This week's episode opened strong with a sequence that established Marcus Daniels. I like scenes that are staged primarily to introduce someone's superpowers, and I thought this one was pretty simple and effective. Daniels is sort of a generic off-the-shelf bad guy who can absorb energy, and his only real purpose in the episode is to give Coulson and his team a reason to reconnect with the Cellist who was mentioned in "Iron Man 2" and "The Avengers."
This is also the first time since we've learned that Agent Ward is such a piece of garbage that we've seen him spend an entire episode interacting with his team. Honestly, the reveal has made him more interesting than he's been the entire time the show's been on the air. One of you in our comments section made the comparison to David Boreanaz once he got to play Angelus on "Buffy The Vampire Slayer," and it's spot on in this case. Being garbage suits him, and it becomes fun to watch him play his team when he's been such a drag so far.
We see at the start of the episode that Coulson knows what's going on but only through Ward's account. They know, for example, that the entire population of The Fridge have been released, and Coulson wants to go after them. As Agent Koenig, Patton Oswalt's having a ball so far. He's perfect as this kind of cheerily bureaucratic agent who is in charge of all the secrets, and he's got every right to treat the entire team with suspicion at this point.
When he tells them all that he has to clear them before they can leave the base for any reason, he introduces them to the ultimate lie detector designed by Nick Fury. "He wanted a lie detector even Romanov couldn't beat," Koenig says proudly, and this sort of reference, done right, does a nice job of adding just that little bit of mystique to the character.
As TV episode ideas go, that's a pretty great one. It's a smart hook, and it puts the characters front and center again after two weeks of pretty major story points. We've got to see every single one of the character go through the process of getting cleared, and it puts Ward, the one character we know is garbage, on the spot.
The montage of all of them taking the tests was well-done. Of course Melinda May is where we start, and she makes a good baseline before watching the rest of them go through the process. It made me laugh when Koenig was interviewing Triplett. "If I was the grandson of a Howlin' Commando, I'd have that tattooed on my chest."
I also had to laugh when Skye was talking about her upbringing in the orphanage and revealed that the name she was given was "Mary Sue Pootz." I can't imagine anyone laughing at that last name. It seems unlikely.
Koenig brought up both Project Insight and Alexander Pierce to everyone, a continuing reminder of just how public a humiliation S.H.I.E.L.D. went through in "Captain America: The Winter Soldier." Triplett talked about how Garrett would get calls from Pierce from time to time. I also continue to find Ian De Caestecker one of the most interesting performers on the show. I like the way he's played Fitz over the course of the season, and I feel for him as he tries to figure out how to tell Simmons how important she is to him. It's not a crush, either. I think the show has shown the truth about why she matters to him, and the depth of those feelings, and while there was something sort of cutesy about the whole idea of "Fitz/Simmons" at the start of the show, I think they've really earned the place where they are now.
The interrogation scene once they finally get Ward and Koenig face to face in that room was well-handled, and I like that Patton's playing the part. It's not the sort of thing he normally gets hired for, but it makes good use of both his intelligence and his sort of smiling, seething barely-restrained contempt that is absolutely part of his comedy.
The episode also underlines how important the individual relationships within the team are, and how broken the connection between May and Coulson now seems to be. Coulson's starting to get that dry sarcasm back, like when he's discussing the way Daniels has been modified to become more powerful. "Nothing bad ever happens when you work with something called Dark Force." The beginning of the series had Coulson still grappling with issues about his death and resurrection, and once he learned the truth, there is a powerful anger that's replaced his confusion. This was the first week in a while where we saw something softer in him, the hurt instead of the anger, and it's because it turns out that Daniels first encountered Coulson when he was stalking a woman.
Audrey Nathan, played by Amy Acker, turns out to be the Cellist that we've heard about, and it was smart to finally pay off those references with a character who underlines just how much Coulson has lost in service of S.H.I.E.L.D. The structure for the rest of the episode cuts back and forth between Coulson trying to protect her and Ward as he makes his big move on Skye, and they did a nice job of showing how serious the stakes are in both cases. After all, Daniels is exponentially stronger than he used to be, and the first time they run into each other, he hands the team their asses with ease. It made me laugh when Fitz explained what he was going to use to try to stop him the second time and had to confess that Bruce Banner helped design it, especially once Coulson weighs in on his own feelings about Banner.
When Audrey tells the story of Coulson's first encounter with her, it's a whole new angle on his story of The Cellist. Audrey still believes that Coulson is dead. It's rough for Coulson to hear her version of things, and the guy who just can't bring himself to pop back up in her life is the Coulson I liked in the first place once Marvel started to really develop him in the movies. There's a strange mix of bureaucratic efficiency and genuine chivalry that defines him, and I thought it was good that they showed him come full circle on his trust issues with May by the end of the episode. He may not like any of what happened between them, but he also knows that he needs to trust her if he's going to trust anyone.
There's something ironic about how the most honest Ward's ever been in the entire series comes when he's trying to hide his deception. I honestly believe what he's saying to Skye when he tells her that she wouldn't like him if she knew him, and that's an interesting way to play things. Dalton's done a nice job playing awful. Whatever they do with him, they can't just reset things to zero. I don't believe at all that he's playing both sides against each other. I think he's a bad guy, and the moment that finally pushed it over wasn't on the plane two weeks ago. It was tonight when he killed Koenig. That was way past the point where they can even begin to try to explain his actions.
This is a nice balance between action and the bad guy story and personal information, and it builds to two separate climaxes that are both pretty solid. I know there are people who have totally quit on this show, or who seem particularly hard on it, but an episode like this shows that they really do know what they're doing. There's a control to it that makes it feel like they have the show figured out, and they just need to fine-tune what they're doing.
I've heard the comment repeatedly now that you can't make a superhero show without superheroes, but that's really not exactly what they're doing. Moments like this are the best example of how they're really making a show that is about being a normal person who has to be prepared to face down these superpowered beings even when there's not a superhero around to help.
Skye knows the truth now. How is she going to handle that? And not just this week, but forever. When she took her test with Koenig, she referred to SHIELD as "the only family I've ever known," and now to learn Ward is evil, the last person she should have trusted, it's going to damage her, and deeply. She's good at playing the game, though, and she's able to convince Ward that she doesn't know what's what. This becomes a really interesting cat and mouse for the next three episodes. I can't imagine they'll make this last beyond this season, so it's going to be a really compelling run to the finish line.
When Acker wakes up, it's really sad. I thought they were going to let Coulson have a moment with her, but she thinks she imagined it. That's maybe even worse. Coulson is giving up so much to do his job, and I hope they make that an important part of who he is moving forward.
Fitz needs to speak up. He drives me crazy because I understand him. I'm at the age now, and I have enough experience now, to realize that the only way I'm ever going to have the life I want is by speaking up, by being clear, and by telling the people in my life what I want and what I need. Part of the reason I know that now is because of hardship and sorrow. Once you've had enough of that, you start to re-figure your attack plan. Fitz has to reach his breaking point by the end of the season.
As the episode winds down, Ward has Skye and The Bus. She knows what he wants. We have no idea how much he actually knows. It's a hell of a set-up for the ending of the season.
And that tag with May's mom? That's awesome. She's the first person who seems even harder than May. How perfect is she? Of course she's also an agent. Who is May looking for? "You're not going to take her out, are you?" "No, mom, I just want to talk."
Ahhhh. Maria Hill. We'll see her next week, and with only three episodes to go, I think they're going to have to go big every single time now.
"Marvel's Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D." airs every Tuesday night on ABC.