Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 2, Episode 3, "Making Friends and Influencing People" RETRO-REVIEW (SPOILERS)

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“Making Friends and Influencing People (2x03) is the episode when Hydra’s methods start to come into clearer focus.  We find out how Hydra “Influences People,” even as Simmons starts working to “Make Friends” with Hydra.  Wait… what?  Hold on tight; this is a wild one!

The episode begins with Whitehall talking about patience:  He is used to waiting long periods of time.  He bought a case of liquor while he was in the service during World War II, and since then it has become an incredibly rare and precious commodity.  As we know now, he has had to wait decades to escape S.H.I.E.L.D. custody, reassert his power, and reacquire the Obelisk.  And today, he is waiting for Kara—S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent 33—to succumb to his brainwashing method.  This is only the first appearance of brainwashing on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but this became a major plot for all of season 2 and even tied in very closely with Agent Carter:  Whitehall calls his brainwashing method the “Faustus Method,” a clear reference to Johann Fennhoff, aka Doctor Faustus, the main villain for Agent Carter season 1, who taught it to Arnim Zola while they were in a S.H.I.E.L.D. prison together.  By this method, the subject is strapped to a device and forced to stare at random swirling shapes and colors until they “comply.”  It’s a slow process, but then again, Whitehall is accustomed to waiting.

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This episode also answers a major fan question:  what’s been happening with Simmons for the last 2 episodes?  We know that she left S.H.I.E.L.D., but where did she go?  The answer is pretty obvious:  she’s working in a lab with a giant Hydra logo painted on the wall.  I remember seeing some complaints last year about Hydra being so obvious when they’re supposed to be underground, but I don’t have a problem with them putting their logo on the wall of the super-secure office building or on the backs of the strike team uniforms.  After all, the people who see the strike team uniforms are most likely either S.H.I.E.L.D., Hydra, or about to die—and anyone else probably isn’t observant enough to notice or realize what they are seeing.  And as far as the office building is concerned, that lab is secured by at least 2 levels of active security measures (the guard and scanner at the entrance), and who knows how many forms of passive security measures.  No one is going to wander into that room by mistake—or if they do they’re not going to get out to tell anyone.  Besides, why shouldn’t someone like Whitehall, who is used to Hydra being able to operate in the open, take pride in being able to do so (to a small extent) once again?

However, Simmons is not a turncoat; she is actually deep undercover for Coulson trying to infiltrate Whitehall’s Hydra cell.  She is currently working on “Project Blizzard,” which is analyzing samples from Donnie Gill to determine the source of the ice powers which he manifested at the end of “Seeds” (1x12).  Once Simmons realizes that Gill is the subject of her research, she contacts Coulson and informs him that Hydra is trying to recruit Gill.  This gives us a glimpse into the “arms race” between S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra:  both sides are trying to scoop up bases, agents, and other assets for use in their fight.  S.H.I.E.L.D. has lost a lot of ground—the first S.H.I.E.L.D. loss of the episode was Agent 33, who had been captured by Hydra, and Coulson does not want a repeat with Gill.

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Both sides learn that Gill is on a Hydra ship in Morocco, and both sides arrive in Morocco around the same time.  Whitehall’s lieutenant, Sunil Bakshi, decides to bring Simmons along because he discovered her past connection to Gill and wants to use it against him.  Simmons succeeds in getting close to Gill and engaging him in conversation—something that every other Hydra agent who tried getting close to him failed to do.  Coulson sends Skye, Hunter, and May to make contact with Gill, but they are too late and Simmons reaches him first.

Meanwhile, back at the Playground, Fitz discovers the cell where Coulson has been keeping Ward, and the two of them have an interesting reunion.  I think this scene might be one of the best of the episode:  Fitz’ reaction to finding Ward is incredibly believable.  His subsequent attempt to kill him by depriving him of oxygen is completely unexpected, but I think it shows just how much Fitz has been affected by not only Ward’s betrayal but also his attempt to kill them at the end of season 1.  Considering that Fitz suffered from brain damage as a direct result of Ward’s actions, it might actually have been more surprising if he didn’t react badly to finding Ward as the monster under the stairs!

Before he passes out from oxygen deprivation, however, Ward manages to explain to Fitz that Donnie Gill is actually a Hydra asset.  At the Sandbox, Gill was taught to control his abilities, and at the same time he was also brainwashed to serve Hydra.  When S.H.I.E.L.D. fell, Hydra activated Gill and used him as their secret weapon to take over the Sandbox.  The loyal S.H.I.E.L.D. agents never stood a chance.  I really like this addition to the S.H.I.E.L.D./Hydra story.  Even while Hydra was working within S.H.I.E.L.D., it was already planning for its future uprising by recruiting and brainwashing gifted individuals to serve their needs.  And this was going on under S.H.I.E.L.D.’s nose without them ever suspecting a thing.  Of course, S.H.I.E.L.D. would never consider brainwashing people to do something they didn’t want to do—or killing a gifted individual who refuses to cooperate with their goals—and according to Ward that is why Hydra is inevitably going to win:  Hydra is willing to anything to complete their mission, even when it is absolutely horrible and inhumane.

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When Fitz passes this information along to Coulson, Coulson orders the team on the ground to prevent Hydra from talking to Gill to keep them from reactivating his brainwashing.  Unfortunately, the Hydra agent reactivating him is Simmons, and Hunter is about to shoot her before May notices and shoots him instead.  They arrange for Simmons to escape with Hydra with her cover intact, but Hydra succeeds in reactivating Gill and turning him against S.H.I.E.L.D.  Skye is forced to shoot him to prevent him from icing the entire ship and killing Hunter and May.  Gill falls into the ocean and his body is never recovered.  S.H.I.E.L.D. escapes and succeeds in bringing a lot of Hydra artifacts and intel back to base from the ship.

At the end of the episode, Simmons’ cover is intact and she has gained Bakshi’s trust, Agent 33 has been brainwashed into serving Hydra, and Fitz knows that Ward is their prisoner.  He and Coulson actually have a heart-to-heart about Ward in which Coulson explains that keeping Ward around is a necessary evil because he can give them information about Hydra.

Donnie Gill really hasn’t gotten a lot of character development over the course of his two appearances on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.  In his first appearance he is a troubled loner without any friends and whose only friend takes advantage of him.  In this second appearance he is a troubled loner without any friends and whose only “friend” (Hydra) brainwashed him into using his abilities to kill people and attack S.H.I.E.L.D.  This episode essentially treats him as a MacGuffin which both sides are trying to acquire.  For this reason I really hope that he survived getting shot—perhaps his body naturally placed him into cryostasis while it healed—and that he will get an opportunity to return in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 3.  And if he does return, I really hope he will get more development.

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The episode does make up for this by letting Simmons spread her wings and expand her character beyond being the biologist-half of Fitz-Simmons.  She displays the ability to lie (or at least tell half-truths), even if she doesn’t have the whole “undercover” thing down.  I was actually disappointed that her undercover mission inside Hydra was such a quick thing:  we see her undercover in episode 3 and her cover gets blown in episode 5.  However, season 2 still did a good job of separating out Simmons and Fitz.

We also saw a little development from Fitz in his scene with Ward and from Skye as she continued her training under May’s guidance.  I saw quite a bit of foreshadowing for her arc in the second half of the season when she kept checking her pulse throughout the episode and also with May’s continual insistence that she needs to “maintain control.”

The biggest goal of the episode, I think, was to introduce the brainwashing, build up some more Hydra techniques and plots, and start developing Whitehall as the big bad for the half-season.  I thought they did okay with Whitehall—he’s certainly crazy enough and evil enough—but he wasn’t nearly as complex as Jiaying in the second half of the season.  I really hope that Ward in season 3 will be a better villain than Garrett or Whitehall.

What did you think of “Making Friends and Influencing People”?  Do you think that Donnie Gill is gone for good?

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