This week's episode mark the return of show runners JED WHEDON and MAURISSSA TANCHAROEN as writers, and we finally get an episode about Agent May's backstory. Too bad the whole thing falls apart logistically in the second half.
We open with our guest starring problem of the week: Hannah, a safety supervisor from a particle accelerator laboratory that exploded, killing four people. She's trying to buy paper towels from a gas station attendant who is not particularly pleased with her job performance. He gets threatening and is suddenly pelted with with a hail of cans and overturned aisles. He flees, and as Hannah cowers inside, crying "Oh please, not again" gas station blows up.
In her hotel room, May gets dressed, answers a text about their new mission, and who but Ward walks out of the bathroom wearing nothing but a towel. Well, I'm glad that they didn't tease us about that. I have to admit this was a 'ship I didn't expect. "We should follow the same plan as before," Ward says, take separate routes, arrive back at the plane at different times, but May has already left. You know what, I'm not into the manhunter lady spy act, but I am into two adult characters having a mutually understood, drama-free, casual sexual relationship, which is how May/Ward are presented in this scene. Frankly, their jobs kind of preclude them having any other kind of sexual relationship any time soon. Just keep it drama-free, SHIELD, and I'll keep my eyes from rolling.
Coulson briefs Skye on the mission: talk to Hannah and confirm whether she's a telekinetic. As mentioned in there has never been a confirmed case of a telekinetic, so far as SHIELD is concerned. Coulson wants her to tag along and see how first contact with a "gifted" individual goes when it's done right, not like with . The Science Siblings' job will be to study the particle accelerator accident and determine whether it could have given Hannah powers. He wants Skye to come, but to stay in the car as he makes contact with Ward and May, since with a whole town hating her and her presumed telekinetic powers, it's a sensitive situation.
Sensitive is the word: there's basically a mob outside of Hannah's house, and the one cop there basically shrugs when Coulson asks why he hasn't gotten them to disperse, so, your tax dollars at work. Or these townspeople's, anyway. They try to talk to Hannah, but a police car drives itself straight through the quickly dispersed crowd, things get very tense, guns wind up being drawn and May shoots Hannah with the Nitenite gun.
At the scene of the particle accelerator, Fitz and Simmons argue about whether telekinesis has the potential to be real, which leads them to reminiscing about SHIELD academy pranks, which leads them to expressing regret that since they graduated three years early they never got to play pranks on freshmen, which leads them to gleefully decide that they can prank Skye.
With Hannah secured in the magnetically locked hexroom (a new feature installed after ), the Bus heads off on its way to "the Bridge" (the name of the next episode, so presumably we'll find out whether this continues SHIELD's boringly practical yet also amusingly self-important and silly naming conventions two weeks from now). Coulson taps May to go welcome Hannah to SHIELD as she wakes up from sedation, not the more social Skye who didn't, say, just shoot her, much to Skye's consternation.
He also takes his tie off before going in, because telekinesis, so, good practicality there, Phil.
They tell her she's safe, that her neighbors are safe, she says they were right to be angry because the explosion was her fault. A vital coupling in one area of the accelerator had been coming lose, she replaced it, but is convinced she got something wrong or didn't notice some problem. She is confused that they think the paranormal stuff around her was her doing, consciously or otherwise. She thinks that god is punishing her for her mistake.
In the science lab, Skye asks the SSibs why May is called the Cavalry and they collaboratively make up an overblown story with hundreds of enemy soldiers, tortured SHIELD agent hostages, and a horse by way of pranking her. Then my favorite part of the episode happens, when they pull up a hologram of the particle accelerator to study it and Fitz slaps Skye's hands away from it shouting "Two semesters minimum holographic engineering!" Then they congratulate themselves on fooling her after she slinks away.
Coulson orders the team to double down on figuring out whether Hannah could have caused the accident, as well as whether it could have given her telekinesis. A mysterious man appears down the hall behind them, and the disappears just before we cut to commercial, wooooOOOOoooo!
When we get back, Skye asks to go in and talk to Hannah, in order to reassure her. "She's not dangerous," she says, "she's nice." She has looked at Facebook and decided that she is nice, and while I admit the humor of phrasing it that way, I kind of buy it as evidence. Apparently Hannah has never missed a kind note on a special occasion: the detail oriented nature of a safety inspector has combined with genuine empathy to make her just honestly nice. Skye and May snipe at each other until one of Coulson's tchotchkies falls off its shelf for no apparent reason. The spooky guy is IN THE ROOOoooooOOOOM, maybe?
Skye complains about May's 'tude to Ward while he makes a sandwich and I'm excited to see SHIELD continuing its trend of portraying SHIELD life as . She says she thinks May needs to get laid, and Ward pauses obviously while peppering his meal. Great super-spy reflexes there, Grant! Skye mentions some of the story that the SSibs told her and so Ward sets her straight: there were 20 assassins, not hundreds, and she took them out with no pistol and no support. He supposes she doesn't like the name "the Cavalry" because she's "not in it for glory." Then he misplaces the kitchen knife. It was the spooky guy, WOOOooooOOOO!
Lets give the spooky guy a name: Tobias Ford, a technician presumed dead in the particle accelerator explosion. Skye figures out that he filed all of the safety complaints about the faulty coupling that started the whole thing. He also looks kind of evil and smug in his mugshot, so we're obviously supposed to assume he's the bad guy.
Ford attempts to break into the interrogation room, to no avail. Fitz, after a failed attempt to scare Simmons with a gas mask while workshopping pranks, goes down to the store closet to get some magnets so they can run an experiment, secretly followed by Ford. While Fitz muses over what kind of prank he can pull with a mop, Ford locks him into the closet. Upstairs (presumably there are stairs? Some enterprising nerd out there has to have made or found a floor plan of the Bus by now, right?), Simmons discovers that the particle accelerator explosion tore open A PORTAL IN TIME AND FLUNG HIM INTO THE FUTURE, WHERE MY EVIL IS LAW. NOW THE FOOL SEEKS TO RETURN TO THE PAST AND UNDO THE FUTURE THAT IS AKUUUUUU a portal to into another world. "Into HELL," growls Tobias Ford as he smashes her display with a large wrench and then bamfs out of there to an easily accessible fuze box that apparently controls the power to the entire plane and yanks out the wires.
Because he could tell that pulling out a single fist full of wires would take out the entire plane just by looking at them? At this point Ford starts to exhibit some nigh-god-like knowledge of the Bus' emergency systems. I'm just going to note them when they happen and talk about it at the end.
The Bus is falling out of the sky because of one fistful of pulled fuzes and even May and Ward can only switch to emergency power (enough for lights and keeping Hannah's cell shielded) and emergency land the thing in a field. Simmons tells the rest of the team about Ford attacking her and they make plans to watch over Hannah while they search the Bus before they realize that Fitz isn't there.
Ward and Simmons are detailed to find Fitz, who thinks being locked in the closet is a prank. He forces his way out to find that the door has been jammed with Ward's sandwich knife, and wanders around horror movie style until he runs into Ward and Simmons. Coulson takes down a large picture in his office to reveal a secret panel, and uses it to send out some kind of special SHIELD mayday call, using an antenna that has telescoped out of the top of the Bus. Ford appears up there immediately and wrenches it out of order, because I guess he also knew about the secret emergency antenna?
Skye finally gets her alone time with Hannah, telling her through the cell door that the weird stuff happening around her isn't her fault. They talk about god, with Skye insisting that "god is love," and that god would forgive Hannah. May arrives half way through, but listens out of sight for a while before take up a post at the door to guard Hannah from Ford and coldly ordering Skye to help Coulson fix his transceiver.
Moving up the chain of command, Skye gripes to Coulson about May's interpersonal skills, mentions details from Ward's account of why she's known as "the Cavalry." He finally tells the real story, which he knows because he was there. "She didn't have a gun. And it wasn't a rescue. We were the welcome wagon and it went south." Civilians were being held by the followers/worshippers of a "gifted individual." She went in, "crossed off" the enemy force, and has never explained how. Coulson says after that she was different, that she'd always been quiet, but that she was warm, fearless in a different way, known to pull a prank. "That's why you want her on the plane," says Skye, to see if the old May is still in there and can be retrieved.
In the belly of the Bus, the SSibs and Ward wander around looking for the source of the power outage. Simmons shares her theory that the scientists at the lab were using the particle accelerator to create portals like those that were recently seen during Thor's battle with Malekith. Ford appears as they find the broken fuzes, and the episode finally confirms that his superpower is teleportation rather than invisibility or telekinesis. A fight sequences ensues, but the end result is that Ward gets wrenched unconscious. We also get one brief shot that appears to indicate that Ford may have trouble controlling his material presence in our dimension?
Ford then 'ports up to Coulson's cabin, smashes his radio, grabs Skye as a hostage and demands that they release Hannah. Coulson declines, while the SSibs radio May to tell her that Ward is down. Ford then goes after May, who eludes him in a well shot, genuinely tense and cool sequence involving slow strobing emergency lights. May uses his confusion to spring Hannah from the Box and drag her out into the woods they've landed alongside.
Sky and Coulson discover Ford has locked them into Coulson's cabin. The SSibs drop the relevant expository information that in order to teleport with a wrench, Ford must have had it on him at the time of the explosion/malfunction. Coulson and Skye make contact with them using one of his antiques, a radio watch, then repurpose it to blow open the jammed door. "They only made 20, I think," says Coulson, poor baby. Everybody goes together to get a thing that will help them find May and Hannah, from the supply closet, and run into Fitz's gas mask on a mop prank. This triggers Skye to put together Ford's motivation: he's childish. He was tampering with the safety of his section in order to make excuses to spend time with her. "He's not trying to hurt her, he's trying to protect her. He likes her." He's got a funny fucking way of showing it. They use some kind of loosely if at all explained SHIELD thing to launch glowing globes that look for May.
Out in an abandoned barn that looks suspiciously like the barn in "FZZT," May tells Hannah that she's using her as bait to draw Ford away from her own people. Ford takes the bait, and we're treated to another teleporter fight. Ford attempts to drag a whimpering Hannah away from May, which you'd think would give a guy who liked her pause, but May keeps up the fight until she sees him stand in the way of a falling beam so that it won't hit Hannah. They start up a conversation instead. Hannah asks him to stop, May says that her team thinks he's trapped between two worlds, and he agrees: he's caught between Earth and "hell" and he deserves it for regularly sabotaging the particle accelerator just so Hannah would visit.
I start to get worried that the episode will redeem him or something, and that it'll turn out that Hannah will see "destroying your life and faith in god, but like, for love" as the makings of excellent boyfriend material, but instead she reminds him that even after he accepted responsibility for the accelerator accident he still hurt more people. He begs for her forgiveness and she tells him that only god can forgive him.
May goes one step further and tells him that god won't, and though she's talking to Ford we all know that she's talking about herself because this is one of the ways that writers make sure we know how quiet characters feel about their emotions: "You can't undo what you've done, that will be with you forever. Trying to hold on to this life, clinging to the person you thought you could be, that's hell. And you're dragging her down with you." She says he has to let go, if he cares about her. It's kind of unclear what the show means by this, that he should let go of her emotionally or literally let go of teleporting to Earth. One very quick and unremarked upon shot of Ford reacting to his hand dematerializing in a way that was probably meant to be horror does not actually do the job of establishing that he's struggling to maintain a connection with our world. But logistically his character is a mess anyway, so I'm not going to spend too much time dwelling on that.
Ward, Coulson, and Skye arrive just in time to watch him gently take Hannah's hand like she owes this obsessed creeper who ruined her life anything, and dematerialize.
"What'd you say to him," Coulson asks. "Same words you said to me." And there's the Coulson guilt: he feels responsible (albeit unintentionally) for convincing May to emotionally wall herself off from the world.
Cut to: the emotional wrap up. Skye beds Hannah down in a real bunk, not a mattress in the hex room, and then reassures Coulson, who is tenderly handling his busted antique radio watch, that May isn't a lost cause. He tells her that the reason he wanted her along for the asset meet and greet is because she is emotionally perceptive, and it's likely that some day she'll be really good at making first contact with folks with superpowers for the Index. They agree that The Index is a dumb name, which I love because one of my secret weaknesses is characters in sci-fi universes who think the naming conventions are dumb. We end the episode with Skye finally getting it into her head that being an unstoppable super spy bad ass might warp a person's socializing skills, and keeping May company in the cockpit without needed May to be nice to her in exchange.
Sorry, but over the course of writing this recap it's become kind of apparent to me that Skye's primary function this episode was to complain about how May isn't nice to people to every other character on the show.
STINGER: Coulson, Ward, Skye, and Simmons play games and EAT SNACKS in the mess. Fitz walks up with shaving cream all over his hand and face. Everyone denies culpability, while May smirks in the cockpit.
Okay, so I have a number of burning questions about this episode, and I'll start with the logistical ones. How does Ford miraculously know how to cripple the Bus? There are any number of ways the episode could have answered this, for example by having Skye mention that he had a background in aeronautics before becoming a technician in a particle accelerator lab, but it chose none of them. "Technician in a particle accelerator lab" (you could add "who is dumb enough to repeatedly mess with a coupling with a giant wrench") does not say "expert on secret military airplane hardware" to me. And that's setting aside the implausibility of the Bus having an easily accessible panel somewhere in it that, if tampered with, blows out the power to the entire plane. Something as advanced as the Bus should certainly have more robust back up systems.
Why Ford couldn't just talk to people? Namely Hannah, since he could have, you know, explained to her that he was trying to protect her from those who hated her and not that god was punishing her. As I said before, that one clip that seemed to indicate that his hand was involuntarily dematerializing doesn't actually do the job of firmly indicating whether he was having trouble blipping back and forth.
I was also somewhat displeased with how the resolution of this episode appears to be SHIELD saying: "yeah, go live in 'hell' or whatever" and not "A guy who can't control whether he's in this world or another? IT IS LITERALLY THE DESCRIPTION OF OUR CURRENT MISSION TO HELP HIM." As soon as it was established that Hannah did not have superpowers, and all the paranormal events had instead been a crazy teleporting obsessive instead, the goal should have shifted to bringing him into custody. Their mission was to make contact with a newly discovered superpowered person and help them sort out the complications that came along with gaining superpowers. That person turned out to be an obsessive stalker instead of a nice god-fearing lady, but that should not have changed things.
Which is not to say that Tobias Ford the obsessive stalker and murderer (that gas station attendant did not walk out of there alive) didn't get what was coming to him. However, an episode that focused so much on guilt and its power to change people's personalities and their perceptions of themselves (May, Hannah, and Coulson all represented this theme) begs the question: was Tobias always this crazy, or was it guilt that turned passive aggressive behavior into full blown aggressiveness? The episode refrains from commenting on whether Ford had the capacity to harm all along, or was driven to it by trauma and guilt, and it makes the theme seem incompletely stated.
But speaking of emotional problems or lack thereof, lets talk about the good thing about this episode: May. "Repairs" could have been all about how Agent May is broken and needs to be repaired, and so I very much like that instead, May was the one who ultimately solved the "problem" of the episode (I may have a problem with how it was solved, but she still solved it) and she did it without any kind of learning moment beforehand. The main accomplishment of this episode was that Skye understood and accepted that May is simply a cold person because her life has left her that way, just as Skye is a warm person because her life has left her that way.
"Repairs" did not appear to hint that May needs a complete personality change to be "unbroken." Which is good, because she's only barely less socially adept as Ward, and nobody is saying he needs a major personality rehaul. One bottle after an emotionally trying work day does not a drinking problem make, a mutually honest casual sexual relationship in a field of work where long term relationships are basically impossible (not to mention that part of the recruiting process for the covert ops profession is eliminating candidates with a strong need for family/romantic relationships) does not an emotional problem make, and a standoffish, efficient attitude does not a full blown intervention require. Certainly Coulson is worried about her, but that's the right of an old friend who remembers the way you were before you went through a traumatic event.
SHIELD is so far riding a very nice line with May. It is very easy to take a female action character who does have some emotional issues and say that since she's not naturally kind that she must be broken, when the same thing is almost never said about male action heroes. I don't think that's what SHIELD has done with "Repairs," even in its stinger. The writers have established a gentle trajectory for May's character arc, gentler than most, actually. Ward's emotional issues leave him at a loss whenever he can't be "the protector" in a situation, Coulson is dealing with the fact that the organization he has always trusted is keeping a massive secret from him about his own identity. May, by contrast, is presented as having a pretty healthy and realistic relationship with her own trauma: she's not burying it like Ward, unlike Coulson she has a pretty firm idea of self, and whenever possible she uses her damage to make herself better at her job, as we saw this week and last with the Berserker Staff.
May knows that her trauma will always be a part of who she is now. What this week's stinger may have been hinting at is that Coulson was right in his assumption that getting back out in the field and interacting with young, green agents will bring out some of the old May that he remembers. Not a personality change, but just a few reminders.
The show's return in December with "The Bridge," the first of a two part story, also heralds the return of J. AUGUST RICHARDS' Mike Peterson, so I'll see you then, to see the SHIELD team take on Centipede, who I hope make more logical sense as a villain than Tobias Ford.