NOTE: Full spoilers for this episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are present in this review.
After an intense, emotionally charged season premiere last week, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. seemed to relax a bit this week, though that didn’t necessarily mean that the story slacked off. “Purpose in the Machine” still dealt with a lot of great material, even with the Inhumans and ATCU taking a back seat in this episode, in favour of more camaraderie and group dynamics amongst Coulson’s crew. We even got a chance to check in with Ward, who is starting the first phase of his plan to rebuild HYDRA.
May also made a return this week, after sitting out the season premiere. Apparently, she’s been spending some time with her father (played in a great guest role by James Hong), leading to some more amusing banter that sheds some fascinating light on May’s early childhood and family life. Looks like May’s father is just as biting as her mother, though comes off as having more of a sweet side at the very least, even if she doesn’t much care for his forcing her to practice her golf swing.
The scenes between May and her father were actually pretty touching, again emphasizing how May’s cold exterior wasn’t always the case. She hasn’t changed all that much however, as Hunter pays her a rather awkward visit during the episode, pointing out that May is worried about Ward exacting revenge on her, and that’s why she’s still constantly looking over her shoulder. May’s claim to her father about suddenly wanting a normal life felt kind of tedious, especially when she was happy to refuse hanging out with her ex-husband and Coulson’s team in favour of joining Hunter’s crusade against Ward in the end, but it was still good to see a different side of May for the first time in a little while.
As for Ward himself, he’s really playing up his dark side now, almost to a comical degree. After torturing some of his henchmen as an initiation rite (did he pick them all that way?), Ward targets a spoiled rich kid partying his life away, and drives away his party boat guests with a convenient bucket of rats, before beating up the kid’s bodyguards while he was at it. The moment where one of them actually lands a hit on Ward and Ward angrily shoots the guy dead in response was fantastically cold, and nicely illustrated that Ward is still not to be messed with. Naturally, he gets his prey pretty easily.
Ward initially appears to be after money, charging his henchman with torturing the kid until he gives up his bank codes, but that doesn’t quite line up for a man as powerful and resourceful as Ward, does it? Sure enough, that’s not the real play, as the kid eventually overpowers his torturer, and Ward then comes in to announce that the young man is actually Werner von Strucker, the estranged son of former HYDRA leader, Baron von Strucker, whom you may remember both from a post-credits scene in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, where he was shown to be responsible for giving Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver their powers, and in the early moments of Avengers: Age of Ultron, where the Avengers kicked off the movie by attacking his base. This was actually a great twist, and one that made a lot of sense for Ward’s plan.
The bulk of the episode however naturally unfolded around the main S.H.I.E.L.D. crew, with Dr. Garner, May’s ex-husband, making a return to evaluate Joey, the Inhuman that the group managed to secure during the season premiere. Dr. Garner has psychologically evaluated every Inhuman that S.H.I.E.L.D. has managed to contain, though has rejected all of them for S.H.I.E.L.D. work, due to them still being too unstable. Garner did name drop the term, “Secret Warriors” while talking to Daisy though, which should get Marvel fans very excited for the future of Season Three! That was pretty much all the Inhuman talk we got for this episode though. Still, that’s not so bad, since it means that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. can still stand when it merely focuses on the (mostly) fully human forces of S.H.I.E.L.D. and HYDRA, and doesn’t need to lean on the Inhumans as a crutch for story material.
Most of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s plot involved the group pulling Fitz away from the Monolith, picking up immediately after Fitz’s raging fit that concluded the season premiere’s proper story last week, though the tantrum does inadvertently lead to Fitz discovering extra-terrestrial sand, proving that the Monolith is a portal! Simmons could have moved away from the access point, or worse, been killed however, with no way to prove either scenario by the team. After some light debate though, the group quickly decides to check it out for sure, and Coulson even suggests roping along undercover Asgardian, Professor Randolph to help figure out the alien science of the artifact, giving a welcome opportunity for Peter MacNicol to reprise his guest role from Season One!
It was awesome to see Randolph again, and the scene of him being bailed out of jail (by simply allowing him to rip the caging off) was pretty amusing. He’s uneasy around the Monolith however, and is initially unhelpful, before getting prodded with the right threats from Coulson. Randolph then leads the team to a 19th Century castle that played around with the Monolith outside of recorded history (which was teased a bit in the episode’s prologue), and the team eventually finds a device that can make the Monolith react with controlled vibrations. The machine soon breaks down, after nearly giving Daisy a stroke, and the team initially appears stuck.
You can see where this is going though. Daisy uses her Inhuman powers to re-activate the vibrations and open the portal, which Fitz quickly jumps into, after initially firing a flare into it. After some stumbling around, he finds Simmons pretty quickly, who luckily saw the flare, and what follows is a wonderfully intense sequence of everyone getting antsy, Daisy on the verge of passing out any second, and Fitz desperately trying to hold on to Simmons as he’s yanked back on his tether. Daisy is unable to hold the portal open any longer from there, and it collapses into a mess of gravel.
Things look bad at first, but Fitz soon pokes his head up. Initially, it seems like he’s alone, but Simmons pops up soon after, being brought back successfully! Yes! I’m surprised that the show didn’t spend more time with Simmons wandering around the mysterious alien world, but regardless, it’s good to have her back, and unharmed. She’s certainly traumatized though, as she continually wakes up with a crude knife held out, tormented by her experiences after spending months in this mysterious alien location, eventually deciding to sweetly cuddle up to a sleeping Fitz as the episode’s main story bit ends. Awww… There is an epilogue however, as we see Dr. Garner take a new student, who just so happens to be Werner von Strucker! Oh no!
“Purpose in the Machine” gave us a bit of a break from the onslaught of Inhuman developments, and made sure to remind us that, even with Inhumans starting to flood the Marvel Cinematic Universe (at least, outside of the movies and Netflix shows), there’s still an appealing human dynamic that can also drive the series. Maybe there wasn’t as much excitement or surprises as in the season premiere last week, but it’s good to see that S.H.I.E.L.D. and HYDRA still have their own appeal, even as the Marvel Cinematic Universe once again changes all around the both of them.
- Great look into May's early backstory
- Everyone banding together to save Simmons
- The great Baron von Strucker Jr. twist
- May's "normal life" spiel is a tedious reason for her absence