Television

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Season 3, Episode 5 - "4,722 hours"

Daniel Rasmus

The relatively quiet “4,722 hours” shows the ways in which we create paradise even in the midst of the ugliest realities.


Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Airtime: Tuesdays, 9pm
Cast: Clark Gregg, Ming-Na Wen, Brett Dalton, Chloe Bennet, Iain De Caestecker, Elizabeth Henstridge, Nick Blood, Adrianne Palicki, Henry Simmons, Luke Mitchell
Subtitle: Season 3, Episode 5 - "4,722 hours"
Network: ABC
Air date: 2015-10-27
Amazon

The world is a swirl of sand. It's always night. You have been placed in a hole in the ground and have no connection to anything. There is certainly danger, perhaps an evil. But you don’t understand the evil. It doesn’t fit your model of reality.

If I say “The world is a swirl of blue sand” it becomes a description of what Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) experienced during her exile from S.H.I.E.L.D.-vile that started in the last moments of the Season 2 season finale. Through the first four episodes, viewers have waited to find out how she survived what we now know was 4,722 hours: 196 days and 18 Earth hours.

This episode is the best hard sci-fi the series has presented. Survival, it turns out, requires Simmons to “science the shit” out of her circumstances. That’s not the only reference to the late summer hit, The Martian. Simmons journals on her phone, “engineered” by Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) to have really long battery life, and talks to herself. The planet is mostly desert. But unlike The Martian, this planet isn’t completely devoid of life; it has a breathable atmosphere, a few plants, and water. All those things were brought to Mars by Mark Watney’s (Matt Damon) NASA, but it was necessary in this episode to make them indigenous, or the episode would have ended with Simmon’s dehydration about 10 minutes in.

But unlike the plot of The Martian, which hints, more so in the book than in the movie, that Mars is out to get Watney -- this planet appears to actually be actively malevolent. (Sharing another similarity with the film, this plot begins long before the arrival of Simmons. A lone surviving NASA astronaut, Will Daniels (Dillon Casey), from a doomed research mission to the planet finds her and restrains her. He isn’t initially convinced that Simmons is real, and thus keeps her in a cage, isolated. He isn’t really a captor, and he isn’t evil. It turns out he has been stranded on the planet for longer than 14, surviving by not trusting, by living underground, and by not attracting the evil, whatever it is.

In an homage to Planet of the Apes, there is a forbidden zone that is a graveyard for previous wanderers from Earth. It also seems to be a place that attracts the evil, and Daniels warns Jemma to stay away from the zone. She doesn’t listen, and her not listening ends up being the key to escape.

In this convoluted and conflated retelling of the Garden of Eden story, it’s the woman, already a possessor of knowledge, who, by not listening, finds the fruit of knowledge they need buried in the sand: an ancient sextant. That sextant, her smartphone battery, which is powerful enough to boot a vintage PC, and some astrophysics software helps her calculate the workings of the portal and its relationship to the gravity of the moons.

It's interesting, and I think perhaps unintentional, that this episode shows how quickly humans create a mythos out of what they don’t understand. The geologist with the NASA mission thought that the planet might be a paradise. They ascribe human concepts to non-human actions.

Near the end of the episode, the new couple of Simmons and Daniels await the rare sunrise, ready to share a bottle of recovered wine. Fitz arrives, but the tormentor asserts itself to confuse and obfuscate. Daniels confronts the evil while Simmons runs to Fitz, reaching out to his fingers as he dangles on the safety rope, just inches away. By shear will Simmons locks her fingers with Fitz’s. Fitz pulls his beloved through the portal and back to the reality of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Humans survive. Adam and Eve offer the ultimate mythological promise. Any two humans can create a future.

The episode ends with another pair of humans, Simmons and Fitz, committing to reconstructing the portal and bringing Daniels back to Earth. (If we want to find other intelligent life that fits our human concept of civilization, SETI should create a hubris detector rather than one that seeks radio waves.)

Lost. Separated. Anxious. Alone. Many a prisoner has felt this, both actual prisoners and those who find themselves prisoners of circumstance. Perhaps the power of these stories continues to resonate because as a species, we spend so much time in our own heads, with our own thoughts -- thoughts that no one else can truly ever know. Only through these myths of isolation do the writers among us project the most intimate, innermost ideas and emotions into the bigger world. The isolation creates permission to allow the mind to speak its piece when no one can hear. The story of isolation allows all who wish to listen to hear.

Like all mythic places, we attach such emotions to that which we wish to return. The Garden of Paradise, Gan Eden, is today perhaps a rocky outcrop on the outskirts of Azerbaijan near Tabriz. We know how to find a physical place. Locating the idea of place is much harder.

In those 4,722 hours, the character of Jemma Simmons was mythically transformed. She found her Adam, committed to him, and planned not only to survive, but to make the best of their shared time in this anti-paradise.

I’m sure this side plot will continue, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the portal, recreated by nature or science, has something more to do with the Inhumans. Perhaps the tension between Simmons and Fitz, and their commitment to work together on the project to save Daniels, will find a way to rekindle their love even as she seeks to save another person she loves. The world of S.H.I.E.L.D. remains a messy place.

Back in our own messy world, as the time changes this weekend, residents of the northern latitudes, which includes those of us in Seattle, will be quoting Jemma Simmons from this episode regularly when we roar above the blustery din and the rain: “Where is the sun? What have you done with it? I want the sun!”

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