Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Finding Simmons Is The "Purpose In The Machine!"

The Good: Generally good acting, Pacing, Plot development
The Bad: Erratic character explorations - too packed to do justice to any of the characters
The Basics: Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. works to restore Coulson's team by bringing Simmons back in "Purpose In The Machine."

Ever since the Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode "The Well" (reviewed here!) aired, fans have been eagerly awaiting the return of Peter MacNicol to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They got that chance with the Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode "Purpose In The Machine." "Purpose In The Machine" works to tie up threads that left characters unraveled and away from the S.H.I.E.L.D. team since the climax of "S.O.S." (reviewed here!). The episode splits its focus between the team searching for Simmons, May and Ward.

Picking up after "Laws Of Nature" (reviewed here!), "Purpose In The Machine" works to resolve two of the big character arcs by illustrating what Simmons and May have been up to. It also makes fairly decent use of Agent Hunter by sending him after Ward, who has been rebuilding H.Y.D.R.A. since the prior season's finale. As one might expect since the cast of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. has become rather bloated, there is a lot of plot packed into "Purpose In The Machine."

Opening in the 1800s in Gloucestershire, a secret society meets and sends one of its members into a room to encounter the Obelisk. That agent of proto-S.H.I.E.L.D. is absorbed into the Obelisk. Flashing forward to now, Daisy and Mack debate adding Joey to the team when Morse and Hunter break in to reveal that Fitz has broken into the Obelisk room. Sand left at the scene proves to Fitz that the Obelisk is a portal to somewhere vastly older than Earth. With a portal in play, Coulson decides to enlist Professor Randolph, the resident Asgardian who has been chilling out in U.S. custody since the prior incident with him. Dr. Garner arrives at the S.H.I.E.L.D. base to consult about Joey Gutierrez. May is hanging out in Arizona with her father, playing golf and trying to find some peace.

Randolph investigates the Obelisk at S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters where he realizes that the scroll Fitz recovered bear the same word as he once saw in the English castle back in the day. In Ibiza, Spain, Ward gets financing for H.Y.D.R.A. by taking a young, wealthy businessman hostage. In Gloucester, Morse, Randolph, Fitz and Coulson search for clues about the Obelisk. While Daisy is getting psychoanalyzed by Dr. Garner, May reminisces with her father until Hunter arrives and offers her the chance to get revenge on Ward. While Hunter tried to tempt her to help him kill Ward, the rest of the S.H.I.E.L.D. team tries manipulate the Obelisk to find Simmons.

"Purpose In The Machine" feels very packed because it is. There is a lot going on, but most of it is plot-focused. Take, for example, the Ward plotline. H.Y.D.R.A. is in shambles and Ward is working to rebuild it. Given his claims that he had no real love of H.Y.D.R.A.'s philosophies in the prior season, Ward rebuilding H.Y.D.R.A. makes no real sense. "Purpose In The Machine" does not explore his character and motivations in any compelling way to justify his violent actions in the episode. While there is a decent callback to Ward's manipulation by Garrett - he brought tacos! - in his storyline with the Von Strucker kid, there is no real character growth or explanation of why Ward is taking this particular tact.

There is a decent amount of character exploration of Daisy in the episode. Dr. Garner explores Daisy's motivations with her and, for her part, Daisy does a good job of expressing her frustration with the status quo. Garner has not cleared any of the Inhumans to work on the S.H.I.E.L.D. team and Daisy is, naturally, afraid given that the S.H.I.E.L.D. team encountered a powerful and lethal Inhuman in the prior episode. The interplay between Daisy and Garner is decent. The idea of Daisy transitioning into a leader is an interesting one and actress Chloe Bennet suddenly has enough substance in her performance to make it seem credible.

Also good is the interplay between May and her father and May and Hunter. Hunter's arrival in Arizona puts May on more emotional footing than she usually has and Ming-Na Wen finds the right balance between making May seem familiar and like she has grown as a character. In her early scenes, Wen makes May seem at peace with being away from work and when Hunter shows up, she plays May as appropriately interested in his mission of vengeance. May's father is an instantly cool character, rendered well by James Hong.

Peter MacNicol's return as Professor Randolph is decent, though he gets his performing heavy lifting out of the way in his first scene. MacNicol is perfectly cast to bring a sense of quirk to Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., which has lost a lot of its initial zest and fast dialogue in favor of a darker tone. Even when Randolph is used to deliver exposition, MacNicol gives a layered performance as the Asgardian.

Iain De Caestecker is electric in "Purpose In The Machine." De Caestecker spent the second season playing brain damaged and so far he is given season-long ruts to act in. But in "Laws Of Nature" and "Purpose In The Machine," Fitz seems healed of his brain damage and back to a geeky, but determined self. De Caestecker is given new range to play as a lovelorn Fitz determinedly hunts Simmons by trying to manipulate the Obelisk.

Given the climactic introduction of the Inhuman hunting team at the climax of "Laws Of Nature," "Purpose In The Machine" feels somewhat like a non sequitor in that it does not explore the President's counter-S.H.I.E.L.D. Instead, "Purpose In The Machine" lays the foundation for Ward having a bigger presence in season three than he did in the prior season, while remaining fairly focused on recovering Simmons from the realm she has been on.

For me, though, the reason to watch the episode - outside Peter MacNicol - is the simple joy of a good industry joke. Randolph calling Morse "Amazon Woman" is a tongue-in-cheek reference to actress Adrianne Palicki's exceptionally brief stint as Wonder Woman. It might not be enough to recommend the packed episode, but "Purpose In The Machine" certainly makes it seem like Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is going somewhere!

For other works with Peter MacNicol, please visit my reviews of:
Game Change
Ally McBeal
Addams Family Values

[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 Third Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the third season here!


For other television season and episode reviews, please check out my Television Review Index Page for a listing of those reviews!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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