NOTE: As we’ve discussed previously, it is no longer feasible to discuss Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. without also discussing spoilers for Marvel’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Read on at your own risk (especially since I’m also going to spoil the episode itself).
“Huh?” — Agent Phil Coulson, on finally discovering the answer to the mystery he’s been chasing for an entire TV season.
So where are we?
- Thought destroyed during WWII, the terrorist organization HYDRA survived as a secret society within S.H.I.E.L.D. itself. An attempt to use The Agency’s infrastructure to implement HYDRA’s world domination plan in the present was thwarted by Captain America, but at the cost of dismantling S.H.I.E.L.D. entirely. Agency Director Nick Fury has vanished, having faked his own death.
- Approximately one year prior to the HYDRA revelation, Director Fury – for reasons not yet fully understood – revived KIA Agent Phil Coulson to lead a special unit of Agents primarily against CENTIPEDE, a criminal outfit now known to be a HYDRA affiliate that has transformed innocent Mike Peterson into the cyborg soldier Deathlok.
- While pursuing HYDRA, Coulson’s team has “adopted” a onetime anti-S.H.I.E.L.D. hacktivist named Skye, who (unbeknownst to her) was on The Agency’s radar as an infant because she is a superhuman being with unidentified special powers.
- Wounded in the field, Skye was healed with the same serum used to revive Coulson, who discovered (too late) that it derives from an unidentified corpse of alien origin. And that the project to synthesize it was overseen by someone other than Nick Fury – someone who also saw fit to erase Coulson’s memories of the procedure.
- With S.H.I.E.L.D.-proper disbanded and themselves now being pursued by Col. Glenn Talbot, Coulson’s team has decamped to a secret bunker in Canada to continue chasing CENTIPEDE’s still-free leader, turncoat Agent Garrett. Unknown to them, teammate Agent Ward has revealed himself as Garrett’s HYDRA sleeper, who has abducted Skye in order to hack a secret drive full of the team’s investigative data. Skye has not let on that she knows his secret.
- The team’s pilot/muscle, Agent Melinda May, has lost Coulson’s trust after admitting that her real mission was helping Fury hide the truth from him. She has left the team to seek the aid of Fury’s former deputy Maria Hill.
So Now Then …
The story picks up in Washington DC with Agent Hill, emerging from a Senate hearing that apparently involved admitting that one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s assets was The Man-Thing. While on the phone with Pepper Potts (or someone named “Piper,” but Pepper makes more sense given subsequently-repeated information from the movies) she makes note of obvious FBI tails… but then sees that they’ve been rendered unconscious.
This is May’s handiwork, and the two catch up over some exposition about Hill going to work for Tony Stark for the benefit of anyone who didn’t see Captain America: The Winter Soldier yet. Question: Why did May need to ask her (also a spy) mom for help locating Maria Hill last episode if she’s publicly testifying before Congress? Either way, the meetup seems to be for naught – Hill doesn’t have the answer May is looking for: If not Fury, who was in charge of T.A.H.I.T.I. (the alien-blood medicine program)?
Back at the base, The Agents try to figure out who absconded with Ward, Skye and their plane. Fitz notices that the false window decoration Skye eyeballed last episode is stuck on its “night” setting and fixes it, revealing that Skye has left a message on the “day” slide: “WARD IS HYDRA.” Speaking of which, the fanship formerly known as “SkyWard” is en route to the Los Angeles diner where Skye first met Mike/Deathlok, which she has convinced Ward is s GPS-locked location needed to open the drive. Unfortunately, just as The Agents discover this, they’re discovered themselves by Special Forces troops commanded by Talbot… and Maria Hill.
Elsewhere, Skye attempts to stall Ward in the diner with hacker gibberish while May visits a cemetery to dig up Coulson’s (empty) grave. She discovers a flash drive containing a video report from T.A.H.I.T.I.’s project supervisor, whose identity seems fairly alarming to her.
At the base, Talbot tries to intimidate The Agents. This is a fun and very Marvel-appropriate dynamic – of course the “normal” non-superhero/alien/magic affiliated branches of the military/government would’ve resented the S.H.I.E.L.D. oddballs and relish the chance to get their digs in now. Hill tries to talk sense to Coulson: The Agency is finished, he needs to get over it, etc. But once he explains about Ward and Garrett (wait – he didn’t lead with that??) she joins up and helps them flee Talbot.
At the diner, Skye tries to hand herself and Ward over to the cops; only to be thwarted by Deathlok. Back on The Bus, she and Ward have a brief semantic argument over the elephant in the fandom – despite all the fun we’ve been having with the #HailHydra hashtag… didn’t they technically start out as NAZIS??? Oh, and Ward claims that at least one part of his persona wasn’t fake – he really does love Skye. Aw, hell – that means they’re gonna try and redeem the bastard before they kill him.
Garrett orders Deathlok to torture the password trick out of Skye by threatening to kill Ward, intuiting (correctly) that she’s not ruthless enough to let him die. Turns out the GPS lock wasn’t keyed to location but plane-altitude (I can’t decide if that’s clever or idiotic), which is a problem because Maria Hill and Agent Triplett just showed up on the runway in their own plane.
The bad guys win the stare down, but only because it was a ruse. Coulson sneaks onto The Bus and uses Lola the flying Corvette (which Ward knew about and probably should’ve disabled, no?) to liberate Skye. This is just about cool enough for me to overlook that ABC is still not giving the producers enough money for decent green-screen effects. Ward wants to follow them, but since they now have the drive data Deathlok and Garrett overrule him.
The Agents opt to cool off at a cheap motel for banter and melancholy foreshadowing about what will happen to them “after,” CENTIPEDE/HYDRA or not. As a final stinger, Agent May turns up in Coulson’s room to show him what was on the drive from his grave. A top secret video plays, and three final(?) puzzle pieces are revealed. First: T.A.H.I.T.I.’s original purpose was a fail-safe for reviving dead Avengers. Second: His memory was wiped because that’s apparently the only way to (maybe?) prevent dementia and deterioration that the serum apparently causes in humans. Third: The classified S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent in charge of the project…
…was Coulson himself.
- Now that’s a proper reveal. It’s unexpected (yet makes perfect sense,) it fits with character and it reinforces overall theme: Turning against S.H.I.E.L.D. secret-keeping is literally Coulson turning against himself.
- Speaking of reinforcing a theme: Ward ribs Hill about being promoted as “eye candy.” It occurs to me: Between him, Garrett and Brock Lumlow in Winter Soldier, S.H.I.E.L.D. could’ve rooted out HYDRA if only you could randomly test for “douchebag tendencies.” It also slyly reminds us of how in-plain-sight Ward’s cover was – the lone square-jawed Johnny Handsome “conventional” action hero type on a team of nerds and weirdos led by the in-universe version of a hardcore Marvel fanboy? Of course he was the bad guy!
- So, the T.A.H.I.T.I. serum may or may not make you go nutty if you don’t mind wipe after, but that doesn’t seem to have been the case with Skye. Add that to the “Skye is already part alien” evidence pile.
- Coulson almost tells Hill to say “hi” to Iron Man for him, but remembers that everyone still thinks he’s dead. At some point, they’re going to have to address whether that’s still the case now that Black Widow has dumped the entirety of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s secret files into the public internet.
- Yes, there’s a Marvel character called Man-Thing and yes, the name used to cause “issues” when paired with one of Marvel’s ’70s book-naming schemes. He’s also the sort of thing (re: a swamp-monster) who’d make a nice filler-episode cameo of this series, assuming they can afford the monster FX.
In “Ragtag,” Coulson and company are going undercover again; but the meat of the story looks to be finally revealing the abusive childhood that informs Ward’s psyche. Damn it. They probably are going to try redeeming him in some way. That’ll be a mistake, from where I sit.
After that is the season finale, “Beginning of The End,” about which everyone has remained tight-lipped save Samuel L. Jackson’s revelation weeks ago that Nick Fury will make an appearance. If I’m a betting man, I’d imagine Fury’s role will be handing Team Coulson a new mission as an off-the-book “secret” version of the now-defunct S.H.I.E.L.D., giving them a Season 2 status-quo similar to the previous one but (presumably) with the added detail of also having to dodge law/military opponents like Talbot.
Incidentally, at this point I’d be fairly surprised if there wasn’t a Season 2. Fandom opinions aside, its ratings are consistently above-average (for ABC, at least) and more importantly the network’s Disney overlords would likely rather keep a mildly-successful show (that they’ve already hired actors and built sets for) on the air for at least a respectable two seasons than deal with the inevitable “Uh-oh! A Marvel Studios project finally failed – what does this tell us??” trend-pieces.