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There are few things as satisfying to TV fans as watching shows reach their full potential. In seeing them perform the way they were built to perform. Case in point: the season 2 finale of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. It’s a two-part episode so exceptional that it’s not only the show’s finest moment, but a better, more satisfying Marvel movie than the one that’s currently showing in theaters. Its action scenes are certainly more thrilling, if a great deal less lavish, than Avengers: Age of Ultron, if only for their clarity of purpose. But what really makes “S.O.S.” work so well is the fact that it’s about something, that it knows what it’s about, and that it employs that knowledge in the service of first-rate storytelling.

That story begins the moment last week’s episode ended, with Skye’s mom Jiaying, having shot Gonzales and framed him for attacking her, carrying out her plans for the Inhumans to wage war against humanity. Moving fast, she has Gordon sabotage a quinjet and open fire on Afterlife in order to rally her troops against S.H.I.E.L.D. She also convinces Skye well enough for her to duke it out May, knocking her SO out with her powers. But it isn’t long before Coulson figures out what’s going on. By the time he does, however, Gonzales’ people have already been taken hostage by Jiaying, who is planning to unleash Terrigen crystal mist (which sounds, now that I think about it, like a delicious soft drink) on an unsuspecting public to “see what shakes loose.” Skye learns what’s going on when she watches her mom kill Raina, who has foreseen that it’s Skye, not Jiaying, who will ultimately lead her people.

Elsewhere, Ward and Kara set about torturing Bobbi after abducting her in last week’s “Scars”. They blame her for her past willingness to destroy HYDRA’s former Agent 33 in the service of S.H.I.E.L.D. They plan an especially gruesome revenge, from which she escapes just long enough for an exceptional fight scene between her and the two former S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. They wind up using her as the key to an especially impressive booby trap for whoever tries to free her, one in which she’ll be forced to witness her liberator shot dead before her eyes. Naturally, it’s Hunter who takes the bait. Hellbent on saving his ex, he doesn’t see the gun go off until its already shot Bobbi in the back. While she lives, Bobbi decides to leave S.H.I.E.L.D. (presumably with the idea to return since the spinoff show was not greenlit). Kara, meanwhile, disguised as May and planning a trap for other S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, is killed by Ward. His grief is enough, for just a moment, to make us feel for the sonuvabitch.

As for Cal, having given himself up to S.H.I.E.L.D., he finally pays the price for all the chemicals he’s ingested over the years; in an effort, we learn, to give himself the powers with which his wife and daughter were naturally gifted. Per his comic-book nom de plume, he goes full Mr. Hyde, complete with nasty fingernails, grueseome overbite, and a very bad wig. I’m not sure why Cal’s hair turns brown, when Kyle MacLachlan’s character has sported a black mane all season, but it all makes for a great scene in which he breaks free at S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters and chases after Coulson, Fitz, and Simmons. He’s about to make mincemeat of the two young scientists when Coulson hits him with an SUV and manages to calm him down, explaining how Jiaying played him just like HYDRA, and how she’s the real monster who’s kept him from his daughter all this time. Cal then accompanies Coulson and company on a rescue mission to stop the Inhuman faction from carrying out their plans. Skye frees herself with the help of Mack, and, her powers temporarily nullified, gets to engage in another great faux one-take shot of hand-to-hand combat, this time against Alisha, the “Multiple Woman.” May lends a hand, and Skye chases after her mom. Upon catching up with her, she manages to sink her cargo of crystals to the bottom of the ocean. Jiaying is then about to sacrifice her own daughter’s life when Cal intervenes and slays her, taking from his daughter the burden of killing her own mother. (While making her, in grand tradition, a true motherless Disney princess.) As a reward, Cal gets to undergo “the Tahiti program,” which removes his memories of his daughter and gives him a new life as a veterinarian.

But the episode’s best action sequence occurs when Fitz sets a trap for Gordon, preventing him from teleporting out of a room, so that he, Coulson, and Mack (armed with a badass fire axe) can go to town on the smug bastard. Fitz, bless him, delivers the killing blow. But there’s a price. Coulson catches the Terrigen crystal that falls from Gordon’s dying hand, and his arm turns to dust, prompting Mac to cut it off before he suffers the fate of Gonzales.

In the episode’s closing moments, May, who has reconnected with her own ex, declares that she too is taking a break from S.H.I.E.L.D., at least for the time being. But something tells me she’ll be back before too long. Maybe it’s that Terrigen mist that’s leaked into the ocean, seeped into the marine life, and found its way into stores worldwide in the form of fish oil…

Beneath all its superhuman spectacle and series-altering moments, “S.O.S.” is about what happens when people who are used to forsaking human connection reconnect with those they’ve loved. It looks at the lengths that human beings will go to for their loved ones, whether their actions are good or evil. In all of its pairings — Ward/Cara, Hunter/Bobbi, May/Andrew, Fitz/Simmons, Cal/Skye — it lets us find traces of our own relationships, little pieces of ourselves. “I was trying to put my family back together,” cries Cal. Which is what Coulson too has been trying to do throughout this sterling second season. Kudos to S.H.I.E.L.D. for making us care deeply about that family.

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Declassified Deliberations

  • Has Ward ever been as much of a dick as he is in this episode? I swear I felt Mockingbird’s leg break as though it were my own.
  • Rarely has any actor on S.H.I.E.L.D. appeared to have enjoyed themselves as much as Kyle MacLachlan. His presence will be missed next year. It would have been great to see him become a member of S.H.I.E.L.D., responding to a “Code Hyde” now and then. But at least it’s gratifying to know he delivered his best performance in his final episode.
  • “She had a good heart, Phil. She did. It was just torn out.”
  • Mack addresses Skye once as “Tremors.” Prompting me to scream, “Her name is Quake!”
  • Re: Hunter and Bobbi… There are few things as sexy as someone going to ANY lengths to rescue their spouse.
  • On the flip side, I was a bit surprised by Andrew’s words to May when she called to tell him that she was probably going to die. “Do good, Melinda, and get home safe.” Er, thanks, hon. But yes, they do recall his words to her during her most fateful mission.
  • “I thought my mom was bad when she started watching Fox News.”
  • By episode’s end, we learn Mack’s new job with S.H.I.E.L.D. is being charge of alien artifacts. Mack is not having a good first day at work.
  • “What took you so long? It’s a big boat. With poor signage.”
  • With Ward forming a new team of his own and looking for “closure,” is it too soon to start calling him the Big Bad of season 3?
  • “You’re better than I imagined. I imagined you perfect. You’re way more interesting than that.”
  • Most Whedonesque final scene ever.

Next season: Skye’s tasked with forming a new team of powered people, and S.H.I.E.L.D. faces a new world of potential Inhuman allies and enemies.

What did you think of this week’s episode? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter (@JMaCabre).

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