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Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Season 3, Episode 2 - "Purpose in the Machine"

Daniel Rasmus

Last week’s episode pushed the boundaries of how much belief a viewer can logically suspend.

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 2 - "Purpose in the Machine"
Network: ABC
Air date: 2015-10-06

In terms of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), rumors out of NYC Comic-Con report that Marvel television may have lost to the Marvel movie franchise in a political upheaval at Disney. Bleeding Cool and Screen Rant are both reporting that as a result of executive shifts at Disney, Kevin Feige isn’t as interested in developing new film properties that haven’t proven themselves as have Thor, Iron Man, Captain America and The Avengers, while other sources deny this rumor. This uncertainty is important to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., because with only passing references to other MCU superheroes, the Inhumans create a endless stream of great characters that can unleash all manner of havoc, as well as some who will undoubtedly fight to contain the chaos. The interplay of television and movies has been a powerful glue in the MCU; if that glue becomes unstuck, its television productions will suffer more quickly than one-off movies far in the future.

As writers/producers, both the Whedons and the Tancharoens need to concentrate on fighting for the integrity of their own property, regardless of executive shifts and studio politics. If the Inhumans movie doesn’t happen, perhaps it’ll find a place on Netflix, alongside that other Marvel hero and sometimes Avenger: Daredevil. Unfortunately, “Purpose in the Machine” struggles, with the writers relying on coincidence and “magic” to solve some of the thorny plot developments introduced in the season premiere.

Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) has just discovered that there is “impossible sand” around the monolith’s chamber, sand that is most likely not of this world. He realizes that the monolith is a portal, and if they can just get it open again, the team can engineer a way to travel through the portal to save Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge). To that end, S.H.I.E.L.D. extracts Earth-bound Asgardian Elliot Randolph (Peter MacNicol) from a Norwegian prison to help figure out how to both control and destroy the portal. He connects the Hebrew word for death (seen in episode one) with an English castle, in which they discover a 19th-century chamber arguably built to invoke the portal. A test run proves successful but it blows out much of the antique circuitry. Daisy (Chloe Bennet) (AKA Quake, but called "Tremors" in this episode by Mack [Henry Simmons]), figures out how to control her abilities precisely, creating a harmonic resonance within the chamber that reignites the portal.

Pretty exciting stuff.

Science fiction always requires a suspension of belief. The best-funded sci-fi TV shows and movies often concentrate so hard on the “science” and the effects that they occasionally fail to catch the narrative failures in the human action. In the “Purpose in the Machine”, the narrative hand-waving used to return Simmons from the unknown planet required more suspended belief than any of the references to zero point energy fields, gravitation lensing, or quantum harmonic oscillation theory.

So rather then sending in a probe, which was the plan, Fitz attaches the retrieval cord to himself and jumps in, landing on the same planet as Simmons. He starts yelling for her against the wind and sand, and somehow, she hears him. She also somehow has enough energy to reach him, but he doesn’t have quite enough cord to research her, so they employ the dramatic trope of fingertip slipping, which looks like it fails until both Fitz and Simmons appear under the debris of the now defunct monolith. Why the monolith ultimately implodes after centuries of existence on Earth, how Simmons "saw the flare" and came running (never mind that she was even in a condition to come running), all require much more suspended disbelief than an alien monolith. The monolith is supposed to be all science fiction-y, but the real human endeavors, the real human stresses and challenges should be, well, more challenging. The great emotional acts that ended the first episode and began this one are lost in the relative non-jeopardy of Fitz and Simmons. It’s as if there was a story meeting, and the writers agreed they needed to reunite the team early in season three, so before Simmons dies on some planet far far away, they concocted a bit of magic to bring her home.

Of course, this is Marvel, so magic is not out of the narrative scope, but the lazy use of it to meet a narrative need doesn’t make for great drama. Worse, the magic wasn’t even the portal or Daisy’s powers: it was Simmons’s ears, Fitz’s loud voice, and some dust-covered fingers.

It’s the dark side of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. that provides the more realistic human drama in this episode, as Ward (Brett Dalton) attempts to bring Hydra back from the brink by recruiting Wolfgang von Strucker’s son, Werner (Spenser Clark). Here, the action is limited to releasing rats on a ship, dozens of punches and tackles, some torture, and assorted harrowing moments of death and destruction, all of which read as more believable than Simmon’s rescue. Werner von Stucker’s transformation might seem a bit rapid, but it still carries with it some gravitas by virtue of von Strucker revealing he’s more than the scared playboy we first encounter on his yacht. The kid can take care of himself. He seems to have just been expending frivolous energy on girls and parties until he found his true calling, which he apparently discovers as Ward reveals the proposed details of their working relationship.

While Hydra is growing new heads, we finally catch up with Agent May (Ming-Na Wen), who is protecting her father as he recovers from a questionable “accident.” Her appearance, as they say on Sundays, is a game day call. The players are assembled. We can speculate that before long Coulson (Clark Gregg), will probably be provoked to take the safety of his S.H.I.E.L.D.’s collection of Inhumans into his many hands (he’s on his third, he claims in this episode), and that will provide another layer of action to the triumvirate of intrigue that is Hydra, ATCU (Advanced Threat Containment Unit), and S.H.I.E.L.D.

Constraint is a powerful tool for writers. When you are told you can’t do something, figuring out how to imagine your way around it plausibly generates ideas that don’t arrive when you have a magic, plot-fixing box to play with. When all things are possible, there are just too many options and, as noted above, the action gives into the magic and plausibility evaporates into spectacle. The unbalanced approach to the narrative in this episode is disconcerting. The producers, who are all great writers (as well as an intimately related brother and sister team), shouldn’t be subject to network/studio communications failures. The writers and producers need to make sure they work the details and avoid lazy plot points. If Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is supposed to be a multi-year effort working toward a 2019 movie, long story arcs and rich, well-developed details will help attract audiences more than kitschy rescues. (If that is your thing, you might want to switch over to CBS’s Scorpion).


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