Five episodes in, this show is definitely growing on me. It's not as wonderfully bizarre as WandaVision, or as funny and quirky as Loki, but it has its own brand of charm, especially in the pairing of Jeremy Renner and Hailee Steinfeld. This episode also carries on the tradition of slowing down and examining the characters (there's action and an important reveal, but that's not till the end of the 40-minute runtime), Florence Pugh's Yelena Belova in particular.
To start, Yelena is centered in the episode's open in 2018, showing that Yelena has continued in her quest to free the remaining Black Widows from their mind control. She finds one, Ana, and sprays her with the red antidote, only to realize Ana has already broken free. They discuss what Yelena will do after this task is finished, which of course includes her reuniting with Natasha. She goes to the bathroom, and as she stands there washing her hands, we get an unnerving insider's view of the Snap--her hands and body turn to dust and reconstitute themselves, all in seconds, as she comes back to life five years in the future and the bathroom's walls change color around her. She charges out demanding to know what happened (fortunately, Ana still lives there; a new homeowner would likely have been shot), and Ana tries to explain and offers her a place to stay. Yelena is badly shaken by the idea of five years of her life being wiped out just like that, and she says she has to find Natasha. The camera freezes on her and the scene cuts off, with the heavy but unseen weight of Ana having to tell her Natasha is dead. (Presumably the after-credits scene in Black Widow, showing Yelena visiting Natasha's grave, happens not long after this.)
Returning to our present time and story, there are two important scenes in this episode. The first shows Kate returning home after the rooftop fight as Clint ordered her to and meeting her mother. Eleanor patches her daughter up and they have this important and well-acted conversation (Hailee Steinfeld continues to do very good work here):
Eleanor: "Does Clint think you're a superhero?"
Kate: "No. I don't either."
"I know it's scary now, Kate. But this doesn't have to change who you are. It just means that what you do might look a little different than what you dreamed of as a child. And" wryly, "preferably a little less reckless."
"I never wanted to be reckless. I just wanted to help you."
"I know, hon. Recklessness is an unfortunate side effect."
Kate looks around her room: "Bet you regret buying me that first bow, don't you?"
"Sometimes. Kidding. You were so cute with that tiny bow."
Kate, sadly: "God, I thought I could do anything. I really thought I could be one of them."
"Don't beat yourself up, hon. Sometimes the paths we're on, they wind around in ways that we never would have expected. All you can do is keep moving forward. Even on days when, honestly, it all just kind of feels like shit."
"Do you ever worry about me not finding my path?"
"No. I know exactly who you are. And I have a pretty good picture of who you're becoming."
After this little heart-to-heart, Kate tells her mother she and Clint have been looking into Armand's murder (Eleanor's fiance Jack Duquesne's uncle), and they discovered incriminating stuff about Jack. The camera focuses on Eleanor as she says this, and we see she is not one bit surprised, nor does she leap to Jack's defense. Kate begs Eleanor to look into this, and Eleanor says she will (or at least will pretend to, from the looks of it). This leads to a later scene when Kate returns home to find Jack in the middle of being arrested for tax evasion (all the while objecting, "This is all a big misunderstanding. I've never worked a day in my life!" with a deliciously smarmy delivery by the actor).
The second important scene in the episode is a long, fascinating encounter between Kate and Yelena Belova in Kate's burned, bombed, wrecked apartment. She returned to pick up what she could salvage to take to her mother's, to find Yelena waiting for her (and having cooked up some macaroni and cheese). Kate is understandably stunned by this, and after Yelena's stating that she just wants to talk (and if she wanted to kill Kate, she could have done it before the front door was shut), Kate sits down to listen. Following a bit of forced "girl talk" from Yelena, we get to the heart of the issue:
Kate: "Are you in New York to talk to Clint? Is that why you're here?"
Yelena, matter-of-factly: "No. I'm here to kill him. I have a question for you: What is it? Why do you risk your life for him, Clint Barton? How has everybody forgiven him for his past?"
"He saved the world."
Yelena, leaning forward with an intense, laser-like gaze: "No. My sister saved the world. Natasha Romanoff. She saved the world. Stop pretending like you're not surprised. It does not look cool."
"You're really Natasha's sister?"
"Wow. I did not see that coming. Thank God, I didn't kill you up there [on the roof in the previous episode]."
Yelena, after a loud bray of laughter: "You kill me? Again, Kate Bishop, you are so funny. That's hilarious. That is one of the funniest."
"Natasha and Clint were friends. Why are you after him?"
"You are so fond of him. It tells me you don't really know who he is."
"He came out here to protect me."
"No. He came here to protect his reputation. Do you know how many people he killed? The trail of blood that follows him, it could wrap around the entire world."
"Okay. Wow. That was very Russian. He's still an Avenger."
"What does that word even mean? Huh? That it holds so much power. You call him a hero no matter what he does?"
"It means that when you choose to spend your life trying to help people, there are going to be things that you lose. When you face the kind of threats that he has, there's going to be collateral damage."
Yelena, dangerously soft: "My sister is gone because of him. She's gone. Is she 'collateral damage'?"
Kate begins to stammer: "No, look, there is no way that is true. He would not let that happen?" (And really, the story of the sacrifice demanded of anyone retrieving the Soul Stone never got out?)
Yelena, driving the point home: "How long have you known Clint Barton?"
Kate, in a very small voice: "About a week."
"It will not be difficult for me to complete this assignment."
"Wait a minute. Somebody hired you to kill him?"
(Yelena doesn't answer, so the answer is yes)
"All I'll say is, if there is someone out there that is telling you Clint is a bad guy, then maybe you should ask yourself what kind of person hired you. He's not perfect. Nobody's perfect. But he is good."
"However he convinced you about who he is, or how many people think or call him a hero, truth is it doesn't matter. We are defined by what we do. Not by nice words. Like it or not, there is no escaping this."
After that tense, well-acted scene, the titular character is almost an afterthought. But we do see Clint after leaving Kate on the room, ending up staying with Griggs, one of the LARPers who got his trick arrows back. The next day, he goes downtown to the Avengers memorial site (with a plaque proclaiming their first meeting place at the Battle of New York, with all six names), and he talks to Natasha, or rather her memory:
"Natasha, I really need to talk to you right now. You were the bravest of us all, weren't you? Loyal. Stubborn. You always had to win, didn't you? And for a stupid orange rock. I replayed that a million times in my head, hoping for a different outcome. But I do my best every day to earn what you gave me. Just want to say I miss you. And I'm so sorry for what I'm about to do."
What he's about to do is don the Ronin suit one more time, to try to convince Maya to stop her revenge-seeking. Before he does this, he calls his wife Laura and tells her the situation has escalated, and he's got to stop Maya before "the big guy" gets dragged into the whole thing. Laura tells him she trusts his judgment, and "I'll always understand, more than anybody else ever could. I love you. Go end this." And so Clint sets up a meeting (by skewering a Tracksuit Mafia delivery truck with an arrow bearing a note), demanding Maya meet him "where she first met the Ronin."
There follows a long, well-choreographed fight between Clint and Maya, with Clint finally knocking her down, taking off the Ronin hood and showing his face: "You and I, we're the same. We're weapons. But when you're filled with rage, it makes you blind. It could be used, could be manipulated. Trust me, I know. I was here that night, tipped off by the informant who works for your boss. Your boss wanted your father dead. Now he's using you--"
Maya, still proclaiming that Clint is a monster, charges him. She snatches the Ronin sword out of his hands and is about to behead him with it when an arrow sails through the air and knocks it away from her. Of course, this came from Kate, who we saw earlier sitting up on her bed, looking around her room and deciding she's not going to throw in the towel. She called Clint and left multiple messages that he didn't answer, then used his phone to track him to the meeting place.
At this, Maya runs away, and Kate hustles Clint into her "getaway car" (an Uber). On the way back to Griggs' place, she tells him she talked to "the woman on the roof" and that she claimed to be Natasha's sister. Meanwhile, we see Eleanor going somewhere across town and Yelena following. A short while later, Kate is sitting talking to Griggs and Clint (and feeding Pizza Dog) when her phone buzzes with a text. It's Yelena, telling her the person who hired her was Eleanor Bishop. This is followed by a picture, taken by Yelena: Eleanor Bishop meeting someone Clint identifies as "the big guy," Kingpin (Wilson Fisk, from the Marvel Netflix series Daredevil).
Cue end credits and the soundtrack of "You're A Mean One, Mister Grinch."
Well. Obviously, this episode is setting things up for the finale, but it's also an absorbing character study of Yelena Belova, who isn't entirely wrong in her hatred of Clint. One wonders if she knows the whole story, or if it would make a difference if she did. At any rate, this series is turning out a lot stronger than I would have given it credit for, and I'm looking forward to the finale.