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“It would be nice if, just once, Thor and his friends would send down The God of Cleaning Up After Yourself.”

The first few minutes of The Well are a crystallization of the very, very bad show I’d originally worried Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D” would wind up being: Coulson and Company as CSI: Marvel Universe, sifting through the post-action debris of Thor: The Dark World, quipping variations on “Aw, nuts! One of The Avengers was here and we just missed him!” Not that it isn’t amusing, conceptually, to see the worker bees of the world putting things back together after the de rigeur smash-a-thon of a Hollywood blockbuster – but I’d rather see this series keep aspiring to be more than a way for Marvel Studios to mark time between movies now that it seems to have found it’s groove.

Fortunately, once those minutes (and they are just minutes) pass, what kicks in turns out to be easily the best hour of television Agents has delivered its whole first season: action packed, dramatically interesting, spectacularly goofy in the way I prefer a show like this to be, a new personal best, and maybe the first full episode I can imagine earning this show fans who didn’t see the movies and/or weren’t personally invested in things like the secret of Coulson’s resurrection or what S.H.I.E.L.D’s status will be leading in to Captain America: The Winter Soldier . I feel pretty comfortable saying that, if I stumbled onto this episode with no prior knowledge of its broader continuum, I’d watch again next week simply because it offered a killer premise – The X-Files with Mission Impossible‘s hardware – and delivered the hell out of it.

Amusingly, the much-ballyhooed (to the extent that I spent some of today reading up on The Well of Wisdom, just in case) connection to the Thor sequel is almost wholly tangential: While we indeed start out in the (literal) aftermath of Thor’s battle with Malekith (spoiler: the one who’s already set to appear in Avengers 2 won), story-wise it’s just an opportunity for Skye to give a nutshell version of how Asgard works (i.e. the ancient Norse gods were/are real but they’re actually a race of powerful, exceptionally long-lived aliens whom ancient peoples took for gods and built religions around) in advance of this week’s Big Mystery, which involves an Asgardian artifact that’s been lost on Earth for thousands of years and has only the vaguest connection to Thor possible.

Said artifact is a rune-engraved metallic rod (a broken piece of a larger staff) pulled from inside an old-growth tree in a nature preserve by a young Norwegian couple. Touching the artifact staff imbues them with anger-powered superhuman strength (Me: “Oh, lord… please don’t be ThunderStrike) which they use to murder a park ranger and then kick off a super-powered gang riot in a nearby city, leaving the words “WE ARE GODS” written in fire on the street. Cue S.H.I.E.L.D, and thus cue Agent Simmons to establish herself as the team’s resident Asgard agnostic – insistently interested in proving the scientific basis for everything “magic” they encounter – and be further flirted-with by Agent Ward (Agents being second only to Once Upon A Time in begging it’s audience to form shipper-fandoms.)

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Our villains are revealed as the leaders of a Scandinavian Neo-Paganist sect that are actively hunting down Asgardian relics for their power, which is a pretty ingenious use of Thor etc’s presence in the Marvel backdrop: What does the revelation that their gods actually do walk among us do to such movements, which really do exist with increasing mainstream visibility? To score some more answers, the team turns to the great Peter MacNicol as Professor Elliot Randolph; an expert in Norse myths (introduced simultaneously not up-grading but still making dinner plans with a sexy student) who gets off a great line about what his life is in the post-Avengers world: “All these years, I thought I was a studying mythology – turns out, I’m a history professor.”

He identifies the silver rod as being part of a Berserker Staff, a rage-channeling weapon given to Asgardian foot-soldiers – one of which legend holds to have been left in pieces on Earth by one such soldier who fell in love with the human world millennia ago and elected to stay behind. Gee, wonder if that will be important later? S.H.I.E.L.D hurries off to find the next piece (apparently hidden in a nearby graveyard) only to find Randolph already there ahead of them and trying to run off with the treasure. He escapes, but only because Ward accidentally grabs the staff and has a rage-induced breakdown – and even then doesn’t get far when the bad guys show up and steal it from him.

Here, then, seems to be the “meat” of this week’s episode: The Agents trying to interrogate the strangely-unafraid Randolph as to what he knows and whether he’s connected to the Scandinavians (who’re busily building up an army of shabbily-dressed anger-warriors) while coping with Ward – the last person among them who needed more anger issues – being jacked-up on barely contained Berserker rage that apparently works by fixating him on terrible flashbacks of a young boy drowning at the bottom of a well while another boy looks down from above: A clue that we’re now revisiting the thread of Ward having been abused by his evil older brother as a kid.

“Ah. Another character-expansion episode.” Well, yes, but not exactly. The obligatory business of Ward venting his frustrations with his co-Agents gets knocked out in a single scene so that we can double-down on breaking the “compromised good guy” formula. Unexpectedly, Ward immediately goes to Coulson and asks to be taken out of action for the good of the team. More unexpectedly, Coulson’s response is that they should instead use his affliction to go “bad cop” on the stalling Randolph. Berserker Ward’s version of “bad cop?” Trying to stab the prisoner in the throat with a knife – averted only because Randolph casually blocks and bends the blade out of shape with his bare hand.

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Yup, Randolph is himself the self-exiled Asgardian of the legend (which Coulson had already guessed); and he’s been trying to thwart the bad guys without drawing attention to himself. The whole subsequent exchange is really pretty excellent as postmodern mythology gags go: No, he doesn’t know Thor – he was just a stone mason who volunteered for military duty because it sounded like a change of pace and decided to stick around. After two Thor movies, the idea that one of these guys is just a regular, decidedly non-Shakespearian dude slumming on Earth is inherently funny. He’s “just a guy,” but also just alien enough not to consider that the knowledge of it likely taking decades for the psychological effects of The Staff to wear off isn’t much comfort to Ward.

Everything wraps up with the series’ best (and also silliest) action sequence to date: The heroes and villains converge on an Irish monastery to collect the last piece of staff. Randolph gets stabbed in the chest, and since Fitz/Simmons don’t have a proper reference point for Asgardian anatomy Coulson elects to shove his hand into the guy’s chest and have Team Nerdy tell him what he should do when he finds this or that organ – betting that Asgardians’ fast-healing will make this work. Grant re-ups on Berserker Power to go hand-to-hand with the first wave of similarly-powered thugs, but when reinforcements arrive it’s Agent May (whose help managing his stress Ward had rejected earlier) who steps in to finish them off by picking up the entire staff, then somehow shaking it off with an ease that unnerves almost everyone but Ward in particular – who knows firsthand what she probably went through.

Later, Skye tries to comfort/flirt-with (“com-flirt?”) Ward at a hotel bar. Why are they staying over at an Irish hotel instead of just getting back on The Bus? Because they need to be for the scene after this to happen. But for now, it’s time to explain the episode title: The boy in the well was actually Ward’s younger brother, and he was the kid at the top – being forced to put his sibling through some kind of hazing/bullying ritual by their previously-mentioned evil older brother. Skye does everything but hang a sign reading “STRESS RELIEF TOY” around her neck, but Ward heads back to his room alone…

…almost. Just before he heads in, Ward spies Agent May heading into her room holding a bottle of whisky whose size indicates she’s not coping with the Berserker effects as coolly as we’d thought. She shoots him a look, heads in leaving the door open, Ward follows after her and shuts the door behind him. Um… huh.

In our final post-credits beat, we find Coulson lounging on a massage table in, yes, Tahiti; which he tells the masseur is “too good to be true.” “Yes,” she replies, “it’s a magical place.” Cut to Coulson waking up in a cold sweat on The Bus. To be continued.

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FINAL THOUGHTS

  • May says she was able to deal with the Berserker Staff dredging up whatever her version of Ward’s well-flashback was because she already “sees it every day.” Is she talking about general nihilism/self-hate, S.H.I.E.L.D in general… or one of her teammates specifically?
  • Peter MacNicol is always awesome. Can he be a regular? Failing that, can he be a part of Thor 3?
  • This is the first episode where Skye is basically a non-entity, which I like. The character is fine, and I get that she’s the audience-POV, but an ensemble has to occasionally be able to function without finding a spot for everyone “just because.”
  • Chances that Ward’s evil brother will turn up as a heavy before the season is out, now that at least a version of him has been onscreen? Better than 70%, I’d say.
  • At the end, while musing with Randolph as to where the Asgardian might make his next undercover home, Coulson eagerly recommends Portland, Oregon and it’s “excellent philharmonic.” Recall from The Avengers that Phil was looking to rekindle a relationship with an unnamed female cellist. This is, unless I’ve missed a beat, the first reference to that thread since the movie.
  • May/Ward is probably a misdirection, but I’d like it not to be. We’ll probably find out that the “help” she offered him before was one of those Tai Chi workouts she’s pitched to Coulson before, or that they just split the whisky and talked about Tough People Problems; but it’d be fun to monkey-wrench the formula romantic-rectangle they’d been building between Sexy Agent Duo and Nerdy Agent Duo. Plus, how refreshing would it be for a genre show to acknowledge that women don’t magically lose their sex drives – or ability to woo the handsomest guy in the vicinity – after 40?
  • That having been said… The established dynamic of Agents is familial: Coulson and May are the grownups/parents, Ward and Skye are the older/popular children, Fitz/Simmons are the younger/nerdy children. Not to be vulgar, but given Ward’s established (and here reinforced) “angry/unloved little boy” psyche, there’s a certain, well… Freudian logic to him at least thinking about bedding the Team Mom.
  • I had assumed we wouldn’t get resolution on what’s really going on with Coulson until the end of the season, but that was before we got the who were Skye’s parents? mystery. To me, that feels like a more proper place to end/pause on because it’s “native” to the show while everything about Coulson is still carryover from the movies. In other words, I bet we get at least some major revelations about him in the near future.
  • Coulson’s dream-sequence this episode, for what it’s worth, makes it seem like “Tahiti” is an implanted false memory – one of the Marvel Universe’s favorite ways to rewrite established continuity.

CRAZY FANBOY-THEORY OF THE WEEK:

Speaking of Coulson’s dream, he and his Tahitian masseuse do the “Did I fall asleep?” / “For a little while” call-response from Whedon’s Dollhouse before he’s shocked awake by said masseuse dropping the It’s a magical place phrase. Cute reference. Would it be “something” for Whedon to sneakily make Dollhouse retroactively part of the Marvel Universe? Yes. Do I expect it’s the case? Nope.

NEXT WEEK:

We’ll apparently get more details about Agent May’s past as The Agents investigate a young woman being followed around by bad luck – and maybe something else – in the… interestingly-titled Repairs.

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