Welcome to the episode where SHIELD realized that How I Met Your Mother is done filming and Cobie Smulder‘s schedule is wide open.
In Washington, D.C., Agent Maria Hill has a chat with Pepper Potts about, you know, girl stuff, like how appearing before Congress is like appearing before a class of kindergarteners (and lets be real, if Tony has appeared before congress, as his CEO, Pepper probably has, too) and how annoying it is to be tailed by the incompetent forces of multiple security agencies. Let’s take a moment to appreciate the founding of a new lady-lady friendship in the Marvel universe between two highly competent second in commands to two oft-distant and difficult male bosses. Also, it’s an excellent example of Pepper Potts superior-to-Tony social skills making her ruthlessly competent at her job: when she meets a SHIELD agent, she gets on a first name basis with them, makes sure to find out how they’re doing personally, and obviously isn’t above poaching one. Okay, end moment, just so we can talk about a third female character showing up, namely May, after dispatching all of Hill’s minders in order to get an unobserved moment with one of her former bosses.
They catch up. Hill is helping Stark Industries privatize global security, at least partly because his lawyers are more than a match for all the international covert agencies that want to pick her brains now that she’s the highest ranking public face of what used to be SHIELD, and being a regular reader of the current She-Hulk title, I agree. Tony’s got some intense lawyers. May tells her that things have gotten rocky between her and Coulson, and that she’s looking for answers. Partly in order to regain his confidence, but also because what SHIELD did to him was shady as heck and she doesn’t like it. In “Providence,” we found out that Fury ordered project T.A.H.I.T.I. but didn’t personally oversee it, and May is worried that Pierce, head Hydra guy from Winter Soldier, was the secret overseer. But Hill doesn’t know who it was either, just that Fury told her he “buried that intel when he decided not to bury Coulson.” And, unfortunately, Fury’s dead, she lies. May doesn’t believe her, but they’re interrupted by more mundane security forces tipped off by the disturbance of Hill’s minders, and May Batmans out of there.
Batman is a verb and you can’t tell me different.
In Providence, Coulson, Trip, Fitz and Simmons are trying to figure out where everybody went. All the security footage has been erased except for the one camera pointed at the bay of the Bus, because plot reasons, which lets them know that May left and Ward and Skye got on the Bus together just before it lifted off. Nobody’s really sure what happened, but as Fitz and Simmons (on a quest for what exactly I’m not sure but it might be for pancake fixings because Coulson likes pancakes a lot and they want to cheer him up? Either I missed a line or SHIELD missed establishing a grand love for pancakes in Coulson earlier in the season) discover Koenig’s body and Skye’s scrawled message in the bathroom, Coulson ominously tells Trip his worst case scenario: that they’ve “had a wolf in the herd the whole time.”
Examining Koenig’s wound and judging his time of death, Simmons concludes that he could only have been killed by Ward. This news sends poor Fitz into a near complete meltdown, but thanks to a speech by Coulson about focusing, and Skye, and how she’s playing Ward to buy time so they’d better figure out how to rescue her, everybody rallies to track down the Bus. Unfortunately, just as they trace the Bus to LA (as Coulson and Trip infer between them that Garrett must still be alive and Skye must have been kidnapped so she could decrypt the drive with their secrets), Providence’s perimeter defenses are activated. They’re being assaulted.
Assaulted by folks who know the pass codes for the base, and it turns out to be Colonel Talbot from “Providence.” He and Coulson banter, and Clark Gregg delivers one of my favorite lines of the episode: “If I come out will you shoot me? ‘Cause… then I won’t come out.” That’s the Coulson I remember from Phase 1. How did Talbot find Fury’s secret secret base? He was lead there by Maria Hill, who is right behind him.
While Talbot attempts to intimidate Fitz, Trip, and Simmons into surrendering the tasty SHIELD secrets he assumes they have, Hill tries to talk Coulson into taking the lifeline she is throwing him. They give Talbot the base and some minor SHIELD intel, and Coulson and his team go free after processing and debriefing. Coulson is uninterested, accuses Hill of still trying to protect SHIELD’s secrets, namely, him. He tells her he would have kept all the secrets SHIELD asked him to, if SHIELD had only being straight with him about his resurrection. “You’re right,” Hill says, sidestepping the issue, “We should have seen Hydra coming.” I mean, you’re right, Maria, but that’s not really Phil’s primary concern here. Coulson tells her about the sleeper agent she vetted who made it on to his team and has kidnapped one of his people, in other words “Ward and Skye,” and that if she wants his cooperation, she should get out of their way so that they can save her.
On cue, Talbot and some of his men enter the room, and Hill about faces and together she and Coulson KICK THE CRAP OUT OF THEM GO COBIE.
But we were talking about Ward and Skye. Things are dang tense on the Bus as they fly towards LA to the diner where Skye first met Mike Peterson. They continue to be so as Skye warns him that it’s going to take at least an hour for her to decrypt the hard drive. They get worse as we realize from Skye’s screen that she hasn’t even taken them to the right place, the camera lingers long on Ward’s brand new Five O’Clock Shadow of Evil, and cops keep showing up nonchalantly in the diner. Skye starts asking him about what it was like to find out Garrett had been Hydra all along, about how satisfying it must have been for Ward to bring him in, and what might he say to him now, if he had another moment with the guy. This is all by really-quite-ballsy way of explaining to him that he’s been had, the worthless jerk, because she tipped off both of them to the cops shortly after they came in and now they’re going to be arrested, topped off with a sarcastic “Hail Hydra” from Skye for good measure.
Naturally Ward beats up all the cops, but still, Skye would have gotten away if it hadn’t been for that meddling Deathlok who’d been tailing Ward this whole time just to make sure he followed through on the job.
And now, a Melinda May interlude: May digs up Coulson’s empty grave and finds a flash drive in it, giving a bewildered mourner some deadpan snark while she’s at it. The flash drive contains a Level 10 file about T.A.H.I.T.I.
So now Skye and Ward and Deathlok are all on the Bus, and they all know what they all know. Ward’s not too happy about Deathlok shadowing him, I guess because he doesn’t like the idea that Garret doesn’t trust him or something, and he throws the cyborg out so he can talk to Skye himself. He has to cuff her to the stairs to keep her from attacking him. I like sassy but dead serious Skye. He tells her that the betrayal wasn’t personal. She calls him a Nazi. He tells her that the Nazis have nothing to do with the Hydra of today. He says he always had a Hitler Youth look going, which is a great dig but I wonder if it’s really fair. I mean, he’s not even blonde and the Nazis were waaay more fashionable. Ward says he’s just a spy with his orders, and he’s hurt, frankly, wounded that she’d think that he’d have anything to do with having her shot 90% to death. Skye realizes that while he’s lied about everything else, he really considers there to be a future in their “relationship.” Her perfect reaction: “I’m gonna throw up.”
Like any abusive, delusional boyfriend, he gets mad. Then, when she further, firmly rejects him, calling him a serial killer, telling him she doesn’t and never will like the real him, he actually gets weepy and it’s very satisfying.
Ward is taking too long, and so Deathlok heads down to do his own interrogation. Skye attempts to appeal to the Mike Peterson in Deathlok, but no dice, Skye. If Hydra is SHIELD, then Hydra has his son. Still, she refuses, pointing out that if Garret/Clairvoyant had thought he could make Deathlok kill her, he would have done it in “T.R.A.C.K.S.” instead of making Quinn do it. Deathlok admits this is true and shoots one of those special electro darts that Black Widow used in Winter Soldier at Ward, except this one just causes a heart attack until it’s turned off. If Skye tells him the location, he won’t kill Ward. Sure, Ward’s a murderer, says Deathlok, but are you?
Upon consideration of this, Skye gives up the location, which is simply 35k feet in the air, anywhere. Deathlok uncuffs her so she can start the hack, releases Ward, and orders him to take them up. Once in the cockpit, Ward is ordered by Maria Hill to keep his Bus’ butt right on that tarmac, mister.
Again, just like last episode, I don’t understand how anybody got clearance to land their criminal (and in the case of Hill, stolen planes). The Bus has a massive SHIELD logo on it, and even aside from that, is a full sized cargo plane that can hover it’s not like it’s gonna be mistaken for a passenger jet. This scene clearly takes place at an airport. Both of these plans had to arrange with air traffic control and no doubt several other systems both organizational and legal that I am completely unaware of to get permission to land and disembark at a Los Angeles-based airport in a post-September 11th world. This would all be much easier to dismiss if two episodes ago we hadn’t gone out of our way to explain the precautions the team had to take to fly out of the Hub to Canada without being shot down by the US military.
Anyway, Ward and Hill argue, with Ward offering the quite interesting tidbit that “A lot of us lost respect for Fury when he picked you as his second.” He says if they try to follow he’ll hurt Skye, so they don’t, but it’s okay because it was all a clever ruse to buy time for Coulson to climb up the Bus’ landing gear as a one-man rescue team. It’s sort of unclear why Trip couldn’t come along if they weren’t planning on following anyway, but oh well, Coulson needs to get his lone hero commando on even though I don’t think it really suits his character.
The plan is for Coulson to find Skye in the hex room and then they both go take out Ward, but that’s a plan that doesn’t account for Deathlok, so they decide running is a better idea. Coulson unlocks the cargo bay and just as Skye is almost done throwing on a parachute, he yells at her to just get in Lola, I mean Jesus, come on Skye, I know the first episode was literally seven months ago but you totally rode in Lola at the end of it. Coulson backs the hell out of there, only to have Lola’s thrusters temporarily disabled by one of Deathlok’s wrist missiles for dramatic tension. But it’s okay, he makes a perfect 3 point landing at the last minute into a perfect parking spot. He and Skye share a delightfully silly “I can’t believe we survived that” moment, as a spaced out parking attendant wanders up to tell them that it’ll be $20 to park there.
And I know I’m a New Yorker because I’m thinking “Man, that is fucking reasonable.”
But I digress: SHIELD, HAVE MORE MOMENTS LIKE THIS. Your characters do ridiculous things. Have them be left incredulous by how ridiculous they are more often. It’s funny and humanizing.
To complete the Everybody Shit On Ward Because He Totes Deserves It moments of the episode, Deathlok tells Ward that stopping his heart wasn’t personal, he was just following orders, as they ride off in their failplane.
Bus-less and base-less, the team hole up in a motel to regroup as Coulson and Hill discuss his options. He wants to go after Ward, Garrett, and Deathlok. Hill shrugs, tells him sure, but he’s on his own. There’s no back up, no more secret bunkers, no more SHIELD anymore. She gets his unwavering loyalty to what the organization ostensibly stood for, but going after Garret at this point is just a personal vendetta, and once she advises him to walk away from the idea of being an agent and let his team walk, too. Coulson tells her the private sector isn’t his style, but to say hi to Tony for him… until he remembers that Tony thinks he’s dead.
And apparently he still wants to keep his death a secret? Metatextually, I understand why Marvel would want to keep Coulson’s continued health a secret from the rest of the Avengers until they can play out that reunion out in a movie, but the show hasn’t established why Coulson would want to continue keeping it a secret now that there are no SHIELD orders to tell him to.
The whole team chills by the hotel pool while calm guitar music plays and Coulson tries to figure out what to do next. Skye tells him that she left Hydra a present when she decrypted the Hard Drive of Important Secrets so that will probably come up later. Fitz and Simmons have a chat about human morality prompted by Ward’s betrayal, in which the camera focuses on Fitz as Simmons puts her hand on his knee and oh please just be friends. I know SHIELD “needs” another romantic pair now that Skye/Ward was spectacularly and righteously blown up, but please. This thing where Fitz is just pissed at Trip all the time can’t continue as a serious plot point for much longer. The only reason why it hasn’t already made Fitz look like a jerk is because he’s such a sad, shy puppy.
Stinger: May is waiting for Coulson in his room. She knows all about what happened while she was gone from Maria Hill, and is here to show him the T.A.H.I.T.I. file she found, which conclusively shows who was overseeing the project. It turns out that the original director of T.A.H.I.T.I. was… Phil himself. He resigned from the project because he had deemed its findings, created to save a mortally wounded Avenger, too dangerous to use even on another test subject. It was unclear why, but after the physical recovery prompted by the House Guest samples, all subjects began to deteriorate mentally. Even erasing the memory of their physical trauma had merely inconsistent results of preventing mental collapse. He recommends to Fury that the procedure never be used, for “the cost is far too great.” Present Phil’s reaction, in another nice moment of incredulous humanity reacting to ridiculous sci-fi situations? “Huh.”
Another well paced and effective episode from Agents of SHIELD, where the only complaint is that we weren’t seeing episodes of this caliber half way through the show’s protracted first season instead of at its very end. Particularly, I’m really happy with the way this episode handled the end of Ward/Skye, much in the same way that I was impressed by Ward/May. It would be very easy for the show to place Skye in the position of mourning her potential relationship with Ward, but instead she’s just pissed.
First, the episode had Skye unequivocally come out as disgusted with Ward’s betrayal to the point of hatred. There’ll be no “can she ever forgive him” or “is she conflicted over him because she loooooooooves him” character arc here. Ward’s a liar and a murderer, and there’s no trust exercise big enough to get him back on the waiting list for Skye’s pants. And then, in a moment where some other shows might have been totally willing keep the audience guessing by teasing the idea that Skye would save Ward’s life because of unresolved feelings for him in order to, SHIELD unequivocally says that Skye saved him through moral fortitude, not lingering affection. The difference between Skye and Ward is that Ward only thinks murder is wrong when the victim is someone he has convinced himself he cares about. Skye knows murder is wrong even when the victim is someone you hate. And that’s one of the most fundamental ideas to the superhero universe that we do not see very often in modern adaptation.
This resolution to Ward/Skye makes both of the characters about 100% more interesting. Ward because his blandness and “I can’t have emotions” shtick makes him easier to hate than to like, and Skye because she finally has some emotions to work through other than “righteous indignation” or “wanting to fit in.” Now she’s got “very competently playing the bad guy’s game against him” and “hating someone with the fire of a thousand suns.” And let this post not go without an acknowledgement of how much tighter the core cast of characters is with the cheerful, charming Trip replacing Ward as resident commando.
For the first time in months, I find myself looking forward to seeing what’s coming down the pipe in the rest of SHIELD‘s season. Unfortunately we’ve reached this point when there are only two episodes left. I’m genuinely curious as to what the show is even going to be next season, with SHIELD so throughly dismantled. Will the team make the switch to the private sector? Is there a way of doing that without the payroll restraints on bringing in Robert Downey, Jr. or Gwyneth Paltrow making the characters feel disconnected from Stark Industries? And once and for all, why was Coulson so important that Fury wanted to resurrect him.