Screenshot: ABC

When you’re on the hunt for gravitonium, it never hurts to bring a couple extra plastic boxes with you. You never know when you might have to recover a piece of the unstable material from a floating cargo ship high in the sky. Or, if you’re an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., you might try to act blasé about the whole scenario—at least until you actually set foot on the damn thing.

The streamlined nature of this episode was a relief after all the too-much-too-fast that’s been happening lately, a chance for everyone to take a breath and just carry out a straightforward mission, with minimal distractions. Even with the narrative split between the team’s attempt to get more gravitonium and Alex (a.k.a. the guy formerly known as Wolfgang Von Strucker) learning about the facility where he’s being held—with nary a moment of overlap between the two plots, save a brief mention that Hale now knows S.H.I.E.L.D. found the freighter with her robots guards—“Principia” felt like a solid and singular installment, almost a throwback to the days when the team still did one-off missions. The simple virtues of a strong plan, executed well, shouldn’t be minimized.

Kids can drive you crazy. Despite Deke never seeming all that much younger than FitzSimmons, the realization at the end of last episode that he is, in fact, their grandson has pushed the series into an entertaining but occasionally forced mode of making him the Dennis The Menace to Fitz’s exasperated Mr. Wilson. S.H.I.E.L.D. is really leaning into the decision to make him like the nagging child, demanding attention and trying to pull the grown-ups away from their responsibilities. Mostly it works, because Jeff Ward’s work as Deke is so guileless and unassuming that it prevents the viewer from getting as frustrated as Fitz. Still, it does feel a little like a regression for the character, who never felt like an overeager teenager before, yet now is entreating Fitz to just throw the ball around with him. It’s a minor shift, but a noticeable one.

What will be interesting is seeing what Deke does with the knowledge that his mother was Jemma and Leo’s daughter. He’s already referring to Fitz as “Grandpa” under his breath by the end of the hour, and Deke doesn’t seem like someone who would keep a secret without a good reason for doing so. Given his vulnerable and heartfelt response when the rift showed him a phony version of his mother just so it could then have a Kree impale her, the former Lighthouse resident is probably ready to have some people in his life to care about him, no matter the potential for heartbreak his faux-mother reminded him about. Even his realization about the gravitonium likely being in the sky appeared as much motivated by wanting the team to like him as saving the earth from destruction.

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Screenshot: ABC

Someone with a much more problematic family history is Alex, first seen here stabbing a therapist at the psychiatric facility where he’s being held and demanding thorazine. It seems that S.H.I.E.L.D.’s last encounter with the former Hydra scion, when they used Lincoln’s lightning powers to zap him out of a coma in order to press him for intel of finding Gideon Malick, had some unfortunate side effects. Getting zapped while in the memory enhancer has made him remember too much—everything, to be specific. All the pain of his life, he experiences as though it’s happening right now, from beatings as a child to his horrific “please kill me” pleadings while strapped to the T.A.H.I.T.I. machine. It creates real pathos and makes the character ten times more interesting than he was prior to this. (It doesn’t hurt that Spencer Treat Clark seems to be growing into his character a little more, as well.) And now that Ruby has talked him into sticking around awhile longer—whether through the promise of intimacy or simply the blunt honesty of wanting him to wait until they can take down her mother together—it will be interesting to see what “uses” Hale has for Alex.

On a similar note, the pain Yo-Yo is currently experiencing makes her scenes that much harder to watch. (Also, please stop forcing us to relive the moment when she gets her arms cut off during the “previously on...” montage, S.H.I.E.L.D. It’s not getting any easier.) Yes, Mack is being supportive and great, Coulson is already letting her and us know that a prosthetic solution is in the works, and by episode’s end, Mack seems to have gotten the necessary robot arms required to start working on her new limbs. It doesn’t mean her pain is any less gutting. When Jemma finds Elena sitting on the floor crying, it’s rough, because the knowledge of a potential deadly future is wounding her just as surely as her injuries. She’s trying to be strong, but even the most determined person has moments of weakness. Sure, she’s in good spirits by the end of “Principia,” but there’s no telling how much of that is a brave front.

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Thankfully, we’ve got Candyman and Mackhammer, the dynamic duo of good-natured silliness, to lighten the mood. Jake Busey, of all people, turns out to transitioning into the midpoint of his career with ease, making a solid foil to his old schoolmate and providing another chance for someone other than Deke to play the role of “outsider looking in and marveling” at S.H.I.E.L.D.’s activities. Essentially the new iteration of Project: Paperclip, Murray Jacobson helped former Hydra/Cybertek scientists relocate and disappear, but helps out the team in order to try and track down the gravitonium. There was a real moment of worry when Jacobson is first surrounded by the team, and delivers that groaningly hackneyed line about not answering to them; thank God it turned out to be a feint, and we got to finally spend some time with a character not immediately trying to undermine and/or kill our heroes. Plus, he has an appropriate reaction to seeing a floating ship and a robot fight: “Best day ever!”

It didn’t have the rapid-fire pacing or frenetic action of other episodes, but after multiple episodes that were overstuffed, a more stolid outing was just what was needed. Fitz and Simmons had a moment of post-wedding affection, Deke learned he had grandparents here, and though it was almost an afterthought, it was nice to see Daisy and May aren’t going to let Coulson go gentle into that good night. Hale may be assembling her own team of dangerous outlaws, but S.H.I.E.L.D. is recuperating and readying itself for action. Now let’s all give Elena Rodriguez a hand. Two, actually.

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Stray observations:

  • Pretty clear winner for line of the episode goes to Coulson, warning Mack about the gravitonium: “Mackhammer—can’t touch this.” Though a case could be made for Mack’s follow-up when he takes on the robots: “It’s hammer time.”
  • Lots of good lines directed at Mack tonight, like Yo-Yo after he makes it clear her heart and soul are all he cares about. “Okay, you can be annoying again.”
  • I was wondering how long it would take after gravitonium was re-introduced to mention previous show villain Ian Quinn. Now we know.
  • Deke: “Looks like it’s fresh air for all of us!” Coulson: “Have a seat, Deke.” Deke: “Ok.”
  • Ruby is one of those characters that only works as a teenager, because it would strain plausibility that anyone else would behave in such a ludicrous manner. I give her 70-30 odds of killing Hale before the end of the season.

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