Superhero TV shows are known for subverting common conventions of the medium. The Flash has made a point of doubling down on the crazier aspects of its source material, all while consistently crossing over with its sister show, Arrow. On the Marvel side though, Agents of SHIELD has managed to be fairly straightforward in its storytelling, opting more for mystery and intrigue over self-contained adventures and crazy comic book material. However, its latest episode threw all this out the window, in favor of some seriously groundbreaking storytelling for Marvel and ABC.
First, the context: Jemma Simmons was sucked through a portal to another planet at the end of the last season, only to be rescued six months later by team SHIELD. Up until now, we knew very little (if anything) about her time in space, aside from the fact that Jemma seems generally shattered and traumatized by the experience. It made it that much more bizarre when she insisted upon a return journey, building a level of mystery we weren’t certain would ever get a straight answer.
To the benefit of both the show and its audience, we got that answer in the episode titled “4,722 Hours.” Taking a break from the main storylines of the season, the entire hour functions as a flashback to Jemma’s time spent stranded across the galaxy, and the result is one of the show’s strongest episodes to date. We see a harsh, dark planet that appears to have no sun, animals, or other civilized life forms, with a visibly terrified Jemma falling back on her scientific knowledge to calm herself down. It’s basically what The Martian would look like if it took place in the Marvel universe, and it’s absolutely amazing from wire-to-wire.
Simmons eventually finds a NASA astronaut, Will Daniels, stranded on the planet with her, and as weeks and months tick by, she comes to terms with the fact that she’s never going home. It leads to a romance between her and the astronaut that seems every bit organic and touching as it’s played off as, despite her deep connection to Fitz back on Earth. It makes it that much more heartbreaking when Fitz manages to rescue her, while Will is left behind in a brutal sandstorm caused by a mysterious and deadly alien entity.
In an unexpected twist in the end, we see that the whole episode was Jemma recounting the story in the present to Fitz, explaining her need to go back and save the astronaut. We see Fitz react to the love of his life developing a desperate off-world romance, and as he silently gets up and leaves the room, it appears as though the stage is set for unnecessary back-and-forth relationship drama. Instead, Fitz vows to help Gemma return to save Will, instead setting up a whole new angle for the rest of this season.
The drama so far this season has been fairly weak in substance. The Inhumans plot has yet to yield any tangible results, and the return of HYDRA, led by Grant Ward, hasn’t quite developed, making this recent episode a huge boon to the momentum of Agents of SHIELD. Amidst the main story, we’ll now see Fitz and Gemma trying to figure out a way to reopen the portal to the mystery planet, and stage a rescue for Will. More than that though, it was a bottle episode that showed us a series unafraid to test its limits in the way of storytelling.
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