This week’s episode of S.H.I.E.L.D. does something that no other episode of the show has done — it kicks ass. I’ve found S.H.I.E.L.D. interesting, funny, entertaining – and, in its first season, exasperating – but at no point in its run has it plastered a mile-wide grin on my face that lasted long after the end credits. The fact that this grin isn’t the result of one-liners or references to Marvel movies, or one specific performance or moment has me smiling again now. Because I’m hopeful the show has, once and for all, figured out what it needs to be, and will continue delivering for the remainder of its second season.
“A Hen in the Wolf House” has the good sense to keep things simple, the secret to success in any screen espionage tale, be it James Bond or Alias. Since, if a milieu has the potential to be labyrinthine, the story at its core shouldn’t be equally confusing. Here, Raina’s been given forty-eight hours by Hydra chief Daniel Whitehall to deliver him the mysterious Obelisk, or she dies. Simple. She turns to Skye’s dad, “The Doctor,” to whom she delivered the artifact a few episodes back. Played by Kyle MacLachlan, his lab and demeanor suggest he’s really much more of a mad scientist, and he refuses to play. So she calls on Coulson and company, blackmailing them by threatening to expose their mole Simmons, still working undercover in Hydra’s labs. Coulson too refuses to deal, and allows her to send a photo of Simmons reporting to S.H.I.E.L.D. to every Hydra agent. Whitehall’s right-hand man Bakshi and Hydra’s head of security Bobbi Morse (played by Adrianne Palicki) come for her, but – surprise! – Morse is also a S.H.I.E.L.D. mole, one assigned to protect Simmons, whom she rescues in spectacular fashion by jumping off the roof of Hydra headquarters onto a cloaked Quinjet. (The look of hero worship on Simmons’ face is adorable.) Upon returning to the Playground, Morse is invited to join Coulson’s team, to the chagrin of her ex-husband, Lance Hunter.
The pace of this week’s episode is relentless. Kudos to director Holly Dale and writer Brent Fletcher for the ways in which they intertwine the suspense of Simmons’ fight to maintain her cover at Hydra with Coulson’s cat-and-mouse game at a table in a swanky restaurant with Raina. S.H.I.E.L.D. is sometimes criticized for a lack of visual style, but by placing its characters in increasingly upscale settings this season (like the posh party Coulson and May attended last week or the wedding banquet that opens this week’s tale), the show has found a way to bring some glamor to its world of dark machinery and business suits. The balance of personalities within this year’s newly expanded cast is also welcome. Actor Nick Blood, as the former mercenary Hunter, is especially fun. In the comics, Bobbi – who’s known as Mockingbird, and sports the same signature baton weapons – is the former wife of Hawkeye. But since Jeremy Renner’s Clint Barton is unavailable to the show, the character’s love-hate relationship with his ex is recaptured through her interaction with Hunter. Here’s hoping this dynamic doesn’t end anytime soon.
Also exciting is the way that stakes have been raised via the introduction of Skye’s father, who reveals a temper and physical strength made intriguingly Hulk-like by the green light of his laboratory. Growing crazed at the thought that his daughter regards him as a monster, he allies himself with Whitehall, promising he’ll teach him to use the Obelisk (which the Big Bad wants to convert into Hydra weaponry) in an effort to destroy Skye’s surrogate father Coulson. Skye, meanwhile, discovers the S.H.I.E.L.D. director’s secret carvings, and realizes it’s only a matter of time before he completely snaps like John Garrett last season. The banter between Coulson and Skye continues to be a highlight, with the two engaging in a laugh-inducing though entirely sensible discussion over whether her alien DNA could save her from whatever force has seized control of her boss’s mind.
My one beef with “A Hen in the Wolf House” is Simmons’ anticlimactic reunion with Fitz, who’d progressed enough in her absence to address the version of her he’d imagined since the start of the season as a part of his subconscious. I liked the way Simmons’ absence humanized Fitz, even prompting him to share a beer with his teammates last week and lament the girl who got away. And I liked our brief glimpse of the cerebral scientist as a fish out of water at Hydra. Whatever direction their relationship takes, here’s hoping the two aren’t reduced to the two-dimensional cyphers they were in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s first year.
Next week: It’s a classic Marvel scenario as our heroes are framed by Hydra for a crime they didn’t commit, and Skye is forced to call on her traitorous former lover Ward for help. Oh, and there’s also the world premiere of the trailer for Avengers: Age of Ultron.
What did you think of this week’s episode? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter (@JMaCabre).