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Well, that was unexpected.

Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. comes back after a one-week break with an episode that’s not quite up to the standards of the “Whoa! This suddenly got A LOT better!” previous two, but it marks another area of important growth as the series tests the limits of its own abilities. This week’s test: Can a show as light and jokey as this pull off a (mostly) dead-serious character piece?

The by now standard prelude here involves a group of Boy Scouts – I’m sorry, Ranger Scouts – telling ghost stories around a campfire. Their Scout Leader hears a sound (inaudible to everyone else) and goes to investigate, shortly after which the kids observe a metal coffee mug levitate in mid-air followed by a strange localized electrical storm that leaves the Scout Leader dead from an apparent lightning-bolt to the head with his body similarly hovering as though in zero-gravity. And, since The Marvel Cinematic Universe has yet to introduce Damage Control, this is a job for Team Coulson.

Up on The Bus, Coulson is undergoing a basic physical exam supposedly at the behest of his doctors, who requested a battery of tests because he mentioned (callback!) that he was feeling “rusty.” Otherwise, life seems to have gotten back to normal after the revelations about Skye’s duplicity last time – in fact, only Agent Ward seems to still be mad at her. Presently, she’s being more chummy with Fitz (of Fitz/Simmons), whose awkward nervous crush on her is now readily apparent as they take turns making fun of Ward’s taciturn gruffness as he requests Fitz make a new gun-design one ounce lighter; an impasse that’s diffused when Simmons arrives to point out that the weight issue is due to a round still being in the chamber.

Down at the campsite, S.H.I.E.L.D collects the floating corpse and absconds back to the jet for some banter about whether this phenomena is the result of something strange we already know from the Marvel movies or something strange that’ll be new to the show… which I can only assume would be more suspenseful if the promos hadn’t already spoiled that this week’s Marvel Copyrighted Phlebetonium is related to a discarded Chitauri, helmet from The Avengers‘ Battle of New York. We also get a video-screen cameo from Titus Welliver as Agent Blake, who appeared in the first Marvel One-Shot feature Item 47, which involved the ongoing problem of unaccounted Chitauri weaponry falling into the wrong hands.

Some antics in the lab, meanwhile, serve to handily remind us that Fitz is “the fussy one” of the Fitz/Simmons team and that the victim was an almost cartoonishly-noble local do-gooder who was also a firefighter. Oh, and that electrical burn on his head is an exit wound – he wasn’t struck by lightning, lightning exploded out of his head! Soon enough, there’s a Victim #2 found floating in a local barn with an identical who turns out to be part of the same firefighting team as #1 – a team that had volunteered their services to the post-Avengers cleanup effort in NYC. A quit cutaway shows off another, unidentified man to be in possession of… A Chitauri Helmet.

The Agents arrive at the firehouse, where the mystery-man turns out to be another of the team. Coulson corners him in the kitchen, where a telltale metal object has already begun to levitate, but the fireman swears he didn’t do anything. As far as he knows, all he and the two dead men did was decide to clean “rust” off the Chitauri helmet, which the unit had taken home from New York as a souvenir. Soon enough, the case is cracked and Coulson orders everyone else out of the building. Short version: The “rust” was some kind of alien virus that the helmet’s owner was immune to that humans are not. This poor guy is the last of the three who’d become infected by it, and he’s about to die, too.

So Coulson sits down to talk with him.

Inevitably, this scene will be fixated on by fans because it represents our obligatory tease at the ongoing “What’s Wrong With Phil?” meta-plot (the reveal this time? Coulson does know, or at least suspects, that the “dead for eight minutes and revived” story fed to him isn’t totally true). But it’s also a pretty startling bit of restrained-emotion dramatic acting from Clark Gregg, as Coulson tries (and apparently succeeds) at giving the hapless firefighter a small measure of comfort: Namely, that he saw The Other Side when he was killed by Loki, and that the doomed man has nothing to fear.

This also, by the way, feels unmistakably like a broader reference to the too often memory-holed stories of serious health-issues plaguing many First Responders to the 9/11 Attacks. A bit edgy, but valid in my estimation – if the Marvel Universe is going to continue appropriating 9/11 as a reference-point for their post-Avengers universe, they can at least broaden the scope of it.

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More or less defeated by the circumstances, The Agents are now tasked with transporting the Chitauri “souvenir” to yet another S.H.I.E.L.D spot for “disappearing” bad stuff, The Sandbox. Interestingly, the revelation that they’re fighting a disease instead of a corporeal enemy seriously rattles Ward; leaving him feeling inadequate in defending his team from a problem he can’t punch into submission…

…a problem that gets much more real when it turns out that Simmons has managed to contract the virus (which is spread via static electricity.) And so we come, belatedly, to the main drama of the episode: Simmons is quarantined in her lab to try and work out a cure (which had been the plan to begin with) in the two hours she has before her brain electrifies and Coulson is under orders to “dump any infected” over the open-ocean – something he’s not prepared to do.

The situation effects the team in the expected ways: Coulson wants results, May is ready to do whatever’s necessary, Ward is angry, Skye is emotional and Fitz is a total wreck. In a last ditch effort (after a mini-blowup where we learn that Simmons was the one who wanted them to join S.H.I.E.L.D), he slips into the quarantined lab with the helmet so they can try to synthesize an antidote directly. When their final attempt at such seems to fail, Simmons tries to knock Fitz unconscious so he won’t stop her from throwing herself out of the plane to save everyone else.

Unfortunately, she does so just as Fitz has realized that the cure works after all, it just takes awhile. Oops! Fortunately, Agent Ward is onhand to grab a parachute and sky-dive after her for a mid-air rescue, the impressive visual-effects of which probably explain why the rest of this episode took place mostly on the plane.

With order effectively restored, things wrap up with a quiet scene between Coulson and May, who seem to be inching toward a quasi-romantic relationship based exclusively on the premise that it’s funny when the two characters whose schtick is to not show facial expression or change in voice-tone “flirt.” In this case, though, he has some confiding to do: He ordered those medical test on himself. Apparently, the person most acutely aware that something isn’t right with Phil… is Phil.

PARTING THOUGHTS

There isn’t a lot of mythology to dissect in this one, honestly. At least, not much in the way of new mythology that hasn’t already been run-down in the previous recaps.

It’s interesting to see Skye take a back seat to what turns out to be a Fitz/Simmons-centric adventure. For this series to work long-term, it can’t only be about her fish out of water perspective on situations – especially once she stops being the “new” kid.

Unless I’m mistaken, this is the first time we’ve heard Simmons’ first name. It’s Jemma.

Ward and Simmons have a moment toward the end that feels a lot like temperature taking for more inter-team relationship games. So… a love rectangle, maybe?

Not featured in this episode, but newsworthy: Saffron Burrows will be joining the cast in a yet-unspecified scope as Agent Victoria Hand, a character of more recent vintage from the comics whose alignment frequently shifted from good to “evil-adjacent” as she butted heads with Nick Fury (amusingly, Burrows co-starred with Samuel L. Jackson in as Deep Blue Sea. In the comics, Hand is a lesbian, and if that detail is preserved in transition it would make her the first openly-gay character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For what it’s worth, in 2006 The Independent named Burrows The 90th Most Powerful Gay Person in The UK (she had recently come out as bisexual.)

NEXT WEEK:

Ward and Fitz get sent off into field-duty that quickly turns deadly in “The Hub,” which will also introduce an even more super-secret “Level 8” echelon of S.H.I.E.L.D and feature the return of Maximiliano Hernandez as Agent Sitwell, who previous appeared in Thor and two of the One-Shots.

Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet. Recently, he wrote a book.

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