On the surface, last night's episode of Agents of SHIELD was about "facing reality" — something both Coulson and Fitz were grappling with. But on a deeper level, the (super funny) episode was about how the two men are both severely damaged. And the question of how far you can trust yourself, much less your friends.
It's to the credit of "I Will Face My Enemy" that it dealt with some pretty dark, heavy themes, and yet remained pretty light and fluffy. In particular, the crux of the episode is that Phil Coulson trusts Melinda May to kill Coulson if he turns evil — but he also realizes that he's dealing with an imposter, not the real May, when she's too ready to accept that order. He trusts her to kill him because she balks at doing so.
In the episode's "A" plot, Coulson and May infiltrate a charity fundraiser, to steal a 500-year-old religious painting that miraculously survived a fire. (Because it has more of that alien writing that Coulson's been doing, that's also on the Obelisk.) There's a complication, though, because Glenn Talbot is there — or rather, someone pretending to be Glenn Talbot.
The fake Talbot is actually Bakshi, the Hydra second-in-command, and he captures Melinda May, sending the brainwashed Agent 33 to impersonate Melinda and bring Coulson back. But Coulson figures out that this isn't the real May, and gets the drop on her — while the real May escapes and gets the drop on Bakshi. In the end, SHIELD gets the painting, but Bakshi and 33 get away.
In the "B" plot, Fitz is having a hard time socializing with the other SHIELD agents, especially now that the chatty Lance Hunter has joined the team. (Side note: this episode was written by former Warehouse 13 scribe Drew Z. Greenberg, and it's way better if you hear all of Lance Hunter's dialogue in Pete Lattimer's voice.) Fitz spends a lot of time talking to the imaginary Simmons in his head, who he fully knows is not real, because only she can see how he's still able to form sentences... that he just can't quite speak aloud.
But after the Fake May sabotages the Bus, Fitz has to step up and fix things before the Bus explodes and kills everybody — and he has to borrow Lance Hunter's hands to do it. In the end, Fitz is finally hanging out with the guys, drinking beers, and he seems closer to letting go of Simmons, both the real one and the imaginary one. He's even able to talk about her in the past tense, as someone who didn't feel the same way about him that he did about her.
So the "facing reality" thing in this episode involves May confronting the fact that Coulson is continuing to deterioriate — like Fitz, Coulson's hands are none too steady — and he worries that he's going to lose it and go evil like Garrett, the other guy we know about who got the Kree goop and started sketching weird alien diagrams all the time. (To be fair, Garrett was already evil.) And Fitz admitting to himself that Simmons is really gone, and he's got to open up to the people who are actually present.
But in an episode all about evil dopplegangers and imposters, it's interesting that the biggest questions aren't about how you know which May to trust, but about whether Coulson can trust himself, and whether Fitz can rely on his old skills and knowledge. And it's only because of Coulson's obsessive habit of needling May about making a contingency plan for if he turns evil, and Fitz's slow acceptance of his new limitations, that they're able to win.
In the end, May tells Coulson that she already has a contingency plan for if Coulson goes bad: travel documents and other supplies, so she can pull him out and take him to a cabin in the Australian outback. Even after all the other stuff we've seen about the bond between them, this is kind of startling as well as touching. Coulson seems genuinely moved by her offer of sacrifice, even as he orders her to kill him instead.
"Face My Enemy" is a cute, funny episode, the kind of story Agents of SHIELD tried to pull off early in its run (like the Latin-American second episode) — but here it works way better, partly because of the undercurrent of darkness in Coulson's obsessive contingency planning and Fitz's despair. There's fun undercover stuff, and banter, and dancing, and Melinda May turns out to be really good at pretending to be a bubbly "modern" wife. But it's all comedy with kind of a dark heart.
Oh, and this episode is directed by Mortal Kombat: Rebirth director Kevin Tancharoen (the brother of writer Maurissa Tancharoen) — which may explain why the big May-vs-May fight scene is quite so incredibly Mortal Kombat-esque. (But no one-handed decapitation.) Here's a tweet that contains the best bit:
All in all, this was another fun episode of SHIELD, which raised the stakes for Coulson's "condition" while also continuing to inflict maximum heartache over Fitz's.
And the episode ends with a coda, where Raina, who stole the Obelisk out from under both SHIELD and Hydra a couple weeks ago, catches wind of this episode's events and tries to book a flight to Miami — only to run into the Hydra boss Whitehall. He attaches a deadly bug thingy to her hand, delivers one of his trademark creepy speeches about how he once kept a woman alive and awake for a week while operating on her, and then gives her 48 hours to hand over the Obelisk.
Presumably Whitehall doesn't know who Raina is working for — or he'd be prepared to deal with the awesome wrath of Kyle MacLachlan.