Last night’s Agents of SHIELD was a pretty simple story: the tale of what happened to Agent Simmons during the six months she was missing. True to recent SHIELD form, though, “4,722 Hours” did set up some expectations and then pull the alien rug out from under us, in a pretty neat way. Spoilers ahead...

Basically, “4,722 Hours” is the story of Jemma Simmons being trapped on an alien planet at the pole, where the sun only rises for a few minutes once every 18 years. At first, she assumes that she’ll be rescued right away, because SHIELD protocols call for her to wait for extraction—and because she doesn’t realize that SHIELD won’t figure out that the obelisk is a portal (even though NASA and a bunch of 18th century people figured it out just fine.)

Once Jemma gives up on being rescued, she sets her mind to surviving while she figures out a way out of there. She gets caught in a sandstorm that nearly ends her, but then she locates a big pool of water—and when a tentacle monster in the water tries to eat her, she eats part of it instead. Later, she hunts the tentacle monster and eats the rest of it.

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But it’s only when Jemma gets captured by a mysterious figure that the episode goes into high gear. And here’s where the episode sets up a couple of expectations and then subverts them with a pleasing deftness. First, you sort of assume that this is an alien monster that’s captured Jemma. Then, when it turns out to be a stranded human, he appears to be a psycho who’s keeping her in a cage because he thinks she’s a hallucination.

At last, when we learn that the stranded human is a NASA astronaut named Will whose comrades all died due to the intervention of some “thing” on the planet, it looks very much as though Will has lost his marbles and probably killed his crewmates. He keeps telling Jemma to stay away from one area on the planet, the “No Fly Zone,” and that appears to be where his secrets are. Worse yet, the flashback to his crewmates’ deaths shows Will killing one of them—albeit in self defense, according to Will.

The whole episode seems to be building up to Will having gone bonkers, and it seems as though Will doesn’t actually want to be rescued any more. When Jemma comes up with a plan to track the motion of the stars and calculate the planet’s rotation so she can figure out where the portal will open next, Will seems skeptical almost to the point of sabotage. I was more or less expecting Will to turn on Jemma and announce that she can’t leave or he’ll kill her like the others.

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But no—the surprise is that Will is actually a pretty decent person, and being around Jemma (whose can-do optimism and resourcefulness are infectious) make him a better, more hopeful person. He even develops a sense of humor.

Jemma finally does put her escape plan in motion—and as the sad gif up top shows, it doesn’t pan out so well. The portal opens across a bigger-than-expected chasm, and they just narrowly miss sending a “message in a bottle” through.

And then... Jemma actually falls for this guy, now that he’s slowly become a decent, helpful person again under her influence. He never tries anything on her, even though he’s clearly into her, so it’s both sad and sweet when she finally kisses him, because she’s given up on escaping.

The other big surprise comes when they’re finally making a life on this planet, even digging up a (revolting) bottle of wine from a previous castaway. The portal opens just when they’re preparing to watch the rare sunrise, and Fitz sends off a flare. And then it turns out the monster that Will warned about is real, and it’s very Steven Moffat-esque: a scary spacesuit, covered with weird vines and shit.

And then... we know the rest. Jemma makes it back to Earth, thanks to Fitz. But now that she’s home and regathering her wits, she wants to go right back to Planet Ick, because she still needs to rescue Will. Her boyfriend. Fitz is crestfallen to hear there’s someone else, but—not surprisingly—offers to help almost right away.

Oh, and there’s one last surprise. I sort of expected the final “sting” at the end of the episode to be a teaser to some other storyline, like the ongoing Grant Ward/Hydra thing. But instead, it’s a sad, mournful shot of Will alone on the planet, with the now-useless gun he used to hold off the monster. Watching as the ultra-rare sunlight fades away.

Which reminds me. The use of the blue filter and muted crepuscular lighting really does create an oppressive effect after a while, which makes the final scenes back on Earth a lot more jarring, and adds a little kick when you see Will there on the planet, in normal lighting for once.

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This was a great episode for Jemma Simmons—not just because she got to be even more resourceful and steely-nerved than when she was undercover with Hydra, but also because she got to show a huge emotional range. And we see the strength of her bond with Fitz—seeing him on her little handheld device keeps her sane—but also the core of her character: She brings out the problem-solving optimist in other people. It’s an interesting character-focused episode for a character who spent a huge chunk of last season being portrayed as a borderline sadistic xenophobe who hated and feared aliens.


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.