Photo: Eric McCandless/ABC

Rare is the occasion when Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t have more than a few moving parts to juggle while driving the various plots and subplots forward. This balancing act is part of what has made the show’s past couple seasons so creatively rewarding, as the adrenaline-laced pacing and gimcrack storylines have been built from multiple realities, a team continuously split into various smaller arrangements, and an ongoing commitment to top-of-its-intelligence narratives. Unfortunately, that also means when everything isn’t arranged and edited into its strongest possible structure, the show can turn messy in a hurry. This is one of those times.

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With a somewhat ironic title, all things considered, “Best Laid Plans” never really achieves a steady momentum or sense of urgency, as the pacing is too fractured, see-sawing between different groups and locations without managing to overlay the necessary cohesion that would keep it all from feeling like a makeshift assemblage of scenes. Similar to last episode, only more so, the series is struggling to keep the plot from flying off the rails. All the time-loop issues are now actually detracting from the more straightforward issue of defeating Kasius. What should be an exciting and fun sci-fi conceit—how do they escape the self-fulfilling prophecy of breaking the planet?—instead tends to stop the story dead in its tracks, as everyone pauses whatever they’re doing to go another round of arguing about the best way to save earth. It’s not that the show has bitten off more than it can chew; I look forward to them being back in our own time, trying to avert looming disaster. But it’s a lot to tackle all at once, and by pushing everything simultaneously, it’s weakening all of them.

Perhaps most frustratingly, this episode makes the rookie mistake of teasing something it then completely fails to deliver on. If two characters are about to embark on a fight to the death, and suddenly gravity vanishes, launching them into the air, there’s only one reasonable assumption: “Alright! Zero-g space fight time!” Instead, we get exactly one exchange of blows before May flips the switch engaging the gravitonium, sending Daisy, Sinara, and our hopes for a visually adventurous battle crashing back to earth. Look, I’m as big a believer as any good critic in reviewing the show you have, not the show you wish they had made. But this is the very definition of driving to the fireworks factory, then as soon as it appears, saying, “Oh, we’re low on gas,” and turning around to go home.

Screenshot: ABC

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Most of what happens on board the Zephyr in this installment feels either muddied, harried, or like it’s killing time. Muddy, because even basic mechanics of the situation are often in conflict with one another. While everyone else is being practically thrown around in their strapped-in seats, Daisy and Sinara are having a standard-issue fight in which the ship’s momentum has almost no effect on their run-and-gun combat maneuvers—meanwhile, Deke seems almost frozen in place, unable to grasp at a case mere inches from his hand. This isn’t just pedantry; no one’s asking a show called Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. to be some model of cinéma verité. But internal logic is still required. If a character has shape-shifting superpowers, great, we accept that. If they’re standing still while someone right next to them gets thrown around like a BB in a tin can, that’s a problem.

The rest of the time aboard the ship is similarly marred by a sense of hurry-up-and-wait. There are numerous conversations about Deke’s responsibility, both explicit and not, in which the character gets pulled back and forth morally, but it happens during both times of quiet debate and frantic emergency, which subtracts from the tension. And the eventual gravity storm, while compelling, isn’t enough to deflect attention away from the fact that Sinara is allowed to stroll onboard without so much as a “Wait, who the hell are you?” Yes, the humans are rushing to safety, but it’s still a sour note.

Photo: Eric McCandless/ABC

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Much better are the little snippets of character development with May, Coulson, and Daisy. May has a hard time picturing herself as the mothering type, but Coulson and Daisy, in their respective ways, are there to assure her there’s more than enough potential within her to assume a nurturing role. (Daisy’s “mom face” comments are an episode highlight.) And Daisy is trying to figure out her own means of preventing the prophecy about the Destroyer Of Worlds from coming true. While Deke and Voss argue about killing, she’s convinced that leaving her powers clamped down might be the right move. “S.H.I.E.L.D. needs Quake,” Coulson tells her, but does it? Maybe she’s right: Maybe just spending some time as Daisy Johnson, agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., is what the world needs more.

Meanwhile, back on the Lighthouse, Mack and Yo-Yo’s plan to save everyone and destroy all of Kasius’ precious plans for Inhuman breeding has an entertaining ending, but is similarly plagued by uneven pacing and whip-fast changes of attitude and ideas that don’t always serve the character. Once more Mack, one of the most complicated and compelling characters, is reduced to scolding everyone else for being too eager to fight—right up until the script requires him to go back on all that and allow Flint a front-row seat to the attack on Kasius. His protectiveness about Flint feels especially strange after the “we’ll help you out” purpose of staying put in the first place. Yo-Yo’s hotheadedness is well-established, so despite only being given one note to play here, it makes sense. Whereas Mack not even wanting Flint to know how to shoot? His character ping-pongs emotions here in a way that’s too strained to feel real.

Screenshot: ABC

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The return of Tess, freshly post-dead, is a nice callback to Kree technology we’ve seen before, but her haunted look suggests this won’t just be the equivalent of a trip to Tahiti (it’s a magical place, you know). Eve Harlow does great work selling the poor woman’s haunted psyche—her glazed delivery of the line “Knives are cold” is genuinely moving and chilling in equal measure—so despite the on-the-nose script making her echo Kasius’ “I’m a god” shtick, the story works. It just doesn’t get enough time to really land, and within minutes we’re back to the race against time, and she’s just Tess again. It’s good to see the show continuing its mission of making every life count, but sometimes the middle of a threat to the continued existence of humanity isn’t the best place to drop such pathos.

Happily, by the end of the episode, Sinara has been dispatched, the Zephyr has docked at the Lighthouse, and Kasius is preparing for a final confrontation with our heroes. The bookending of “Best Laid Plans” with his reference to a “latest acquisition,” followed by his own “seer,” implies we’re about to meet someone (possibly a member of our own team?) who will throw a wrench into the plan to take down the Kree autocrat. The “Ragtag” arc is approaching its endpoint, and with only a couple episodes left, the question is less whether they’ll make it back to our own time than what they do once they arrive. There’s a ticking clock on the literal existence of the planet, and we’ve got some very messy time loops to try and shake off once this murderous Kree is dealt with.

Stray observations:

  • Kasius knew Yo-Yo by name. Remember the flashback (flash-forward technically, I know) where she tells May it’s time to fight? The odds seem good Kasius was up there waiting for her. Perhaps she’s the one he’s got behind that guarded door?
  • Even in the midst of chaos, Jemma remains the best. “This was a terrible idea, I’m sorry!”
  • Enoch’s calm ex post facto reappraisal of the situation was also good. “A sound plan, indeed.”
  • Just as earnest Jemma is always great, frustrated Fitz is a reliable source of humor. “Well, I’m not trying to electrocute myself.”
  • Even Coulson can’t be bothered to get into the details of how Flint is going to assemble the monolith and get them home.
  • If gravitonium is going to play a key role in the narrative back on earth as well, does that mean we’ll be getting a return of Dr. Franklin Hall? That would be one of the most longshot unexpected callbacks of all time, given we last saw him in only the third episode the show ever made.
  • I’ll let Deke have the last word, with his comment upon seeing Coulson’s injury: “Yikes, that is definitely gonna get infected.”

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