First things first: “Purpose in The Machine” introduces Agent May’s father. As he turns out to be (played by) the legendary James Hong – one of our all-time greatest character actors – it is now automatically the most important episode of AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D that has ever aired or likely will ever air.
By now I’ve come to terms with the fact that a lot of the reasons I’ve come to genuinely enjoy AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D are probably the same things that both the series’ creators and other audiences find the most frustrating – in particular its tendency to change-up tone, direction, story-arcs, character roles and general narrative flow on a whim. Yes, I’m aware it’s more a function of Marvel TV and Marvel Film not really being on the same page a lot of the time, but what works works. Case in point: “Purpose” opting to (seemingly) resolve what easily could’ve been a season-long plot thread (Agent Simmons, believed dead by everyone but Fitz, is stranded on an alien planet) in the season’s second episode. Did not expect that.
The “let’s get Jemma!” storyline takes up the bulk of the episode and (happily) serves as opportunity to reintroduce Peter MacNicol’s Professor Randolph, the standout one-off character from the early-half of Season 1. A blue-collar Asgardian commoner who’s been anonymously chilling on Earth for a few thousand years (random stone-worker in his own world but a super-strong near-immortal here,) Randolph was for a long time AGENTS best example of its then-unrealized potential to do interesting things with the Marvel arcana; and it’s both fun to see him back (MacNicol has been relieved of his supporting role on CSI: CYBER, so here’s hoping he picks up a regular spot here) and intriguing to see hints of deeper intrigue to him: He clearly knows more than he’s telling about The Monolith, is strangely insistent that “any” portals be destroyed and has an… “odd” reaction to learning that The Inhumans still exist or that Daisy (formerly Skye) is one of them.
That last part is especially interesting from a future-storyline perspective: We’ve already seen both Kree and Asgardian visitors react with fear to the presence of Inhumans and/or Inhuman-adjacent technology on Earth, which could make things very complicated with the series already plunging into the expected Inhumans-as-X-Men-replacements stuff re: government/military crackdowns. Historically, the middle is not the safe place to be in Marvel narratives. In any case, by the time things wrapped up The Monolith was atomized and Fitz/Simmons were reunited, though with her suffering some clearly heavy PTSD from… whatever she went through on the other side; with the only new information gleaned being that The Monolith was at one point in the possession of a pseudo-Masonic group of 19th Century Brits – wonder if that’s going anywhere?
Elsewhere, the secondary-business re-introduced Agent Ward, continuing in his quest to rebuild a leaner, meaner new HYRDRA in his own image. I’m still not really feeling this storyline (unless we’re going to get something more like the COBRA-esque HYDRA of the comics, HYDRA has been done at this point) but I enjoyed the misdirection of this step, as we’re led to think Ward is kidnapping a rich young brat to torture for his money but instead learn the “kid” is Baron Von Strucker’s heir and Ward was looking to test his resolve and recruit him. I’m still not “invested” enough to care about the eventual setup that comes from this (Strucker Junior enrolls in the College psych course of May’s ex, who’s also S.H.I.E.L.D’s on-call therapist) but it’s something.
I also found myself feeling a little impatient with how slow the build to Daisy/Coulson’s “Secret Warriors” team is turning out, though it’s at least more interesting than Nu-HYDRA or (at least so far) Hunter and May teaming up to go kill Ward (though that one did lead to some highly-agreeable quiet-drama scenes with Ming-Na Wen and the aforementioned Mr. Hong.) I’m more and more getting the sense that the anti-aliens/Inhumans/etc sentiment stuff is part of the build to either the mid-season break (for another AGENT CARTER miniseries – hooray!) or for the innevitable CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR tie-in, but I hope it doesn’t continue to sit there inert until then, with Dr. Buzzkill showing up every few episodes to say “Nope, not yet.”
- Where was Simmons? Still no idea, but given her reaction after leaving (waking up clutching a shiv in defense) it’s pretty clear she wasn’t alone there. Also, we know other people have been there before – wonder what’s become of them?
- Randolph refers to the activities of the 1830s Monolith-dabblers as “half-baked Satanism.” Something to note: The Inhumans are showing up instead of Mutants here for purposes of MCU-worldbuilding because Mutants can’t be used outside of Fox movies, but the same rules don’t actually (entirely) apply to television; which (unless I’ve got it twisted) means that, if Marvel wants these guys to be an incarnation of The Hellfire Club, they could be.
- Also: Randolph describes attending a very EYES WIDE SHUT-ish party at the castle where the Monolith-machine was hidden, guided by “a man dressed as an owl.” Wouldn’t it be funny if he was any relation to a certain Daredevil nemesis?
- Coulson threatening to turn Randolph over to the alien-hunters was a nice nudge toward getting him back to the morally-ambiguous space he occupied before we found out his motivation was being a Captain America fanboy. The Secret Warriors are going to be the off-brand X-Men, fine, but that doesn’t mean Coulson needs to be Professor X.
- Unanswered question from Season 2: Where is General Talbot in all of this? (I’m crossing my fingers he turns up alongside the returning “Thunderbolt” Ross in CIVIL WAR.
- It just occured to me that Randolph could easily turn up on AGENT CARTER. That would be pretty great to see.
- We still never found out what made the Monolith liquefy apart from when Daisy and/or The Machine were making it happen, but it seems like it only ever did so in the presence of Inhumans, Randolph (and Asgardian) …and Simmons. I still don’t think she’s Inhuman, but maybe an alien of some kind?
“A Wanted (Inhu)Man” promises to pull Lincoln back into the storyline. I have no particularly strong feelings for this character, but apparently a lot of fans hate him. I bring this up because I now learn that his derisive nickname is “Pikachu” in some circles, so now even though I know they’re eventually going to call him Spark Plug I really want that to come up somewhere.