If that seems a little anaemic as in introduction, that’s because this episode is extremely focused. After several weeks of episodes which feel as if they are bursting at the seams with plots, subplots and new characters, it comes as somewhat of a relief to only have one thread to deal with. It’s like the series taking a breath, and oddly, it may be the most entertaining episode of the series so far.
This is in no small part thanks to Elizabeth Henstridge, who finally gets the chance to do more than sit in a corner looking timid. The episode has an extended opening sequence which begins with Fitz and Simmons’ agreement to go to dinner, and Simmons’ subsequent disappearance into the portal. This time though, we immediately follow her, seeing exactly what happens as she is pulled through to the mysterious alien planet on the other side. After five minutes or so, the title of the show appears in a strange font, silent and overlaid simply on the scene on Gemma walking alone across the planet surface. Periodically, the number of hours that have passed since she came through flash up on the screen in the same font. It’s an eerie and isolating effect, and plays well to the scene being portrayed.
Being the practical soul that she is, Gemma initially stays put, reasoning that Fitz will figure out how to open the portal again and come for her. After some time has passed, she eventually elects to move away and explore, leaving behind clear clues for Fitz to follow and find her.
What follows is a sort of odd cross between Robinson Crusoe/Castaway and Star Trek. Gemma finds water, is attacked by native fauna, fashions her own spear to catch and kill the same for food, and seems to be doing reasonably well as she talks continually both to herself and to Fitz’s picture on her unfeasibly long-lasting phone (a cheeky comment is inserted into the episode later referencing that Fitz modified the phone to extend its battery life, which is just as well because you spend the first half of the episode asking exactly how her phone is still working after weeks and months without charge).
The episode then turns on its head with the sudden capture and imprisonment of Gemma by a mysterious figure who places her in a cage and brings her food. Occasional snatches of speech indicate that it’s a human, and eventually after an inspired jailbreak and subsequent re-capture, we learn the identity and origin of Gemma’s captor. Will is a NASA astronaut sent through the portal as a cheap form of space exploration some 14 years previously. The rest of his team are dead, all killed by ‘the planet’ or more specifically the evil ‘thing’ which inhabits it, and which seems in synch with the ‘moods’ of the place.
There’s a lot of very nice interaction over the next twenty minutes or so of the show, starting with Gemma’s declaration that she will be the hope and Will the doom as they search for a way back home. There’s plenty of Macgyver-ing as Simmons uses her phone to power up Will’s computers (dead these last years through lack of sunlight for their solar batteries) and with this and an old sextant (retrieved from the planet’s ‘no-fly zone’ from the corpse of some other ancient unfortunate stranded here) she begins to plot where the portal will appear next on the planet’s continually rotating surface. Predictably, the computer dies just in time that she only manages to find one location and time, and they duly pack their bags to go on the trip. However, on arrival it proves impossible to get through the portal, and all hope seems lost.
It’s at this point, with Simmons at her lowest ebb, that Will becomes the hope and she the doom, and also where the inevitable romance between them blooms, once again shattering the hopes of those like me, who have been impatiently waiting for Fitz and Simmons to truly become FitzSimmons since episode 1.
The clock then fast forwards quite some way, and we see the two of them, clearly now a comfortable couple, getting ready for a big event – namely the rising of the sun, which will last scant minutes on the planet and then not reoccur for 18 years. They go to a spot, have some (as it turns out undrinkable) wine – also salvaged from the ‘no-fly zone’, and take in the view. Then the flare that Fitz fired through the portal back in episode 2 appears in the sky, and they both go dashing off towards it, Gemma gleefully exclaiming that Fitz has done it. As they advance, another sandstorm erupts, and the nameless evil thing appears. Will tells Gemma to run, she wants to take him with, they are separated, there’s a gunshot (Will’s final bullet) and then Fitz is there and rescuing her, with Will left behind.
Snap back to the present, as Gemma finishes the story she began telling Fitz at the end of the last episode. Fitz looks pensive, put out. Gemma (and we) think as he rises and leaves the room without a word that he feels upset, spurned even, by Gemma’s dalliance with another man. She follows him, trying to get him to speak, to understand. He tersely replies that he does, and indicates his computer screen, swimming with various technobabble. ‘We’re going to get him back,’ he declares, with a look on his face which is at once calm and assured that he must do the right thing for Gemma whilst simultaneously indicating that just under the surface lies an agony of heartbreak that her happiness will involve him saving a man she loves who isn’t him. It’s beautifully done by Ian De Caestecker- he might not get much time in this episode, but what he does, he absolutely nails.
All the remains is the end tag, in which we see Will, alone throwing down his empty gun and heading back for his subterranean lair as the sun falls again on the alien planet. It feels a little unnecessary, depriving us as the audience of the tension that we shared with Gemma up to that point as to his ultimate fate, but it’s about the only misstep in what is a very enjoyable (and unusual) episode.
Verdict: Finally, SHIELD is back! This is the show at its best, not trying to compete with the parent movies or other comic book shows, but doing its own thing on its own terms. Highlighting the dramas, struggles and emotions of the very real people living in its bizarre world. Best episode of this season to date, and hopefully the beginning of a dramatic upswing in general. 8/10
Greg D. Smith