“Where the hell am I?” Simmons, we’re asking ourselves that same exact question.
Elizabeth Henstridge was the first billed name on the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. cast list tonight, and regardless of the fact that no other regular cast member appeared in this episode (until the very end), boy did she deserve it. When the show told us that we would finally find out what happened to Simmons when she was pulled into the portal, I expected an episode that worked like most S.H.I.E.L.D. episodes do — a volley of back and forth flashbacks, alternating from past to present, especially given last week’s events. What I did not expect was for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to produce a bottle episode that shined the spotlight on Jemma Simmons for an entire hour, in turn giving us what is not only Henstridge’s best performance but one of the strongest episodes of the show so far.
We start from the beginning — the actual beginning, as in, six months ago where Simmons and Fitz are making dinner plans before the unfortunate monolith incident — and we pick up right after Simmons lands on the other side of the portal. She’s rightly terrified, screaming for Fitz to help her as the portal closes, struggling to find a way to get back. She even tries to use her cell phone, because why wouldn’t you? (Maybe outer space has great reception. I mean, The Martian had Mark Watney growing potatoes on Mars, so anything’s possible.) She quickly surmises that she’s on another planet, which throws her into a disbelieving panic.
Jemma’s first few hours are filled with, well, everything that you’d expect from our favorite resourceful scientist. She convinces herself of the rationale regarding standard S.H.I.E.L.D. protocol for extraction when an agent gets left behind. She keeps herself optimistic by reminding herself that Fitz has to be looking for her. She takes her phone and starts recording a log of her surroundings, trying to figure out the properties of the planet, and even takes some pictures of the landscape. She starts to realize rescue might not happen right away, but keeps herself hopeful: after all, Fitz has to be looking for her. And they’re going to dinner.
So Simmons waits. And waits. And waits. There’s a (really cute) picture of Fitz on her phone that she keeps staring at, and she immediately starts talking to it, using her partner’s logic to reassure herself. That’s just the first time our heart is going to be broken this hour regarding these two, because even though Fitz didn’t appear in the episode until later, his presence was very much felt throughout the whole hour. Simmons may be on a different planet, miles away from the entire world, but Fitz is tethering her to Earth — that’s not love so much as it is being the most important part of someone. (Think about that first time Simmons woke up after Fitz rescued her, and how she immediately crawled into Fitz’s arms. Now reconcile that with the fact that she was most likely staring at his face every night before she went to sleep, and how it must have felt to do the one thing she never thought she would do again: hold her best friend in her arms.)
Simmons thinks she’ll sleep and continue her journey toward finding a way home when it’s light out. But when she wakes up, there’s still no sun. And after 71 hours, there’s still no light, and Simmons is starting to lose it. She tells Fitz she can’t wait here for him any longer — she has to try to figure out how to survive. Because practical Simmons has realized exactly how long she can be here without food and water, and that deadline is fast approaching. “But if you do show up while I’m away, you’ll know where to find me,” she promises her friend as she leaves her necklace in a formation of rocks near the portal’s original entrance.
I could talk for hours and days not only about Henstridge and the performance she gives in this episode, but also about the way the hour was crafted. Simmons talking to herself is great; Simmons using the time to voice all her fears about Fitz’s dinner date (what she’ll wear, what to do if they run out of things to talk about) is even better. By narrating her thoughts through an imaginary conversation, we’re not pulled out of the scene, distracted while trying to figure out what’s going on — we’re even more invested. And getting inside the head of someone who has been one of the most interesting characters on this show feels like a gift.
NEXT: In your face, Neil Armstrong!
Ninety-nine hours: Simmons is still searching for water. She finally makes it to the top of a hill and sees what looks like an approaching sandstorm; two hours later finds her passed out and awakening to (miraculously) find a hole filled with water nearby. Nourishment achieved, she lets herself cry for a bit and then uses the time to enjoy the one luxury that seems too good to be true, floating contently in the hole. That contentment doesn’t last long — and Simmons gets her first taste of fighting for survival when a mysterious water plant tries to drag her under. She manages to save herself by cutting off one of its limbs… and then attempts to eat said limb as a way to compensate for the food she’s still looking for. After 492 hours and three weeks, Simmons goes back into the water, realizing that the only way she’s going to get food is if she becomes food. And so Jemma Simmons baits, wrestles, and then triumphantly succeeds in killing enough of this creature to eat. Jemma Simmons builds a fire and roasts her new prey. Jemma Simmons records a message to Fitz telling him, “I killed the monster plant. You’d be so proud of me.” (Jemma, WE are so proud of you.) In short, Jemma Simmons could probably go on Survivor right now AND The Amazing Race right after, and beat everyone by a long shot. She records anything and everything for Fitz on the phone that apparently never dies, finally breaking down and telling him that he needs to come and rescue her. “I know you won’t give up,” she tells the picture. “So I won’t, either.”
A month later, not much has changed, except for the fact that Simmons’ curiosity has led her to accidentally fall into a hole underground. She wakes up in a cage with a mysterious person watching over her, a man who we later learn is an astronaut named Will Daniels (Dillon Casey), who has been on this planet since 2001. Unsurprisingly, Simmons isn’t too happy about this development. She feigns sickness in order to force Will to open the cage so that she can escape, but doesn’t get very far before she injures herself. The last thing Simmons wants to do is let this guy help her, but another sandstorm is coming, and Will ominously tells Simmons that, “It smells blood.” He drags her back underground and when Simmons asks what the heck “it” is, Will only has one answer for her: death. (It’s All Connected: What did the parchment that Fitz uncovered, the one that held the “key” to the monolith’s secrets, say in Hebrew? Death.)
According to Will, the planet has “moods, not rules” and the dust storm called “death” affects the planet (that’s how you can tell it’s coming). As she’s stitching herself up, Rational Scientist and Resident Bad Ass Jemma Simmons refuses to believe Will’s explanation that a planet can be evil — she describes how certain environments can have different scientific properties. Will admits that this “evil” is the reason he locked her up at first, because he didn’t know she if she was real or not.
Simmons eventually takes notice of all of Will’s equipment, coming to the realization that NASA must have sent him here. Nearly everything is outdated, however, leading Will to admit how long he’s been here… and Simmons is the first person he’s seen in a very, very long time. He was sent to the planet because NASA was convinced such a mission would be “an affordable exploration” of space. He couldn’t turn down the temptation, so he volunteered, along with a team of scientists who were supposed to study the planet’s properties and gather samples to bring home. They were only meant to be here a year, and his job was to keep his crew safe and calm. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, because the planet (or, “death”) made all of them go crazy and kill themselves. And while NASA sent them off with a bunch of powerful items, everything is solar powered…and of course, this planet has no sun. (By the way, did you all catch the Easter egg of the name “Brubaker,” a.k.a. famous comic writer Ed Brubaker?)
Will and Jemma bond over updated technology, and he’s both surprised that she got here without NASA, and that S.H.I.E.L.D. is a real thing. Simmons wants to know how NASA knew in the first place that the planet would be survivable, but that’s classified. (Hmmm.) She’s a little disbelieving of the fact that Will survived simply because of luck, but later apologizes for being so standoff-ish, telling him that they’re going to work together to get home. Will thinks there’s no hope, but Simmons is convinced there are scientific explanations for everything. She’ll be the voice of hope, he’ll be the voice of doom…it’ll all work out. When Will asks Simmons what she misses the most that’s not food, she doesn’t hesitate to show him a birthday video that Fitz recorded. Will quickly deduces that Fitz is a little more than her partner — even going so far as to point out, “His name is like your favorite word. That’s a little more than a best friend.” You all know I agree.
Two months later, Simmons is no closer to finding an answer for how to get home. She wants to venture into what Will has mapped out as the “no-fly zone,” but he doesn’t want her to go because it’s apparently dangerous. That’s never stopped Simmons before, and it’s certainly not going to stop her now, so she sneaks out and finds that in addition to things like a sword and astronaut equipment and a bag with wine, the no-fly zone basically has a lot of corpses. But Simmons also finds something else: answers in the stars. Unfortunately, her blissful discovery is cut short when another sandstorm comes, bringing with it a hooded figure that tries to come after her. (Right now, for reference, we’re at the end of the season 3 premiere, when we saw Simmons fleeing from something and hiding the scent of her blood.) If Simmons didn’t believe in Will’s death stories, it’s safe to say that she does now.
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Will gets her back underground safely; he’s angry that she disobeyed his orders because now she knows how many other people have tried (and failed) to survive here. But Simmons could care less — she’s realized how to get them home. And it’s simple. The monolith creates a wormhole to a fixed location on the planet, and even though the planet moves, the portal never does. So if they can track all the information from when they both arrived, they’ll know how long it will take for the planet to rotate — and if they track the stars long enough, they can figure out the rate of that rotation and predict when the portal will next appear.
There’s just one problem with Simmons’ amazing revelation: It requires the use of Will’s NASA equipment, which needs energy to power it. Simmons realizes she has enough battery left on her phone to get the data, even though Will warns her that if she uses it up and it doesn’t work, she will truly be on her own — possibly forever. And so she watches her birthday video one last time, and it’s a testament to how much Fitz is pushing Simmons to survive here. All of her determination comes from one thing: As much as she wants to get back to the real world, she desperately wants to get back to her best friend. And because Jemma Simmons is a genius, she fixes the satellite. The power eventually dies, but not before she manages to successfully track enough data to figure out the portal will open 18 days from now, in the no-fly zone… which includes a 40-hour hike and a canyon that is impossible to cross.
Will’s managed to rig a device that should allow them to slide over the canyon via rope, but since they only have one shot at this, Simmons has a plan even if they can’t cross: She’s created a message in a bottle, one that has all the information she’s learned about how to open the portal, so Fitz will know how to save her. Their plan goes awry, however, when they realize the canyon is bigger than they thought, then goes awry more when the portal appears on the other side. Knowing they can’t make the jump, Simmons urges Will to at least fire the bottle, and he does… but the portal closes just before the bottle makes it over. And now Jemma Simmons has realized she’s probably never going home, and we feel the devastation of this realization just as much as she does.
“This is hell,” she tells Will miserably, and Will tries to boost her spirits by telling her he thought the same thing — at least, until she showed up and gave him hope. Yes, the two end up sharing a kiss, but I’m not totally bothered by it. To me, this isn’t Simmons falling in love with someone else (though I do wonder if that kiss will come out should they manage to bring Space Boyfriend back, like Simmons wants to.) This is Simmons acting on the strength Fitz has given her and realizing that if it’s all going to end, at least she’s got someone she can trust. And all of that determination that got her to this point? It was due to Fitz in the first place. She’s not moving on… she’s just accepting her fate.
And this is where we find Simmons when we reach 4,720 hours: Completely cozy with Will, as if the two have started something of a relationship. They’re going to sit outside and watch the rare appearance of a sunrise, complete with wine that Will has gone back for in the no-fly zone. Or, they are until Simmons sees the flare Fitz sent into the portal a few episodes earlier. They take off running, and of course, “death” chooses that moment to make his appearance. Simmons doesn’t want to leave without Will, but he pushes her on, then saves her by releasing the single bullet from the gun he’s been carrying around. This takes us back to where we found Simmons when Fitz managed to get to the planet, and also back to the present, where we find that Simmons has been telling Fitz this whole story. Simmons admits that she doesn’t know what happened to Will, but that she never would have survived without him — and that’s why she has to go back. To rescue him. (As we saw at the episode’s very end, he’s still there.)
So, there is no alien DNA, or anything that Simmons saw on the other planet that she wanted to go back to for a strange reason. She wants to go back to save someone, and I like to think it’s because she remembers how Fitz wouldn’t stop looking for her, even when he was literally worlds away. Simmons is worried that Fitz will be angry about the situation, given the way he reacts, but if there’s one thing Fitz cares about, it’s Simmons. And he’ll do anything if it means she can get back to her old self.
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