Experimental episodes of TV are something of a rarity these days, especially among more ratings-starved series already written off as inaccessible (See: Community). And while it’s hard to imagine a world in which Marvel would ever admit defeat and close shop on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the continued adventures of Coulson & co. still serve a network model master. Season 3 distinctly shook that in returning Simmons to the fold so soon after establishing her fate, admittedly then dragging is heels with the familiar cryptic secret-keeping, but I never would have guessed Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. could rebound with an hour so inventive and unexpected, muted title card and all.

In spotlighting Simmons’ titular “4,722 Hours” on an alien world, no one in their right mind would bet against Elizabeth Henstridge knocking it out of the park, showcasing almost every color available (especially blue), from initial denial, to despair, self-effacing humor and exuberantly Martian-esque outbursts of triumph. Personally, I’d have been content to spend the entire hour with Jemma on a solo-quest for survival*, but I can at least understand the unwavering temptation to afford Henstridge a fellow castaway with which to share scenes, particularly when the relationship goes through so many phases as we see.

*Correct me if I’m mistaken, but the “Death” entity stalking both Simmons and William was intended as some riff on the Marvel iteration of Death, the same courted figure eliciting Thanos’ wry grin at the end of The Avengers, no? We saw the figure in a hood at one point, while the comic version notably changes forms, and resides in a “Death Realm” of her own.

It’s an incredibly immersive hour overall, only occasionally marred by the required exposition of its more improbable elements; whether to state out loud exactly how long Jemma could wait by the portal without water, an impossibly-long cell phone battery, or how NASA managed to send a non-scientific mind to an alien world in 2001. Exposition is the price of brevity, and if Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. needed to fill the hour with dialogue, it more often than not serves a functional purpose in the hope/gloom dynamic between the pair.

 

Nothing to get blue over, though.

 

And while “4,722 Hours” unequivocally remains Simmons’ story, the inevitable TV outcome of placing two attractive characters in an isolated and inescapable end isn’t lost on the writers. I worried, perhaps, that Will’s extended isolation and Jemma’s unflinchingly chipper exterior might take things in a dark direction, but ended up in a complete 180 as to how devastating Will and Elizabeth’s hookup would be. It’s a desperate moment of resigned agony and emotional longing over the final failed attempt to send a message home, one that strikes unexpectedly in its implication.

I remember that feeling, that push/pull of devastation and understanding toward a couple clinging to happiness. Fitz, or anyone in their right mind would thank god Simmons had someone, anyone with which to go through such a horrifying ordeal, but balance that with the awful, sinking feeling of someone moving on with life in your absence. I remember that terrifying, beautiful pain of seeing Simmons and Will contently resigned to their lives together, and I can’t recall the last time an episode of TV resonated so strongly.

In earnest, it’s astonishing how quietly 2 seasons and change have defined a relationship like Fitz and Simmons against flashier super-powered plots, and equally extraordinary how “4,722 Hours” brings that to the forefront with such subtle brushwork. I trembled at the thought of Fitz walking out on Jemma’s revelation without a word, only to melt at his immediate intent on helping Will return, whatever it meant for them.

 

Fortunately, he’s already wearing blue.

 

In the end, it isn’t immediately clear if Simmons’ trips back and forth through the wormhole will have any real impact on the season’s central thrust, other than to kill a few hours, and potentially introduce Will back in to the mix. In either case, this was such a lovely, unexpected hour for a series growing so well into its own skin to experiment, I’d scarcely noticed. I found myself remembering the legendary “Hush” of Buffy’s ill-received fourth season, an unforgettable experiment in stripping way the most recognizable aspects of the series, and flourishing in the strength beneath.

This was a spectacular hour for Elizabeth Henstridge, dipping into equal echo of Hermione Granger, Mark Watney and Sarah Connor, every color in between (again, mostly blue though), and I’m ecstatic Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. kept its confidence to take the risk.

AND ANOTHER THING …

  • I imagine explanations of The Avengers, and at least two attempts at Earth’s destruction/invasion made for interesting off-screen conversation with William.
  • “You’re dinner, bitch!”
  • Were we meant to question William’s account of his crewmates’ demise? Also, wouldn’t an Air Force pilot still have some scientific knowledge?
  • I might have liked the ambiguity of not knowing the final gunshot’s significance, but I understand the need to provide some hope in a bleak hour.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will return next week with Tuesday’s “Among Us Hide…”

 

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