Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – Season 7 Episode 5
“A Trout in the Milk”
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. heads to the 1970s to stop the Chronicoms and HYDRA from changing history into something significantly worse than came before.
I really like that this season is playing fast and loose with whether the timeline can be changed or if the characters are simply playing their part in a predestination paradox. The show played with this before and didn’t fully explain how the timeline was able to be changed so this season gives them a second chance to really have fun with that idea. This episode has the Chronicoms working with HYDRA to move up the timetable of Project Insight -as depicted in Captain America: The Winter Soldier by a few decades so that key figures in the Marvel Cinematic Universe can be removed before they have the chance to do the things they become known for. Bruce Banner and Nick Fury are among those referenced though instead of an algorithm determining their potential worth to history, knowledge of the future is what helps populate the list.
Not only that but Freddie Malick is still alive despite history recording his death some years before so the timeline appears to be changing significantly, especially where his sons are concerned. Freddie Malick’s funeral was mentioned back in a season 3 episode and that led to Gideon Malick betraying his brother Nathaniel as a sacrifice to be sent to Maveth so the timeline has unquestionably changed in that respect though it’s unclear what overall impact that will have. Will Gideon still betray his brother now that we’re later in the timeline than that event? This clear alteration creates very real stakes as failure feels a distinct possibility. This tension is carried throughout the episode and continually propels the plot forward.
The uncertainty associated with time travel and whether the timeline can actually be altered in a meaningful way becomes a source of tension in different ways. For a time it seems that Coulson and May flooding the facility before the launch of the 70s era Insight satellite will put the timeline back on track with relatively minimal disruption but at the last second there is a major complication revealed when Mack learns that his parents are in the facility and will drown if the explosives are set off. Mack has to weigh up the survival of his parents as well as his own existence against all the lives that will be ended if he lets the satellite be launched. It’s an impossible decision and Henry Simmons does an excellent job conveying his hesitation as the moment of truth rapidly approaches. Ultimately he decides that he can’t give an order that will end the lives of his parents but compromises by using the Zephyr to shoot the satellite out of the sky. The choice he makes is an impossible one and the moment before making his final decision is nail biting. It does seem somewhat contrived that he is able to immediately find a way to stop the satellite before it can reach orbit though there is the consequence of giving away their position. What that means will have to wait until the next episode but hopefully it will feel meaningful otherwise the problem is one that could easily have been solved with minimal fuss.
A younger Gideon Malick (Cameron Palatas) appears in the episode though it’s Nathaniel (Thomas E. Sullivan) that seems to have the most potential to be a problem for the team. Nathaniel witnesses Daisy using her powers so seeks out Dr. Whitehall to see if anything can be done to transfer those abilities over to him. It will most likely be possible which would mean another change in the timeline even if it is one that can be quickly fixed by stopping him in some way. Nathaniel may be killed following gaining powers instead of being sent to Maveth which would end up changing Gideon as he wouldn’t have to deal with the guilt associated with betraying his own brother. I have no issues with the team returning to an altered version of the present day created by the changes to the timeline they were involved with on their journey through history as the memories and experiences they have remain valid with some details about the world they know having changed. Since this show no longer appears to be entirely set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that the films depict then anything is up for grabs really. The season may end by establishing that they are in an alternate timeline that runs parallel to the Marvel Cinematic Universe without actually being a direct part of it though that is rampant speculation on my part.
Despite the urgency of the situation at hand there is still time for meaningful characterisation. Coulson and Sousa are fast friends with a fun dynamic that never ceases to be entertaining. Sousa’s general difficulties adjusting to being 20 years in the future from his native time are used really well. His aversion to the 1970s fashion and comments he makes about the advancements in technology are both expected and welcomed but what is more interesting is the observations he makes about how things change over the years. His observation is that things get worse the later in time you go which is a limited but not entirely incorrect perspective considering the way the real world currently is. Sousa’s extreme conclusions based on limited experience make a lot of sense as it suggests that he’s completely overwhelmed by how much his life has changed in such a short period of time. From his point of view he was just in the 1950s and now has to get used to the fact that he’s believed to be dead, he’s now in the 1970s and his current companions are from the distant future. It’s a lot to take in as well as seeing how deeply corrupted by HYDRA S.H.I.E.L.D. is later in the timeline. His conclusion about things worsening is perfectly valid from that point of view. There’s also a brief moment of sadness as the realisation of how much he has missed begins to dawn on him. Daisy shows him a smartphone which would be unfathomable technology for a man from the 1950s which prompts him to consider how much he’s missing by taking a shortcut through time rather than experiencing the flow of it in a normal way. It’ll be interesting to see how he continues to be affected by what he learns the further in the future he goes.
Sousa also raises valid concerns about the method of time travel. He learns that their jumps through time are dictated by an outside source they have no control over and he can’t believe that they’re not more concerned about this. The team have basically taken all of this in their stride and are focused on the mission they stumble into following a jump but aren’t spending a lot of time agonising over the particulars of their time travel method. Sousa sees this as deeply concerning and makes sure his new companions know it. He’s especially upset by this because he has been removed from his life and thrust into a situation that the team have no control over though Deke points out that they’ve all been plucked from their normal lives which calms the situation some. Sousa doesn’t know it but Deke is the biggest authority on being plucked from life and taken on an out of control adventure with him being from a timeline that probably no longer exists and still being alive somehow. Sousa’s reaction makes for an interesting contrast to how the rest of the characters see the situation and it highlights how they have all become accustomed to increasingly weird situations. Perhaps Sousa will get there eventually though based on this it will take a while.
May’s empathic ability proves very useful when it comes to infiltration but it’s not something she’s comfortable with. Her inability to feel her own feelings would be concerning if she could actually feel the concern. The concept of articulating being concerned about an inability to feel things without actually being able to feel that discomfort is an interesting one. May will be aware on a rational level that not having her own emotions isn’t a good thing but instead of feeling that concern she feels nothing. This is a situation where knowledge overpowers emotion. For now she has to deal with the fact that she will be flooded with whatever emotion is being experienced by whoever she might come into contact with. It can be useful on missions but it can also be a problem as shown by her accidental collision with someone on the street.
It’s good to see May and Coulson work together again and it’s interesting to see both remark on the state of their relationship as it was when the original Coulson was still alive. The Coulson LMD has the memories of the original and a very similar personality but the reality is that it’s not the real Coulson and any emotion being displayed is a simulation of emotion which means that May gets nothing from him when touching him. This episode reminds us of that fact and shows how that changes their dynamic which is now all business rather than being the deep loving connection it once was. In a way it ties into Sousa’s observation that things get worse the further forward in time you go. It’s certainly true for Coulson and May at this point.
Mack and Elena’s mission/date was a really nice moment for both of them. There hasn’t been a lot of time to focus on their relationship so far this season so the fact that Mack made time for them both to get out and spend time together albeit on the pretence of a mission was a really interesting choice. Elena has been feeling out of sorts lately because of her emotional state and how that affects her powers so Mack wanted to take the time to remind her of her value. He tells her that her powers don’t define who she is and she would be equally valuable without them. She asks him why he calls her Yo-Yo if that’s the case and he tells her with complete sincerity that it’s because she always bounces back. Henry Simmons delivers this with complete earnestness which helps make it such a touching moment that is meaningful for both characters.
Deke is used really well in relation to Simmons and brings up Fitz for pretty much the first time since the season began. He asks where he is and Simmons is intentionally vague about it because for some reason she can’t know the answer to that question otherwise it invites danger. Deke reminding her that she and Fitz are his grandparents was a nice touch and as moments go it was wonderfully understated. When used properly Deke can be a really good addition to a scene and this one was a great example of that.
The mystery surrounding Simmons and the absence of Fitz is long past the point of being tedious. There have been no answers since the beginning of the season and the closest thing to forward movement we’ve had is the reveal of some sort of implant in Simmons’ neck as well as the vague conversation she has with Enoch about forgetting. Information is being deliberately withheld for unknown reasons which rarely amounts to anything engaging on shows like this. The answers are unlikely to be worth the wait and having the most engaging pairing on the show separated for so long is a decision that remains difficult to justify.
Another problematic aspect of the episode was how casually Deke killed Freddy Malick and then justifying it by saying that he was supposed to be dead anyway. This comes after Deke feeling unsettled about the fact he almost killed him before. The episode does have him comment that he probably should have killed him back then considering all the trouble he ended up causing but it’s not enough to suddenly have him be ok with murdering someone in that way. There may yet be consequences to come of this but in the moment it didn’t work and the episode moved away from it too quickly.
The 1970 setting was used really well with the on brand opening credits complete with dramatic intros for the core cast, the fashion of the era being lovingly recreated and using the time period to bring in Patrick Warburton’s Rick Stoner who was prominent enough without really playing a significant role in the plot. Sometimes it’s enough to just set the tone of the era with an era appropriate character. His interactions with May were a lot of fun and the effectiveness of his presence was undeniable. Another great touch was the nod to the retro S.H.I.E.L.D. comic book uniforms worn by Coulson and May. They looked just the right amount of ridiculous and made sense in context. It was somewhat disappointing to have the bland colourless hallways of the Lighthouse used so prominently but other than that it was a very good looking episode that had plenty of fun with its setting.
A good episode that plays around with the time travel concept in interesting ways, incorporates nods to the history of the show as well as the wider universe well and finds time for some really strong character moments. The show playing fast and loose with the time travel rules is something I’ve been fully on board with for the most part. This episode changes the flow of the narrative by confirming that some things have changed such as Freddie Malick living longer and Nathaniel Malick not yet being sacrificed by Gideon. This opens things up to changes while also raising the stakes as failure is a very real possibility. Mack being torn over saving his parents and therefore himself or stopping the Insight launch made for a nail biting moment that will likely have consequences even though the Satellite was still stopped. How this will impact the timeline overall is still unclear but the frantic efforts to fix it as much as possible makes for an increasingly tense episode. Insight as a threat decades earlier than it was supposed to be allows for some organic referencing that works as fan service while also fitting the story. Sousa adjusting to his new circumstances makes for some engaging material such as his observation that things get worse the further forward in time you go which is a limited yet not entirely invalid point. His reaction to learning that the team have no control over their time jumps is really well done and highlights how comfortable the core characters have become with increasingly weird situations. Sousa is right to be concerned based on his experiences and this plays into the episode well. There are also some amusing moments as he is faced with unfathomable technology for someone from his time.
May’s empathic ability proves useful during missions but has its own problems as she is rationally aware that her inability to feel her own feelings isn’t a good thing but can’t actually experience the discomfort that should come with it. She has to make do with emotions that are forced on her by other people which is far less than idea. Sousa’s statement about things getting worse the further forward in time you go certainly rings true for the Coulson and May dynamic as him being an LMD means that he only simulates emotion meaning that May can’t feel anything from him therefore nullifying the connection they used to have which makes their interactions all business rather than having the deep loving connection they once enjoyed. Mack and Elena’s mission/date was really nice and Henry Simmons earnest delivery of the real reason he calls her Yo-Yo complimented the sentiment perfectly. Taking the time to address their relationship was a really good and necessary call. Deke was used well in relation to Simmons in a really understated interaction that reminded us of his desire to go onto exist. The Fitz/Simmons mystery remains incredibly tedious and drawn out for reasons that will likely not be properly justified. Deke’s murder of Freddy Malick comes out of nowhere despite a flimsy line that seems to justify his decision. It feels at odds with his character and what he has been through this season so far. The setting was used really well outside of the bland looking Lighthouse interior. The classic S.H.I.E.L.D. uniforms were the right amount of ridiculous, the 70s style opening credits were great, it was fun to Rick Stoner in the episode and in general the era was recreated well.
- raising the stakes by having the timeline changed
- the nail biting moment surrounding the choice Mack was faced with
- May’s empathic ability continuing to be fascinating on many different levels
- Sousa’s observations on how things play out over the years
- using Sousa to highlight how comfortable the team have become with weirdness
- Mack and Elena’s mission/date
- good use of the 70s setting
- the continually tedious mystery surrounding Fitz, Simmons and Enoch
- Deke’s unjustified murder of Freddy Malick
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