Agents S2EP3 9x4

This week’s episode, Making Friends and Influencing People, is pretty average… but with the improvements season 2 has made, that still would have put it amongst the best of season 1.

We’re still fine-tuning the formatting of these reviews for season 2 — this week you’ll find the recap up front and the Marvel arcana at the end. If you haven’t caught this week’s episode, spoilers are below… or you can catch up by watching on ABC’s website or Hulu.

And now, spoiler warning is in effect.

Making Friends & Influencing People features what might be the best use yet of the particularly-kitschy version of “surprise plot-swerve” Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. seems to regard as its preferred narrative trick: ex-agent Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) wakes up in her impossibly-cheery apartment, dolls up and bounds off to work at a Big City Office Building in a note-perfect recreation of the opening scene to any of a dozen “spunky young career-girl” series currently spread all over the airwaves — complete with on-the-go breakfast sammich-munching, jaunty radio-ready pop song soundtrack and Henstridge continuing to make “ah-dow-a-ble” look so easy she’s practically a Care Bear.

Jarring, to be sure, since this is the first time we’ve seen the real Simmons since last season, but at least it seems like she’s in a good place: “Huh. So, Simmons dropped out of S.H.I.E.L.D… and into a Zooey Deschanel vehicle?” And then, the reveal: The proprietors of the office/lab she’s now playacting Grownup Lisa Simpson in? HYDRA! Oh no! Has Simmons gone to the Dark Side?? Is she undercover?? If so, why didn’t they tell Fitz!? Whatever the case may be, it’s an absolutely terrific audience-shocker…

…or it would have been, had ABC’s promotions for the episode not been spoiling it at every opportunity since last week. Oh, well.

If you need a good metric for how palpably Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has improved in its new season, this third new episode would do nicely. Making Friends & Influencing People feels like a fairly average installment after the gangbusters scene-setting of the prior two — the sort of episode that won’t be recalled as particularly meaningful or memorable in retrospect beyond the longer-term plot elements it introduces/advances — but would’ve stacked up with the very best of the uneven season 1.

In many ways, it feels like an introduction to how single-mission episodes will be handled this season in terms of stakes, formula and character dynamics. The story: Simmons, undercover as a traitor gone to HYDRA (which is apparently poaching ex-agents of the officially-disbanded S.H.I.E.L.D. left and right) at the behest of Director Coulson, discovers that her employers are looking to bring ice-controlling young superhuman Donnie Gill (aka Blizzard, who got an origin-story in season 1 highlight Seeds) into the fold, so Team Coulson tries to get to him first. That’s really about it — a standard mission-episode that mostly exists to drop a few new details (see below) about where the characters stand and how HYDRA operates between the basic “capture Not-Iceman” beats.

Still, the details do end up making the difference: Skye’s training with May is less about combat skills and more about zen-like emotional suppression. Skye now wears a bracelet that monitors her heart-rate? Interesting. Agent Mack continues his (apparently) altruistic quest to form a bromance with Fitz? Endearing. Fitz discovers Ward’s holding-cell and immediately decides to torture him with oxygen-deprivation? Unexpected. HYDRA boss Daniel Whitehall (aka The Kraken) has a brainwashing-machine (with a very Steranko-esque hypnotism-pattern as its visual component)? Intriguing. Skye calls Hunter “Trainspotting,” he responds “I’m not Scottish!”? Funny! Not a classic, but a decent watch.

PARTING THOUGHTS:

  • Even allowing for the “It’s the Marvel Universe” curve, it will never not be curious that supposedly top-secret, ghost-like underground organizations like S.H.I.E.L.D. and HYDRA are so insistent on putting their insignia all over wherever they happen to be setting up shop. You have to wonder if there’s a bunch of guys on both teams whose entire job is to lug a bunch of stencils from site to site.
  • The ex-S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Whitehall gradually brainwashes over the course of the episode is identified as “Agent 33.” And Agent with that ID number exists in the comics as a one-time ally of Hercules (yes, both the Norse and Olympian pantheons of gods are “real” in the Marvel Universe), but it’s unknown if Maya Stojan is playing this specific character or another… though having Marvel Hercules turn up as a character would be a fun way to do a Thor-ish episode without having to borrow Chris Hemsworth.
  • Also: Whitehall calls his brainwashing “The Faustus Method.” HA! I was wondering when the good doctor’s presence would start being felt. (Oh man, if they could only get Brian Blessed for that role…)
  • The business about May apparently being concerned with Skye needing to keep her anger in check is interesting. No, I don’t think she’s The She-Hulk (already a popular internet theory) — it’s interesting because May is aware that the serum that saved her life is also the serum that’s making Coulson act funny about alien letters. This suggest that she has some idea of what uncontrolled anger will bring out in Skye and that it’s not pretty.
  • Ward teases his foreknowledge of Skye’s father again, this time to her face — setting off that pulse-monitor thing — which serves the purpose of keeping that plotline in play. But the more interesting element is the revelation that Ward’s family (whom he’d always described as abusive as part of his backstory) is considered “beloved” by the public according to Skye — a description he does not agree with. White Collar’s Tim DeKay has been cast as a Senator Ward for later in the season (Grant’s older brother, apparently) and while nothing else is known about the character, General Talbot talked about a wealthy senator in episode 2.

Bottom Line: Season 2 settles into its groove, but continues to feel strong.

Recommendation: Not a must-watch for non-fans, but fun and likely necessary for late story-payoffs.

[rating=3.0]

NEXT WEEK:
Coulson and May are set to the classic spy-movie “Undercover at the Fancy Dress Ball” routine in search of a famous painting with alien writing on the back in I Will Face My Enemy.

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Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.

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