Review: ‘Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD’ – ‘Face My Enemy’

A review of tonight's “Marvel's Agents of SHIELD” coming up just as soon as I'm based about five feet from kicking your ass…

For a lot of its first season, “Agents of SHIELD” felt retro in a bad way: as if, in the absence of any clear sense of purpose for the characters or the show as a whole, the creative team was recycling whatever action show beats they recalled fondly from their younger years, and using them in as perfunctory a manner as possible.

“SHIELD” season 2 has offered plenty of retro so far, but it's been the good kind: borrowing the old stuff that still works, and fitting it specifically to these characters and the actors who are becoming ever more comfortable at playing them. The Coulson/Talbot dynamic, for instance, is pretty much straight out of “The A-Team,” where Hannibal often got to banter with whatever poor sap from the military was chasing him that season, but it works because the structure is sound and it's fun to watch Clark Gregg annoy Adrian Pasdar.

“Face My Enemy” was about as hoaky and retro as it gets – a “Mission: Impossible” episode dressed up with digital effects for the mask work(*) – complete with the well-worn moment where Coulson confirms he's with an impostor because of the coffee gag. But you know what? I don't much care, because the extended May vs. “May” brawl in and around the hotel room was such a treat. When you have Ming-Na Wen in your cast, you take advantage of what she can do in fight scenes, and you do that even more by putting her – and her usually well-disguised stunt double – on both sides of the same fight. Terrific stuff, and she did a good enough job differentiating between the real May (confident, deliberate) and 33 (desperate and rash) that they probably didn't even need to dress her differently for the two halves of the battle. 

(*) Albeit never bothering to explain how 33 could pass as May – let alone fit in her dress – given that the two actresses are built differently. Not as ridiculous as, say, someone Mac's size Mac pretending to be Trip, but still a rather large plot hole that I will wave away because, again, May vs. May was splendid. 

For that matter, the earlier caper sequence at the fundraiser worked because it played so well off of what we've come to know about May, and about her relationship with Coulson. It's horrifying to the rest of the team, and amusing to us, to have her giggling, flirting, and speaking in full paragraphs, but it's also effective to have the mama and papa of the team bonding over shared experiences and talking about what happens if/when the alien DNA turns Coulson into a sociopath like Garrett.

When “SHIELD” tried to go light last year, the show just felt lightweight and pointless. There's a crispness and a sense of confidence that wasn't there last fall, and that carried an hour that ultimately felt less substantial than the last few. In particular, the team trying to prevent the bus from blowing up played like something where either a ton got left on the cutting room floor in favor of more May (and this week, who wouldn't make that choice?), or else something the creative team couldn't make work and just gave up on by having Fitz clumsily exposit the plan to Hunter at the last second.

And even there, the more important part of the story wasn't the technobabble about stopping the virus 33 unleashed, but the emotional material about Fitz feeling confident enough to bond with the other guys on the team. If the choice was ultimately made to spend more time on beer and ex-wife stories, and less on a fairly tension-less B-story – the bus isn't going to explode, and the team isn't going to die en masse – then that's the right choice. But it's not necessarily the choice the show would have made a year ago.

There will be better and more ambitious episodes of “SHIELD” this season, I suspect. But this one had Ming-Na Wen being a major badass and looking good doing it, and sometimes that's just fine.

What did everybody else think?