It seems like every new episode of "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." inspires tweets and articles about how the show is back on track, or how it's becoming the show we expected it to be from the get-go. The part of the Internet where I spend a lot of my time has been very critical of the show, and a lot of my convos IRL (which I still have, from time to time) involve me trying to convince people who jumped ship before Thanksgiving of the show's improvement. Since most of the pieces written about "Agents of SHIELD" (and I'm ditching the punctuation, because this is my column and I'm a loose cannon with an aching hand) focus on either the show's surprising turnaround or how the show isn't living up to its potential, I'm going in a different direction. This opening paragraph serves as me saying, "I get it, I know you might have problems with the show" and then I'm going to move on.
So, moving on -- this week's episode, "Yes Men," was fantastic.
I wasn't going to write about "Agents of SHIELD" this week. I had another plan altogether, but after watching last night's episode I really couldn't think about anything else. So, sorry "Operation: Galactic Storm" fans, you'll have to wait maybe forever to hear my in-depth thoughts about that early '90s crossover. Short version: Eric Masterson as Thor is maybe the greatest forgotten character ever. Anyway, as I finished "Yes Men" -- consider this entire piece spoiler-filled -- and Lady Sif called Agent Coulson's giant jet a "flying boat," I realized that I couldn't write about anything else. The episode had entertained me far more than anything else in the past week, and I could not resist writing about it. That makes sense considering the might of Lorelei's persuasive sorcery and Sif's intimidating nature -- I have to write about "Yes Men," or else.
The fifteenth installment in "Agents of SHIELD's" inaugural season succeeded because it marked the first time that the magic of Marvel's movies made its way onto the small screen. That literally happened with the arrival of a pair of Asgardians, Lorelei and Sif. But it also happened because the episode felt as briskly paced, emotionally involved, and madcap as the Marvel movies feel at their height. Sif kicked a mobile home across a parking lot! May tackled Ward through a window! Coulson punched the crap out of Fitz! The episode's final act was filled with the kind of GIF-able moments that give every Marvel movie such a long life online.
Of course it's easy to pin the episode's success on how closely intertwined it was with Marvel's movies. After all, "Agents of SHIELD" only exists because "Marvel's the Avengers" destroyed at the box office. Since the show and the films are so tied together, "Agents of SHIELD's" biggest problem so far has been its unwillingness to dive into that MCU swimming pool. Coulson and crew have hung around on the edges and dipped their toes in, but everyone else -- the fans -- are in the pool. This is a pool party. "Agents of SHIELD" has been perfectly pleasant and friendly, but we've been hanging out with them on a deck chair and us in the deep end. In "Yes Men," "Agents of SHIELD" finally took the plunge.
The arrival of Lorelei and Sif killed two birds with one double-edged sword. First, it gave us Lorelei, another straight-from-the-comics character. Unlike "Arrow," which has started cramming in deep cut DC characters every chance it gets, "Agents of SHIELD" has held back. We've gotten a few, and they range from perfectly adapted (Victoria Hand) to adapted in name only (Blizzard). With Lorelei, we get a character that's thankfully the former type, and it was incredibly rewarding. I felt that Elena Satine's performance was up there with most of Marvel's big screen baddies, and writer Shalisha Francis actually made her sympathetic at times. Well, she was at least sympathetic in the same "are they manipulating me" way that's made Loki such a hit.
Secondly, Sif's arrival gave us our first direct link to the MCU since Fury showed up to chew out Coulson in the second episode. Her appearance even expanded upon the end of "Thor: The Dark World," as ("Thor" spoilers) we found out that Odin ordered Sif to bring Lorelei back alive. Sif admitted to being a bit puzzled at the request, but she had to follow the All-Father's order. Remember how Loki took Odin's place at the end of "The Dark World?" Surprise surprise, this episode of "Agents of SHIELD" gave us our first glimpse of Loki's rule, and maybe our first taste of his master plan. When "Agents of SHIELD" was first announced, fans expected this kind of interaction on a regular basis. While I don't know how feasible it is to shove these connections into every episode, I do know that this one succeeded on every level for me.
I can't forget to mention Jaimie Alexander's Sif, a character that I have loved ever since I first saw her ram a sword through the back of the Destroyer's head. I'm glad that Sif got solo time to shine. I love that Sif is as noble, imposing, and cocky as Thor, and I really loved getting to see Sif possess all of those traits without Thor onscreen. She commands attention.
But here's the thing: MCU cameos on their own can't make for entertaining television. "Agents of SHIELD" knows that, and while I think they've over-corrected in the past by seemingly going out of their way to not include Marvel characters, I think the attention they've paid to their main cast has finally started to pay off. Somehow, getting in the MCU mix in last night's episode brought out the best in every character on the show. Writer Shalisha Francis' previous episode, "The Bridge," kicked off the season's big overarching plot, but she really kicked that plot into gear in "Yes Men."
The internal conflicts that arose in this episode felt earned and they added definition to the characters we've spent so much time with up to this point. The fallouts from Skye's near death experience, Coulson's discovery of his miracle drug's origin, and Lorelei driving an Asgardian wedge between May and Ward all gave us vital information about every character. These conflicts feel driven by the ideologies of the characters and these stakes feel intensely personal, and because of that, I finally feel invested in the show's big mysteries.
So what am I talking about when I talk about internal conflicts? I'm talking about May's refusal to admit any of her feelings to Ward. I'm talking about Ward dropping his tough guy act in his interactions with Skye and May. I'm talking about how broken Coulson's been since uncovering that blue tube guy, and how that's obviously jeopardizing every one of his relationships. I'm talking about Skye and Coulson's differing views on being healed by mysterious alien blood. The fact that Skye views it as a win just because she's still alive whereas Coulson would have rather died than to have become involved with this massive secret -- one that will undoubtedly threaten everyone -- reveals so much about each character.
But my favorite conflict? The one that really made me open my eyes last night? Agent Simmons confronting Coulson about him refusing to let her send Skye's alien-infused blood to S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ for tests. That was real character-defining work, and Simmons needed -- and deserved -- it. So far Simmons has been shown as a goofily affable and brainy sidekick; her relationship with Fitz and Skye has been endearing so far, but we haven't gotten a firm grip on her character. This episode finally proved that Simmons is good at her job, and that she has backbone enough to stand up to Coulson.
Their hallway confrontation starts like most Simmons scenes -- the quirky medical officer quirks her way through explaining her problem. When Coulson tells her that sending the blood to HQ isn't an option, actress Elizabeth Henstridge switches gears. She just says one word -- "why?" -- but it's layered with tension and false charm. She still forces a smile while explaining to Coulson how important this is, because the Simmons we know so far has been all smiles. She's not one to defy orders, lest we forget the awkward team-up she had with Skye to steal S.H.I.E.L.D. secrets. But in this scene, she rises to the occasion and stands up for what she thinks is right. She's become a real S.H.I.E.L.D. officer, and I hope that we get to see more of this confident and competent Simmons in the future.
With actual Marvel characters running amok and the "Agents of SHIELD" cast coming into their own, I got a lot of enjoyment out of "Yes Men." By the time the final act hit and we got to see Sif duke it out with Lorelei while May tackled Ward, I was feeling some real Marvel Cinematic Universe adrenaline. Director John Terlesky shot some of the most frenetic and brutal fight scenes since Joss Whedon's pilot episode, especially May and Ward's everything-on-this-plane-is-a-weapon brawl. But that final act only worked because the build-up also worked; I cared about everything happening because the characters made me care. For now, this is the "Agents of SHIELD" episode to beat.
Also, Sif rode on top of the team's jet. Come on, that's awesome.
Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He co-hosts the podcast Matt & Brett Love Comics and is a writer for the comedy podcast Left Handed Radio. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).