The Good: Awesome character moments, Good performances, Good humor, Character-driven plot
The Bad: Disconnected penultimate scene
The Basics: In a series high for Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., "The Return" deals with all of the major characters reeling from their time in the Framework and the new threats represented by Ophelia and the Russian!
Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. has a habit of making interesting twists, though the savvy audience of the show is seldom as surprised as the writers might expect or hope them to be. That said, "Farewell, Cruel World!" (reviewed here!) did a surprisingly good job of making a pretty great twist out of an otherwise predictable moment. As "The Return" begins, fans have to be wondering about Ophelia's new powers in the real world. All appearances from the climax of "Farewell, Cruel World!" were that Ophelia had Gordon's Inhuman powers when she teleported her and Fitz out of the submarine bunker.
"The Return" is the penultimate episode of the fourth season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the episode bears the burden of setting up the season finale and bringing some sense of resolution to a remarkably fractured season. The fourth season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been split into three very separate sections - the Ghost Rider plot, the LMD threat (which contained an anti-Inhuman subplot) and then the Framework. "The Return" has to lay the groundwork for tying together the disparate elements and plotlines in a way that A.I.D.A.'s presence in the various portions did not satisfyingly link them. In that way, "The Return" does a good job of catching the characters - May and Rogriguez - up on all they missed during Simmons and Johnsons' trip into the Framework.
Opening deep beneath the oil rig where the Sovereign has been waiting, he witnesses Ophelia disappear. May and Coulson confront the Sovereign only to discover that there are several more LMD versions of the Russian ready to attack them. While Daisy, Yo-Yo and Simmons struggle with keeping the plane in the air while the Watchdog planes try to shoot them down. On a distant beach, Ophelia tries to convince Fitz that she was a hapless victim of Radcliffe within the Framework and that she actually loves Fitz. May and Coulson try to figure out how to survive against the Russian's LMDs.
Aboard the Zephyr, Piper and the team inform Daisy and Simmons that S.H.I.E.L.D. Headquarters has been completely destroyed and Brigadier General Talbot has taken control of the situation there. As the Russian floods his base, Ophelia teleports to the Russian's side and attempts to reason with him. Fitz and Ophelia are able to rescue Mack's body and the entire team is reunited. The Zephyr returns to S.H.I.E.L.D. Headquarters where the team struggles with the destruction wrought by LMD May on her way out. While Simmons wrestles with her feelings concerning Fitz, Ophelia tries to counsel Fitz. Rejected by Fitz, Ophelia goes on a murderous rampage which necessitates a desperate exodus from the base.
"The Return" gets most of the action in the episode out of the way fast to devote much more time to developing a strong Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. character study. Fitz is absolutely tormented in "The Return" and he goes through all sorts of levels of emotion associated with his transition back to the real world. Fitz struggles with who he was in the Framework and the moment when he has the epiphany that within the Framework, he became Grant Ward is an impressive character moment. Iain De Caestecker rocks that moment and the struggle he has to portray throughout "The Return" gives him a chance to show off his exceptional range.
De Caestecker's acting prowess is mirrored by the performances delivered by Elizabeth Henstridge and Mallory Jansen. Henstridge does a tremendous job of first exhibiting concern when Jemma worries about Fitz waking up outside the Framework without her. As the episode progresses and Simmons is terrified that her relationship with Fitz is irrevocably broken, Henstridge gives an impressive portrayal of grief, with an intense physical performance for the moment. Mallory Jansen continues to surprise with her acting abilities as Ophelia. In "The Return," Jansen plays loving, confused, proud, shocked, indignant, conniving and murderous and Jansen makes the transitions seem effortless and flawless while still feeling like she is playing the same character throughout. Jansen gives a masterful performance of Ophelia in "The Return!"
Viewers of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. are rewarded with wonderful banter between Coulson and May and the proper return of Melinda May to the narrative is handled in a way that few shows with similar situations ever bother to; Coulson takes time to fill May in on key points of what she missed after she was replaced with an LMD. "The Return" recaps how S.H.I.E.L.D. Headquarters was destroyed (which, given the months since that episode aired is quite helpful, but is presented credibly within the narrative by Daisy telling May) and is reasonably complicated by the return of Talbot (which makes a lot of sense given that Mace has been killed and his body found).
What knocks "The Return" out of hitting a perfect episode are little details with May and Coulson and an unfortunate contrivance in the penultimate scene. For an episode where the characters - even recurring Inhuman Yo-Yo Rodriguez - struggle with big, serious emotions based upon the effects of the events of the prior episodes, skirting the issues with Coulson and May feels like a cop-out. While it is delightful to see Coulson and May banter and May flirt with and chide Coulson, Coulson's unwillingness to be honest with May about his feelings for her is disappointing. In a similar fashion, in the penultimate scene, Talbot descends into the bowels of the ruined S.H.I.E.L.D. Headquarters. Having rewatched the fourth season right before "The Return," I literally sat up and started repeating "Oh no! Oh no!" as Talbot walked around the ruins and something moved. After all, basic storytelling logic would have Talbot encountering one of the many LMD Daisys that were on the base when it was blown up. But no, the scene ends with someone very different appearing and while it has the potential to tie together the fourth season, it was far less linear of a moment for the story told in "The Return."
Ultimately, "The Return" illustrates well exactly what the Marvel Cinematic Universe can do in the television medium. The big character moments in "The Return" would be hard to effectively pull off for so many characters in a blockbuster film. But "The Return" shows that fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe can handle something more serious, character-driven and that explores adults dealing with complicated adult emotions. And if "The Return" is the best Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. ever gets, it is a satisfying peak to reach.
For other penultimate episodes of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., please visit my reviews of:
[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. - The Complete Fourth Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the fourth season here!
For other television or movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for a comprehensive listing!
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