Review: ‘Agents of SHIELD’ has fun with its spin on ‘The Martian’

Thoughts on tonight's “Agents of SHIELD” coming up just as soon as I eat in the shower and fall asleep while doing it…

“Agents of SHIELD” is a busy show by design, with lots of characters, lots of story arcs, and occasional pauses to service the needs of Marvel's movies. Some series are good at doing lots of things at once and doing them all well, but “SHIELD” isn't a fantastic multi-tasker. It can do a lot of things decently at the same time, but none of them exceptionally. It's an eminently watchable show with the tools, but not the focus, to be so much better. Looking back on last season, one of the strongest episodes was “Face My Enemy,” which had little to do with the year's overall arc (other than trapping Agent 33 in her Melinda May disguise), but which was more effective than most weeks because it spent extra time just doing one thing (in this case, the May vs. May fight) really well.

A few minutes into “4,722 Hours,” I began dreading the seemingly inevitable moment when we cut away from Simmons' ordeal on the alien planet to check in on Daisy, Hunter, Coulson, Bucky, Hawkeye's wife, Squirrel Girl, Paste-Pot Pete, et al…

… only it never came. Until we came to the episode's closing minutes, with Fitz absorbing all that he and we had just learned, there were no cutaways, no subplots, nothing but Jemma Simmons trying to make like Mark Watney(*) and stay alive on in inhospitable alien world with no real hope of rescue. One story just got to unfold, developing a lot of tension and doing more to develop Simmons than the previous two seasons combined. Funny how that works, isn't it?

(*) The episode was conceived of last season, before “The Martian” was released in theaters, but after the book had been a best-seller for some time, and “SHIELD” executive producer Jeffrey Bell has even dropped the comparison in interviews about the episode. Too bad they couldn't find a way to put some disco into this episode's soundtrack.

This was a fine showcase for Elizabeth Henstridge, as we see that Simmons is tough, resourceful, and completely unflappable despite being placed in a circumstance that would drive most people insane within minutes of realizing where they were. It helps that she has SHIELD training, and that she had a smartphone with a Fitz-enhanced battery so she could feel tethered to life on Earth, but there's still an inner strength to her that's been displayed briefly in other episodes, but never to this degree, and certainly not in such a dire situation.

I could've done without Simmons and Will becoming a couple, which seemed less about adding drama to an inherently dramatic set-up(**) than to using her stint as a castaway on an alien world to create yet another obstacle to the inevitable FitzSimmons coupling. And having Will as a companion, along with the relative comfort of all his NASA gear, made the ordeal a bit less extreme than had been suggested by Simmons' behavior in her first few episodes back on Earth.

(**) Getting back to “The Martian” for a minute, one of the smartest things the book and movie do is not giving Watney a wife and/or kid back home to add extra pathos to his attempt to stay alive and NASA's attempt to rescue him. That he wants to stay alive, and that NASA doesn't want to leave him behind to die, is all that's needed; anything else risks laying the sentiment on too thick.

Still, I found myself much more engaged in her struggle to survive and get back home to Fitz and the rest of the team than I've been in anything else this season – or, really, anything the show's done since it came back from its winter hiatus last year. I wouldn't expect, or even want, “SHIELD” to start doing single-story episodes every week(***), but like “Game of Thrones” – which is vastly better at its diffuse story style than this show, but which also benefits from those occasional installments that stay in one location for most of the hour – I think the series would benefit enormously from doing something like this every now and then.

(***) Mark Waid's “SHIELD” comic with Coulson, May, Fitz, and Simmons has been a ton of fun doing mostly standalone issues, but it also has the benefit of being able to play with all of the tools in the Marvel toolbox (i.e., Spider-Man helps Coulson deal with a problem at Dr. Strange's house), where the TV show is significantly limited in which characters it can use.

What did everybody else think?