Who’s Your Daddy? Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: “A Hen in the Wolf House”

Yeah! Now this is how you do an episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.! Whip those plotlines around like a meth-addled Simon Belmont, tangle them up, introduce a Marvel superhero, and convey the emotional conflict from last week more potently in two brief scenes than you did in the entirety of last week’s ignorable episode. “A Hen in the Wolf House” was a lean, energetic installment that moved a ton of plotlines forward while giving almost everyone a moment to shine. And it didn’t even have to include the vampire cow!

Before this episode, the longevity of this season’s various plotlines was a larger question looming over the many plot-related questions. When will Skye meet her SkyeDad? When will Simmons get found out by Hydra? When will Coulson come clean about the diagrams? When will Fitz get better? When will Mockingbird show up? What is the Obelisk? There were a lot of questions we needed the answers to, and “Hen in the Wolf House” put some serious weight into answering as many of them as it could.

Further, these answers came grounded in the established relationships between our characters as opposed to a flurry of action sequences. Not that the kicky-punchy revelation of Mockingbird wasn’t exciting (DAT HAIR FLIP THO), or that the cloaked Quinjet jump wasn’t insane, but the emphasis on these sequences was different from an episode like “Face My Enemy,” where the May vs. May brawl was framed as the main highlight of the entire story. Instead, “Hen”s most thrilling scenes are the ones where two people just talk to each other: SkyeDad and Raina, Skye and Coulson, Skye and Ward, Coulson and Raina, Simmons and Whitehall…each one of these scenes adds more tension to the episode, which in turn creates a need for the action sequences to serve as a release of that tension, subsequently adding emotional weight. It feels odd to say this, but action scenes are at their best when they’re about more than just life or death, and “Hen” really takes this to heart.

As an example, let’s start by looking at Simmons’ plotline through the episode. She starts off as her normal ebullient but distant self but is then summoned to a Hydra meeting where she’s quickly put in an impossible moral position. To save the life of another Hydra scientist that Whitehall is displeased with she has to commit to weaponising the Obelisk in a manner that could wipe out the entire population of the planet. Our worry isn’t so much whether Simmons will be killed or discovered, rather, it’s whether she’ll be able to assert the morality we assume of her (and to a larger extent S.H.I.E.L.D.) and stop this plan.

This moral dilemma of Simmons’ is dovetailed spectacularly with a moral dilemma that Coulson is forced to face during his dinner with Raina. He either needs to give Raina what she wants—handing Skye over to her father—or she’ll reveal Simmons to the entirety of Hydra. Coulson’s morality as Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. is put in an impossible situation, either lose an agent to certain death, or lose an agent to an unknown threat. Coulson’s choice to sacrifice Simmons is stunning. We expect him to give up Skye and then come back with some crafty plan afterwards, as we’ve seen S.H.I.E.L.D. do before. Instead, we see him compromise his own character. It’s now more important than ever that Simmons escape, not just to preserve their lives, but to preserve the heroism that we assume of these characters.

That’s not the only compromise that is playing into the situation, either. Skye practically mows May down trying to prevent Coulson from sacrificing Simmons and compromising himself. It’s a brilliantly simple role she has to play. In one short scene she becomes the audience surrogate, trying to stop what we want her to stop, and yet we know that her actions are ultimately selfish. She’s not concerned with heroism, she just wants to meet her dad.

Skye has become a very capable agent in the gap between seasons, so it’s interesting to see how her training and capability, which she prizes highly since it’s pretty much the only thing she can depend on, just completely falls away when she’s forced into a highly emotional, highly personal situation. It begins in a wonderful scene between her and Ward. Her intent is to pump Formerly Agent LooneyHairs for information on her father, but instead she leaves with her faith in Coulson totally shaken. The Skye from only a couple episodes ago would not have let that happen; she would have stayed aggressively on topic.

Skye’s spiral continues as Coulson reveals to her that…maybe she’s an alien…and suddenly Skye is disobeying direct orders and ready to blow the entire sitdown between Coulson and Raina. May stops her, but Skye gives them the slip anyhow and goes off alone to hunt down her father. Her training continues to degrade even here. Instead of approaching the door to her dad’s lab silently and properly casing her surroundings, she calls out her position, worry and fear dripping from her voice.

But we’re not worried about that, really. I mean, sure, she might be ambushed but really the tension is coming from the idea of Skye meeting her father and from what that might do to her character. Skye is worried, too, and this is how the show answers our questions about her dad and about what might happen when that meeting occurs. It answers these questions with action, motivated by personal interactions between the team. Interactions that go on to motivate others in the team.

It’s no coincidence that while Skye finds a framed picture of her dad, Coulson is the one who is actually there, reaching out to her and providing a paternal comfort that Skye has been worrying Coulson may no longer feel. In “Face My Enemy,” when Coulson and May discussed Coulson’s changing personality I expressed criticism that the episode didn’t back that up with an immediate example. “Hen” corrects that. Skye has a real, emotional stake in Coulson’s personality remaining the same. This is a man she relies on heavily. This is a man who, judging by that hug at the end, is obviously still there even when it seems like he isn’t. And this is what we, the team and the viewers, stand to lose if the team can’t figure out a solution.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., season 2, episode 5: Hen in the Wolf House

 

Thoughts:

  • Simmons’ line about a “hellcow producing carmine milk” is an amazing, amazing reference to Bessie the Hellcow, who is, yes, a vampire cow.
  • If there is an upcoming episode where LANCE. HUNTER. has to track and fight this cow all by himself then I will forgive this show for anything and everything. Make it happen, Marvel TV.
  • I don’t mention it above but I loved the opening scene of the wedding getting poisoned by Hydra. The best man’s toast is so awful that you just wish he would stop, then he dies horribly and you feel so bad.
  • In general, I love these little slice-of-life scenes that show how the insanity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe would affect normal people on a basic level. There’s no way you could explain the truth of what happened to those at the wedding, and yet it still happened. I hope the show does more of this.
  • So what’s the deal with SkyeDad? Is he as ageless as Whitehall? Does he have a Hulk thing going on or has he just been fighting his GH/Garrett-type murderous instincts for a long, long time?
  • The Obelisk: “In it’s native language it’s known as The Diviner.”
  • Skye is not her real name. I think there was a theory at the beginning of the first season as to what her real name is, but I can’t seem to find it.
  • Lance: “I was a fat baby.”
  • Mockingbird being revealed as Lance’s ex was a great scene in an episode full of them. I love that the only reason he’s still there is because she vouched for him, and I double love how perplexed that makes him. It’s probably the first Lance scene I’ve actually liked.
  • Fitz Progression Check-In: GhostSimmons is really happy that Fitz is now acknowledging her as his subsconscious, but will Simmons’ actual return scotch that? Fitz gets awful silent when she walks in…
  • Also Fitz is super into Mac’s sweaty body via his subconscious. I’ve always kind of wondered if Fitz is bisexual.
  • It’s not a circuit diagram, but a map. Seems to be a star-map, really. Of the Kree Empire? Or the locations of the Infinity Stones?
  • I loved Simmons’ paper-tech communicator. How amazingly useful would that be for real spies? Make it look like a real piece of paper, make sure it only communicates between itself and home base, then have the agent crumple it up and throw it away like any other piece of paper. The ultimate in expensive obsolescence!
  • Marvel has put out a full look at Bobbi in her Mockingbird outfit for next episode.

The ultimate in expensive obsolescence could be applied to Chris Lough and his recaps of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Doctor Who here on Tor.com.

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