“Making Friends and Influencing People” is my favorite episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season two so far. Last season’s run-out from the events of The Winter Soldier saw the show dedicated to fleshing out its heroes and setting them at cross-purposes in order to make them stand out better. (Always a challenge when your ensemble dresses in black and spends the majority of their time in shadowy nondescript settings.) It also used a big flashy threat to focus them into action.
That focus and flash is gone but the enemy isn’t and the show seems to be putting a great deal of thought into how to grow this season’s threat in the same manner it grew the main characters last season. In essence, how do you keep Hydra interesting when you’ve already seen them do nutty things on TV and in the movies?
But first, who’s that girl? Look at her! She’s tackling her problems head on and blazing a trail through life! She doesn’t need no boyfriend to distract her, or to use up all the toilet paper, or to loudly watch like five episode of Bob’s Burgers while she’s trying to talk to her mom. She’s got the world by the tail!
She also went to work for Hydra after her hetero-lifemate killed some of his brain to save her from certain death, so…her judgment…what is up with that?
Yes, RealSimmons finally arrives on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and she’s trying to figure out how Donnie “Blizzard” Gill’s cellular structure works so Hydra can…well, it turns out that’s not so important to Hydra. What is important is that she’s undercover for Coulson in order to infiltrate the organization since, as we’ve seen, their numbers easily overwhelm S.H.I.E.L.D.’s. The episode gets a really nice pre-credits twist out of this (with appropriately twee Belle & Sebastian soundtrack) before dropping the pretense by having Coulson show up at Simmons’ apartment and win Director of the Year by making her dinner in exchange for debriefing.
Memo to Talbot: this is the difference between S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra. One will make you dinner, the other will strap you to a torture device and slosh its frankly enormous glass of scotch in your face until you comply. Comply!
But first, who’s that girl? Look at her! She’s tackling her problems head on and taking lessons in being in constant control from her Fitbit. She can shoot your heart out and erase your identity with a flip of her Skyebangs. She’s got the world by the tail!
She’s also about to learn that no matter how you condition your body and your emotions to respond when you want them to that you can still entirely lose control of a situation and be forced to do something that you’d never thought you’d have to do. It doesn’t get easier to scratch someone off, May warns Skye during shooting practice. Skye hasn’t had to experience that yet. But she knows that she’ll have to eventually. Maybe even in this episode.
Maybe even against Donnie Gill, who the team saved in a variety of ways back in season one’s “Seeds” and who continues to make poor decisions. He went on the run as soon as Hydra liberated the Sandbox last season and he’s been freezing everyone who looks at him funny ever since. He doesn’t seem to be enjoying the tremendous mastery of his ice powers that he’s since gained, mostly because everyone else wants that mastery for their own ends. Just like in the Academy, it’s him against the world, and he will kill over and over and over to escape that world’s demands upon him. So what if he’s capital-G Gifted, not just with powers but with engineering knowledge?
Coulson and S.H.I.E.L.D. could help protect Donnie if they could just get him to calm down and listen to them. S.H.I.E.L.D. knows the good that Donnie could do utilizing his talents to protect, to shield, to nurture.
Memo to Talbot: as Ward points out to Skye during their second crazy-eyes session this season, while S.H.I.E.L.D. is considering those ramifications, weighing the good and the bad, Hydra has already taken the shot. This is the difference between S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra. (Also S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t have any scotch because Lance probably drank it all immediately.)
Who then is really doing the work that S.H.I.E.L.D. wishes it could be doing? Donnie freezes a tanker in Morocco as a sort of signal flare—come and get me, here I am. He’s ready to eliminate Hydra head on so they’ll finally leave him alone and Hydra responds with Simmons in tow. Coulson sends S.H.I.E.L.D. in right behind them.
But it’s Hydra, in the form of Simmons, who tries to reason with Donnie as a person, who tries to talk to him, who presents itself through a face that has previously saved his life. And it’s S.H.I.E.L.D. who takes the shot. First through L.A.N.C.E. H.U.N.T.E.R., and then, finally, through Skye.
Because unbeknownst to Simmons and S.H.I.E.L.D., Hydra already had control of Donnie via a trigger phrase. They just needed to get close enough to use it. Skye’s orders are clear, even if her thoughts aren’t, and she ends a life for the first time and clears the way for Simmons to progress into the upper echelon of Hydra.
Who’s that girl?
- Ward saved his crazy-eyes for Fitz this week and the effect was captivating. (“Despite all of this, it’s really good to see you!”) Fitz’s break down at discovering Ward imprisoned in the same building where he sleeps was intense, and it’s to Coulson’s credit that he completely understands why Fitz would drain the oxygen from Ward’s cell, even if he doesn’t like it.
- Ward is a wonderful poison to the team. After rattling Fitz he finally gets to Skye, revealing that her father is alive and searching for her. She loses control in a way in much the same way Fitz does. Even her Fitbit knows it!
- Simmons: “My loyalty is to science.” And to S.H.I.E.L.D., but mostly science!
- Mac: “Koenig’s on assignment and won’t be hogging the X-Box.” I wonder what assignments Koenig gets? I like to think Patton Oswalt is out there in the field, recruiting the finest in admin and support staff.
- Nice callbacks in the beginning of the episode. Whitehall mentions “the Faustus method,” which is a reference to Captain America villain Dr. Faustus. Short explanation: He’s a crazy psychiatrist who is really good at breaking your mind with drugs and hypnosis and nightmares and then brainwashing you.
- Agent 33, the one being brainwashed in this episode, exists in the Marvel Universe as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and historian specializing in Norse mythology. One wonders if the show will end up using that aspect of her character.
- Especially since Hydra has possession of Loki’s staff from Avengers. (It’s not Asgardian, I know, but they don’t know that yet.)
- I was really pleased that the episode took its stakes seriously and killed Donnie off. A last second save would have thrown off the consistency of the episode’s conflict and Donnie’s character. There’s a quieter theme running here in that, as opposed to the Marvel movies, getting superpowers doesn’t always instill a larger purpose within you. An Avenger is more than a hammer, a shield, or a suit of armor.
- I like it when the show touches on the larger moral and social entities that Hydra and S.H.I.E.L.D. represent. Both of them use the same methods and seek the same control over this dawning age of heroes, but where Hydra seeks a precise and unquestioned domination that submits to a single, rigid will, S.H.I.E.L.D. realizes that the genie is out of the bottle in regards to Gifted individuals and that the best outcome is to offer guidance, boundaries, and connection. Coulson, and his very personal experience with the Avengers, embodies this progression and I hope Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. continues to explore this caretaker approach to superheroes and how it grew out of the rigidity that Hydra introduced to the previous incarnation of S.H.I.E.L.D. It took Fury creating the Avengers under everybody’s noses to break that rigidity, and it will take Coulson to sustain its newfound flexibility.
- Of course, Skye committing to being inflexible about the mission is what leads to her killing for the first time and to everyone losing Donnie. Hail Hydra?