This review contains spoilers for Agents of SHIELD.
Agents of SHIELD Season 7 Episode 4
With this week’s black-and-white episode “Out of the Past,” Agents of SHIELD found a clever way to tell a rather mundane story, and in some ways it was successful in upending expectations and delivering on its mysteries. But stepping back and looking at the installment as a whole reveals a rather toothless enemy in a story that’s more about the morality of changing history while trying to preserve its impact. As in last week’s episode, the more powerful moments are the smaller ones, like the conversations between Yoyo and Deke or the discoveries May makes about her emotional extremes, and honestly, these still constitute a win for the series.
It wasn’t the film noir style with its monochromatic visuals and flat-toned narration that made the story more subdued; in fact, the music and the canted angles and shadows that are characteristic of the genre heightened the drama as much as it was able to. But to skip from a near disaster at Groom Lake to Daniel Sousa’s deadly mission in L.A. was jarring, and the audience was likely as underwhelmed as everyone other than Simmons with the item Sousa was tasked with delivering. It’s suggested that the Helius explosion was meant to take out SHIELD’s brain trust as well as disrupt Sousa’s visit with Howard Stark, especially since the Chronicoms replaced his contact, Dr. Lindstrom, but the 1955 storyline still ended up feeling somewhat disjointed by the about face.
That being said, Agents of SHIELD was able to address one misgiving that arose rather early: why would Sousa trust Coulson so soon after having been duped by him and Simmons? The character arc of Sousa in this episode was actually executed rather well, not only because we got to see him dismantle the ruse perpetrated by the woman in the dining car and her Hydra friends, but also because his knowledge of enemy infiltration, even if he doesn’t realize his boss Malick is among the traitors, makes him a believable target. But the best part was his reaction when Coulson revealed the truth about his team being from the future: “Why didn’t you lead with that?” That phrase alone heightens anticipation for how this man out of time will contribute to the team’s efforts elsewhere in the 20th century.
The other aspect that muted the action of this week’s Agents of SHIELD was the uncharacteristic reliance of the Chronicoms on Wilfred Malick’s involvement. Luke, the cop Chronicom from the premiere, tells Coulson he knew they would be on the train and informs Malick of Sousa’s whereabouts, but it’s unclear how much Malick would have already known by virtue of his position within SHIELD. And Luke’s proposition to Coulson of being Earth’s benevolent overlords shows a deep misunderstanding of the similarities between the upgraded LMD and the Chronicoms themselves, and as a result, he and his robot buddies are almost irrelevant as the 1955 storyline wraps up.
What makes Coulson’s deception at the Hotel Roosevelt so interesting is that it preserves the impact on history of Sousa’s death, which Mack likens to Coulson’s death inspiring the Avengers — a wonderful reference! But along with the confusion mentioned above about Malick’s knowledge of Sousa’s mission, the ruse of replacing Sousa with Coulson, who is able to take a bullet and appear dead, raises the question of whether it may have happened like this all along. Just like with Koenig’s bar becoming an SSR safehouse, perhaps their mission to the past is actually causing the history they remember! Classic bootstrap paradox!
And speaking of Koenig’s bar, it’s hard not to sympathize with poor Enoch, relegated to the role of switchboard operator while suffering through the boring office drama of the man to whom he’s serving drinks. One would like to think that perhaps Deke would have engaged him in more personal conversation had he been given the chance, but that still would have been a far cry from being invited to rejoin the team aboard the Zephyr. This could end up being a running joke through another era, but presumably most fans would wish for a happy reunion eventually. Perhaps given his previous extended time with Fitz, Enoch will be a part of that return instead!
The most compelling storyline in this week’s Agents of SHIELD, however, has to do with May and her discovery that the panic attack last week and her disorientation upon meeting Sousa were a result of new empathic powers she seems to have developed as a side effect of her time in the shrike realm. What immediately comes to mind is how this ability could be used to the team’s advantage, perhaps as a human lie detector or something even grander. The tragedy, of course, is that she feels nothing from (and therefore nothing for) LMD Coulson, and when she dispassionately says, “I get nothing from him,” it’s like a punch to the gut.
A more hopeful conclusion comes from Deke and Yoyo, who have astutely observed that the past is a racist and sexist place, but now that the director has authorized saving a life (Sousa) over taking a life (Malick), they have hatched a plan to upset the historical status quo somehow. It’s such an understated goal, but wow, what an exciting idea for these two minor characters! Moments like these that are what redeem the otherwise bland courier mission gone awry. Here’s hoping for a more colorful story in next week’s Agents of SHIELD as the ending music, “Billion Dollar Babies” by Alice Cooper, indicates another 20-year jump to the 1970s. Groovy!