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Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. travels to the '50s—and tips its hat to Agent Carter

Illustration for article titled Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. travels to the '50s—and tips its hat to Agent Carter
Photo: Mitch Haaseth (ABC)

Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is starting to give off strong Legends Of Tomorrow vibes in its last season. (Which, coming from this site, is pretty high praise.) The rollicking nature of its time-travel adventures, fused with a slightly more absurdist sensibility than past seasons, is giving these episodes the feel of a victory lap, the show loosening up and enjoying its high-concept potential without the worry of delivering the goods to ensure another year. Whereas last season’s experiments with a more freewheeling comic tone stood awkwardly alongside the darkly personal nature of the Sarge storyline (not to mention some gruesome body horror), season seven is taking pains to hold potentially painful plots at arm’s length. (Where the hell are you, Fitz?) Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is here for a good time, and this episode’s title makes that clear.


“Alien Commies From The Future!” is a mostly solid installment of the time-hop mission, continuing the team’s efforts to thwart the Chronicoms from destroying S.H.I.E.L.D. in the past. After some additional exposition from Jemma reminding us all of the premise for the season (the Zephyr follows in the Chronicoms’ wake, and until the mission is complete, they’ll keep jumping through the past on its heels, playing catch-up in each time to stop the new attack from succeeding, etc.), we get to the real purpose of this episode: a fond tip of the hat to Agent Carter. Though we sadly don’t get a visit from Peggy herself (never enough Hayley Atwell on our screens), Enver Gjokaj’s Daniel Sousa shows up to finally combine the two series’ timelines. The Chronicom plan is simple—sacrifice one of their own to power up Helius, the ion fusion reactor prototype in Area 51, and detonate it, taking out whole swaths of S.H.I.E.L.D. branches in the process—as is our heroes’ plan to sneak in and stop them. Unfortunately for Jemma and her delightful Peggy Carter disguise, Daniel arrives to call her out and complicate everything.

Still, it doesn’t feel as though things would have played out much differently had Sousa not shown up. If anything, the team’s odds get better thanks to Daisy having to enter the facility under the guise of top CIA brass and convince Sousa to work with her to smoke out the other infiltrators (he thinks they’re after Hydra, not Chronicoms, but it’s a meaningless distinction for the sake of Daisy’s mission). The whole endeavor is mostly an opportunity to have some fun with the various tactics Coulson and company use to try and suss out who is secretly a Chronicom, by triggering emotional responses in people. There’s a lot of good ones (Coulson repeating “moist” over and over is a personal favorite), but the best is probably when he uses the replicant test from Blade Runner, and sends a poor elderly woman into a crying fit as a result. (“Why would I do that?” she blubbers, about his story in which she won’t help a turtle stuck on its back.) Taken as a whole, the Area 51 sequence is fleet and funny, and some solid fight choreography helps maintain momentum during the climactic struggle to shut down Helius.

Less successful is the B-plot set aboard the Zephyr, in which Mac, Deke, and the others attempt to extract vital information from their Department Of Defense hostage, only to learn he’s the era’s architect of interrogation training. Some of this is just the result of bad timing: It feels especially tone-deaf in the current moment to be playing this powerful military white guy’s racism for laughs, but honestly, this would’ve been wobbly even without current events being what they are. The series is probably wise to keep tap-dancing around the virulent racism and misogyny of these past eras—dealing with thorny social issues has never been Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s strong suit—but the only thing using it as a minor plot point does is remind the viewer of what lengths they’re going to in order to dodge the subject the rest of the time. And really, the concept isn’t that funny to begin with; the cast does what they can, but it’s uninspired. (Similarly, Coulson needing to be reminded that the 1950s weren’t exactly the best of times was a clumsy way to introduce segregated bathrooms, and makes the character—even the LMD version—look like kind of an asshole.)

Conversely, this was a great opportunity to play around with the history of S.H.I.E.L.D. and technology of the time. The chief scientist bragging about their EMP with a destructive range of almost 30 feet was a nice bit, as was his proud display of unwieldy wristwatch communicators. And the period-appropriate aesthetics, from the wonderful title card to the sci-fi trappings in which the production team dressed the base, were all excellent. I mentioned the possibilities in the season premiere for the show to finally cast off its drab-and-dour reputation for uninspired sets, and while a tight budget is probably responsible for some of these locations (yes, more anonymous grey hallways, hooray), the clothing and details go a long way toward livening up the look of the series.

Our various character arcs are still trickling out at a crawl. May isn’t just emotionally closed off; she’s so tightly bottled up that it’s causing panic attacks mid-mission, implying that subplot will come to a head sooner rather than later. And Yo-Yo still can’t manifest her powers, for whatever reason. Losing her abilities is potent drama, but a superhero show without any superpowers is sort of a drag. And while I’m still not convinced by Daisy’s explanation for her rash decision last week to order Deke to shoot Malick (the show doesn’t seem to be, either, given how weakly the conversation between her and Deke ends), there’s promising friction in the idea that Quake is chafing a bit under the strictures of Mac’s leadership. The cliffhanger suggests a worrying development for LMD Coulson—all those synapses firing in his electronic head after being deactivated by the EMP—but it feels like the show is waiting to pull the pin on its most dramatic narrative, the backstory of FitzSimmons prior to the season’s beginning. It’s being so resolutely ignored, save for the odd elliptical comment, that I can’t help but suspect it’s going to be big when it arrives. Which better be soon.


Stray observations

  • The opening scene, of ’50s high-school kids out for a romantic evening under the pretext of looking for UFOs, was a great way to introduce this particular time hop.
  • Deke’s reaction after May doesn’t even blink at the news they’re now in 1955 trying to stop Chronicoms in Area 51: “You need a second to process any of that, or…?”
  • There was a nice flicker of recognition in Simmons’ face when she points out that all these science nerds sort of act like Chronicoms already.
  • Was a bummer not to get Hayley Atwell in this episode, but if we’re getting someone else, Enver Gjokaj is welcome any time.
  • There’s something horrifically sad in the story of what really went on with Jemma and Fitz (and Enoch) before they picked up the team, isn’t there? Of course there is, this is Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.
  • [Said a la Thor at the end of Avengers: Infinity War]: “Bring me Fitz!”

Alex McLevy is a writer and editor at The A.V. Club, and would kindly appreciate additional videos of robots failing to accomplish basic tasks.