Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season two has been a high-energy experience, progressing from jaw-dropper to jaw-dropper, deepening its characters, and having fun with the complexity that the Marvel Cinematic Universe naturally generates. Where we are by its mid-season finale, “What They Become,” feels far more mature than where we were in the season premiere “Shadows,” and that’s quite a trick to pull off in only ten episodes.
It’s thanks to the consistent quality of these episodes that “What They Become” can be forgiven for being so. very. boring. The mid-season finale certainly had some exciting moments and developments, but they were a puzzling exception to an episode that, despite a lot of fighting and interpersonal drama, came off flat.
Let’s focus on those exciting moments.
1.) Blow up one Bus and none more shall takes its place.
You knew that Coulson and the Scrappies would escape the certain doom presented by the ring of Hydra jets, but it was still fun to see just how they did it. May’s suicidal dive set me right on edge. It’s one thing to fall from a great height but yet another to speed up one’s fall with jet engines. (Why are you encouraging the ground’s imminent approach auuuugh!?) Combining that by using the living quarters as missile blinds then immediately cloaking was a brilliantly simplistic solution. Props to May for being such a flexible strategist. She would have known her trick wouldn’t work as long as Ward was around, but once he bugged off it became a viable escape option. If only the rest of the action in the episode had been that clever.
2.) SkyeBangs meets SkyeDad.
The meeting between Skye and her crazy-go-nuts dad from Twin Peaks was a long-awaited moment this season and “What They Become” mostly pulls it off. It’s hampered by Chloe Bennett’s acting somewhat, which is odd considering how effective she was at depicting Skye falling apart just a few episodes back. I’m curious if her role in the scene was just too underwritten.
Although, the occasional odd notes from their meeting might simply be what happens when you pair Bennett with the more experienced and nuanced Kyle MacLachlan. MacLachlan’s character this season has been famously mercurial and in contrast this makes Skye’s second season stoicism look even more stiff than usual. Skye’s father is fun to watch and brings a lot of energy and active menace. Even when he’s pouring his shredded puppy dog heart out to his daughter, you’re wondering when he’s going snap and bite.
It’s a credit to the actor and the show that this tension became the focus of Skye and SkyeDad’s reuniting scene, regardless of how much plot exposition got dropped along with it. Even better, the scene ended with me just wanting SkyeDad to explain things further. Oh, there will be time to explain it all later? Famous last words, SkyeDad!
In contrast to Skye and the Doctor’s initial meeting, MacLachlan’s confrontation with Coulson (and then later Skye) felt completely devoid of tension. You knew he and Coulson were going to have it out with MANFISTS, and they’ve butted heads over who’s the better daddy before, so the only new element to really spice that confrontation up was making Skye choose between the two of them. Except it’s not really a choice, is it? Skye never gave an inch during her initial meeting with her dad, and sweaty Kyle MacLachlan doesn’t give her any reason to reconsider that stance. Skye would pop her pop to save Coulson, no question.
3.) Skye gets superpowers.
I asked in the recap of the previous episode whether you thought the show would go full Terrigenesis with the Diviner/Kree arc and I believe you overwhelmingly said no. (This is not at all a scientific or comprehensive poll. My work as production manager on Tor.com keeps me too busy to check in on comments as much as I would like. As soon as I’m done with the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. recap I typically have to rush off elsewhere to keep other plates spinning. But anyhoo.)
You were right! The world doesn’t get exposed to the Terrigen Mist/Crystal/Smoke, but Skye, Tripp, and Raina do while trapped inside the most boring set imaginable. Aside from the meeting between Skye and her father, this plot development was really what we were watching for, and it was a continuing frustration for me that the episode kept veering away from it. My glee at May’s daring pre-credits escape was immediately dampened by seeing Coulson, Bobbi, and Simmons back on The Bus directly afterwards. Weren’t they just in the ruins? Weren’t they going to go down into the temple? I know it makes logical sense to retreat and re-plan after what happened to Mac but also, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., you spent the entire last episode delaying the descent into the Temple why are you still delaying it further?
This frustration was with me throughout the entire rest of the episode. Ward and MayFace are having a moment maybe they’ll raid the tomb right after that oh but first they’ll check in with Whitehall then raid the tomb haha jk first they’ll have Coulson and SkyeDad get punchy THEN they’ll raid the tomb okay they’re sort of raiding the tomb now but really we’re just showing Tripp planting bombs in the tomb so they can blow it up without ever raiding it and oh apparently it would be a shame to not see Lance Hunter and Bobbi hugging before they raid the tomb BLOODY RAID THE TOMB ALREADY.
Finally, in the last 10 minutes, some spelunking occurs and everybody makes a mad, mad, mad, mad rush to place or not-place the Diviner on a paper mache stand and we get some serious Final Fantasy cut-scene magic. Coulson gets delayed by still-alive-but-mostly-centurion Mac and gets locked out of the room. Raina, Skye, and Tripp make it in, and a crystal pops out of the Diviner. There’s some light, some mistiness, and suddenly everyone is getting petrified. Except maybe not? I don’t know, but I love watching it. This is what I came for.
The petrification, besides being wonderfully showy, becomes its own little plot twist. Skye screams out in terror and Tripp smashes the crystal, halting the progress of the Diviner before it can possibly spread outside of the Temple, in hopes that he can save Skye. Too late. The petrification process completes and we’re left with a DeadSkye SkyeStatue.
The show actually had me fooled here. I was expecting Skye to be a key player in the events of the finale but I wasn’t expecting her to die. Yet, her dying is a realistic consequence of a quest as totally bananas as this Kree Diviner thing and the possibility of her death is probably something I should have expected. And it’s a cool death, too. In those moments after her petrification, I could accept the loss of Skye. Especially if Coulson then had SkyeStatue propped up in the corner of his office to remind him of his FOREVER DADDY FAILURE.
Another part of me wanted Tripp to make sure that Skye wasn’t just, you know, coccooned, before he smashed the crystal because the petrification effect didn’t quite look like the ones we had seen in earlier episodes. This looked more…frostingy? More organic, like a membrane instead of stone. And sure enough that was what it turned out to be. As we stare at the SkyeStatue the Temple begins to shake and a hand bursts forth from the stone. Skye still lives inside this coccoon, transformed into…something new. She has powers now, but it’s not immediately apparent what they are.
Belatedly, the stone begins to cover Tripp, even as Raina bursts forth from her coccoon inarguably transformed. Skye is something new, Raina is something new. What about Tripp? They look to him.
He is not chosen. Slowly, his face crumbles to dust, his final act one of pure selflessness. Tripp is dead and the implications of that are extremely troubling. Here was a background character who could have emerged as a primary if the show writers had ever bothered to give him anything to do. We found out more about Lance Hunter (Lance Hunter, people) this season than we ever did about Tripp. And while he dies a hero, he still dies as someone ignorable, which brings up terrible racial associations in the present day. I don’t know how to feel about the fact that Tripp’s death is itself an important plot device. It’s important that we know that the Diviner grants life and destruction. Skye and Raina are found worthy, Tripp is not, and if the Diviner had been allowed to expand outside of the Temple then the implication is clear: it would have annihilated the population of Earth, leaving behind a fully superpowered and greatly diminished humanity. Tripp saved the world.
But it also feels like we were cheated. Why did it have to be Tripp who figuratively threw himself in front of the death ray? Last season we watched as a black male got his life mangled by Hydra. This season, we see another black male lose his life to halt an alien apocalypse. I don’t feel like these two instances justifies a claim of racism or ignorance against the show, but I’m also uncomfortable with the idea that the writers and showrunners of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. might not realize how easily its positioning of black men can become an unhealthy pattern.
The episode ends there, buried under 200 meters of volcanic rock, with the aftermath left unwritten. We don’t know what will happen to any of these characters next. March feels far away.
- Skye’s real name is finally revealed as Daisy Johnson, as many assumed, and her Quake powers now seem to be in full effect.
- I’m hoping Whitehall isn’t actually dead. He’s so oozy that he deserves a more grand death than being shot in the back while half off-frame. Give him something Red Skull-ish.
- I’m forming a theory that Ward’s actions can really only be defined by loyalty to specific men. First Garrett, then Coulson, then Skye’s dad, and probably still Coulson. I’m not sure how sound this theory is, given how dismissive of Garrett Ward to seems to be in “What They Become,” but I like it because it gives Ward the possibility of redemption, or at least the possibility of linking him back up with Coulson. What if Ward’s now actively looking for someone to utilize him for better aims?
- There was a conspicuous absence of Agent Peggy Carter in this episode. I figured she would make an appearance since her show is next on the docket. Maybe Marvel and ABC think linking the two overtly is a bad idea, considering the reaction Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. received last season and its low ratings this season.
- So there are lots of Diviners and lots of Inhumans scattered around the planet? Do you think they’re all on a family phone plan?
- See you in the new year for Agent Carter!