One of the major issues that has plagued Agents of SHIELD is the shows unwillingness to progress - it took just over 30 episodes for the mystery and various surrounding mysteries of Agent Coulson's resurrection to be solved, which is far too long to stretch the initial hook off a series on for and resulted in some episodes (particularly episodes in the first half of the first season) feeling almost aimless. It's an issue that got resolved somewhat in the quicker paced second season, but not entirely - even as a fan of the show I can admit that Agents of SHIELD has done it's fair share of wheel spinning, and I fully expected that flaw to continue into the shows third season.
I'm pleased to say that "Purpose in the Machine" has proven me wrong. It picks up as soon as "Laws of Nature" left off, Fitz's mental breakdown still going on when the team realise that containment has been breached and rush towards the Monolith. After dragging Fitz out, it doesn't take him long to finally realise that the Monolith is a portal to another world - which sets him on a mission to get Simmons back. Meanwhile we catch up with Ward as he continues setting up his own version of Hydra, and we find out why May never returned to SHIELD after her vacation.
Admittedly, "Purpose in the Machine" isn't a particularly well paced episode. On the one hand, Fitz's investigation into the Monolith as a portal moves incredibly quickly and does things that would have once taken Agents of SHIELD at least a few episodes to do, but on the other the reintroduction of May to the season is much slower (and a little dull) and "Purpose in the Machine" has trouble balancing the two. Wards storyline does a little to help, but not enough - it might have been better if some of the scenes dealing with Agent May were cut or at least trimmed down to allow the Monolith storyline more room to breathe. For the first time ever, Agents of SHIELD tries to do too much at once - a nice change for a show that likes to take its time, but one that ultimately feels like over-compensation.
Even if the pacing is off, "Purpose in the Machine" manages to still be a good episode thanks to the way that the Monolith story line progresses. I don't want to give too much away but I have to admire Agents of SHIELD for its commitment to slowly destroying the characters that the fans love most - first we get Fitz suffering from some kind of brain damage after being betrayed by one of his closest allies and choosing to sacrifice himself in the hope of saving his best friend, and now we get Simmons trapped on an alien planet light-years away from home, seemingly on the run from something and entirely isolated from everyone she has ever known.
Again, I don't want to give anything away about how this particular storyline develops, but the reintroduction of a character from the first season, a sideways turn into full on comic book territory and a really well done scene towards the end of the episode help make this particular story line one of the more interesting ones that Agents of SHIELD has ever done - although I am slightly concerned that it won't end up leading anywhere (there's a niggling feeling in the back of my mind that Simmons' disappearance into the Monolith was just a cool cliffhanger and nothing more).
Other than that (which I'd like to point out is the vast majority of the episode), "Purpose in the Machine" is nothing more than competent. If I'm being honest, I can't quite get behind Ward and his new version of Hydra. I never had Ward down for pure evil, even his worst moments - he always seems more unstable, more unhinged than actually evil to me, a man who simply wasn't all there when it came to realising the things that he had done and was capable of. So to see him turned into a character who seems to be both fully self-aware and capable of planning big, evil things... well it doesn't quite match the version of Ward that we've seen in the past, at least not in my eyes. I do like the reveal about who a certain new character really is though - stronger links to the film side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is always a good thing in my book, and the fact that this doesn't feel like just "look, you remember that name!" has me hopeful about the direction that Ward's Hydra could take next.
Thanks to its inconsistencies, "Purpose in the Machine" isn't quite as good an episode as "Laws of Nature" was, but there isn't a huge difference. Seeing Agents of SHIELD having the confidence to tackle the more outlandish aspects of the Marvel Cinematic Universe it great, as is the shows sudden willingness to move forwards - and if season three can continue the snappier progress on display in "Purpose in the Machine" while keeping the long-form character development that we've gotten used to then it will almost certainly end up being the best season of the show so far.
This article was originally published on OutLoudCulture.