'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' Recap: What the Show Finally Got Right

Damn, I see you, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. The show has been painfully stagnant lately (well, a little more than lately), but tonight, they brought the fire — in more ways than one (sorry). It's partially because the show is going on a mid-season hiatus and won't return until January 7th, so I'm trying to temper my excitement. But the show got a lot of things right tonight it's been getting wrong all season, so I'm hoping tonight's episode jolts the show into realizing that, oh hey, maybe these are things we should have been doing all season? Things like:

Overarching Plot Development

This is how little plot development we've had this season: we're ten episodes in, but tonight's episode follows up on information from only three other episodes. But as much as I resent Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for trying to do the whole superhero procedural and then dump a bunch of information into its mid-season finale, it's hard because it's so exciting to see things finally go into motion. First of all, Mike Peterson is back (just like I hoped he would be! Yeah Gunn!) and so is Project Centipede. Peterson has stabilized, has powers and is in S.H.I.E.L.D. training now, but Project Centipede is busting out. As in, they busted that Silence of the Lambs-looking dude (who's name we find out is Edison Po) out of prison, and Raina (aka The Girl in the Flower Dress, as her episode calls her) has successfully ramped up the superhero juice. She and Edison Po are still talking about The Clairvoyant, who Po only sees offscreen. Apparently, the people they work for are also the people behind those creepy eye cameras in "Eye Spy," so that's good to know. They're looking to take Project Centipede to the next level, but S.H.I.E.L.D. keeps getting in their way, so they finally have a showdown in tonight's episode. And it does not disappoint.

Superheroes on a Show About Superheroes

One of the biggest gripes about this show is that it does practically nothing with myriad of characters in the expansive Marvel universe. I sort of understand why they wouldn't — Marvel seems to still be deciding on which superheroes will get a movie, and it's hard to represent superhero powers on TV money. But if the show isn't going to make much use of the Marvel universe, the least they could do is build their own superhero mythology, instead of going, "Oh, here's a thing that's tangentially related to a Marvel hero and/or villain" every week. That's what the return of Mike Peterson is so satisfying. Not only because there's finally someone on the S.H.I.E.L.D. team with superhuman powers, but also because he brings with him the kind of unique dilemmas that make superhero movies so damn interesting in the first place. In Peterson's case, it's the classic struggle between having powers and having a normal life that have resulted from his son seeing his outburst in the pilot, and it's an emotionally complex question: what happens when someone you love sees your powers in action? Will they see you as inhuman, as a monster, or will they still love and respect you?

Characters Having Actual Human Emotions

All season, the characters' emotions on the show have been mostly about giving them patchy character development that only occasionally seems to come from a real place — Ward had a mean brother! Melinda May took a bunch of guys out to save lives and now she feels bad! FitzSimmons have a strong bond! But this week, the characters' emotional reactions seemed more honest, and some were even reactions to things that we have seen happen on screen. Melinda May is incredibly touchy about her, ahem, "relations" with Ward, because she's stoic and professional so of course she is. She finds out that Ward is similarly wanting to keep things strictly professional between the two of them, because he's a loner and that's pretty much all we know about him so of course he does. There's also some good, seemingly throwaway moments for Coulson and Simmons — Coulson talks about his lost love with Ward, and Simmons gives Mike Peterson the ol' lusty eye. Coulson's admission I could have done with or without (here's to hoping they actually use this later, though), but it was great to see Simmons in a mode other than "geeky banter with Fitz," especially since writers so often equate "nerdy girl" to "chaste."

And of course, the father-son relationship between Peterson and his son Ace is incredibly touching. It's also what gave this episode another strength...

Real Stakes

For as much danger as the S.H.I.E.L.D. team encounters on a weekly basis, it hardly ever feels that any character is in any real danger (except for maybe that one time Simmons jumped out of the plane, and that was her putting herself in danger).In contrast, this week's episode was a huge nailbiter — first, Peterson's adorable kid gets kidnapped by Raina. Then, Peterson has to trade himself for his son. But then (plot twist spoiler alert) he tricks Agent Coulson into being traded for Ace, since Project Centipede actually wants to find out what happened in Tahiti (apparently, they don't know about what a magical place it is). And if that wasn't enough (huge giant spoiler alert), Peterson tries to go back and save Coulson just as the Project Centipede team sets off some explosives. Mike Peterson would be a great addition to the show, and it's kind of obnoxious to have him appear in a second episode only to have him immediately killed off (Maybe? Possibly? We didn't see the aftermath, so who knows?). At the same time, I audibly gasped while watching this episode, and that's not a thing that's happened before. So for a show that's having such a hard time making people care about what happens to its characters, maybe that's a good thing.