After the previous episode, I thought I had it figured out. The latest Escape Squad would need to hunt down the five remaining parts of Scylla, then break into the Company complex, thus leading to the final defeat of the enemy that sent them on their original fateful trip into Fox River. Along the way, in keeping with the "Odyssey" theme from the season premiere, they would lose members of the team in unexpected ways (i.e., the loss of six soldiers and all that).
That overall gist may still be valid by the time the season ends, but that doesn't mean the writers will dispense with the usual shocks and surprises. I honestly didn't think they would bother addressing the absurdity of the deal brokered by Homeland Security, but that's what this episode managed to do. Agent Self was introduced as a bit of a maverick, but now we see just how far off the beaten track he is.
The threat of impending imprisonment, crushing the minute hopes of everyone on the Escape Squad, makes this episode soar. The plot advancement in terms of the hunt for Scylla is a bit too spare to carry the episode on its own, so something had to be added to the mix. T-Bag's adventures in identity theft were mostly set-up, so that wasn't going to do the trick. The same applies for the minor subplot of Lincoln's compassion for Mahone's loss.
The external threat of the project's shutdown made the artificial timetable for this latest operation more palpable. This is not, as some have suggested, a male-dominated version of Alias. Had the series simply trudged ahead without urgency from Agent Self or his superiors, that might have been the case. Instead, there is an inherent hostility between Self and his charges, far beyond what was hinted in the premiere, and the pressure is on to deliver in short order. The hands-off approach given to most black-ops teams doesn't apply here.
The twists and turns are still just as convenient and unlikely as ever (such as Lincoln's ability to walk in and out of the building with an axe without a hint of notice), but the writers manage to pull the audience into the team's sense of desperation. They don't leave out any details; note how Michael has another crushing headache, reminding the audience that something is very wrong there.
More than anything, I'm shocked at how well they sold the shutdown. There was never a doubt that they would get out of the mess, but the characters never wavered in their fear or resolve on either side. It was presented as if the deal really could fall apart, and it was only Michael's ability to deliver a major break in the mission that kept it going. I can't speak highly enough for how well that worked for me. If the season can progress with the same level of urgency, my modest expectations could be exceeded.