The Good: Mack's character arc, Performances are fine
The Bad: Aimless and often predictable plot, Light on character development, Villain is further weakened as is the setting, No truly amazing performances.
The Basics: Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. eases toward an obvious reveal in "A Life Earned," which leaves none of the characters in a better or more interesting place.
Nothing truly informs me of how little something is captivating me than when it completely slips my mind. In the case of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., a series I have faithfully reviewed since it first aired five years ago, I realized that I had missed it (missed seeing it anyway), but did not at all miss it, last night when I was showering today after cooking up several pounds of bacon. Yes, raw meat captivated my time and attention more than the current plotline of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Perhaps that is becuase it has been done before with mild variations from Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Simmons is separated from the group, Fitz (also absent) is doing his own thing, Daisy's powers are putting her in trouble, and Coulson and May have found yet another reason to not progress their relationship. So, when I sat down tonight to catch up by watching "A Life Earned," the truth was I had no enthusiasm for it.
"A Life Spent" (reviewed here!) preceded "A Life Earned" and it set up several important plot points within the new episode. Yo-Yo, for example, managed to plant a device on the primary threat to Coulson and his team, which got him exiled to the ruins of Earth, where the roaches live. Simmons trained an Inhuman to survive and Daisy had just been captured by the villainous Kasius, having been betrayed by Deke. "A Life Earned" builds on the dark outpost that is one of the few remnants of Earth, but it further weakens the season's primary (so far) antagonist Kasius.
Kasius is having blood taken from Daisy and he admits to her that he believes that Simmons is one of the fabled Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Kasius threatens Johnson with violence against Simmons if she does not aid him. While the others break rocks for Grill, Mack is taken to be one of his enforcers. Coulson hopes that Mack might be able to get supplies that will allow the team to survive on Earth's surface and he wants to get to Level 35, where there is supposed to be a repository of Kree technology. While Johnson performs for him, Kasius enlists Deke to find other time travelers. Johnson learns that the Inhumans on the Lighthouse are bought and sold based on physical conflicts and she meets an Inhuman who can read minds.
Kasius uses his telepath to try to learn the truth about Daisy and Jemma. The telepath, though, lies for the pair and manages to use his powers to inform Simmons on the lie Johnson spun. While Rodriguez and Mack execute Grill's will, Coulson, May and Deke visit Level 35. There, they discover that the Kree are using infants as a commodity and he is using them to make a new generation of Inhumans. The Kree scientists arrive, which forces a fight in which Deke is injured. While Coulson rescues Deke, May has to fight Sinara and in her weakened state, she loses.
"A Life Earned" is hampered by a conceit that makes the episode a little hard to believe. Amidst all of the darkness and the dank future, Kasius has a stable of Inhumans. One is a telepath, whom Kasius has complete (apparent) control over. So, when the episode spends a bit of time with Kasius bothering to interrogate Daisy without his telepath present seems like a waste of time. It is entirely unsurprising, then, that Kasius brings Ben in to listen to Johnson and Simmons's thoughts. It seems very out of character for the ruler of the station to waste his time with any interrogation without the telepath present. Which leads to the other troublesome conceit; Ben tells Johnson that this is the closest he has ever been to Kasius. Why would Kasius trust Ben and risk having his thoughts read by someone who is only peripherally connected to his plan?!
The main bit of character work in "A Life Earned" comes in the form of Mack questioning how long the team can stay in this horrible future without losing themselves. Mack is an engineer and not, despite his physical size, a man of violence. While he can fight, it is not his first instinct and he is entirely uncomfortable with using his strength on defenseless individuals. Predictably, Mack is troubled by being an enforcer for Grill. "A Life Earned" spends a decent amount of time with Mack and Rodriguez discussing Mack using violence on other people who are simply working too slow for Grill. Mack works hard to maintain his moral core in "A Life Earned."
"A Life Earned" smartly progresses the debate and the character beyond the obvious, well-established conflict that Mack would have by acting as an enforcer for Grill. Mack, however, learns about the lack of children on the Lighthouse and he questions whether - even given the opportunity - he would be as good a father as he was within the Framework. The idea that the Framework continues to haunt Mack is an excellent one and it grounds his character in a sense of reality that is absent from the rest of the episode.
Unfortunately, "A Life Earned" meanders toward an obvious set-up and reveal without truly exciting the viewer along the way. The fights are dull, the threats are generic (Kasius menaces Daisy with the idea that he will mar Simmons's face - like the doesn't have a brain?!), and the final reveal is ridiculous (we'll put one person in the room in a mask and viewers will want to know who it is!). Ultimately, "A Life Earned" does surprisingly little to reinvigorate Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D..
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