After three weeks of being on the dickish periphery, Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) rightfully takes back center stage in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s “Face My Enemy,” a fun, action heavy episode that acts as a riff on the tried and true spy movie/TV trope: the undercover gala mission (as seen in about half of Chuck‘s episodes). AOS had Skye undercover in a similar operation to get intel on Agent Quinn last season (which predictably turned out terribly), but this time around it’s the old SHIELD veterans, Melinda May and Phil Coulson. Not coincidentally, it’s a delight, and another showcase for Ming-Na Wen’s ascent to badass action heroine.
Before AOS, I really only knew Ming-Na from her stint on E.R. But, now, in her 50’s (!), she’s taken after her other iconic role: the voice of Mulan, becoming a Liam Neeson-like vessel of anger and berserker vengeance on the small screen (and a perfect dour foil for humor). On a team more than sparsely populated with grizzled, stubbly giant muscly dudes, Melinda May (“The Calvary”) is unequivocally the muscle. How awesome is that? Her devout following will only grow after this episode.
And how awesome is this season of AOS so far? “Face My Enemy” feels fizzy and light, thanks to a romp in Miami beach, until it inevitably turns into an action showcase, but it’s also chock full of earned emotional moments, and a dark undertone: the fun and games of undercover spy ops feel nostalgic, and remind May and Coulson of the glory days of their youth fresh out of the academy…but this is a new SHIELD, a new Marvel universe, and one that might have to end with May putting a bullet in Coulson’s diseased brain.
In Miami, a church burns down (“our parishioners are trying to understand this tragedy”), destroying everything except for a 500 year old painting. Divine intervention? At least not from this planet; the other side of the painting features the alien carvings that we’ve seen Agent Garrett and now Agent Coulson draw in their respective trances.
Thanks to Lance Hunter’s womanizing abilities, he manages to steal a USB for Skye, who secures access to a fancy pants party with an entry fee in the tens of thousands. Skye hacks May and Coulson’s way onto the guest list, the two rolling up in Mac’s lovingly restored 1962 Rolls Royce (despite his skills, he ain’t getting his paws on Lola…yet; I can’t wait for a Mac/Lola standalone ep, “Mac and Me”). May rocks a sparking silver dress (“I’ll give you $500 for flats”) and Coulson’s giggly about his cufflinks and jazzed about being back in the field. It’s nice to see the fun-loving Coulson again, even if it’s as much a lie as their cover story.
May provides the humor in this one, however, playing the role of a rich socialite to perfection, scaring the crap out of Skye and company back at base. There’s a wonderful moment where Skye panics: “What’s that noise?” And it’s May laughing hysterically. “Is everything okay?” Coulson is as disturbed as the rest of them: “I think the worst of it is over.” May comes to Coulson, smiling and grimacing at the same time: “Smiling hurts my face.”
While Coulson relishes the thrill of being undercover, forcing May to dance, the mission has an ominous undertone. This is a personal op; they’re getting the painting for Coulson, and there’s some urgency. His symptoms are getting worse, and they won’t be able to hide it from the rest of the team for much longer. Or from us; we’ve hardly seen anything to worry us rather than a brusque attitude (does the alien drug slowly turn you into an entertaining asshole/Bill Paxton?!). But Coulson’s insistent that they need to formulate a plan when it gets bad: he needs May to Old Yeller him when the alien rabies hit.
The fun comes to a screeching halt when they run into Brigadier General Talbot, or whatever title he’s going by these days. Coulson approaches him, hoping that neither will interfere with the other, promising that their mission will benefit the U.S. government. Talbot agrees, which seems weird…but makes sense when May discovers that it’s not Talbot at all (I’ll admit that I actually thought Talbot may be Hydra for half a scene). But no, it’s Bakshi with some MCU tech: a face swap device that can change your appearance. Essentially Marvel’s equivalent of the Polyjuice potion, or what normies have to do to replicate Mystique’s power. The reveal gives Bakshi and the reformed Agent 33 the opportunity to get the drop on May. They knock her out…and give Agent 33 a new face, to trick Coulson. The episode is called “Face My Enemy.” Get it?! When Whitehall learns that Coulson’s there, he wants to grab him too. Thankfully, Coulson knows May too well, and isn’t fooled by Fake May for too long (though he accidentally reveals that he’s the new director of SHIELD). He knows for sure something’s wrong when she agrees to get coffee after; “May hates coffee,” Coulson deadpans, as he punches her in the face.
Back at the base, the rest of SHIELD are bonding, with Hunter giving us more reasons to despise him, as he shrugs his soldiers and admits that “women just love me.” Thankfully, he’s cut down to size by Skye and the rest of them, when he starts telling the intricate and boring tale of meeting his ex-wife, who he describes as a “demonic hellbeast.” If this was Buffy, we’d take that literally. I hope we’ve gotten to the point on AOS where it can be literal here too. Take your pick. Although, my guess is that his ex-wife is Bobbi Morse, AKA the (apparently) villainous Mockingbird. Mac admits that he loves all of his exes; except for the one that made him pretend to like quinoa for a year. You can never have enough quinoa references in pop culture; ask Gone Girl. While everyone else is getting along great, Fitz watches it all like a pathetic voyeur, talking to his imaginary friend, Faux-Simmons, who urges him to socialize and open up. It’s hard to do that when you’re having trouble speaking. Fitz makes everything hurt.
They’re missing out on some cool FX, though, like when we see Agent 33 turn into Melinda May, and even better: when we see the inevitable Melinda May vs. Melinda May battle royale (“I can’t believe I’m the only one seeing this,” Coulson remarks). Thankfully, the audience gets to, as director Kevin Tancharoen (Mortal Kombat: Legacy) puts his action sequence prowess to good use by putting DOUBLE the spotlight on Ming-na Wen. The May on May fight is brutal bliss, with at least one moment that left me cheering like a drunk celebrating WWE Smackdown.
The real May prevails, of course, and Coulson manages to steal the painting from Bakshi before the Hydra team arrives. Back at “base,” everyone else is given something to do, as fake-May gave the Bus a virus. It gives a chance for Fitz to earn his place (back) on the team, and ingratiate himself to Hunter. He saves the day, but that’s really beside the point. It’s hard to put into words how emotionally satisfying it was to see Hunter bring a six-pack to Mac AND Fitz, to celebrate their victory. Fitz reluctantly accepts it, Imagi-Simmons disappears (maybe for good?), and then Fitz blurts out the only ex story he has: I revealed my feelings to her, and she left because she didn’t feel the same way. He’s of course talking about Simmons. It’s awkward and heartbreaking. Fitz’s brain might be damaged from what Ward did to him, but the fact that he thinks Simmons would rather go undercover with Hydra than DEAL WITH THEIR SHIT, is what ails him the most. Awwww. At least now Fitz has beer swilling bro’s; that’s all one needs in this bitter mortal coil. Simmons: you have no one to blame but yourself when Fitz ‘n Mac become a thing.
May admonishes Coulson for being nostalgia throughout the episode, but Coulson turns the tables on her after the mission, when she continually refuses to plan their endgame if/when Coulson turns Garrett evil. There’s never been a more emotional reading of the line, “I will never shoot you in the head.” May already has a plan: she’s going to get Coulson out of there, and take care of him in a cabin in the Australian outback (because Coulson likes kangaroos). Coulson’s touched, as is the rest of the world, but he chillingly denies her plan. He orders her to kill him, end of story. Oof.
We finish with more evidence that Reed Diamond’s Daniel Whitehall may very well become the best villain in the MCU after Loki by the time this second season is up. Because he fucks with Raina, and looks like he’s going to get away with it…for now. He pays her a visit, bugging her, giving her 48 hours to return the Obelisk to Hydra, or else some creepy torture is in her future. This will certainly put Kyle MacLaughlan’s father figure character into a more active position on the show, which can only be a good thing.
This is a terrific episode, one that provides more than enough fuel to keep the Philinda bandwagon afloat for a few years, one that I’m firmly onboard. But it also shows how fruitless our optimism may prove to be. The sarcastic everyman Coulson is losing everything that made him a fan-favorite…in many ways, the drug will corrupt him, slowly removing his soul, like Garrett before him, or Angel before that on Buffy. I’m riveted to see how it all shakes out.