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“Face My Enemy,” the next episode up in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 2, is definitely one of the more fun episodes of the season, particularly because it embraces the James Bond-esque spy thriller genre so much. The random spy tools are out in full force in this one, including the “Return of the Mask” from Captain America: The Winter Soldier—you thought that thing was just a deus ex machina, didn’t you? Additionally, this episode gives us one of the most technically-impressive fight sequences on the series (if not for the year). However, for as impressive as that fight was and as much fun as the James Bond-inspired mission was, the character scenes may have been the most powerful elements of this episode.
Reminder: Retro-Reviews contain potential spoilers for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. seasons 1 and 2, as well as everything else that's come out already.
The episode begins at the scene of a church fire where a Catholic church in Miami had been destroyed, with only a single painting surviving. The bishop decides that they should sell the painting to raise money to rebuild the church. However, following the blaze it has been discovered that there are alien markings carved on the back of the (wooden) painting. This, of course, has Coulson and S.H.I.E.L.D. interested.
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In typical James Bond fashion, Hunter flirts with the executive assistant of the guy who will be facilitating the painting auction in order to swipe a flash drive from her purse which he turns over to Skye. Skye uses the flash drive to acquire invitations for May and Coulson to the auction. May and Coulson then go in alone to scope the mansion out and steal the painting. The scenes in the mansion contain so many little spy-genre nods that it’s hard to keep track of them all. Of course the first one is that they are undercover as a married couple. Next, they have a history together which may or may not be romantic (I’m pretty sure not). They dance, but only as a way to scope out the room and identify security (I remember a scene from the USA series Burn Notice almost exactly like that). Even though they are on a mission together, they have an ulterior motive for the mission which they are keeping secret from the rest of their team. They run into a rival spy who may or may not blow their cover. Coulson uses either an app on his phone or just a really high-tech phone-like device to scan Soto’s eyes, and then uses the phone to create a 3-D likeness of Soto’s eyes to defeat a retinal scanner (similar to the device Barton used in The Avengers). The object they are trying to steal is even protected by a laser grid. I think the best part of that whole scene is when Coulson is ready to try evading the lasers in true James Bond/Mission Impossible style but May just walks right past him and sets them all off—“they already know we’re here.”
On top of all these spy elements, the mask from Captain America: The Winter Soldier reappears, allowing Sunil Bakshi to impersonate General Talbot. Coulson thinks that Talbot is going to blow their cover and approaches him, but it turns out that “Talbot” is actually in league with Hydra and “appropriated” the painting for Whitehall. May follows “Talbot” to his hotel room, discovers brainwashed Hydra Agent 33 reading through Coulson’s file, and confronts them. She discovers the ruse, but is overpowered by fake-Talbot after removing his mask. Bakshi uses the mask to send Agent 33 undercover as May to infiltrate S.H.I.E.L.D. and bring Coulson to him. She does a passable job of impersonating May, but makes just enough mistakes for Coulson to become suspicious, test her, and fight her.
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May meanwhile is interrogated by Bakshi who wants to know who is now in charge of S.H.I.E.L.D., something she refuses to divulge. He threatens her with brainwashing and torture, but nothing really phases her. In fact, she frees herself the moment he turns his back, and he is the one terrified of her instead! I thought that was a nice touch: most of these spy thriller movies overuse the damsel in distress trope, even with ostensibly-capable female spies, so for May to be the one who gets taken prisoner, frees herself, and turns the tables on her captor (in true James Bond fashion) is a refreshing twist—and perfectly in line with her character. This of course sets up easily the best sequence of the episode, season, series—and perhaps all of TV for the last year! I’m talking of course about the May-vs.-May fight. The fight really let Ming Na Wen and her body double show off, with everything from standard boxing to knives to a midair-twisting-head-slam. Of course the sequence ends with fake-May monologuing about not wanting to pretend to be her anymore, which gives May herself a chance to shock fake-May with the exposed wires that Bakshi was going to use on her. This whole scene was awesome. We could have done without the monologuing, but I think we can give it a pass since “chatty May” was one of the primary indicators for Coulson that she wasn’t really May.
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The rest of the team doesn’t get a lot to do while Coulson and May are defeating Hydra and stealing the painting (which Coulson succeeds in doing). They spend most of the episode on the Bus talking. This gives them a chance to bond, but even more than that it gives Fitz some much-needed character development. I think this is the episode when he really turns the corner in terms of his relationship with the rest of the team and his recovery from the brain damage. He’s spent most of the season to-date isolating himself in the lab and only emerging from his shell occasionally with help from Mack. In this episode, however, he talks himself into coming out of his shell (or rather, his artificially-constructed Simmons talks him into it). He doesn’t want to be off by himself, and he takes steps to reintegrate with the team. In the end, he even succeeds in saving all of them when he identifies the device that fake-May left on the Bus and figures out a way to stop the virus and prevent it from destroying the Bus. They don’t do a whole lot with the virus situation, but the virus itself is unimportant; it is just an obstacle for Fitz to overcome. And he overcomes it by figuring out how to communicate to Hunter well enough for Hunter to act as his hands to make the necessary adjustments to fix the Bus. And at the end of the day, Fitz even bonds with Mack and Hunter over a beer by telling them about Simmons leaving. Of all the characters explored in this episode, I think Fitz got the most character development after Coulson and May.
The episode ends with Coulson and May finally having a talk about their “contingency plan.” Coulson is worried that his condition is getting worse and that he will eventually go the way of Garrett and devolve into complete insanity. If that happens, he wants May to kill him and take over S.H.I.E.L.D. However, May refuses to even consider killing him—they have far too much history together for her to do something like that—and instead plans to take him out of the country and stash him in the Australian outback until S.H.I.E.L.D. can figure out what to do with him. This is unacceptable for Coulson, who does not want to live as a maniac and does not think there is a cure for his condition. Instead, he orders her to forget about her own plan and carry out his orders if it ever comes to that. I like this scene for how it explores the relationship between Coulson and May and actually shows just how much Coulson means to May. However, something about Coulson’s contingency plan involving his assassin taking over the organization just doesn’t sit right with me. It makes sense, but feels too much like the way that Hydra would decide its new head.
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Overall, I really like all of the spy genre elements of this episode—and even more the way that it subverts certain elements. I also like how well the episode expands on May and Coulson’s relationship, that they have been working together probably for May’s entire career. The May-vs.-May fight easily stood out from a technical standpoint as the highlight of the episode, and is probably the best fight scene of the season. The way in which Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. makes use of the disguise mask is ironic in that it reduces the deus ex machina factor associated with the same device when it appeared in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. By my count, that makes 3 different deus ex machina devices from the movies which were better explained by AoS after the fact: the mask, the helicarrier (Avengers: Age of Ultron), and Fury’s super-cutter device (Captain America: The Winter Soldier). For as much as I’m not a fan of the deus ex machina, I like that AoS can take those things and fit them into the universe a little better.
However, far and away the best part of the episode from a character standpoint was the focus on Fitz and his recovery. It seemed like at some point during the season it stopped being a factor, but early on it was his biggest subplot.
As of now I only have 6 more episodes to review and I will be caught up to where I started way back in March. This has actually been a lot of fun—not least because I’ve caught so many things on the second or third viewing which I missed or didn’t understand the first time around. However, I’m going to be very glad when Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 3 begins at the end of September.
What was your favorite fight scene so far on AoS? Do you want to see more episodes that take this much inspiration from the spy thriller genre?
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