Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. 5×03 brought the team to new levels of desperation, with a bit of hope left over. Here’s what’s really going on in “A Life Spent.”
In “A Life Spent,” Simmons councils an Inhuman girl through a brutal trial, while Daisy fights off Deke and mounts a rescue attempt. Coulson, May, Mack, and Tess discover an Earth-based transmission bouncing off a chunk of space rock, but their journey is complicated by the sabotage of Grill’s lieutenant Zev. The team refuses to follow Tess’ advice and murder Zev, but Elena reveals his contraband gun and Grill turns Zev over to the Kree.
Daisy is also sold out to Kasius by Deke, as the team decrypts the transmission and learns that the message is recent — and about their arrival on the Lighthouse. They are determined to find the transmitters on Earth, but Tess insists that this is impossible. Earth is where the condemned are sent to die.
This could be a problem.
Following off of the premiere’s tones of captivity and helplessness, “A Life Spent” plummets straight down to the next level of horrific human experiences — enslavement.
It’s not particularly subtle about it either. Simmons’ status is obvious, and Coulson, Mack, and Elena are all effectively press-ganged into working for Grill. (Grill himself is explicit about their state of bondage — “As long as you owe me, I own you,” he tells Mack. Eeeeeek.)
Metric-free and quake-powered, only Daisy experiences a modicum of freedom over the course of the episode. But even this is worth less than it seems. For the second time on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Daisy is made to grapple with her enslavement to fate, this time in the past, rather than the future.
(Or is it the future of the past? This is already very confusing!)
Daisy flatly rejects Deke’s assertion that she is the cause of Earth’s destruction, and to be fair, we still have very little evidence in any direction. (Deke’s reference to the “multiverse” theory might be a clue; it might also be a wry shoutout to the televised stories of the Distinguished Competition.) The question continues to pulse in the background, but the more salient problem in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. 5×03 is the consequence of Daisy’s flight from fate.
It is, after all, the very exercise of her power and free will that lead Daisy into Deke’s trap. She has forgotten what it is like to be so restricted, and therefore ignores the signs that Deke has carved out his own modicum of agency in this ugly world. “Playing the long game,” as he puts it, fails to impress Daisy until it is too late, and she too becomes a plaything for Kasaius.
(Keep Abby’s Inhuman power inhibitor in mind, by the way. This path is only going downward for a while.)
Ultimately though, what’s most interesting about almost every character’s experience of slavery in “A Life Spent” is the way in which they become complicit in their own oppression. Every independent action rebounds to reinforce the dictates of the Kree, and there are even indications that the Kree themselves exist in their own system of uneasy compliance.
Not that I’m terribly sympathetic to the blues, but it’s worth noting.
Simmons, for example, is given an opportunity to exercise her most essential traits of compassion and sciencing in coaching Abby how to utilize her power. Switched back on to fully human again, Simmons does what seems to be the right thing, gently enlightening the girl to the freedom of her own genetics. With the ability to control the “infinity space” between the molecules of her body, Abby could be seen as among the most potentially free of all the characters involved.
But she is not. Not only because of the power inhibitor installed in her head, but because the system she exists within is designed specifically to channel that freedom into the service of others. Simmons might help Abby survive her trial — but in doing so, she ushers her through the door to slavery (and presumably, killing) in Lady Basha’s red-eyed service.
The same is true of the rest of the team. In their spacey foray to investigate Earth Chunk 616 (I see what you did there, show!) the team again finds their choices compromised by Zev’s interference.
Once again, Tess is put in the position of brutal realist, advocating for killing Zev before they return to the station. It is, she believes, nothing more or less than math; his life will pay for theirs, and there can be no argument with such an unyielding equation. Mack, Coulson, and May are naturally resistant to this (they too, have not yet fully internalized their enslaved status.)
These rigid ideological positions highlight the power of Tess’s choice to take the blame for suspected insurgency. (Take a second to consider how much courage it must take for someone who perceives herself as powerless to take action in front of a superior. Yeah, Tess is awesome.) But even this is soon overshadowed by the dictates of the Kree.
Elena’s exposure of Zev’s contraband gun may relieve the team of responsibility; it might feel, in the moment, like a victory. But instead, the burden of Kree oppression has merely shifted from the team’s shoulders to Grill’s. Painfully but immediately, the beefy man turns on his lieutenant and proclaims that he will turn him in to the Kree himself.
“Let that be a lesson,” he tells the subdued crowd. “No one is above the rules.”
No one, in other words, is free.
Coulson, May, Mack, and Elena still haven’t quite gotten the message, however. As much as Coulson seems willing to submit to fate and live out his life saving humanity from space, he is still urgently seeking answers to their conundrum. When the mysterious signal seems to be a communication from Earth about the team (as the episode’s opening moments suggest, an accurate hypothesis) he insists that there must be life on the surface — there must be a path between the beliefs that Tess considers inviolable.
But the closing moments of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. 5×03 suggest that the truth lies somewhere in between. Sure, there probably is some shred of humanity tucked into the Earth’s ravaged crust.
But as Zev’s brutal and terrifying death makes clear, Earth is not as free as Coulson hopes, either.