One of the hallmarks of Mutant Enemy’s best work is its use of metaphor. The most famous (and obvious) example of which is the entirety of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which (in the time-honored tradition of Spider-Man) uses the story of a young woman’s emergence as a superhero as an allegory for every teenager’s coming of age. But quality metaphor was something severely lacking in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s first season. Thankfully, in its gung-ho sophomore year, the show seems to have recognized its absence. And in this week’s third episode they address it head on.
“Making Friends and Influencing People” expands this season’s storyline about S.H.I.E.L.D.’s mission to recruit new agents by depicting the espionage agency in a race to do so against Hydra. Here, there’s a battle between the two forces for the “gifted” Donnie Gill (better known to comics fans by the telling code name Blizzard). But in the best Team Whedon tradition, the episode’s really not about a super-powered arms race at all. Instead it serves as vehicle to showcase a series of dichotomies that are sharp enough to appear planned since last season. Take Coulson and his opposite number in Hydra, Whitehall. Both want to get their hands on Gill before the other does, and both will go to any means necessary to secure the former engineer or destroy the other one’s chances of doing so. “If we can’t take him in, take him out,” commands the new director. The episode places so much emphasis on the enemies’ similarities that their differences are forgotten. And if we can forget, even if only for a moment, what distinguishes S.H.I.E.L.D. from Hydra, how quickly can Coulson and company lose sight of their moral compass?
The point is driven home when we see Fitz confront Ward for the first time since the accident that damaged his brain. After dismissing the vision of Simmons he’s been seeing since the season began, Fitz decides to get himself some Old Testament vengeance by making Ward suffer hypoxyia in his prison cell. (Iain De Caestecker’s performance in this episode is heartbreaking as he expresses the severity of the struggle in Fitz’s mind and heart.)
Other analogs abound in Simmons and Skye, each of them learning to control their fear, be it, in the case of Simmons, the result of plunging deeper undercover as a Hydra scientist, now forced to use her knowledge of Gillis against him, or, in the case of Skye, the revelation from Ward that her father is still alive. There’s even a nice gag that breaks the gravitas and encapsulates the episode’s preoccupation with doubles – a cut from the agents’ mission to retrieve Gillis in Maribel Del Mar to Mack back at HQ playing a first-person shooter game.
The writers also make good use of their other new character, Hunter. Apologizing for shooting his new teammates in last week’s episode, the former mercenary gets a curt “Don’t be sorry, just wait” from May, a threat she makes good on when she takes him out as he’s about to shoot Simmons – who’s still a stranger to him – in the back.
Hunter’s developed a nice rapport with Skye, one that doesn’t lean too heavily on either sarcasm or flirtation. Though if the producers must pair the former Mary Sue with someone, I confess I’d rather it be Hunter than Ward, if only because the latter’s long slow redemption seems so inevitable at this point that I’d prefer it not be fused to an even more predictable romantic subplot.
A much more interesting love story is the one between Fitz and Simmons. Though they haven’t shared a scene yet this season, and each has found a surrogate for the other – Fitz in Mack and Simmons in her new assignment – it’s clear they remain incomplete without one another. The ever observant Coulson recognizes this when he answers Simmons’ “How is everyone?” with “Fitz is okay. He’s hanging in there.”
But how long can Simmons hang in there? As Skye remarks to May, “she’s a terrible liar.” And Whitehall is already prepared to brainwash the lovely science geek into permanent slavery at his second-in-command’s recommendation.
Next week: It’s Coulson and May’s turn to go undercover, indulging in a True Lies-style tango in what looks like a fun romp. Even if they do have to dance around a laser grid or two.
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. airs Tuesdays at 9/8c on ABC.