Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – Season 7 Episode 4
“Out of the Past”
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. takes the form of a noir thriller as the team investigate the events leaving to the well documented death of Agent Sousa.
So many shows eventually do an episode in the style of a noir thriller because it lets the production team play around with the visual tropes associated with it and lets the writers as well as the actors have fun with the overly dramatic dialogue and storytelling style. This is a good example of such an episode and the in-universe justification of Coulson being damaged to the point that he sees the world in black and white while his head is filled with his own inner monologue is an unnecessary yet amusing touch.
The stylistic decision offers a fun spin on what might otherwise be a fairly standard story. A very deliberate and unapologetic reference is made to the iconic opening of Sunset Boulevard where a dead body floats in a pool as the owner of that body narrates the tale of his own death. For much of the episode the story seems to be an alteration of the events of that film as the assumption is that Coulson is narrating the tale of Sousa’s death but there’s a clever twist that reveals Coulson is actually the one lying face down in the pool and narrating the events leading up to that. It was a nice touch and a strong homage to that movie.
Sousa’s death is one of those historical events that can’t be interfered with because so much spun out of it. He is widely known as the first S.H.I.E.L.D. agent to fall in the line of duty and his death is seen as the catalyst for inspiring so many other agents in different ways. He was also killed because he learned that S.H.I.E.L.D. had been infiltrated by HYDRA and was about to expose that fact which means that his death has to be preserved in order for the timeline to play out in the way it did before. It’s basically another perspective on the same dilemma that saving Freddy Malick created with the team agonising over the prospect of allowing something unpleasant to happen in service of the greater good. The main difference here is that they are allowing a good man to die rather than a bad man to live which is significantly less palatable. Mack stating that fact is a really succinct summary of the weight of responsibility that rests on their shoulders and recognition of the fact that they will have to make decisions that don’t feel right in order to maintain the integrity of the timeline.
Fortunately there is a loop hole in this case as history needs to record that Sousa dies but he doesn’t actually have to be dead so as long as it looks like he died then the timeline will play out as it should. This means that Sousa can accompany the team while as far as history is concerned, he died when he was supposed to. It’s a bit of a cheat but it also means that Sousa gets to join the team for the rest of the season which is definitely an advantage for the show. It’s a great prospect to have an important part of the history of S.H.I.E.L.D. follow them through time to give his perspective on how things play out across time as well as possibly his opinion on what the organisation he helped create becomes. There is also already a really engaging dynamic between Coulson and Sousa that has a lot of potential to grow and develop over the remaining episodes.
Sousa was used really well throughout the episode. He comes to trust Coulson very quickly which some may consider unrealistic but Coulson has a history of being able to get people on side fairly quickly because of his sincerity and trustworthy nature so despite the bizarre nature of his appearance from Sousa’s perspective it’s believable that he would be drawn to the obvious sincerity and recognise his clear desire to do good. Sousa’s strongest moment was not falling for the woman in the dining car’s attempt to distract him with her charm and good looks. The way he humours her while conducting his own assessment of the situation is a great way of showing his skills and experience while not altering the story massively as it still heads towards the inevitable conclusion.
The bait and switch that makes use of the fact that Coulson’s Chronicom and LMD body to have him take Sousa’s place lying face down in the pool before using others in the team to retrieve the body works really well. The standard fake-out showing Sousa apparently heading to his death before revealing that Coulson used an I.C.E.R. on him wasn’t entirely necessary as the episode had already basically announced that this was the plan but it did feed into the noir thriller vibe with a misdirect followed by a simple explanation. Many of the shortcomings in this plot can be somewhat attributed to the storytelling style aside from the fact that the style is brought on by Coulson malfunctioning.
There is brief coverage of Sousa processing how deeply HYDRA have infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. Daisy of all people is the one who attempts to convince him to give up on his plan to expose them because when he does they’ll go deeper into hiding. Sousa doesn’t care if they do because he plans to keep pursuing them until they have been removed entirely. It’s a noble sentiment and underscores the purity of Sousa’s values as being what S.H.I.E.L.D. is supposed to stand for as a contrast to what HYDRA forced them to stand for. The fact that HYDRA could corrupt the organisation he believes in to the degree that they have is offensive to him and he can’t let himself stand idly by while they continue to do so. Daisy’s attempt to get him to stand down could be seen as another example of her predisposition to fix the timeline according to her own views rather than preserve it. If Sousa doesn’t die then he can in theory continue to work against HYDRA in more subtle ways and possibly remove them over a longer period of time than he intends to. Sousa doesn’t agree and vows to forge ahead regardless of the risk to himself which further reinforces his values. Scenes like this are a great indication of how he will fit into the overall team dynamic.
Mack’s decision to save Sousa sets an example that Elena and Deke decide to follow. They have a conversation about historical racism and sexism. Elena’s point about things improving but not improving quickly enough is a simple yet powerful statement. Deke follows that up by lamenting that some things never change which prompts Elena to state that it can’t hurt to try. Deke is initially resistant to that idea as he’s aware of the mission to preserve the timeline rather than change it. This frustrates Elena and she calls them “The Agents of Status Quo” while suggesting that Deke is comfortable with that. This is a great scene as it highlights Elena’s motivation to take the opportunity to attempt to build a better world throughout history as Deke doubts the idea that the timeline needs to be preserved in the way that it played out before. It makes sense for Deke to doubt the necessity of this as he comes from a timeline that no longer exists so is ideally placed to consider the prospect of whether the timeline that they came from is the best option. It’s entirely possible that a better future could be built as a result of their actions and the fact that Mack decides that changing Sousa’s fate tells them that taking actions that go against the status quo may not necessarily be a bad thing. It’s also worth noting that the team might be on a predetermined path anyway as Sousa’s death is still recorded by history exactly as it was before while he survives. It could be that attempts to change the past are actually what helps events play out as they did before but that remains an open question.
May’s difficulties are further expanded with the reveal that she may have developed some sort of empathic powers. It is observed that her emotions are heightened when she comes into physical contact with others. For example she becomes giddy about the item that Sousa was tasked with delivering because Simmons was excited about it. May has been typically associated with being emotionally distant as a person so having an affliction that forces her to be uncomfortably emotional is a fascinating prospect for her character. She will likely be placed in situations where she has to analyse people emotionally using this ability while not actually having those feelings herself. Being affected by the emotions of others while remaining completely closed off from her own emotions is fascinatingly tragic, especially for May. Her declaration that she feels nothing from Coulson is brutal because that means she feels nothing for Coulson which is an unthinkable loss considering their history. I’m fascinated to see how this continues to play out and it’s certainly a very different sort of plot for May to be involved in.
As with every other episode this season, the Chronicoms remain underwhelming as antagonists. I did like the conversation one of them had with Coulson about them teaming up to be benevolent overlords on a superficial level but they never go beyond being a nuisance which dramatically reduces the tension and threat value in every episode. The end scene suggests that Freddy Malick (now played by Neal Bledsoe) could go onto be the main threat with the Chronicoms backing him up by manipulating events which might be an improvement though time will tell on that. The dynamic that exists between Freddy and Deke was engaging and adds some complexity to the threat he may represent as he respects Deke and is grateful for the role he played in saving his life so there is a lot to play with here.
A strong episode that has fun with the noir thriller style, continues to explore the difficult decisions that come with preserving the timeline, and takes May down a fascinating path completely different to anything done with her before. The noir thriller style is a lot of fun and the in-universe explanation is unnecessary yet amusing. The familiar tropes are used well within the story for the most part and building up to the inevitability of Sousa’s death makes for an engaging plot. There’s plenty of opportunity to show how skilled and experienced Sousa is while taking the time to underscore the values he holds that makes him a representation of what S.H.I.E.L.D. should be. Mack’s statement about allowing a bad person to live being easier than allowing a good man to die is a succinct summary of the weight of responsibility that rests on their shoulders. In this case there’s a loop hole involving finding a way to have history record Sousa’s death while allowing him to join the team by removing him from the timeline. The set-up for that is very in keeping with the noir style and there’s so much potential created by him being on the team.
Mack’s decision encourages Elena and Deke to attempt changes on their own along the lines of making social improvements. Racism and sexism are rife throughout history so they resolve to do what they can to make that better. It’s unclear if the actions of the team are predetermined or not in terms of the timeline playing out but either way this is an interesting plot for these characters and it makes sense for Deke who is from a timeline that no longer exists. May’s newfound empathic ability is really compelling especially for her because she is typically emotionally distant so being forced to experience emotions dictated by others is especially problematic for her. The fact that she feels nothing from -and by extension for- Coulson is especially tragic considering their history. The Chronicoms remain underwhelming villains with no sense of menace. There is one good scene between a Chronicom and Coulson but it’s not enough to enhance them much. Freddy Malick is a more interesting antagonist and already has a dynamic with Deke that can be expanded over the remainder of the season.
- making good use of the noir thriller style
- the amusing in-universe explanation for the style of the episode
- Mack’s succinct summary of the weight of responsibility they have
- Coulson and Sousa’s dynamic
- Sousa being used really well in the episode
- setting up Deke and Elena’s shared plot
- the May plot sending her down a compelling and unfamiliar path
- the still underwhelming Chronicoms
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