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Agents of SHIELD Recap: “Ragtag”

Recap

Penultimate episode of SHIELD season 1! Apparently they’re gonna try to make me feel feelings about Ward? We’ll see, SHIELD. We’ll see. My “No Murderers” stance is pretty strong.

We open fifteen years ago with the first time Ward and Garrett ever met. Ward: serving pre-trial time for trying to burn his family’s house down, with his parents pressing charges and his older brother pushing to have him tried as an adult. Garrett: there to offer Ward a way out. A way out with the tactical team he brought to illegally extract him. Because there are no better secret agents than ones who are already in the system and wanted for crimes. I mean, well, Garrett actually wants a totally messed up kid to emotionally abuse into a terrible person and loyal soldier.

In their Hotel of Solitude, our Team hears about Deathlok killing a drug lord with known ties to Hydra in Bogotá on the news, and then they look at DUBIOUSLY NECESSARY CHARTS. Where is your touchscreen god NOW, Agents of SHIELD? Perhaps Coulson borrowed this giant notepad and easel set up from the hotel’s conference room, but I much prefer to believe that they come standard as a part of the SHIELD emergency kit because the person who designed their operating procedures had an unhealthy obsession with visual aids.

Anyway, Coulson uses bubbles and lines and labels to tell them that everybody they’ve been fighting is connected to Cybertek, so they should probably assume that Cybertek is Hydra. The plan for this episode is to find a computer in a Cybertek facility and plug Skye’s flash drive into it. This will allow her to, using a bit of programming that she slipped into her Hard Drive of Important Secrets, take control of Hydra’s computer systems. For gadgets, they have Trip’s granddad’s old Howling Commando tech (still no confirmation on which of the Howling Commandos is Trip’s grandad, so SHIELD still has a chance to say something progressive here and make his grandad not be the token black Commando, I’m just saying). Coulson geeks out over all the old spy gadgets. Trip and Coulson geek out together. Everybody geeks out and accidentally sets things on fire and blow out electronics like the adorable grown adults they are.

The plan is for Coulson and May to pretend to be former SHIELD scientists looking for new jobs. Cybertek is not particularly impressed by their technical skills, but it’s okay, because they just subdue the guard assigned to escort them out and then sneak up to the 4th floor, where Skye has detected some kind of shielded room that might be the only place in the building where computers are kept.

As always, Coulson and May are adorable middle aged secret agents together, kicking butt and complaining about how their disguises have itchy sweaters. Clark Gregg and Ming Na have great friend chemistry.

They find the secret room, but it turns out they can’t plug the flash drive in, because Cybertek’s secretly shielded computers are actually all just physical files. Because plot! I mean, I like a nice set piece as much as the next person, but this doesn’t actually stand up to scrutiny. There are sacrifices to going all paper in the digital age. If Cybertek is Hydra, then Cybertek has all of Hydra’s tech, and therefore all of SHIELD’s tech. If SHIELD didn’t think it necessary for security to keep all their files in analog, Cybertek shouldn’t feel it was necessary either. But I digress.

Skimming the hundreds of file cabinet labels, May happens to find the cabinet labeled Deathlok. Turns out the project began in 1990 with some nobody named John Garrett. About to be caught, Coulson and Ward chuck the whole file cabinet out the window and make their escape with the rest of Team.

But this can’t just be about our SHIELD buddies, so lets see what’s going on with the Hydra team. Raina is close to replicating GH-325. Mike doesn’t like Raina because she takes orders from Garrett without having to be forced. Oh and also she gave Hydra his son. Mostly it’s that, I guess, since he’s not exactly grilling Ward or other Hydra underlings about their motivations. He asks her why she works for Garrett (a good question, since she seemed pretty upset when she found out he doesn’t have supernatural powers). She answers that she has an interest in folks who have super powers, and that she’s “waiting for what’s inside to be revealed.” She asks him, in return, about Skye. She believes that she and Skye have something in common.

Garrett ordered Deathlok to kill that drug lord specifically to make a scene, but we won’t find out what his game is until the stinger. Ward is uneasy with the way Garrett uses Deathlok, and in the same vein, he’s pissed that Garrett’s plan involved possibly letting him die. Garrett tells him to get over it, accusing him of always playing the victim. Then he has one of those conveniently noticeable but vague attacks of “not being well” that plague television characters with only a month or two to live. Oh yeah, after Ward fixes Garrett’s mechanical parts he tells Ward that his organs are failing. He’s dying, that’s why all the interest n GH-325.

Now is as good a time as any to cover some of Ward’s flashbacks. So immediately after pulling him out of prison, Garrett tells Ward that nobody loves him except him, maybe, if Ward can be cool enough, you can be cool enough, right, son? Then he leaves him in the middle of the woods without so much as a roll of toilet paper. If he’s still there and alive in a couple months, Garret will be back and they can be a family again.

It’s like My Side of the Mountain, but with less agency and more theft.

Garrett also leaves him a dog named Buddy, so START THE DEAD DOG COUNTDOWN.

Garrett returns six months later to find Ward surviving, having stolen tools, guns, and a tent from “cabins” nearby. Nobody suspects that weird kid who lives in the woods with everybody’s stolen stuff. His disguise was foolproof! Garrett tells him he’s proud and teaches him how to fire a gun like any red-blooded American father figure. Later (we can tell because Ward is now being played by his regular actor instead of an age double), Garrett tells Ward about the moment he lost faith in SHIELD: when he was abandoned in the field without rescue after having his guts blown out. Since SHIELD wouldn’t have his back to the end, he doesn’t want to have theirs. He introduces Ward to the idea of Hydra.

And now, back to the future. The Team sits around in the Hotel, tracking Hydra to their base in Cuba and talking about how Garrett was the original Deathlok and clearly wants the GH-325 so he can live without his metal implants. They also can’t believe that Fitz is still proposing ways in which Ward could have not been completely culpable in betraying them. This annoys Skye, who after all just had the guy confess twisted love for her, into blurting out that she wishes she’d let Deathlok kill him.

One on one with Skye, May tries to explain that Fitz just can’t bring himself to process the obvious truth about Ward yet because he’s a sad, innocent puppy. Skye expresses jealousy over May’s composure. May tells her to bottle up her anger until the perfect time to unleash it, like when they meet Ward again, and invites her to do Tai Chi with her. Yay, lady character bonding over anger management and murder!

Unfortunately for our heroes, Hydra is about to pack up shop. Ian Quinn gets a nice shave before he heads to Washington to be Hydra’s/Cybertek’s secret new public face. Since SHIELD were the folks who accused him of crimes in the first place, and he was always critical of them, he can easily spin that into anti-Hydra heroism.

Disappointed to find that Garrett not only doesn’t have superpowers, but also doesn’t even care about the origins of super humans, just saving his own life, Raina hesitates to mention a new finding to him. As soon as Ward figures out that it’s about Skye, though, he encourages Raina to tell him and only him. Judging by Raina’s look through Skye’s files, her DNA is a match for someone Raina has “heard about.” A baby girl found in a Hunan Province village that was destroyed by monsters looking for her. The “monsters” were the girl’s parents.

When asked, Ward lies to Garrett about it, and just before the whole place is packed up to be relocated to the States, Raina hands Garrett the only batch of GH-325 that she’s been able to replicated. It should work, and he wants it close to him on the flight over.

Equipping themselves with more old gadgets, the team goes out to look for Hydra in Havana. Coulson, May, Skye and Trip go to check out the barber shop, a known SHIELD base, while apparently everybody thought it would be a good idea to let Fitz and Simmons just go do a thing on their own, namely, look for the Bus.

Hydra’s left the base, but Skye can still get a reading on some electronics down there to jam her flash drive into, so they go in anyway. The Science Siblings find the Bus, but it’s clearly being packed up and will leave before the rest of the team can get there, so Coulson orders them not to engage. Shortly afterward, of course, they are found by Ward. He takes them to Garrett, and after a bit of banter, Fitz presses the disguised EMP, throwing Garrett into serious medical emergency as the Bus takes off.

Ward orders everybody out, the protective adult kid of a hurt parental figure, and Garrett asks him to do one more thing for him before he dies: Kill Fitz and Simmons. And do it now, please, it’s totally my dying wish even though I’ve got some GH-325 that I’m gonna ask Raina to inject me with as soon as you leave. So Ward goes to do that, and Raina stays with Garrett. COME ON RAINA MAKE THE MOVE KILL HIM AND BECOME THE AWESOME BADGUY LEADER YOU WERE MEANT TO BE. Seriously, SHIELD, Raina is the true believer who totally deserves to wrest power from all these evil-through-pragmatism weenies.

We get one last flashback sequence as Ward chases down Fitz and Simmons, who have escaped from their inept Hydra guards, and corners them in… a room that they know can be easily ejected from the plane? Good hiding spot, guys. In the past, Garrett tells Ward that he’s been accepted into SHIELD’s special operations division. He tells him that if he’s going to be a part of Hydra in SHIELD, he can’t ever get attached to anyone, and that he’s got to fight the “weakness” inside him that reaches out for connection to other people. Then – wait. Let me check the countdown.

Right on schedule. Garrett tells him to shoot his dog. Frontier coming of age 101: in order to reach his adult destiny, the character must kill a beloved animal friend, death becomes a metaphor for the end of childhood, blah blah blah. The episode even, hilariously, juxtaposes shots of younger Ward holding a gun at Buddy’s smiling head with shots of sad puppy Fitz begging older Ward to come back to the light side and not jettison their room from the plane. Briefly, cheaply, the episode tries to stretch the tension by making us think that Ward just makes Buddy run away, but no, our final shot of the dog has Ward’s sniper crosshairs laid over it and ends in a gunshot, as present Ward airlocks Fitz and Simmons into the ocean.

Raina fixes Garrett with the only GH-325 in the world, which she for plot reasons won’t be able to make any more of. Garrett goes into a werid seizure but eventually calms down enough to talk about how they should have sent a poet. This probably means that he’s leveled up in some way, but we won’t find out how specifically until next week.

Down in the barber shop, our SHIELD team waves funny old gadgets around and eventually finds a Hydra computer. We know because it’s got the standard Hydra screensaver running. Even though they’ve been there like ten minutes at least already, a guy with the berserker staff and five upgraded centipede soldiers choose this moment to intervene.

Stinger: In Washington, D.C., Ian Quinn chats up some generals, saying that Bogota was just a demonstration of what Cybertek super soldiers can do. “How much did you spend to get Bin Laden?” he asks. Disappointingly, they don’t answer: “Almost nothing, we sent Colonel James Rhodes in with that there Iron Man suit what we poached off of Tony Stark,” and he invites them to tour his brand new super soldier manufacturing facility.

“Ragtag” had a lot of nice character moments and asides. Coulson’s pizza for Pablo Jimenez, for example, Fitz and Simmons defending their ICERs, Coulson and May accidentally taking their accents when repeating them, all real cute. But I generally found this episode to be ineffective; a bit of a let down from a fairly solid run of them since Winter Soldier. Our SHIELD team accomplishes nothing but figuring out stuff that the episode already tells us in other ways. The Hydra subplot was all characters moving from one place to another to simulate progress, when all that really happened was that Garrett got some fake GH-325 in him.  We already knew Ward was an emotionally fucked up cold-blooded killer because of evil people in his past: now we know that he had to shoot a dog once. We already knew that Garrett has Ward wrapped around his finger and allied himself with Hydra for selfish rather than fanatic reasons. It all just feels like build up to the season finale, but without a cliffhanger any more dire than the ones in the past few episodes, there’s no increased anticipation for what the season’s big ending bash might be.

That’s right, I said “without a cliffhanger any more dire” even though Fitz and Simmons are stuck in a box in the middle of the Caribbean. The episode couldn’t even convince me that Fitz and Simmons were in real danger.

That said, this lack of meaningful events is what appeared to happen. I’m still holding out hope that Raina will have pulled off a coup. She’s hands down the most interesting villain character the show has yet featured. But this has actually been a common problem with the show all season: the folks behind it have promised up and down that everything is connected in a big surprise. But the problem with having to depict events that won’t seem meaningful until later is that they don’t seem meaningful right now. And if you don’t supplement them with something that does seem meaningful, you wind up with entire episodes that don’t seem to have said anything or advanced any characters.

I don’t mean to beat a dead horse here, but no matter how much SHIELD has improved overall since Winter Soldier, it still won’t make up for two thirds of the season hamstrung by Marvel’s reluctance to spoil Winter Soldier‘s reveal by presenting SHIELD’s organization anything but solid and unimpeachable. Imagine if we’d known that Ward was someone‘s sleeper agent from episode one, how tense his every bonding with the other characters would have felt, how the show could have had us genuinely wondering whether he’d be redeemed by the team’s friendship and trust in him. Think about how much scarier it would have been to reveal that May was also secretly reporting to somebody: we thought May was taken in by Ward, but it turns out she’s another Ward.

Well, by this time next week we’ll no longer have to take the show’s creators word that everything comes together in the end: we’ll know. And I’m really looking forward to being able to consider Marvel’s first foray into cross-media continuity as a whole, however it turns out.

Previously in Agents of SHIELD

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