Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – Episode 3.08: “Many Heads, One Tale”

If only AoS had some kind of Twitter hashtag to explain its narrative structure…

[ABC]

Top marks to the creative team this week as they chuck new complications into seemingly resolved conflicts and weave a whole lotta disparate threads into one extensive tapestry. That #ItsAllConnected tag they kicked up way back in Season One has become the show’s mantra at this point, which does a lot to assign retroactive significance to events and stories that once felt disconnected from the central one. And considering we’re within shouting distance of the midseason finale, that’s a pretty good place to be.

I wish there was a website-friendly way to recap this episode involving side-by-side tables detailing individual stories that all eventually funneled down to a single plot line, because “Many Heads, One Tale” is structured exactly like the hydra its name suggests. We’re following three major “heads” this time around: Ward, FitzSimmons, and Operation Spotlight, although that last one splits into one big spy mission and one very personal confrontation, not to mention all the little mini-plots that form the infiltration itself.

You’re probably all sick of hearing me praise the show’s tight narrative structure by now, but plenty of other series have tried and gloriously failed to juggle big casts and multiple conflicts in a way that’s both coherent and meaningful to the overarching story, so it really is worth mentioning (plus I’ve totally given you something to include in your Recap Drinking Game, so bonus!).

We may as well start with the resident mustache-twirlers: Ward and Malick, who have a face-to-face meeting that ends in Malick sending in his goons for a very different Pool Fight than the one we had a couple weeks ago. In a move that’s straight outta the Bond Villain Playbook, Malick just wanders off without bothering to check if his guys actually got the job done, and unsurprisingly Ward takes them out and squeezes them for intel. One squeamish minion later and he’s got the location of the vault that houses HYDRA’s most powerful secret. Getting there involves shooting a dude, flirting with a flight attendant, and blowing the door off a plane.

'Cause if you're gonna mustache-twirl, you might as well grow yourself one big, fancy handlebar.

‘Cause if you’re gonna mustache-twirl, you might as well grow yourself one big, fancy handlebar.

Meanwhile, FitzSimmons have borrowed a bunch of books from Giles’s Occult Library and are hard at work trying to trace the shady history of the shady group that sent Will through the portal. Most of their actual research happens off-screen, because their on-screen interactions are too full of feelings to be full of anywork. Simmons is well aware of how weird this whole situation is, and the guilt coupled with her frustration at Fitz’s perpetual (and dishonest) niceness finally explodes.

They confront each other about all the unspoken anger and confusion between them. Simmons admits she probably does love Will, and Fitz admits he’s pissed, but not at Simmons. No, he’s pissed at those sadistic bastards on high. Those ‘ship-sinking, emotionally manipulative Powers That Be. Those… those… WRITERS.

Screenshot (260)

“I’m so mad I could just SHATTER that fourth wall!”

It ends in a pair of kisses that are so sad and angry I suspect it’d be hard for even the most devoted FitzSimmons fans to get excited about them. It’s getting downright painful watching these two, thanks in no small part to de Caesteker and Henstridge, who imbue their characters with a well-meaning, fumbling humanity that often makes them feel like good friends going through tough times. It’s frustrating to watch, but it’s so darn genuine that I can’t really fault the performances or writing other than from a pure “stop hurting my babies!” fan perspective.

And hey, the whole muddled mess does end up leading to a major breakthrough, so there’s that, at least. More on that when our #ItsAllConnected mantra comes roaring back at the end. For now, though, we’ve got spy stuff to do, as Coulson orders Operation Spotlight, a major mission that involves finding out once and for all whether the ATCU is worth trusting. While he distracts Rosalind with a grand tour of the SHIELD base, the rest of the team infiltrates ATCU’s HQ, using Andrew’s containment cell to trick poor Steve the IT Guy into thinking there’s been a major security breach.

lol-shield

The whole mission is a blast, mixing undercover intrigue with action with a splash of pathos, as well as some of the best comedy of the season. In terms of emotional beats, May makes Lincoln hilariously uncomfortable before at last finding the words to apologize for what Andrew did to his friends, and Lincoln thanks her for taking Andrew down, saving both his and countless other lives in the process. It’s a small, quiet moment that does a lot to humanize and integrate Lincoln into the team. A few more interactions like that and I just might come to care about this guy after all.

In terms of sheer spy caper fun, Daisy gets to flex her hacker muscles as Queen of the Locked Doors, Mack has a real good time playing a help desk rep (even dour Lincoln can’t help but smile), Bobbi gets to test out her new BATONERANGS (be still, my heart), and Hunter steals the show as a smug hacker-turned-FBI-agent with a raging hard-on for Mother England.

Someone put Jake Peralta-levels of thought into their disguise this week.

Someone put Jake Peralta-levels of thought into their disguise this week.

Their mission also leads to a major reveal: The ATCU is trying to turn more people into Inhumans rather than cure them, and none of the “contained” Inhumans (Andrew included) are anywhere to be found. This, in turn, circles us back to Coulson and Rosalind, who are trying very hard to be professional, if by “very hard” you mean “not very hard at all.” It’s about all they can do not to tear each other’s clothes off for the first half of the episode, and every line of their half-flirty, half-probing banter is laced with a combination of affection, sexual tension, and ingrained suspicion. Both want badly to trust the other, and neither is quite sure if they can or even how to go about doing it.

The suspicion ultimately wins out, thanks largely to Operation Spotlight’s intel. Coulson confronts Rosalind, trying to give her the chance to come clean with him and prove he can trust her, but despite their claims (and accusations) to the contrary, both are too emotionally involved for this to be a professional argument between organization leaders. Hurt, angry, and convinced they’ve been emotionally manipulated, neither hesitates to dig into the others’ insecurities as the fight quickly becomes personal.

Captain, the ship's sprung a leak! We're taking on water! All hands on deck! Bail, bail, bail!

Captain, the ship’s sprung a leak! We’re taking on water! All hands on deck! Bail, bail, bail!

While their relationship will almost certainly suffer for it (if it isn’t destroyed completely), the good news is that my hunch was correct, and Rosalind was on the level with Coulson. She was working with Malick, yes, but as a U.S. intelligence colleague, not as a HYDRA lackey. She’s as horrified by what SHIELD found in the Enhanced Specimen Control wing as Coulson is, and works to regain his trust by having her right-hand man Banks help Coulson’s team escape the ATCU facility.

Operation Spotlight’s members return to base unscathed, and Rosalind seems to have officially thrown in her lot with SHIELD. Coulson, too, has decided to trust her for real this time, allowing her to stick around to hear what FitzSimmons discovered: That our mysterious ancient sacrificial cult may not be so mysterious after all.

Congratulations! Your RAM ICON has evolved into HYDRA LOGO.

Congratulations! Your RAM ICON has evolved into HYDRA LOGO!

Elsewhere, Ward breaks into the vault to find Malick waiting for him. Impressed with his ruthlessness and ingenuity, Malick decides to bring Ward officially into the fold, revealing HYDRA’s extensive past as servants to an ancient Inhuman who’s “destined to rule the Earth.” Said Inhuman was exiled to a distant planet, but HYDRA’s got a mini-monolith of their own, and they intend to figure out how SHIELD brought Simmons back and do the same for this Inhuman fella.

It’s a pretty wild reveal, but AoS has built up the fantastical elements so gradually over the past three seasons that it feels like a natural extension of the world and its mythology rather than an out-of-nowhere plot twist. I didn’t have any trouble buying it, anyway. Mostly I was too busy laughing appreciatively at how they’d somehow managed to bring the “disconnected” stories about Will and Ward into the central season arc in one fell swoop. So well played on that one, Team SHIELD.

Oh, and one more thing: HYDRA is going to use Lash to help them do it, whether Andrew wants to or not. May is going to shoot Ward with soooo many bullets the next time she sees him.

This, That, and the Other

  • Thanks to Hydra’s old ram icon, a friend of mine started calling the cult “Wolfram & Hart,” and now I can’t unthink it. #ItsAllConnected?
  • Could not stop giggling at the MACKsimum Side-Eye delivered at Ros and Phil during that opening scene.
  • I’m sure this has come up before and I just missed it, but geez, Coulson, you seriously hung That Ax on your office wall? I’m no psychiatrist, but you might have some unresolved trauma you need to work out there.
  • They could write an entire episode that was nothing but Clark Gregg and Constance Zimmer standing in a room talking, and I would never get bored.
  • “Red Sox fan?” “Red coats, actually.”

Agents of SHIELD is taking next week off, so enjoy the break (and Thanksgiving if you celebrate it), and I’ll see you again for the midseason home stretch in December!

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