If last week’s episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was a Graham Greene cold war thriller about making sacrifices for a greater good, this week’s (written by co-executive producer Drew Greenberg) is Alfred Hitchock’s To Catch a Thief — light, almost frothy at times, but with just enough of a dark undercurrent to make it watchable. As with all Hitchcock films, there’s a MacGuffin in play — a painting in a Florida church of a Madonna and child that miraculously survives a fire, and reveals on its back side, the same mysterious markings that Coulson has been carving for several episodes.
Hydra wants the painting. So does S.H.I.E.L.D. Coulson and May go undercover at a gala fundraising benefit party, which gives them the opportunity to play fancy dress-up and crack wise, and the show an opportunity to sharpen their relationship within the newly splintered agency. Essentially, Coulson wants to make sure that May will kill him if the voices in his head cause him to be compromised, as their former colleague John Garrett (Bill Paxton) was last season.
In contrasting May with Coulson, the show calls to mind a dichotomy at the heart of another fondly remembered espionage TV series — the 1960s British show The Avengers. On that series, agent John Steed (Patrick Macnee) — he of the derby and umbrella — represented England’s reverence and nostalgia for its past and for tradition. While Steed’s counterpart Emma Peel — of the catsuits and judo chops — represented cutting-edge modernity, and the country’s focus on a sleek and shiny future. Similarly, Coulson, from the moment he fawned over Captain America in The Avengers, has come to represent a love of “the old-fashioned”, while May wants nothing more than to forget the past and move on. It’s a pairing that’s explored much less on television than “good cop/bad cop” or “believer/disbeliever,” one that’s crystallized by the recurring line “Nostalgia is fine, but it’s time to deal with reality.”
Meanwhile, Hydra’s Daniel Whitehall (the David Cronenberg doppelgänger Reed Diamond), a/k/a this season’s Big Bad, represents the dark side of yesterday, the side that wants order and control at any cost. He’s Coulson gone wrong, and a reminder, of what could happen to the dry-witted director if he really is compromised.
Back on the Bus, Fitz’s own internal conflict, the result of the brain-damaging accident he suffered last season, finally reaches a plateau. And once again, a season 2 episode fuses character drama to action in allowing his solution to this week’s problem — caused when Hydra captures May and assigns their Agent 33 to impersonate her and sabotage S.H.I.E.L.D.’s traveling HQ — to also end his reluctance in socializing with his teammates after Simmons’ departure. (“Face My Enemy” may be S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s simplest episode title, but it’s layered in its meaning.) And the moment when he finally sits down and shares a beer with Hunter and the other new agents, describing his former partner as the girl who got away, is a bittersweet high.
Action-wise, this week’s highlight is the battle between 33 and the real May, a knock-down, drag-out knuckle-bruiser, lest we forget that Ming-Na Wen can handle her load of the action after scoring laughs impersonating an air-headed socialite.
Adrian Pasdar returns as Talbot, for whom the show has found good use. He’s Inspector Lestrade (to use a third example of the UK’s pop culture in this review) to Coulson and co.’s Sherlock Holmes and Whitehall’s Moriarty. Caught in the middle of a war between two far more cunning forces, he’s an everyman who’s hard not to love.
Next week: Raina (Ruth Negga) — last seen two weeks ago (in “Heavy is the Head”) — has forty-eight hours to hand the Obelisk over to Whitehall. Will she comply? Or will the wily former Hydra associate get S.H.I.E.L.D.-ed?
What did you think of this week’s episode? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter (@JMaCabre).