explored through a bunch of different characters. Let’s run through them one by one:
Leo Fitz. As we saw last week, he goes half-crazy in his insistence that Simmons is alive, and his determination to get her back by any means. This time around, he actually comes back with real evidence—some alien sand that came through the portal—and gets everybody on board the “rescue Simmons” bandwagon at last. But he still goes kind of overboard once they find the magic castle in Britain where there’s a secret basement that contains a steampunk machine that controls the monolith, then Fitz completely loses it and jumps into the portal instead of sending the camera probe they wanted to send. He’s lucky that he manages to pull Simmons out, instead of getting trapped there himself.
Phil Coulson. As Andrew keeps saying, Coulson is kind of pushing it and seems somewhat desperate for a victory—any victory—to justify everything he’s doing. (He did save that Joey guy last week. That’s something, right?) As Professor Randolph, the Asgardian that Coulson helps bust out of prison, says, Coulson seems different. He’s no longer quite as easy-going as he seemed back in season one, and it’s not just because he lost a hand. As Coulson says, “things got messy.” He’s also willing to send Lance Hunter out on a mission to assassinate Grant Ward. Not capture, kill. He’s very keen on that particular kill order. (And Lance is perfectly happy to carry out that order, after what Grant did to Lance’s once and future wife, Bobbi.)
Daisy Johnson. She seems pretty desperate to recruit that Joey guy to her new “Secret Warriors” team (the words are actually spoken this week!), even though Joey is new and freaked out and he can’t touch a doorknob without melting it. Daisy works Andrew pretty hard to get Joey cleared for action, but Andrew is used to pushy spies. Daisy is convinced that she needs to do better than her mom at providing a place for the Inhumans where they can be safe—but also useful. Her mom provided a kind of “halfway house” for the superpowered quasi-mutants, but Daisy thinks they’ll be happier if they can actually make a difference, by working for a covert non-governmental agency that’s been outlawed for its past association with evil terrorists. As Andrew points out, she risks turning her Inhuman friends into monsters if she pushes them to use their powers too quickly and recklessly, without training and assessment—and her human friends, also, risk becoming something terrible if they move recklessly.
And then, of course, Daisy pushes her powers to the limit, keeping the portal open so Fitz can rescue Simmons, and nearly dies in the process.
Melinda May. She sort of hides out with her elderly father in Sun City, AZ—which is a sort of town-sized retirement community—and helps him play golf. Her dad dispenses lots of wisdom that boils down to the idea that Melinda is like her spy mother and she can’t just walk away from her life with SHIELD. And then Lance Hunter shows up, wanting to recruit Melinda for Operation Kill Grant Ward, and introduces the idea that Grant could have been responsible for the hit-and-run accident that injured Melinda’s father. Melinda seems like she’s personifying the end-state of what happens if you allow yourself to become a monster in the pursuit of duty, and she’s horribly burned out. But then she changes her mind and joins Team Lance... because killing Grant is always a fun time.
And finally... Ward. In an episode that’s all about the danger of becoming a monster as a result of taking extreme actions, Ward is someone who’s embraced his inner monster. Ward makes a huge demonstration of how the new Hydra will be a leaner, meaner machine, by putting a former Hydra bigwig on top of his expensive sports car and driving around a garage with a bunch of his new recruits standing motionless next to support pillars:
And then Ward goes to a lot of trouble to track down Werner von Strucker, the son of former Hydra head Wolfgang von Strucker, to recruit him for the new Hydra. But he doesn’t want to offer Werner a role in Hydra until he proves that he’s willing to be a total psycho freak, like Ward. So he stages a whole complicated operation, with rats on a boat, to capture Werner and pretend to extort him for information on his bank accounts. When Werner finally turns the tables and beats up one of his captors, Grant decides he’s proved he has what it takes to be a Hydra goon.
So the other theme in this episode is control, as seen in the above clip where Grant exults in the superb handling of that Italian sports car. And Fitz figures out how to use the ancient steampunk machine to control the monolith (until Daisy can use her powers to do the same thing). And Melinda May, of course, wants to be in control of everything, all the time, even though she claims she left ice-skating for martial arts because she wanted to fall on a padded floor instead of hard ice.
And in the episode’s kicker, the guy who has spent the whole hour giving out sage counsel about not getting devoured by your demons—Andrew, May’s ex—gets a brand new student. Werner von Strucker is going to be taking Andrew’s psych class. Wonder which one of them will have more to teach the other?