Mavel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – Season 6 Episode 5
“The Other Thing”
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. deals with the capture of Agent May, the aftermath of Keller’s death and the ongoing complications concerning the quest to bring Fitz back.
The shorter season means that Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has to move plot forward a lot more quickly than it would in previous seasons. This is a blessing and a curse as it means that answers to posed questions come sooner than usual but it also means that anticipation doesn’t build in the same way since answers are more forthcoming. It remains to be seen whether a ten episode season suits this show more or if the slow burn is more suitable.
Our main mystery of this season surrounds Sarge, his plan and why he looks like Coulson so this episode starts to answer some of those questions. The emotional core of the season has been the loss of Coulson and how difficult it is for the characters to deal with it with someone who looks exactly like him running around. May is the heart of the show on this issue as her connection to Coulson was the most profound. Her capture in the previous episode provided the best opportunity to explore that as she comes face to face with her pain without being able to escape from it. This results in a lengthy interrogation where Sarge is as curious as she is as to what the connection is. He questions her on this connection as he has no idea why he and Coulson have the same face. It’s actually more accurate to say that Coulson looks like Sarge since he has been alive a lot longer which deepens the mystery a great deal. Sarge sees Coulson as an imposter and isn’t buying May’s assertion that he was a person since the chances of the face being naturally duplicated are slim to none as are the chances of that face being drawn to Earth so soon after Coulson’s death.
Sarge may have no idea who Coulson is but it’s clear there’s a connection. The episode goes about showing this in a really clever and character driven way by flashing back to May and Coulson’s final days together in Tahiti and establishing that there is a link through the use of choice phrases. Sarge says “Every dream is someone else’s nightmare” and “the tick of the clock is only getting louder”; two things also said by Coulson in his final days. This is no coincidence and May is acutely aware of this. The use of flashbacks to detail some of Coulson’s final days offers a strong contrast to May being in captivity as it establishes Sarge as something of a dark mirror to Coulson. The two situations are similar in that May is isolated with Sarge/Coulson but they couldn’t be more different on an emotional level. Coulson’s kindness and the sense of contentment May gets from being around him is highlighted in the emotionally driven flashbacks where the present day scenes show Sarge to be an unrelenting sadist. It almost makes Sarge the nightmare version of Coulson and makes that connection all the more compelling. In essence May is dealing with a dark mirror of him and that fact ends up being the emotional grounding of the episode.
Seeing May in a vulnerable position is rare and always interesting on the rare occasions it happens. Even though she’s a captive she never succumbs to fear or lets her personal difficulties with the situation overcome her even though it’s clearly hard for her to do that. In some ways this provides her with an opportunity to process her grief as she’s reminded of everything good about Coulson when seeing how different Sarge is. One of the most effective line deliveries of the episode is May talking about how well she knew Coulson and how insulted she is by the suggestion that he may be some sort of imposter. There is no doubt in her mind that Coulson was a fully rounded person with a life well lived and she wants to make sure Sarge knows that. Ming-Na Wen is particularly good in this episode and her delivery of that monologue is a powerful example of how good she is. My money is still on Sarge being a version of Coulson from an alternate universe; the line about being on planets “moving almost at the speed of light” suggests there may be some sort of time displacement at play. This comes after May uses key questions to establish how far back his memory goes as she still believes him to be some sort of duplicate. Her theory is that he only came into existence a short time ago but that clearly isn’t the case so the answer to this mystery won’t be a simple one.
Sarge tries to recruit May which ties into an earlier comment about being in need of new soldiers. This will be especially necessary with Pax and Jaco being in S.H.I.E.L.D. custody. May is seen as a worthy addition to his team due to her obvious skills so he engineers a test where he pits her against a man infected by one of the parasitic alien birds. She takes care of him in short order which basically proves her worthy of joining the team and unlocks access to information about what they’re dealing with. The threat is known as the Shrike -unknown how to spell it yet so making an assumption- and they travel from planet to planet consuming them as they go. Sarge has tried to stop them on numerous occasions and has always failed but there’s a notable difference this time as he has arrived early enough to do something about it. Apparently the Shrike await the arrival of their creator and shortly after that the planet dies. Sarge’s plan involves waiting for the creator to arrive and then destroying the planet himself so that the Shrike are wiped out along with it. Naturally this is a horrible prospect but it provides some sort of idea of how much loss Sarge has had to deal with and how sever the situation is if he considers this the only way to stop it. Of course this can’t be allowed to happen and now that Sarge has been captured there’s an opportunity to gain more information and explore alternate options.
Back at the S.H.I.E.L.D. base the team are reeling after the loss of Keller and the reveal of the threat of the Shrike. This enables a much needed showcase for Benson who acts as the heart of the particular plot by reacting to the situation in very relatable and Human ways. None of this is what he’s used to and he’s struggling to deal with it in healthy ways. His alcoholism has been previously established and Mack has concerns about his coping mechanisms. He makes it clear that he has to find a responsible way to cope and that the other agents need to know they can count on him. Benson is wavering on his ability to do this job and it’s Mack’s job to make sure everyone performs at their best because lives are literally at stake. He makes his commitment clear by the end of the episode through requesting resources to sink his teeth into the investigation which suggests that he’s starting to find a purpose.
Even though Keller wasn’t around enough to be a well developed character his loss looms heavily over the episode. The conversation between Elena and Benson is the best example of this as it highlights how profoundly loss can change a person. Difficult choices is the underlying connection as Elena had to make the choice to either kill Keller or risk everyone else on the base so she made the choice to end his life for the good of the team. Benson is in a position to understand what she’s going through as he made the decision to turn off life support machines in order to end his husband’s suffering. It was difficult for him but he also feels that it was the right one and he encourages Elena to take comfort in knowing she made the right choice as well. It’s a very brief conversation but delivers the emotional weight that it needs to and helps ground the outlandish plot by connecting it to a relatable sense of loss.
Mack’s growth as the Director receives more attention in the way he handles Keller’s death in relation to Elena. Their relationship at this point is fairly complicated as they have a romantic history but now maintain a professional distance because of the change in Mack’s role. This doesn’t prevent Mack from being a supportive friend and trying to help her deal with her grief. Mack opens up to her about how difficult the job is for him and the “imposter syndrome” that he can’t shake. The arrival of Sarge hasn’t been easy for him as it’s a former friendly face killing people. Elena isn’t ready to hear that and clearly resents him to some degree because of that distance. He admits that he used to turn to her for support and now feels that he doesn’t have that any more which basically results in Elena reminding him that it’s exactly what he wanted. The change in their relationship is really interesting with a distinct professional approach to dealing with their former relationship while there are still lingering feelings and resentment created as a result of that. The reminder that the distance is what Mack wanted further isolates him and serves as a reminder that the Director position is a lonely one where he’s concerned.
Focusing on character beats in these scenes over plot progression is both a good and a bad thing. Nothing is really learned that isn’t told to May by Sarge other than a theory as to where more answers might be found so in that sense these scenes are something of a waste but in terms of exploring how the characters react to recent events there’s a lot of strong material here. It’s odd that the recently acquired prisoners don’t appear at all though there is mention of nothing useful coming from talking to them.
The crew of the Zephyr constantly seem to be going from bad to worse. They quickly find themselves surrounded by a hostile fleet under the control of Enoch’s former supervisor, Atarah (Sherri Saum). She talks about the destruction of the Chronicom homeworld which may or may not be connected to the events on Earth at this point. Atarah wants to prevent this destruction by travelling back in time to prevent it just as the S.H.I.E.L.D. team did last season. There’s a complication in that none of them have any idea how they did it since the time travel tech was perfected by a version of Fitz and Simmons that no longer exist. Logically they can figure it out again but the motivation isn’t there and it took them a very long time in the first place. Enoch points out that Fitz can accomplish anything if Simmons is placed in danger which could count as a self referential comment on something that has become a trope by this point. Either way it’s definitely true and Atarah’s reaction is a testament to how well this show rights artificial life forms. She orders everyone else be killed because Simmons is the only one they need which is a clinical and dispassionate decision that shows a complete lack of empathy or regard for Human life.
Of course Daisy, Piper and Davis aren’t killed and are allowed to return home in exchange for Simmons giving herself willingly to Atarah so that she and Fitz can work the problem together. It’s a way for Simmons to get what she wants while also being punished for putting the team in danger through recklessly jumping them to this particular location. I’m glad this puts an end to Fitz and Simmons just missing one another, something that also happens in this episode when they can see one another but only as holograms. Having them interact and work together will hopefully provide some strong material. I’ll be interested to see how an earlier version of Fitz relates to the current version of Simmons in terms of how they see the relationship from their vastly different perspectives.
The return of the Zephyr to Earth minus Fitz and Simmons allows the narrative to feel more joined up as a result. Even though the connection is tenuous for now there’s room to build on that and expand the information teased about the capabilities of the Shrike. Seeing Daisy, Piper and Davis reunite with the other characters was a nice moment as well and there was some subtle comedy associated with how much has been missed through questions being asked and not answered.
A strong episode that provides compelling answers, deepens aspects of the mystery and allows May to be the powerful emotional core of the episode. Her interactions with Sarge provide some information about his mission and the threat facing the team while also deepening the mystery of who he is. He has been alive for a long time which rules him out as a duplicate of Coulson at least in the recent sense and has no idea why his face is recognised. Combining the scenes where May is interrogated by Sarge with flashbacks to Coulson’s final days is a really effective way of grounding May’s feelings about encountering someone who looks exactly like them while pointing out that there is a connection by Sarge saying the same things that Coulson said during that time. It also establishes Sarge as a dark mirror of Coulson in many ways. Ming-Na Wen is excellent in this episode especially when May points out everything that she knew about Coulson.
On the S.H.I.E.L.D. base the team are dealing with the death of Keller and the emergence of a new threat. Benson becomes the focus in this plot as the newcomer who isn’t used to the insanity that has become commonplace for everyone else. His conversation with Mack about coping mechanisms and what Mack expects from him is really strong as it sets up Benson fully committing to his role by asking for resources to get stuck into the investigation. Benson and Elena’s conversation about making the difficult choice when it comes to ending the life of a loved one is really well done and puts them on the same page in terms of understanding loss along with their responsibility to that specific loss. This helps ground the outlandish alien bird threat as it has very real consequences and can be likened to loss that many can relate to. The interaction between Mack and Elena is also really well done as it takes stock of the change in their relationship while allowing Mack to be vulnerable with her for a brief time. Having this be thrown back in his face with a cold reminder that this is what he wanted is brutal and further isolates Mack as a leader. The Zephyr crew getting into the more trouble with the arrival of Enoch’s former supervisor, Atarah adds further complications and shows the potential scope of the Shrike threat as the Chronicom homeworld was most likely previously destroyed by them. Enoch’s idea of putting Simmons in danger to motivate Fitz to solve time travel is perhaps metacommentary on the plotting that has all but become a trope at this point while also making sense to the characters. The writers continue to demonstrate a strong grasp on writing androids when Atarah clinically decides that Simmons is the only one needed so elects to kill the others. It’s dispassionate and efficient which really works for artificial life forms. Simmons giving herself willingly to work the problem for Fitz serves as her punishment and atonement for stranding the team in this situation while also putting an end to them just missing one another and will hopefully lead to strong character beats now that they are reunited.
- contrasting May’s interrogation with flashbacks to Coulson’s final days
- setting up Sarge as a dark mirror for Coulson
- Ming-Na Wen’s stunning performance
- fleshing out Sarge’s plan in an organic way
- Benson relating to Elena in a very Human way
- Benson and Mack’s conversation about coping mechanisms
- strongly written artificial life forms in the way they make decisions
- Simmons being punished and atoning for stranding the Zephyr in a bad situation by giving herself up
- connecting the Zephyr plot to the Earthbound plot
- not showing Pax and Jaco as prisoners
- Keller’s loss not landing quite as well as it should despite strong character work in the aftermath
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