Review: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. “Emancipation”

In which the film side of the MCU invades the TV side & majorly mucks things up.

Let’s recap, shall we?

Hive and Dr. Radcliffe drain Daisy’s blood to make more Inhumans and capture members of the Watchdogs as (semi-successful) test subjects. Daisy hacks into the S.H.I.E.L.D. computer system with Fitz fighting her every step of the way to try and break Lincoln out of confinement. Meanwhile General Talbot arrives to inspect and evaluate in the aftermath of the events of Captain America: Civil War and we learn that Hive has a way of dispersing his turn-any-human-Inhuman formula across a significant portion of the globe. 

SPOILERS TO FOLLOW, for both Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Captain America: Civil War.

You have been warned!

I’ll give “Emancipation” its due: it genuinely surprised me. Throughout, Lincoln is acting like his usual irrational self, going against the team to break out and get to Daisy. I was literally eye-rolling and wondering if this was really all the writers could think to do with him. Then, ninety degree turn, it was all a plan hatched with May and Coulson to trick Daisy into bringing Lash (yeah, remember how he’s still bopping around in a cell?) in a quinjet to Hive’s location (thinking Lincoln was on board). The show used my expectations of Lincoln against me. I spent most of the episode bemoaning his lack of development and idiocy and was pleasantly surprised by the fact that, hey, he has learned something! That does not, however, make up for the fact that “Emancipation” is a far below average episode, plagued with ham-handed scenes and badly written dialogue. For an episode that, on paper, has quite a lot going on in terms of plot, character motivation, moral quandaries and advancement (and what should have been an awesome, super-powered fight sequence), it’s remarkably slow-paced and dull.

Some of the worst offenders are the scenes with General Talbot, full of clichéd lines like:

Coulson: “..the Avengers operate in the spotlight. We work best in the shadows.” Talbot: “What’s going on in those shadows, Phil? That’s what I want to know.”

His arrival is the franchise, which usually ignores the television shows, knocking down on the door and forcing Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to stop what it’s been doing and acknowledge film events, awkwardly intertwining the Sokovia Accords, superhuman registration and government oversight with the issue of Hive and his plan for world domination. Now, this isn’t incompatible material in any way. In fact, S.H.I.E.L.D. brushed on similar notions back in the latter half of season two when the Inhumans were first encountered in a major way and Daisy went through terrigenisis and gained her abilities. Even earlier this season, with the ATCU and the hunting of Inhumans the show was exploring, very lightly, into this kind of territory. But at this point, the show has left that behind and is focused on Hive, not the moral quandaries of how superheroes should be monitored and the abrupt shift in focus is jarring.

Last time the franchise majorly influenced the show was in season one with the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The result at that time, with the revelation of Hydra hiding within the ranks of S.H.I.E.L.D. itself gave the show a much-needed boost. History does not repeat itself this time around. We get a newscast conveniently explaining the barebones events of the film, a shot of a newspaper article announcing the death of Peggy Carter and Coulson talking about how she and Captain America were his heroes. The film barging in slows the pace of the episode significantly, when, right before the two-part finale it should be putting its foot down on the gas, not the brakes.

It’s not bad in theory, but in execution. An obstacle showing up at the most inopportune moment for the S.H.I.E.L.D. team isn’t the worst idea, but “Emancipation” is not able to merge the two gracefully, with the season’s plot trying to awkwardly continue around the many scenes of Talbot and Coulson arguing their different stances of registration (there’s a lot of talk about lists and even a callback to the ‘gifted’ registry of season one). If the ATCU had remained a crucial element throughout the season and if the character of Rosalind Price was still around (let’s be honest, Constance Zimmer just makes everything better) perhaps a smoother, more effective merger could have been achieved with this particular plot development. But, alas, this is not the case.

Worst of all, it’s not clear if all is resolved by episode’s end. Sure, Talbot appears to be on their side but it’s very possible the drama of Civil War may spill over into next week’s two-part season finale and that does not bode well because if “Emancipation” is any indication, the show does not quite know how to merge the two into a cohesive story.

Other stuff I didn’t like:

I continue to be frustrated by James. There wasn’t enough of him this week for me to get annoyed with his personality but I did have a bit of qualm with the way his powers were portrayed. Up until now, he’s operated exclusively with Gambit-style charge and explode powers. This week he picks up a chain in homage to Hellfire, the character from the comics he’s based on, and it basically becomes a fire whip. While a cool sequence, the lack of power continuity bugged me (though, I will admit, it might just be anything the character is involved with at this point).

The Watchdogs showing back up to be made into experimental Inhuman soldiers by Hive. The Watchdogs have had a total of one episode this entire season. They have not been built up as enough of a threat or explored in any kind of depth for what Hive does to them to have real impact. We have no characters that we’re actually following so, as a viewer, there is no investment, sympathetic, hateful or otherwise.

The Hive versus Lash fight. When Lincoln was suddenly not in the quinjet and the doors opened in front of Hive to reveal Lash I sat up a bit straighter, thinking, in my naiveté that we were about to get something awesome. It amounted to Lash knocking Hive off a platform, the former’s energy clashing with the latter’s dust and then…that was kind of it. Disappointing.

Lash dies. Yes, he goes out saving Daisy but it feels incongruous with his other appearances. You’re really telling me that after all the super powerful Inhumans he’s gone up against and killed, without breaking a sweat, that bloody James takes him out that damn easily (even if it is from behind)?!

No Joey. I want more Joey!

Other stuff I liked:

Elena is back! She doesn’t get a whole lot to do this episode but her presence was much appreciated. I particularly like her exchange with Mack about faith (on multiple levels) and her derogatory muttering of the word ‘naïve’ in Spanish when Talbot declared that a registered list of superhumans would classified and protected.

Daisy is free of Hive’s influence (thanks to a last act from Lash) and is back with S.H.I.E.L.D. recovering from her ordeal. This puts her back with the team for the finale, which is exactly where she should be. “Emancipation” really delivered in this regard and saved itself from my all out hatred. Last week, I talked about how Daisy being under Hive’s control was wearing thin and that, hopefully, the title of this week’s episode was an indication of her freedom. I actually cheered out loud when it happened because, coming at the tail end of such a subpar episode, it was a true saving grace.

One last thought (that doesn’t really fit anywhere else):

In the very last scene Elena gives Mack her necklace (the one that features heavily in Daisy’s vision of the future). Mack is at the top of the list for people who I think are probably in the exploding ship. I really hope I’m wrong, and this is just another red herring, because I do not want to lose Mack. Additionally, especially considering this episode killed off Andrew Garner/Lash, it would add to the show’s disturbing trend of killing off its black male characters.