AGENTS OF SHIELD Review: “The Return”

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We need to have a talk about how unutterably good the entire fourth season of is. The real world right now is grinding me down past nub status into something like “pit in the ground,” so I keep expecting Agents of SHIELD to take a terrible turn at some point and just keep on grinding. There are two forces in me, one saying “this season is perfect. Like pitch perfect in every way. They wouldn’t screw that up right at the end.” And then the other part of me is like “yeah, but man they’ve screwed up before, big time.” After “The Return,” which is so perfect I don’t have adequate words for it, there’s only one more chance for that turn to come. But given the trajectory this episode sets us on, here’s hoping it’ll stick the landing.

It didn't glitch out and I have never felt so emotionally satisfied by a title card in my life and that includes the actual robot one from earlier.

It didn’t glitch out and I have never felt so emotionally satisfied by a title card in my life and that includes the actual robot one from earlier.

The plot structure here uses one of my favorite tricks that this show picked up from Agent Carter. They used it in the penultimate episode last season as well. Rather than having the entire episode lead up to a big, violent conflict, all the hanging plot threads that need resolution come to a head at about the midway point in a startlingly peaceful way. But, lo! That is not the actual climax of the episode! The climax comes at the apex of a problem that stems from that peaceable earlier solution. So, here you have precious Fitz talk Aida into helping save the team—something I’ve wanted since they all got stuck in the Framework. I halfway expected the negotiation speech to come from Coulson but Fitz is better in this case. The girls and ascended-Redshirts rescue May and Coulson while Fitz and Aida pick up Mack. That’s literally all the hanging threads resolved by the end of Act III. Everyone is together again. The climax that stems from that is Aida’s full-on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend jealous rage that Fitz is in love with Simmons and not her. Hold that thought, I’ll get to my girl Aida in a minute. I myself am in love with this narrative tactic. It would be easy to overuse it, but when it gets down to the biggest conflicts in the season it’s an excellent way to accelerate pacing, fulfill expectation adequately without being cliche, give the story a little twist, and leave room for emotional beats while still giving a super-charged climax. This is one of those things I run around grabbing people by the shoulders, shaking them, and screaming about. “Do you understand what just happened!? Do you!?” Then I generally collapse against them in a heap. It’s so good.

I can't even find space to talk about Talbot

I can’t even find space to talk about Talbot

On top of the faux-resolution twist, this episode also hits the traditional Agents of SHIELD structure perfectly by pitting Coulson and May against a whole mess of robot Russians and problem solving on Zephyr One. See, usually there’s problem-solving from one group and ass-kicking from the other but they both got in on the action (and the smarts) here. The high-octane situations were contrasted with Fitz and Aida where the stakes were emotional rather than physical. You can’t tell what’s actually going on in Fitz’s head for most of the episode, but even once you know he still loves his Simmons the tension remains in the scenes because they’re so intellectually complex. The contrast between our sweet Fitz and who he was in the Framework is far and away the most intense gap that any of them have to deal with and he’s having to try to reconcile that while he’s kidnapped by a former-robot stalker woman with the emotional maturity of a two-year-old. Remember how much I loved when no one died in the first season finale but they all had some core piece of their identity taken away? That’s an excellent way to keep all your characters, give them some conflict to move forward with, and slice up the hearts of your audience. The same applies here. All of these plots flow seamlessly together because, as with the best episodes, all of them are focused on the same goal: getting everyone out of this craziness safely.

So much drama! So much conflict! So much perfect beautiful structure! So much! Help!

So much drama! So much conflict! So much perfect beautiful structure! So much! Help!

Coulson and May trapped together fighting their way through killer robots is too delightful for words. I never manage to spew my customary fount of words about either of these two, but I’m so glad that our May is back! Coulson catching her up on over half a season’s worth of information is both excellent logistics (because they remembered that she wouldn’t know!) and provides a great little bit of tension as he tries to avoid telling her about his romantic escalation with her robot counterpart. I like these scenes with the two of them together, especially lately, because they get to be playful and goofy in addition to being raging badasses. It took me forever to even like May, let alone know her, so I enjoy that she’s becoming less of a functionary to insert action scenes into stuff and more of a present character with her own motivations and integrity. I mean, I of all people should not complain about closed-off characters, but it took a long time for us to know May. Coulson remains the backbone of this thing and is so omnipresent that I still barely manage to mention him. He is the foundation of this show, and I’m so glad to have his stalwart goodness back! It makes me feel unsafe without him.

I can't even find space to talk about Daisy

Ugh, I can’t find space to talk about Daisy either! Here, this is what I always get stuck in my head when I talk about her.

Another thing I would have broken out the knives for if they’d gotten it wrong was Elena. If she did not plug herself into the Framework and go in after Mack I was going to be seriously put out. It’s ill-advised but just the right combination of reckless and earnest to be meaningful instead of a bald attempt to manufacture conflict. Lord knows, they’re all gonna get stuck in there and things will be terrible, etc. etc. but that’s part of the fun. And we’ll get to see what the heck happened to Hydraland once everyone left it. (And maybe get one last farewell for Ward, Trip, and Radcliffe?) It’s also unclear what the Russian and Aida are up to but it seems to involve the Framework somehow as well. Cool. Just, like… leave my science babes out of it, k?

I literally cannot even

I literally cannot even

My girl Aida, though, you guys. If this review is shorter than 4,000 words it will be a miracle because I love her so much. This is like the actual version of the story Radcliffe trolled Fitz with in the first LMD episode. Aida really is flooded with all of these emotions that she can’t process. She’s completely overwhelmed and is essentially a toddler who isn’t getting her way. I adore that she wanted to feel the kind of love that Fitz and Simmons have and so her solution to this problem was to just replace Simmons with herself in an alternate reality. Sure, yup. A+ idea there, girlfriend. Because that’s definitely how to win a man’s heart. (I also vaguely feel like this show is throwing shade at me. Shut up, show. I’m at least six-years-old, emotionally.) She’s completely crazy but it’s in such an endearing, innocent way that you just feel so much for her. Meanwhile, King Fluff (aka Fitz) manages to wade through all his own mess to convince her that if she is a person she should be a good person and help people rather than causing pain. Oh, god, it’s such a delight. Even the fact that Coulson and May refuse to kill her because she’s human now is a robot trope done so right it makes my shriveled little stone heart glow with warm joy. Honestly, it’s good she’s screwing with Fitz because any lesser offense would have me wholeheartedly on her side; I think she’s that great. She not only experiences the joy of altruism and the pain of heartbreak within like hours of gaining emotions at all, but she then goes off her rocker completely and half-sexually, half-violently destroys a copy of the Russian. What a perfect weirdo.

I’d particularly like to point out that while Aida is the epitome of “the woman scorned,” it’s in no way misogynistic in this context. Aida isn’t controlling, manipulative, or violent because she’s a woman; it’s because she’s a former robot who is suddenly a baby human with a vast intellect and no idea how to deal with emotions. (Again, kinda throwin’ shade there, SHIELD. Don’t think I don’t notice.) I honestly can’t think of another story right now that’s ever given a robot actual human emotions. They develop them on their own, but they rarely cram themselves into fleshy bodies that will actually feel them in all their messy, biological glory. It honestly overwhelms me so much I keep crying. This whole story has been done so well since the beginning. It’s slightly ironic that Fitz’s side piece is literally a stereotype crazy female and yet the story is inherently feminist, while Simmons’ alternate romantic foray saw her character trashed in a garbage plot that stripped her of all agency. I mean… at least they learned their lesson?? I’m not complaining. Just noting.

My favorite creep

My favorite creep

One scene I do want to note especially is the entire conversation between Aida and Fitz in the containment room. That is on par with the Mack/Coulson/Fitz v. Gordon fight from season 2 for expectation reversals, but while that one played with action conventions this one has the emotional tonal acuity of a slide guitar. Effective scenes change emotional charge from positive to negative or vice versa. This scene slides up and down the register at least four times. It starts with Fitz in utter despair, teases that he’s in love with Aida, then slams you triumphantly with how much he still loves Simmons—all made sharper by the fact that Simmons is watching the two of them on surveillance and hanging on their every word. That happy moment smashes comically into Aida’s shock that Fitz doesn’t love her and the humor quickly turns into terror that she’s going to do him some irreversible harm. Then she gets really nuts and unleashes all her fun Inhuman powers! Seriously, watch that whole scene and trace it out. Count how many times it flips on you. That’s a thing of beauty.

Behold, friends, I am giving you a free caption-essay! "Pain that feels good," indeed! This is what seven episodes of separation, conflict, and tension make a reunion feel like. Please compare this carefully nurtured, artfully constructed, perfectly in-character moment to the various pieces of early season three which tried and failed for the same atmosphere. FitzSimmons function so well because they are a delicate balance of at least four different factors, not least of which is that they really don't work the way traditional television romances do. Warping Simmons into an additional love affair without any narrative or character justification reflected poorly on her and did not play authentically through any piece of that storyline. The kicker is: we were left with the mystery of Simmons' disappearance for a full six months in real time. That FitzSimmons reunion was meaningful the first time. Subsequent viewings are tainted by cheap melodrama. This time, we dealt with them being apart for three-ish months real time. But we also were taken through every step of not just what they were going through but how either of them could ever love someone else. That is: they built out that drama so authentically that you feel every beat like it's hammering a nail through your heart. That's excellent writing, and that's how these two work. So, kudos yet again to this season for hitting every single element of what makes this show so good with uncanny precision.

Behold, friends, I am giving you a free caption-essay! “Pain that feels good,” indeed! This is what seven episodes of separation, conflict, and tension make a reunion feel like. Please compare this carefully nurtured, artfully constructed, perfectly in-character moment to the various pieces of early season three which tried for the similar emotional resonance and failed miserably. FitzSimmons function so well because they are a delicate balance of at least four different factors, not least of which is that they really don’t work the way traditional television romances do. Warping Simmons into an additional love affair without any narrative or character justification reflected poorly on her and did not play authentically through any piece of that storyline. The kicker is: we were left with the mystery of Simmons’ disappearance for a full six months in real time. The FitzSimmons reunion we got from that separation was meaningful the first time. Subsequent viewings are tainted by cheap melodrama. This time, we dealt with them being apart for three-ish months real time. But we also were taken through every step of not just what they were going through but how either of them could ever love someone else—let alone get to such a place of murderous rage against the other. That is: they built out that drama so authentically that you feel every beat like it’s hammering a nail through your heart. That’s excellent writing, and that’s how these two work. So, kudos yet again to this season for hitting every single element of what makes this show so good with uncanny precision.

Oh, god, Fitz and Simmons both. This should be an essay in its own right. Being me, this is what I was most worried about but it’s also the place where there was most potential for catastrophic failure. First off, bless everything for Fitz fixating on the fact that he’s “just like Ward.” I don’t even have words for that one right now except “AAAAAH.” Maybe I can come back to that sometime in the future. I’ve spent the past few weeks defending Leopold Fitz against all comers trying to tell me that he had some kind of thing for Aida “or else why would he have helped create her?” This show made it very clear why. They explicitly stated at least twice that he helped build her specifically to protect Simmons. Even when he first met Aida he immediately covered his eyes and didn’t even take a peek at her nakedness, because he’s Fitz. Seriously, I’ve essayed this one before. Don’t come at me about Fitz; you’ll get cut. The man is utterly, wholeheartedly, unbreakably besotted with his Simmons. They could have gone the melodramatic cornball route and cloyed for drama by having him “in love” with Aida. Instead, he’s sick with himself at the thought of the things he’s done because he’s convinced it means he’ll lose Simmons forever. Additionally, Iain De Caestecker is just a monster. He’s kept the tick where he furiously rubs at his bum left hand when Fitz is anxious for three seasons. He does it so much here it just highlights all over again the lengths he will go to for his girl and how desperately sad the whole thing is.

Ice cold with that ICER, too

Ice cold with that ICER, too

For her part, Simmons has always functioned with the underlying terror that Fitz doesn’t love her. It’s one of the pieces that makes me believe there is some serious crap in her past. One of my favorite bits between them is back in season 3 when she has him watch the recording she made on her phone when she thought she was going to die. She can’t even bare her soul to him except through mediation, and when he finds her afterward the look on her face is utterly terrified he’ll reject her until he makes it clear that he reciprocates her feelings. That’s something that’s been consistent with her from the beginning and has always been a key part of her character. (Praise to former SHIELD writer Lauren LeFranc for threading Simmons through this minefield for so long. I miss you, ma’am.) Simmons can’t even deal with Fitz being besties with Mack in season two without obvious jealousy. Henstridge plays all of that pain and tension so heartbreakingly in this episode that it keeps its power through multiple viewings. (Please tell me you guys watch these on a loop too.) It’s not that she had to watch Fitz torture and kill people. Elena got it right when she said she was afraid Fitz loved someone else. And it’s not like it’s just some random hottie he was trapped with, but a beautiful, homemade, ideal robot girl who explicitly stole Simmons’ place in his life. That was Simmons’ conflict here. Not believing Fitz was a bad person but dreading that she had lost him. When it turns out that she hasn’t, she can’t help but smile in relief despite the pain they both feel. God, it hurts. But the good kind of hurt.

I legit keep forgetting this even happened

I legit keep forgetting this even happened

I’m so pleased with every single character beat landing so well that I keep forgetting frickin’ Ghost Rider came back out of that portal. It’s like the most random, out-of-place thing and yet it’s also perfectly in keeping with the season structure. Someday soon, I will produce a long florid essay about how phenomenal of an idea it was to break this season into three highly interconnected but distinct mini-series-esque plotlines. Suffice it to say that most television narratives fare better when they have limited space (see: Agent Carter season 1’s eight episodes v. season 2’s ten.) Additionally, the best storylines of this show are functionally distinct, even if they’re not as demarcated (SHIELD’s fall in 1×16-22, Coulson’s alien writing in 2×01-10, SHIELD within SHIELD in 2×14-20-ish, Daisy’s powers smattered across the back half of season 2 etc.) Straight up doing that on purpose is the best idea they’ve ever had, and I’m the one saying that—the person who loves this show to bits for at least 12 distinct reasons. At any rate, I almost thought they were just going to let Ghost Rider languish there as a one-off novelty until they felt like hauling him back in some time in the future. It appears that the future is next week. I’m not sure what kind of affect that will have on the plot but, honestly, I was so skeptical about Ghost Rider being in this show at all that I almost threw my phone into the street last summer when a friend told me. Yet this show handled it superbly. So, completely out of character, I will be optimistic just this once: it’ll be awesome.

Y’all know I have a long-standing vendetta against Jeffrey Bell who has the finale next week, and the man is definitely on notice. That said, this whole thing is lined up, the landing gear is down, and it’s all hovering right above the tarmac. Really all he has to do is land the various plots adequately without catching a wing on something and crashing catastrophically. That I think he can do. But we’ll see. I was mostly worried about him having charge of any type of emotional damage. Mack and Elena might be shaky in his hands. Plus, he could still just kill everyone for giggles or something but you know what? If he wants to trash everything, at least they will all be themselves when it happens. That’s what I was most worried about.

TB-TV-Grade-A+Season 4, Episode 21 (S04E21)
Agents of SHIELD airs Tuesdays at 10PM on ABC

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Dana is a digitization archivist by day and a masked pop culture avenger by night. She spreads the gospel of science fiction and fantasy wherever she goes.
Follow Dana on Twitter: @DanaLeighBrand
Keep up with all of Dana’s reviews here.

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