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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.

So where were we?

  • S.H.I.E.L.D. is no more. Unbeknownst to even Nick Fury, the evil organization HYDRA – thought defeated during WWII back when it was The Red Skull’s Nazi “deep science” division – had survived into the present day as a secret-society within The Agency itself. When the HYDRA “infection” spread all the way to the top, Captain America and Black Widow were forced to dismantle S.H.I.E.L.D. entirely. The world believes Fury is dead, only a select few know otherwise.
  • HYDRA has been thwarted, but its splinter-factions and associate groups still exist. One such group turns out to be CENTIPEDE, the super-soldier bootlegging outfit that Team Coulson has spent all season hunting.
  • CENTIPEDE’s leader, “The Clairvoyant,” was actually S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent John Garrett, a member of HYDRA. Team Coulson’s resident combat-specialist Agent Ward was been revealed to have also been HYDRA himself – and Garrett’s spy – the whole time. Garrett’s (recent) ex-partner, Agent Triplett, is not HYDRA and has joined The Agents… who don’t yet know about Ward.
  • Coulson’s friendship with Agent May has been obliterated by the revelation that she was assigned to be his secret “handler” by Nick Fury… and that she’s known the truth (or most of it) about T.A.H.I.T.I. the whole time.
  • Team Coulson has followed an electronic trail left by Nick Fury to a top secret safehouse in the Canadian wilderness, overseen by Agent Koenig (Patton Oswalt.)
  • Garrett and Ward have looted a treasure trove in weapons and alien/superhuman technology from S.H.I.E.L.D.’s storage facility, The Fridge – including the Gravitonium which may still contain the sentient presence of Professor Franklin Hall. For good measure, they’ve also released its community of superhuman prisoners into the wild.
  • HYDRA/CENTIPEDE needs access to a pilfered hard drive that can only be opened by Agent Skye, so Ward is going back undercover…
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So anyway…

Remember when a random escapee got a closeup during the prison-break in last week’s episode? Well, he’s a featured player from scene one this time, revealing that his power is to draw electrical energy out of his surroundings and his name is Marcus Daniels. So, Blackout joins Agents’ roster of Marvel supervillains who appear in plainclothes because (supposedly) ABC TV feels differently about comic-book costuming than Disney does. Oh, well.

Back at the secret base, Ward tells the team about the breakout at The Fridge, except in this version he killed Garrett and got away to warn them. Coulson is especially interested to know whether Marcus Daniels was among the escapees. Since Ward let himself get beat up pretty good to make the ruse convincing and he still doesn’t trust May, Coulson asks Triplett to join him and Fitz/Simmons on running down liberated Fridge residents, starting with (the guy they never actually call) Blackout. Just one problem: Koenig was under orders from Fury to protect Coulson and what’s left of S.H.I.E.L.D. at all costs, and he’s not letting anyone out of his sights until they pass “orientation” – i.e. a high-tech lie-detector specially commissioned by Fury to be so precise even Black Widow couldn’t beat it (though it seems to be an open question as to whether she still could/did.)

So, it’s time to do S.H.I.E.L.D.’s version of the Voight-Kampff Test, which turns out to be a way to cram a whole episode’s worth of fanservice into about a minute of screentime. Prompted by Koenig, the characters reveal Marvel Universe tie-ins (Triplett is the grandson of Gabriel Jones, one of Captain America’s personally-chosen Howling Commandos) expanded backstories (Melinda May was married!) inter-cast crushes (Fitz’s answer to a “desert island” question: “Simmons.” Aww) and straight-up appeals for Tumblr/io9 ink (Simmons’ answer: “The TARDIS.”) Oh, and Skye’s real name, at least the one given to her at the orphanage, turns out to be Mary Sue Poots. Ha. Ha.

Ward, of course, has the hardest time with the test: At one point, Koenig just trains a gun on him and demands to know straight-up if he’s HYDRA or S.H.I.E.L.D. Ward’s way around the machine? Making it seem like the “other agenda” Koenig detects him having is his protective crush on Skye rather than his being HYDRA. Also, it looks like he did the “needle in the thumb” trick (supposedly you can beat a lie detector by covertly inflicting pain on yourself during the process) but either way it works. He, Skye, May and Koenig will hang back at the base to run threat assessments on next season’s monsters of the week, the escaped Fridge inmates while Coulson, Triplett, Simmons and Fitz (who’s visibly annoyed at how fond Triplett and Simmons obviously are of each other – uh-oh…) go after Blackout.

Why is Blackout so damn important for Coulson? Turns out they first captured him when he was just the super powered (laboratory accident involving an energy source called “Dark Force”) stalker of a Portland cellist – as in “The Cellist”, Coulson’s previously unseen former girlfriend first mentioned in The Avengers. Her name is Audrey Nathan (Amy Acker has the part) and The Agents get to her just as Blackout makes his appearance. Simmons and Triplett usher her into an SUV claiming to be CIA while Coulson and Fitz show up moments later to try taking the bad guy down with light beams (apparently his weakness) mounted on Fitz’s minidrones. Unfortunately for them, the “S.H.I.E.L.D. was bad at being S.H.I.E.L.D.” theme continues: The Agency didn’t try to cure Daniels while he was in custody – they made him stronger. Strong enough to blast the Agents with Dark Force energy and escape.

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Meanwhile, Skye discovers that Koenig has a tablet computer that lets him track everyone’s movements in the base. She’s not thrilled, but it gives her an idea: Since S.H.I.E.L.D.’s spy-satellites are all down, she should hack into The NSA and use theirs. The prospect of angering The NSA terrifies Koenig, which – egh…

…okay, I’m sorry. I get that this is the kind of thing that you just sort of have to swallow when a comic/superhero/scifi universe occasionally wants to align itself with real world events (i.e. “Why didn’t Superman prevent 9/11?”) but that’s just dumb. There’s no way in hell an extra-governmental spy agency that collects alien weapons and has its own flying aircraft carrier is afraid of the guys who’ll maybe tap your phone. Plus, bringing them up just highlights the additional silliness of the CIA or NSA even existing in a universe where S.H.I.E.L.D. already did (the Agency’s origin story is clearly modeled on the OSS becoming the CIA in reality.)

But whatever. Ward supports her, so the plan goes ahead – though he’s visibly annoyed to discover that Skye’s lock on the drive was keyed not just to encryption but to encryption in a specific geographic location. And even though every tween on the planet knows how to turn the GPS tracking off on their phones, this means they have to leave at some point. Good news on that: May fixed The Bus. Bad news: May is taking off. Now that Coulson doesn’t trust her, she has no reason to stay. Yes, I totally believe that’s the reason; and that she’s absolutely not just activating another contingency plan.

Back in Portland: Audrey knows that her rescuers are S.H.I.E.L.D., but doesn’t know that Coulson is still alive – in fact, he’s nearby monitoring the situation with Fitz, who opines that he should tell her the truth. He won’t, of course, because this is yet another way to draw the dead/not-dead mystery out… but he’s also not keen on Fitz’s plan to use her as bait to draw Blackout into the open so they can zap him with suped-up spotlights “designed by Bruce Banner.” Gregg is really good here, but frankly none of this B-plot is as interesting as the business at the base.

In short order, Grant discreetly goes to “talk” with Koenig, after which Agent Cameo appears to have gone missing. Huh. Grant then pours some drinks for a “moment” with Skye, but it’s bungled when she finds blood on his neck. Ward goes off to clean “his” wounds, Skye decides to use the tablet and look for Koenig… oh dear.

This leads to a scene that intercuts Skye getting closer to wherever Ward stashed Koenig with a “Cello practice” trap the others (and Audrey) are setting for Blackout. It comes together to a weird moment where a condensed version of the stuff that didn’t work from earlier in the season (i.e. the heroes fighting a boring version of a Z-list Marvel villain with a generic weapon they swear is connected somehow to an Avenger) cuts back and forth with a condensed version of the stuff from later in the season that did (i.e. spy-stuff and character-drama born out of the show’s own mythos.) Blackout is destroyed, Audrey briefly sees/interacts with Coulson but in such a way that she thinks it was a dream. Skye finds Koenig looking pretty dead, but manages to convince Ward that everything is okay and that they can board The Bus and jet off to wherever they need to be to open the drive, but not before leaving us with the implication that she’s found a way to alert the others to what’s up.

As a stinger: Agent May is picked up in a car somewhere in Ontario by an older woman who turns out to be her mother, also an Agent but apparently not of S.H.I.E.L.D. (CIA? FBI? Maybe Chinese Ministry of State Security?), who hands her the location of someone May needs to find: Maria Hill.

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Parting thoughts

  • Memo to the showrunners: Your target-audience already hated Ward because he was the obvious “hot guy” character. Having him kill Patton Oswalt? That’s overkill.
  • Okay, yes – the episodes immediately before and continuing after Winter Soldier are on the whole as good as the show has ever been, and they should be taking notes on how the response has shifted if/when they start planning a second season (which the entertainment press is largely treating as a foregone conclusion.)
  • Speaking of another season: If there is one, it’s easy to see the setup already. S.H.I.E.L.D. is gone, but it’s easy to imagine Nick Fury turning up in the finale to task Coulson and Company with continuing The Agency’s mission covertly – making them, at last, *THE* Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I’d watch that.
  • For my own part, I like these characters more when they’re being they’re own thing that happens to exist in The Marvel Universe rather than said Universe’s hangers-on. We get it, by now: These guys share a planet with The Avengers. Give them good stories of their own, bring in Marvel stuff when it’ll help or be fun but don’t strain to tie stuff in half-heartedly.
  • Triplett is already a better-written, more interesting character than pre-evil Ward was in the same basic role. The detail that he’s also smart enough to at least hold his own in a conversation with Fitz and Simmons is a genius touch, because of the obvious (yet subtle) panic it incites in Fitz. It makes perfect sense: That they both speak the secret language of smart people is probably what he considers the only appeal he might have to her over stronger, better looking suitors.
  • I’m disappointed in both myself and in the show that I just don’t care that much about Coulson vis-a-vis Audrey. The scenes are well-played, and a nice reminder that Phil’s new “renegade” personality is based on having given up everything for a S.H.I.E.L.D. that was not, on multiple levels, what he thought it was… but it’s like the death/rebirth thing. At this point, I care more about his character in relation to the events of this series than I do in relation to things mentioned in The Avengers.
  • New info: Ward’s abusive older brother didn’t beat his younger brother – he made Ward do it. This probably isn’t a lie, since he told fellow HYDRA loyalist Rania about Garrett rescuing from a hellish family life, and it nicely shatters the moment from earlier in the season where Skye used Ward’s backstory as a metaphor (“some Big Brothers are good!”) for how S.H.I.E.L.D.-style spycraft wasn’t so bad after all. Incidentally: Odd how they haven’t really mentioned that Skye/Rising Tide were sort of more right than we thought about The Agency.
  • I’ll admit it: Dalton is much more interesting playing Evil Ward than regular Ward, to the point that I wouldn’t mind if he stuck around a bit in that capacity. Sure, he’s probably dead meat by the season finale (he killed Patton Oswalt, for pity’s sake!) but fortunately this is occurring in a universe where getting killed doesn’t mean you can’t come back as a cyborg. Or a zombie. Or a ghost. Or whatever.
  • It took long enough, but we’re pretty much out of major mysteries other than “What was that thing in T.A.H.I.T.I.?”, “Why did Fury revive Coulson?” and “What is Skye?” Conveniently, none of those can really be answered without also answering the other two. If that, plus most of the season’s background story being HYDRA manipulation tied to Winter Soldier, really was The Plan all along? Kudos, well played. Still doesn’t excuse the early less-good filler episodes; and if there’s a Season 2 it really can’t spend half its run standing around marking time waiting for something we can’t know about until Age of Ultron.

Next week

Maria Hill, Colonel Talbot and Deathlok return for Nothing Personal. I really, really want to see Coulson mix it up with Talbot – the breakout “woobie” of the Cinematic Universe versus one of the most eminently hateable Marvel heels of all time.

Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.

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