Sometimes, execution is everything. In athletic competition, in science, in any number of aspects of life, it’s all about timing, strategy, and pulling off planned actions in exactly the manner intended. “Spacetime,” tonight’s installment of S.H.I.E.L.D., makes for an excellent example of the value of executing a plan properly, and not just because the narrative is explicitly about planning the ideal action. No, it’s also because sometimes you can plan and prepare and lay the groundwork for everything you want to do, and it still doesn’t work. You can think you see everything that’s going to happen, until suddenly, you realize there’s a one-way mirror, and it changes everything. This episode was executed very well, making sure every image paid off and every beat landed, and yet it didn’t quite live up to its potential.
The idea of challenging predestination—of seeing the future and doing everything you can to resist it—is a compelling one, because it adds a meta-textual level to the traditional concept of Greek tragedy. In stories like Oedipus Rex, the notion that fate cannot be changed is what lends gravitas and pathos to the events unfolding. The best time-travel movies have always played around with this question, as Primer, 12 Monkeys, and Looper follow people who know what’s going to happen, do their best to change it, and end up in exactly the place they didn’t want to be. (Looking at my examples, perhaps Bruce Willis was fated to be in excellent sci-fi films.) Charles Hinton, the cursed Inhuman seer of tonight’s episode, was doomed to deliver only news of death. But, as is so often the case with these narratives, it was that same curse that finally allowed him to do some good—he saved Daisy, at the cost of his life.
The buildup to tonight’s big showdown was a hell of a lot of fun. From the moment Charles first touches the doomed restaurant owner, the audience knew it was only a matter of time before he passed on a vision to a member of the team, and the entertainment lay in watching the inevitability of things playing out exactly as Daisy saw them. The meta-textual level was nicely conveyed by Fitz during his paper demonstration of how we’re unable to change the future. It’s a tricky concept to wrap your head around, but the two-dimension/three-dimension example was a simple enough point of reference. Even so, Coulson did everything right, if your plan is to try and spit in the face of Fitz’s scientific certainty. He orders everyone to make Daisy’s glimpse of the future impossible: Daisy stays at HQ, Coulson won’t pick up a gun, and FitzSimmons just need to stay out of the damn snow. And one by one, all the planning is for naught.
The most perfunctory of these guarantees of fate was the meeting between May and Andrew. He turns himself in before his final transformation, thereby pulling May off the plan (though it wasn’t exactly clear why she couldn’t still go on the mission: Who said Andrew was transforming that night for sure?) and allowing them to have one more conversation, this time with enough allegorical weight to sink a hot-air balloon. Most of this exchange felt unnecessary, meaning May was right, but it was still a genuine and touching beat to have Andrew insist he wouldn’t change a moment of their lives together, because they were the best times he’d ever had. (Take that, changing the past.) Of course, it would’ve landed a little harder had we not just established that Andrew would change the past in a heartbeat to avoid becoming Lash, but you can’t have everything.
Still, don’t tell that to Gideon Malick. Hydra’s human boss—already being usurped by its Inhuman boss, as the stinger with Brett Dalton and Mark Dacascos proved—spent this episode as the flip side of the coin to the S.H.I.E.L.D. team, doing his best to bring about an outcome his family and organization have spent generations trying to ensure. Fate was a bit more ironic in its handling of Malick than the others, as it delivered something he’d longed for, only to then pair it with a worrying vision. Hive was very clear about what he would give to Malick (“True power”), and the exoskeleton demonstrated at least the beginning of that promise. How unfortunate, then, that whatever Malick was shown in Charles’ vision shook him up so badly. They’re keeping it from us, but here’s my best guess: Malick had a vision of Hive’s death. Why else would he immediately call Mr. Giyera and urge him to remember to be loyal to Malick, and not their Inhuman savior? Sure, he could’ve seen his own death, but that doesn’t have quite the pop of seeing the future demise of the creature around which he’s built his entire life.
So let’s talk about execution, the topic with which I started this review. Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. still gets wobbly sometimes when trying to execute complicated action sequences, and tonight was one of those uneven situations. The practice rounds were great: Watching May be guided through the process of taking down a room of Hydra goons in time to save Charles made for a neat tactic, even if it was never really clear just how thorough Daisy’s vision was until that moment. But once the team realized Ward was there, and everyone raced to the rescue, it just lacked sufficiently frenetic pacing. Daisy’s version of the room fight was strong, but after that, the camera kept cutting between the various players so much, it didn’t allow for much investment in any one arena. Director Kevin Tancharoen is one of the show’s best assets, but for whatever reason, whenever the action sequences paused, the events that happened in between all the kicking and punching lacked verve. Perhaps the show telegraphed all these beats a little too heavily in advance. Plus, to some extent, a letdown was inevitable (there’s that word again!): The very nature of Hive meant Coulson’s order to avoid him guaranteed the experiential equivalent of driving past the fireworks factory.
Even so, there was a lot more this episode did right than wrong. Hive’s new, Matrix-y look was a welcome transformation, and seeing him strip the flesh from the Transia executives was a good reminder of his power. And after Daisy’s ill-considered threats to humans last week, it was important to show she can still play well with others. Similarly, Lincoln’s new non-annoying behavior suits him well. His discussion with Coulson about the potential need for these various Inhuman powers smartly paralleled Andrew’s warning to May about Lash—that he’s “fighting for a cause we don’t understand yet.” The Inhuman population has a role to play in the coming weeks that is unknown to any of them, and as Daisy learns in the final moments, it’s going to take the team well outside their comfort zone. All the way to space, in fact—as was teased in the first moments of the season’s back half—and the outcome, just like Charles’, isn’t looking good.
- “I never saw the original Terminator.” “You’re off the team.” Lincoln’s shown more personality in the past two episodes than the entire first half of this season.
- I find it very telling that Hive found it worthwhile to hold on to Coulson’s hand. It seems a certain alien entity isn’t quite as above human concerns as it may think.
- Did anyone else share a knowing moment of sympathy when Coulson accidentally called Daisy “Skye”? It’s comforting knowing that even the show admits it’s a tough adjustment to make. I’d rather not admit the number of times I’ve had to delete “Skye” after typing it during these reviews.
- Melinda May Doesn’t Have Time For Your Nonsense: “That’s a dumb question.”
- Not really looking forward to the episode where we have to spend time watching Daisy tell a little girl all about how she’s going to be protecting her from now on, because she’s promised the girl’s father she would, right after he was crushed by a man with a robotic exoskeleton.
- “Maybe some things are inevitable.” Are you trying to make me cry, Simmons? Good god.