Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD – Season 3 Episode 5
Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD veers far away from their established film and delivers the best episode of the series to date as Simmons recounts to Fitz what she went through when stranded on an alien planet.
First thing I’ll say is that I haven’t abandoned my theory about Simmons winding up in the Negative Zone but I do have another one. Based on what we saw here there’s strong evidence to support that Simmons was stuck on Ego the Living Planet. I’ll go into the reasons why as I continue but it seems possible.
The biggest surprise I got from this episode is that -except from a short scene at the end- the entire episode was from the perspective of Simmons as she spent a long time trying to survive in an inhospitable environment. This really was a massive acting challenge for Elizabeth Henstridge and she absolutely rose to it by delivering an excellent performance throughout. I liked that the title card was changed for this one episode which immediately made it feel like a significant and rare event. Comparisons to the recent film release The Martian are bound to be made since they are both about a character surviving using their wits and intelligence on an inhospitable alien planet. It’s a fair comparison but doesn’t diminish the effectiveness of either example. This is a far more low budget affair of course and concentrates on the isolation more than the rescue effort as a whole.
Another surprise is that the whole thing is Simmons recounting her tale to Fitz but there is no narration until the very end so Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD takes the more difficult path of telling a story that largely focuses on one person. It would have been easy to pepper the story with bouts of narration to break the silence but instead the viewer is allowed to be sucked right into the loneliness and desperation felt by Simmons rather than be a voyeuristic force learning about it after the fact.
Simmons acts completely in character throughout. It is best exemplified when she first finds herself stuck and immediately assumes that Fitz will be along soon with a solution to bring her home. Of course this isn’t the case and the hours pass uncontrollably. It’s a nice subversion of the trope that involves very quick solutions to what should be massive problems on shows like this and also breaks Simmons expectations of a speedy rescue.
As time wears on further she attempts to take her mind off it by making audio recordings addressed to Fitz about what she’s up to. They range from being scientific to personal. There’s a particularly tragically amusing moment when she burps and imagines how much Fitz would have loved it but sadly isn’t around to hear it. She starts off her isolation by talking to Fitz as if he’s there which draws an interesting parallel to when Fitz did the same thing at the start of season 2 when his brain damage was at its worst. It isn’t the same scenario but the emotional isolation is absolutely the same and it’s interesting that their reaction to it immediately goes to seeking support from the other.
Her phone acts as her anchor to her life on Earth and it works really well. I mean that in terms of a narrative device as well as the actual device itself. That thing lasts longer than my old Nokia 3310. There’s a throwaway line about Fitz upgrading it. I wonder if he can take a look at mine? He’s a handy guy to have around. She uses her phone to watch videos featuring her friends and generally use it as an outlet for her emotions to prevent madness from consuming her.
There’s also a lot of personal growth for Simmons as she has to find ways to survive on her own. This involves looking for water and keeping herself calm while imaging the promised dinner date. It also involves hunting a mysterious creature that lives inside the only water source to use it for food. It clearly tastes awful but she has absolutely no choice given that it’s either eat it or starve. It’s great to see her completely rise to the occasion confidently and find strength within herself that she probably didn’t know she had.
It’s also great that she isn’t always strong. There are signs early on of her starting to unravel as time goes on. Her smile starts to look more forced in each scene, her voice quivers with increasing frequency and finally she simply breaks down and cries. It’s understandable given the situation she is and Henstridge plays the subtle transition beautifully.
It eventually turns out that she isn’t alone and she meets a stranded astronaut named Will Daniels (Dillon Casey) who has been there since 2001. The year is no doubt a reference to the film of the same name especially since the method of travel was through a monolith. Science fiction references are always fun.
Will has gone more than a little demented due to his 14 years of being stuck there. It is revealed that his mission was a top secret NASA one and there was a group who supplied the information about the monolith’s purpose. I wonder who the group could be but it’ll probably be H.Y.D.R.A. It’d be nice if it wasn’t as I like it when a universe is bigger than returning to the same groups all the time. It turns out that he was on an expedition that went horribly wrong and through various horrible events he is left as the only survivor who has managed to hide.
The episode takes its time developing the relationship between Will and Simmons. They start of not trusting one another but slowly settle into a partnership that relies on them cooperating. Will has completely abandoned any hope of ever escaping but ever the optimist, Simmons is convinced she can find a way.
When the only chance for escape that Simmons could find doesn’t work it is a heartbreaking moment that Henstridge completely nails. Her facial expression perfectly puts across the hope draining from her and her resignation to the fact that she will never see her home or her friends again.
Both actors do an excellent job portraying the developing connection between them. It feels organic as they become more used to being around each other until it gets to the point where they really enjoy being around each other. Predictably it develops into a romantic relationship but I was fine with it as they are both isolated together with apparently no hope of rescue so it makes sense that they would seek comfort together. It also marks the moment where Simmons ultimately decides that there is absolutely no hope of being rescued so really has to get used to building a life there. It’s absolutely a relationship of convenience but also of necessity. It also helps that they have a lot in common so it never feels like either of them are simply settling.
The planet has other dangers beyond simply being desolate and having unpredictable weather patterns. There is some kind of life force at work going after anyone that ends up there and making it impossible to leave. It’s all kept as a mystery and it doesn’t really do much beyond kicking up massive sand storms. There is a suggestion that the planet has widened a canyon to prevent them from getting to the portal. Whether it actually did or Will is misremembering is up for debate but the abilities of the alien force does match Ego in a lot of ways. It’d be really cool if that was where they wound up.
I found the escape to be the weakest part of the episode as it seemed to happen a little too easily. I understand the intention that Simmons would remember Will’s sacrifice and be all the more motivated to return to save him but it all felt a little bit disjointed especially when considering seeing her return from Fitz’ perspective. It doesn’t quite fit. Another thing that doesn’t quite fit is that Simmons seems confident and sure of herself before leaving the planet but is stricken by PTSD when she returns. I feel that she should have been more confident right after she returned.
When Simmons’ tale ends and we’re back on Earth it can be seen that Fitz is hurt at the revelation that Simmons is pining after a man. Fitz proves himself to be an honourable man and recognises that a man’s life is at stake and he should do whatever he can to help despite his personal feelings. I really like how these characters have developed since being constantly irritating in the early days of the show.
The episode looks great with a camera filter ably turning the California desert into a desolate alien planet. The use of colour to symbolise hope is really effective such as when the first indication of colour was the flame that Simmons managed to light herself showing that survival is a possibility. The brief sunrise at the end of the episode quickly giving way to darkness is a powerful image showing the loss of hope all over again for Will.
An outstanding episode that marks the series best to date and really showcases the acting talents of Elizabeth Henstridge as she spends much of this episode entirely alone.
It’s a big surprise to find that this episode is almost entirely focused on Simmons struggle to survive on the alien planet. Outside of the scene at the end bringing the show back to the present day every minute of screen time follows Simmons. Another surprise is that narration isn’t relied on to tell the story outside of a brief few words to close it off. The story is entirely told by pulling the audience right into Simmons’ illustration.
Henstridge does a great job of portraying her gradual decline into hopelessness. It starts with a slight falseness to her optimistic smile and culminates in her breaking down in tears. She never stops being proactive but her vulnerability feels real and the development of her to get there is organic.
Using her phone as an anchor to her life on Earth by making audio messages addressed to Fitz and watching videos of her friends was a solid choice. It works well as a narrative device to tie her to the life she wants to get back to.
When she meets a stranded astronaut named Will things change for her as she manages to find comfort in the fact that she has another person to interact with. She never gives up hope until her only escape plan fails which causes her to seek romantic comfort from Will. It’s a bit predictable but makes sense considering the situation. The two actors play this developing relationship organically.
When Simmons escapes the execution feels a bit clunky as it is overly chaotic and seemed a little too easy. I get that Will’s sacrifice gives Simmons the strong motivation to return but I never really got the impression that he needed to stay. Simmons’ confidence before she left the planet doesn’t quite match up with the PTSD she experiences after leaving. I feel that she should have been more confident right away.
The planet has some strange dangers in the form of an alien force of some sort that wants to prevent their escape by kicking up sand storms and apparently widening a canyon. Whether it can really do that is up for debate but it’s a fascinating mystery that is never solved
Visually the episode is stunning with colour only being used to signify hope. A particularly powerful moment is when the sun sets on Will left alone on the planet suggesting that he is without hope again.