Things have been getting darker and bleaker on Agents of SHIELD ever since the big revelations in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. And the season premiere contained a couple huge gut-punches. But it turned out the show was just getting started, and last night was basically one long kick in the teeth. Spoilers ahead...
Apart from anything else, "Making Friends And Influencing People" went a long way towards making the evil organization Hydra seem formidable — and even kind of terrifying.
We knew they had infiltrated SHIELD and were sheltering ex-Nazis like the computerized remains of Arnim Zola, and Whitehall, the Nazi formerly known as Reinhardt. And they had gotten more powerful and unstoppable since SHIELD fell, with government players like Talbot focused on hunting the remnants of SHIELD instead of Hydra. But we've also seen Hydra get outsmarted by Raina, and rely too much on loose cannons like Garrett.
In last night's episode, though, Hydra seemed highly organized and formidable. We witnessed their brainwashing techniques, which turned the tough and disciplined Agent 33 into a lackey. (With some creepy speeches about fire burning the underbrush to let the mighty sequoia trees grow, as a metaphor for eugenics or elitism or something.) And that same brainwashing had previously turned Donnie Gill, the science whiz who gained ice powers from a weather-machine mishap back in season one.
Plus it's one thing to fear Hydra's goons hunting down the SHIELD agents — it's another to fear for the safety of a SHIELD agent who's undercover within Hydra.
That's the first big shocker of the episode — we find out what Simmons has been up to since she vanished from Coulson's team. (Having previously been shocked to learn that the Simmons talking to Fitz is just in his head.) Simmons has gone undercover at Hydra, and is reporting back to Coulson — but she draws the attention of Whitehall's right-hand man, Bakshi, who decides to "test" her loyalty.
At first, you think Simmons has actually joined Hydra for real — maybe she was brainwashed, too — and then later, we keep getting teased with the possibility that they've rumbled her. And then she nearly gets shot by the rest of the SHIELD team, when they run into her as part of the Hydra mission. And finally, she gets "promoted" to Bakshi's office, but with the lingering threat that she could get brainwashed after all. The whole thing is actually quite nerve-wracking, and makes Hydra seem way more scary.
And that opening musical number as she goes to work at the evil organization? Totally nuts.
The actual plot of the episode basically involves both SHIELD and Hydra trying to get their hands on Donnie Gill, who's gotten way better at using his ice powers and is on the run in Marakech. Simmons tips off Coulson about Gill's high-value-target status, and then she ends up being part of the Hydra team sent to retrieve him — but Coulson doesn't realize at first that Donnie was actually brainwashed by Hydra, and thus the enemy just has to re-trigger Donnie's programming. Something that Simmons helps them to do.
The big reveal about Donnie comes from Grant Ward, who's still a prisoner under the SHIELD base and who seems desperate to make himself useful to the gang, especially Skye. And the secrets come out, most of all, in a scene where Fitz figures out that Ward is down there, and goes to see him.
Everything about the Fitz-Ward confrontation is incredibly effective, and brilliantly acted. Fitz's imaginary Simmons tries to talk him down, but he just dismisses her as not being real — and she's gone. And then as soon as Ward sees Fitz, he starts trying to explain how he was actually saving Fitz instead of trying to kill him when he dumped Fitz and Simmons into the ocean... and Fitz has a total meltdown.
By the time Fitz is trying to demonstrate to Ward first-hand what oxygen deprivation feels like, and exactly what shape permanent brain damage can take, Fitz is seeming way more lost and wrecked than he already did before. And yet, the core of anger in Iain De Caestecker's performance is incredible, including in the scene where he talks to Coulson afterwards. He's doing a fantastic job of seeming messed up, but somehow drawing a kind of dignity out of it.
(Side note: This is just making me more pissed than ever that we didn't get more of The Fades, the excellent British show that De Caestecker starred in. Such a waste.)
On the plus side, Mack has pretty much officially become Fitz's interpreter, Melinda May gets some lovely moments of taking Lance Hunter down a peg or two (and then shooting him) after he shot her last week. And Coulson is seeming more in his element than he has in a while, masterminding dangerous missions and running an undercover operative.
The other subplot in the episode has to do with Skye, who is continuing to be way more interesting now that she's become tougher and more emotionally shut down. The main way that we keep track of Skye's emotional state in this episode is via her handy heart-rate monitor — which shows that she's keeping cool even as she practices shooting bigger and badder guns. And even when she shoots and possibly kills Donnie Gill, her heart rate remains steady. But later, she's upset to discover that Simmons is undercover. And when Ward tells her that her father is alive and he wants to take her to him, her heart rate goes through the roof.
That's the other thing that's surprisingly intense about this episode — Ward's psychopathic eagerness to help doesn't make him seem any less dangerous. Even the fact that he's trapped in a cell, and Fitz is able to suffocate and nearly kill him. Even as we see the Hydra brainwashing destroying people's personalities, we also see Ward still trying to get inside people's heads — the fact that he's only telling the truth and he believes what he's saying only makes it harder to keep him at arm's length. Skye starts the episode unwilling to have a personal conversation with Ward, but by the end, she's letting him talk to her about her father.
When Agents of SHIELD started, I was hoping it would develop into a spy-versus-spy sort of show, especially with a couple of former Alias writers on board. (Including Monica Owusu Breen, who wrote "Making Friends.") With episodes like this one, it's starting to exceed those fond early hopes.