Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – Season 7 Episode 3
“Alien Commies from the Future”
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. heads to 1955 and infiltrates Area 51 to prevent the Chronicoms from achieving their goals.
Time travel storytelling is by its very nature difficult because you’re dealing with a concept that has been a big part of fiction for a long time meaning that people will have their preconceived notions of how it should work. This means that any given property attempting to tell time travel stories needs to be clear about the rules as they are in the universe that property inhabits and work them into the ongoing narrative in an organic way so that the audience doesn’t feel that too much time is being spent explaining things rather than actually taking action.
There are no issues with the pace of storytelling so far this season, at least in terms of the main plot. Framing the time travel aspect of it as something the characters are learning about as they go is a great idea as it means the audience and the characters are on the same page. Taking some time at the beginning of the episode to explain that the team will always be following the Chronicoms who dictate when in time they will travel to. This creates a few problems as they are always reacting to a situation rather than being proactive in trying to stop them. This is only their second jump but there is already a pattern of being thrown blindly into a random time period and having to figure out where they are, when they are and what the Chronicoms are up to before they get the chance to put their plan in motion. It’s a great way of creating tension very quickly as there’s an urgency to the mystery associated with where the latest jump has taken them. They do figure things out a little too quickly in this episode for my liking but at least the plot moves at a good pace and things move on from the Zephyr to more interesting locales with no real lag. I suspect there will be an episode where the team fail because they are unable to figure things out quickly enough which will be welcomed but for now having everyone use their skills to achieve success efficiently works.
The 1950s is a fun era to play around in because it’s visually very memorable. Everything from the clothes to the prop design is spot on and the reveal that Area 51 is an old S.H.I.E.L.D. base was perfect. Seeing all the retro tech such as a bulky radio worn on the wrist and an E.M.P. device of nearly 30 feet is expected in a show like this but no less amusing. I’ve always enjoyed the idea that technology we see as laughable by today’s standards was once considered amazing and I particularly like it when that’s applied to science fiction gadgets. It’s perfectly reasonable that S.H.I.E.L.D. would have had access to technology in the 1950s that is much more advanced than what was readily available at the time just as they do in the present day so scenes where those are showcased can’t help but be really charming especially when some retro flair is applied to their design.
After being somewhat sidelined by being overly mysterious in the first two episodes of the season, Simmons is used much better in this episode because she feels like part of the team once again. The mystery around what happened to get them into the time travelling situation in the first place still lingers and remains an unnecessarily unanswered question but seeing her act more like herself rather than the only one cursed with extensive knowledge of the situation is a vast improvement. Having her pose as Peggy Carter was an inspired choice and the steps taken to make Elizabeth Henstridge passably resemble Hayley Atwell in that role were really impressive. There’s no better way to infiltrate a S.H.I.E.L.D. facility in that era than successfully convince those stationed there that you’re Peggy Carter.
Their investigation is brilliantly done. Simmons’ observation about the largely socially awkward white male collection of scientists being hard to distinguish from Chronicoms was hilarious as was Coulson pointing out how stereotypical that observation was while the evidence to back up her point was standing right in front of them. Like it or not, stereotypes do exist for a reason and at some point in your life you are likely to encounter the physical embodiment of a particular stereotype that illustrates why it exists.
Fortunately, identifying that someone isn’t a Chronicom is fairly easy as all that needs to be done is provoking an emotion so they set out to be as irritating as possible by asking quickfire questions, insulting John Wayne and -my personal favourite- repeating the word “moist”. It was a great scene that let the actors have a lot of fun with the material while keeping attention on the situation at hand.
The major snag to Simmons and Coulson’s efforts is the arrival of Daniel Sousa (Enver Gjokaj), His appearance creates a problem for the deception as he knows Peggy very well so would never be fooled by anyone impersonating her. As someone who feels that the cancellation of Marvel’s Agent Carter was an injustice it was great to see the show acknowledged in such a way. It’s a shame the real Peggy Carter wasn’t around but I suppose we can’t have everything and I hold out hope for an appearance later in the season somehow. The brief hint that Sousa’s relationship with Peggy might be on something of a rough patch at this point in history was well deployed and it was just great to see him back in some capacity.
As good as it was to see Sousa, his appearance felt oddly unnecessary. He didn’t seem instrumental to the overall plot and I don’t get the sense that things would have played out any differently had he not been there. Having him be the one to blow Simmons and Coulson’s cover was nicely handled especially with the lateral approach he takes to dealing with it but that could still have played out in a similar way without him. Daisy interacting with hm when she posed as a C.I.A. operative and referenced some of the events of the TV show he was on was a nice touch and their interactions were a lot of fun to watch but none of it felt essential which is a shame considering the pedigree of the available guest actor. It’s a lot of fun to see Coulson fanboy over Sousa as one of his S.H.I.E.L.D. heroes and I wouldn’t ever suggest that Sousa hadn’t appeared but if he had been a more central figure then it may have felt like more of an event rather than a “nice to have”. There is still plenty of opportunity for meaningful interaction now that he has his hands on Coulson and will most likely try to puzzle out the truth about him so that’s definitely something to look forward to.
The episode takes some time to address the less than comfortable aspects of the time period they’re operating in. Racism and sexism were addressed in the first two episodes so it looks as if this season will make a point of not shying away from social issues native to the time periods they visit. Coulson’s oversation about the 1950s as a golden era of innovation is a particularly interesting one because he’s looking at that from the perspective of being a white male. This observation exists in tandem with the segregated bathrooms and the less than flattering looks Mack was being given by a waitress in a diner. Showcasing the two sides in this way highlights that it can be easy to overlook the flaws in history when you have a fascination with a particular time period. It’s not something Coulson is conscious of because the fact that he was born white means that there’s a strong possibility he would never have been fully educated in what the world was really like at that time. Now he’s in a position to observe it first hand which certainly removes some of the nostalgic shine from the era. None of this commentary is in any way subtle but it’s not trying to be and sometimes overtly addressing something as ridiculous as race segregation is exactly what is needed. It’s very timely as well which means that Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is part of the ongoing conversation and addressing the situation in its own way.
Perhaps most impressive is that it’s part of the story rather than being an aside that detracts from it. The looks directed at Mack happen when he’s discussing something relevant to the plot, the segregated bathrooms are simply a background detail that is obvious and casual racism becomes a direct obstacle that the team need to overcome. Their prisoner, Gerald Sharpe (Michael Gaston) isn’t someone easy to interrogate due to his loud and proud proclamations that he literally wrote the book on conducting as well as resisting interrogation. More important than that is that he holds the non white members of the team in complete contempt and fails to be intimidated by them because he doesn’t see them as people. He makes fun of Elena’s accent, is openly hostile to Mack, calls May an oriental off screen and other such disgusting behaviour. Sharpe is very cartoonish in his depiction which is likely deliberate to highlight how utterly ridiculous his views are which is fine but it also makes it difficult to take the potential threat he represents seriously.
As the only available white male, Deke is tasked with talking to him because he’s the only one that Sharpe might have some respect for. Amusingly he doesn’t because he assumes that Deke and the others are Communists but he is still forthcoming with some helpful information. The Sharpe subplot is something the episode spends a little too much time on as the point it’s driving at is well made early on and the resulting information doesn’t feel entirely worth it though Deke cursing his white privilege was very amusing.
Deke and Daisy’s conversation about her ordering him to kill Freddie in the previous episode was necessary as was Mack taking the time to make sure Daisy is aware who is in charge and that her behaviour is not something that could be tolerated. It’s a very quick conversation with no remorse on Daisy’s part which indicates that she may continue to be a problem in subsequent episode. Mack’s in a difficult position as he has limited resources so has to trust that she won’t try anything like that again. Her conversation with Deke highlights that she won’t think twice about making such a decision again if she felt that it was what needed to be done. Deke calls her out on trying to make him into a murderer and tells her that isn’t the person he wants to be which personalises the conflict somewhat and gives Daisy something to think on around the potential loss of her Humanity in service of some nebulous form of the greater good that she is convinced exists.
The coverage of the unique emotional issues being experienced by Elena and May is really compelling so far. Elena suffering lingering effects from her encounter with the Shrike and illustrating that by using visual effects to show her inability to properly use her powers is a great way of illustrating that she’s having trouble dealing with what she went through. In this case her powers are tied to her confidence and emotional stability; both of which have been massively impacted by her experience. It’s a strong arc for her to follow and so far makes for a really interesting spin on mental health issues as well as P.T.S.D.
May’s issues are more widespread. At first it seems that her resurrection has left her bereft of compassion and entirely focused on the mission at hand which, as I said in my review of the previous episode, is fine as far as plots go but not all that interesting as it’s typical of other resurrection stories I’ve seen elsewhere. What makes it more interesting here is that the opposite extreme of panic and intense distress is shown which adds greater complexity to everything May is going through at this point while also showing a side to her that has never been seen before. This state of panic is an intriguing addition because it’s not something May expected which means that she is unable to trust her own ability to react to a situation. It’s a very different example of mental health issues, anxiety and P.T.S.D. but no less valued and a sign that these characters will be exploring the breadth of this issue in the coming episodes.
As with the previous two episodes, the Chronicoms remain largely uninteresting as antagonists. Most of the tension in this episode comes from not knowing who they are, where they are or what they have planned which is great as a starting point but when they are revealed it doesn’t come across as if they’re a threat on their own. The introduction of Sibyl (Tamara Taylor) as a ringleader that will possibly serve as the main antagonist could be good but it’s too early to tell and there’s not enough to go on so far.
Another strong episode that makes great use of the 1950s, tackles difficult social issues in a less than subtle yet deeply relevant way and does great work showcasing characters dealing with difficult trauma. The time travel approach being a reactive one where the team have to quickly figure out when they are and what they are dealing with is good because it means the audience learns as the characters do. The team does manage to figure things out a little too quickly in this episode but at least the plot is kept moving quickly and gets to exploring the time period rapidly. The pace of the storytelling is generally a strength of the season so far and this episode is no exception. Coulson and Simmons teaming up to investigate Area 51 is fun for a lot of reasons. Simmons posing as Peggy Carter is great and the scene where they interview the scientists was hilarious while not detracting from the plot. Daniel Sousa’s appearance was welcomed though his impact on the overall narrative was oddly minor. Nothing that happened needed him specifically so his inclusion didn’t feel like the event the pedigree of the guest star deserved. There’s potential for that to change in the next episode which is certainly worth looking forward to. The episode addresses the more uncomfortable social aspects of the time in terms of racism through Mack being on the receiving end of dirty looks from a waitress and the detail of segregated bathrooms. Coulson being the voice of nostalgia with reverence for the period while also pointing out why it was deeply problematic to live in if not a white male was handled well as it showcased different perspectives while keeping everything in service of the story. Feeding this into the interrogation plot where Sharpe held the non white members of the team in contempt and directed casual racist slurs in their direction was an inspired choice. None of it is subtle but it’s not trying to be.
Deke and Daisy’s conversation about her ordering him to kill Freddie ties into Mack taking the time to address how unacceptable her behaviour was. It’s concerning that there’s little remorse from Daisy and using Deke to highlight that Daisy’s Humanity is compromised by her willingness to kill in cold blood in service of some nebulous concept of the greater good adds weight to it all. What isn’t address and will need to be is that Mack can’t afford to bench anyone at this point because he’s working with limited resources so has no choice but to trust her to take the correct action. The coverage of Elena and May’s different but equally valid examples of anxiety, mental health issues and P.T.S.D. is excellent. May going into a panic at a key point adds dimension to what seemed like a shallow plot before now and using visual effects to show Elena’s difficulties ties her issues to her powers. The Chronicoms remain less than engaging. Most of the tension comes from the mysteries around when they are, where they are and what their plan is which is a great starting point but they fail to manifest as a threat on their own. Introducing a ringleader to serve as a potential central antagonist may fix this but it’s too early to tell.
- the audience and the characters learning the time travel information at the same pace
- excellent overall pacing
- Coulson and Simmons interviewing the scientists
- the inclusion of Daniel Sousa
- addressing the romanticised nostalgia associated with the period in tandem with the problematic racism and making it an organic part of the story
- May and Elena showcasing unique yet equally valid depictions of anxiety, P.T.S.D and mental health issues
- the continued suggestion that Daisy’s mindset will be a problem
- Sousa’s appearance not being the event it should be
- the team figuring out where and when they are a little too quickly
- the Chronicoms still failing to be fully threatening
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