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NOTE: As we’ve mentioned 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.)

“Get ready for a large file transfer!” — Agent Coulson, to his on-staff tech support on the ground, before pushing an entire file cabinet out of an office building window.

So where were we?

  • S.H.I.E.L.D. has been dismantled, following the revelation that HYDRA had been thriving as a secret society using The Agency’s infrastructure as cover.
  • The team of Agents serving under Phil Coulson are the sole S.H.I.E.L.D. unit still active, chasing down HYDRA side-faction CENTIPEDE; a mercenary outfit scavenging illegal technologies to build super-soldiers. One such super-soldier, Mike Peterson, has been upgraded against his will into the cyborg Deathlok by CENTIPEDE-affiliate corporation Cybertek.
  • CENTIPEDE’s leader is turncoat S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent John Garrett, who was secretly using Agent Grant Ward as a sleeper within Coulson’s unit in order to locate and steal whatever Agency technology was used to bring Coulson back from the dead.
  • Said technology turns out to be a mysterious serum, GH-325, which was subsequently discovered to have been derived from the unidentified corpse of a large blue-skinned humanoid creature (possibly an alien) on ice at a top-secret facility.
  • Apparently, GH-325 can regenerate dead tissue, but at the expense of driving the subject to madness, which in Coulson’s case was averted only by wiping out a substantial part of his memory. However, GH-325 was also used to heal Agent Skye of mortal wounds to no apparent ill-effect.
  • Skye’s ability to better process the serum may be related to her still-unclear origins: She was discovered as a baby in a small Chinese village, and at the time S.H.I.E.L.D. believed her to be a superhuman being of unknown origin.
  • Garrett, Ward, Deathlok and Raina have stolen a boatload of alien weaponry and S.H.I.E.L.D. secrets (including GH-325) and are planning to integrate them into CENTIPEDE/Cybertek’s next line of Deathlok soldiers.

Anyway…

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been following a fairly rigid structure ever since it stepped into its post-Winter Soldier cleanup mode. Each episode gets a character-driven B-Story (“Skye has been kidnapped,” “Coulson and May are mad at eachother,”) to provide a traditional three-act structure so that the “Let’s get HYDRA!” A-Story can segment out across episodes without necessarily needing a proper start or finish. That separation is more profound this time, as the B-Story takes the form of flashbacks wherein we learn how Garrett found, acquired and trained Ward.

As we open, its 15 years ago and Young Ward has been locked up for attempting to kill his (previously established) evil older brother via arson. Garrett shows up to benignly bully him into joining “a secret organization,” (because double-meanings, y’see) and he readily agrees.
In the present, Skye explains to The Agents that she left a computer virus in the data she was forced to hand over to Ward, but they now need to find a HYDRA-connected computer in order to upload it. The plan? Break into Cybertek and try to do it from there, since they seem to be pretty deeply enmeshed with the bad guys already. Since Winter Soldier ended with Black Widow having dumped all of S.H.I.E.L.D./HYDRA’s secrets onto the internet I’m not sure why this company wouldn’t already have been turned inside-out by the government, but whatever – this is all an excuse to get us asking “What will they use for Secret Agent gear now that The Agency is gone and Garret stole The Bus?”

Answer: Agent Trip has a trunk full of his grandfather’s old Howling Commando gear! This is fun stuff – a chance for the show (and, in-universe, for Coulson) to nerd out over old fashioned spycraft tools in the “things that look like other things” mold and to load Chekhov’s Gun via Fitz finding an EMP-generator disguised as a joy-buzzer. (Do they still make those? Will anyone under 20 get this gag?)

Meanwhile, up on The Bus, Ward and Garrett give Deathlok a hard time over a news report about an assassination he was ordered to carry out on a Columbian druglord for reasons not yet clear. Back in flashback-land, step one in Ward’s training/indoctrination is Garrett leaving him stranded in the wilderness for several months to force him to learn survival the hard way. To keep him company, Garrett leaves a hunting dog named Buddy – which is of course Red Flag City if you’re an animal lover familiar with certain strains of gang/cult indoctrination-hazing.

Next up is our comedy showcase, with Coulson and May pretending to be ex-S.H.I.E.L.D. scientist applying for work at Cybertek with Fitz/Simmons feeding them science-speak via earpieces (since the actual scientists probably couldn’t fight their way out of the place.) Cute bit. Unfortunately, they won’t be able to locate any HYDRA computer uplinks – turns out Cybertek/CENTIPEDE does cyber-security the old fashioned way: By only storing the really important/illegal stuff on paper in old-school filing cabinets. Well, that explains the secure vault with two guys analyzing a chalk equations with typewriters back in Episode 4. They do manage to steal a cabinet (see opening quote) containing some fairly pertinent information: Cybertek has been in the cyborg soldier business since at least the 90s, and Deathlok Patient Zero was Garrett.

Garrett and Ward hop back to Cuba to touch base with Ian Quinn (CENTIPEDE’s “legitimate businessman” public face) and Raina in their secret base, where she’s hard at work synthesizing GH-325. In an expository conversation (is there any other kind on this series?) with Ward she reveals that she is not controlled via eye-implant explosive like other CENTIPEDE loyalists, but stays on because she has a scientific interest in people with “something special inside”. (Mutants? Or whatever the Marvel Cinematic Universe version of Mutants is going to be since they can’t say that word because Fox still owns the X-Men franchise?) On that note, she’s still pissed off about Garrett not actually be a clairvoyant… oh, and she wants to meet Skye – they might have something “in common.” Hm?

Back in the flashbacks, Garrett tells no-longer-young Ward the story behind the metal plate on his side we glimpsed an episode or two back which we can now be reasonably sure is part of his Deathlok-hood. As he tells it, he was wounded in an operation and S.H.I.E.L.D. neglected to rescue him, hence his change in loyalties to HYDRA. In the present, he suffers an implants-related minor seizure and confides to Ward that he’s actually gravely ill – in fact, that’s the real reason behind everything that’s happened so far: He’s dying of major organ failure.

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On the ground, Skye and The Agents work out the rest of it. The entirety of CENTIPEDE’s “super-soldier” research is actually just a profit-seeking offshoot of Garrett’s real goal: Finding new technologies (like GH-325) to keep him alive. That… actually makes a lot of sense, and handily explains the seemingly slapdash “throw ideas at the wall” nature of the villains’ operation so far. We also learn that Fitz is the only one of the team still not convinced that Ward is fully “evil,” and that May’s stony veneer is masking a very real eagerness to kick Ward’s ass. She also offers to train Skye in combat/control techniques – oh yeah, she’s going to need someone new for that since Ward is bad now – just as Coulson announces that The Bus has been tracked to Cuba.

Just like that, time for another exposition -dump from Raina to Ward (she’s hesitant to give it to Garrett) this time about Skye. Something in her DNA reminds Raina of a story she once heard about “two monsters” who tore apart a village in China’s Huanan Province looking for their baby. That province, of course, is exactly where S.H.I.E.L.D. found Baby Skye about two decades ago (something that only she, Coulson and May know about – or is it?) Huh. Well, that would explain a lot.

For our final (big) flashback segment Garrett tells Ward he’s been accepted into full-on S.H.I.E.L.D. Operations Division, and that he’s really going to need to work on not compromising himself by getting attached to anybody – a skill he can start working on by “taking care” of Buddy the dog before they leave. Aww… (Called it!)

Time to rush into the cliffhanger, since next week is the season finale. The Agents get to Cuba too late, as Garrett etc have already cleared out. Fitz/Simmons spot them at an airfield… and are promptly captured by Ward. Fitz busts out an EMP-buzzer that can’t stop the plane from taking off but does fry Garrett’s cybernetics. Fitz pleads with Ward to just let Garrett die and come with them, but it’s not happening. Ward and Raina tend to Garrett’s injuries, which involves popping open his rather delightfully cheesy-looking cyborg torso-plate and glowy techno-organs (ye gods, ABC, give these people some money for Season 2!) so that he can order Raina to save his life by injecting him with GH-325.

Down in Cuba, Coulson, Skye, Trip and May finally find a HYDRA uplink, but are interrupted by a squad of CENTIPEDE mercs – one of whom has The Berserker Staff.

For good measure, Garrett also orders Ward to punch Fitz/Simmons’ ticket, which they make easy for him by “escaping” into a container in the cargo hold; meaning he can kill them simply by pushing the eject button. Fitz makes one more appeal to Ward’s humanity, which seems to work since it’s intercut with a reveal that he couldn’t bring himself to shoot Buddy – instead he fired into the air to scare him off. So maybe he won’t… ah, nope. We see a rifle-scope trained on Buddy from a distance moments later, and just like that Fitz/Simmons’ self-made cell gets dropped over the open ocean.

Raina injects whichever of Garrett’s organs that was already full of CENTIPEDE serum with the GH-325, changing it from glowy-orange to glowy-blue. He reacts by convulsing and lighting-up like one of the Extremis thugs from Iron Man 3 but doesn’t explode (it sort of looks like his skin briefly turns green, but that could be a lighting thing.) Instead, he says that he can “See the universe.” Well, that’s probably bad news.

Parting thoughts

  • It seems pretty clear that, if Raina’s scientific obsession with superhumans is specifically related to the natural born variety, this plot thread is one of the ways they’re looking at using to explain the presence of folks who have powers “just because” without having to use The M Word they can’t use because it belongs to The X Word. In the post credits stinger for Winter Soldier, Baron Strucker is revealed to be running another HYDRA branch that has unlocked the powers of Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch using Loki’s scepter – which he calls the beginning of “The Age of Miracles.”
  • I’m not totally clear on the meaning of the rifle scope being trained on Buddy after Ward let him go. My first thought was that Garrett just shot him anyway, but now I think maybe the idea is that Ward just did it from further away. Was there a detail at one point about Ward being better at killing people when he doesn’t have to look at them? I feel like there was.
  • So Skye’s parents are “monsters” of some kind, which at the very least means that the theory about her being able to process GH-325 better than any other humans (that we know of) because she’s actually the same species (or half?) as the dead blue guy is looking pretty good. Still doesn’t help tell us what that species is, since as noted before “blue skinned and kinda scary” doesn’t really narrow things down in the Marvel Universe.
  • Still… wow. If this really does turn out to be a really, really long-game bid to reveal Skye as Spider-Woman or Ms. Marvel or someone else? Well played.
  • If nothing else, Garrett being (presumably) goosed up into some kind of superhuman is as good a reason as any to expect Skye will show off whatever her powers are in next week’s finale.
  • Speaking of powers, apparently what drew Garrett to Ward was his near-perfect hand/eye coordination. There’s a mounting fan theory that this means Ward will wind up becoming The Taskmaster – not a bad idea, but that’s also not technically how Taskmaster’s abilities have usually worked.
Next week
Beginning of The Endis the Season Finale, and they’re being right up front about Samuel L. Jackson swinging by to send things off. So there’s that.

At this point, it’s all over but the shouting and figuring out which plot threads will get resolved and which will be held over as business for Season 2. I imagine Mike/Deathlok will get some closure one way or another, that we’ll see Skye’s powers manifest in some way and Garrett will probably die or at least seem to have died. Plus they’ve also more-or-less promised us that May will at least put a serious beating on Ward and if Nick Fury is turning up they really do have to either close the book permanently on any remaining how/what/why stuff about Coulson or at least have him decided that he doesn’t care anymore – one way or the other, he cannot still be navel gazing for Season 2.

As for everything else, i.e. will Ward die, are Fitz/Simmons dead, will we learn what Skye’s “monster” heritage actually is? You’re guess is as good as mine.

I will say that I won’t be surprised if Fitz doesn’t make it out alive. He’s a good character, but he’s also the Agent with the least development and depth (even compared to newbie Trip) apart from being Simmons’ unrequited BFF. It’s cute in their interrogation scenes he listed her as the one thing he’d want on a desert island while she answered “a TARDIS,” but it also kind of says it all about how they work as a unit. He can’t function without her, she probably can. Plus, he lost his big chance to be her hero back in F.Z.Z.T. to Ward, and now we know that he only saved her to cement his cover; so if Fitz gave his life to save her there’d be a rhythm to it, at least.

Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.

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