Hey, everybody! This week’s SHIELD recap, and all further SHIELD recaps, will contain spoilers for Captain America: The Winter Soldier. So if you haven’t seen it, don’t read it. If you have seen it, you might want to check out this post I wrote, speculating about what revelations might be in store for tonight’s episode.
I wish the record to reflect that before the episode even started I wrote in my notes: “So May is working for Fury, right? Fury.”
When we last left everyone (meaning Skye, Fitz, Coulson, and May), they were in a Mexican standoff, with guns mostly pointed at May, since everyone suspected her of betraying them to… well nobody’s really certain, but probably the Clairvoyant. There’s a lot of yelling, and May admits that she is (HAH) working for Director Fury but won’t say more, and offers to call him so he can explain, if Fitz hadn’t cut her direct line. “Oh yeah,” everybody goes, “Fitz, why were you messing with the comms anyway?” and Fitz is forced to admit that he was trying to secretly contact Simmons so that they could keep working on figuring out the GH-325 drug against Coulson’s direct orders.
Coulson orders Fitz to do his science magic thing and figure out where they’re going, and Skye to make contact with Simmons and see who she’s talking to. If the Clairvoyant is a high-ranking SHIELD agent, then she could be in a lot of danger, depending on who she talks to. It turns out that the Bus’ coms are down, scrambled by a strange signal, but they manage to hear Agent Garrett over the static, asking for help. He’s being tailed by two SHIELD drones who are trying to shoot him down. So Coulson shoots May.
For all the effect this has on the plot, he could have just pistol whipped her or ICERed her, and it wouldn’t played 100% by Movie Injury Rules where nobody ever bleeds out or sustains any lasting tissue damage from being shot. Shooting someone in the arm doesn’t knock them unconscious, certainly not if they’re the sort of person who can do a pull up with a knife embedded in their shoulder.
But I digress. They drop May off in the Hex Room with Ward, Fitz instantly creates some kind of gunner seat that bypasses the automatic systems that are controlling the Bus, Coulson shoots both drones down, and Garrett comes aboard. In a room in the Hub, some agents ask Hand if they should send more planes after Garrett. She says, nah, we can just kill them all when the Bus lands. One of them expresses reservations about killing allies. “Once that encoded transmission went out, everything changed,” she says, “We must kill all the Jedi.”
Oh, sorry, that gunner room must have thrown me off, I thought we were in Star Wars. Hand gives a nice little villain speech about loyalty to all the agents. Or is it?
Elsewhere on the Hub, Trip is all up Simmons’ business, and I peg him immediately as villain, after all, that would explain why the writers made a point of having him bring up the idea of killing the Clairvoyant to Ward, since killing Thomas Nash played right into their strategy. I turn out to be wrong about this. Simmons explains her and Fitz’s research goals and Trip offers to use his higher clearance to get her a secure line to Agent Weaver at SHIELD academy.
On the Bus, as Garrett and Coulson fill each other in on how the Bus is going straight for the Hub and Agent Hand is the Clairvoyant, Skye decodes the scrambled message in their coms and figures out what the rest of us all know because we made sure to go see Winter Soldier this weekend: Hydra sleeper agents have taken over SHIELD.
“Hydra? You mean those guys our grandparents fought in the 1940’s?” say all the kids and Garret responds “Hydra always comes back,” and that’s absolutely not suspicious. Not suspicious at all, considering Hydra has never come back in the history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe until now. I wish someone had called him on that, but instead they argue over whether or not the Hydra regrew its limbs or its heads, so that makes up for it in my mind.
Everybody resigns themselves to flying blind into Hydra controlled SHIELD headquarters (except not actual SHIELD headquarters, the Triskelion because the logistics of filming in the actual same sets as an actual Marvel movie is beyond the show’s pay grade), but agrees that they have to do their best to save Simmons and also Trip, on the urging of Garrett.
Ward and May have a chat in the hex room where he is angry over her betrayal and she is angry that he KILLED A PARALYZED PRISONER IN COLD BLOOD THANK YOU MAY.
Then, supporting my Agent May Excellent TV Depiction of Casual Sexual Relationships Feelings, she says that she knows he did it for Skye, and that’s totally okay. But then she says it would have been okay if he’d actually killed the right person, since everybody’s pretty sure that Hand is the Clairvoyant now, and May do I really need to bring the gif back?
Coulson busts in to drag May out: Fitz has repaired her encrypted line and he wants her to call the heck out of Director Fury because he’s got some ‘splainin’ to do. At the same time, they let Ward out of “you shot a prisoner” lockup and Garret explains the sitch. We’ve all seen Winter Soldier so we can guess what happens next. May calls her line, and is told that Director Fury is dead, just as the Bus lands at the Hub and its weapons systems are taken out and windows machine-gunned in.
May finally explains her self fully to Coulson in private, as he pulls the bullet he put in her out of her and bandages it, thus magically eliminating any effect the injury has on the plot of the episode. Fury knew that Coulson would tap May for any team that he formed, so he asked her to keep an eye on him, and give regular reports on any changes in his mental state. Coulson was manipulated into choosing all the members of the team: May drew up a list of what she’d need to deal with him in case he went rogue after TAHITI: someone to repair his body (Simmons), someone to reprogram his brain (Fitz), and a specialist to help her take him out if necessary (Ward).
This gives an alternate explanation for May’s reluctance to accept Skye, May’s attempts to sow mistrust between her and Coulson, and May’s insistence that the younger woman forget about family and emotional ties if she wanted to be a part of SHIELD. May didn’t want Skye to side with Coulson if it turned out that she had to take him down. She says she took the assignment to protect him, because she cares about him. (The scene doesn’t give us anything to indicate that May means this more than platonically, but that doesn’t mean it’s not something the show may choose to use as a foundation later on.) Coulson wants to believe her, but feels too betrayed. Clark Gregg and Ming Na do good work in this scene, and their relationship is one of the few that I remain genuinely engaged in.
The rest of the team has come up with a plan to keep all the fancy discoveries the team has made over the rest of the season out of Hydra hands, and it is: stall the Hydra strike team until Skye can make a backup. As the strike team enters, overcoming their booby traps by sheer manpower, they find an empty plane, the camera panning over the floor grates to show…
Wait, sorry, wrong thing. The team busted out of there using that “cut a hole in the floor” gadget that everybody and their mom had in Winter Soldier and then made their way across a wide open hangar deck, probably covered with security cameras, with no cover, without incident. At least that’s what I assume, because we just cut right to them in a hallway. Skye and Ward go after the control room, in order to shut off the tractor beam I MEAN disable the automatic control of the Bus. Everybody else, including May, who is in handcuffs, goes to rescue Trip and Simmons.
Speaking of which, Trip and Simmons appear to have eluded Hand’s agents by the ingenious trick of being in exactly the same place they were when we last saw them, except this time with a “holobox” which is apparently immune to the SHIELD-wide coms scramble and can only be reached by folks with Trip’s clearance. They contact Agent Weaver, headmistress of SHIELD science academy, which turns out to be under siege, and she explains to them all about the Hydra takeover. Trip and Simmons have a bit of a tussle over whether they can trust each other that ends in working together to try to contact the Bus, but before they can do that Hydra agents find them.
Hand offers them the choice to join up with Hydra or die. Trip takes a hostage, says that he’ll never join Hydra, and if they want to kill him he’ll take one of them with them. Hand is relieved to have more folks to trust, because she was never Hydra at all!
Hooray for rule-minded pragmatist superior officers who turn out to be working for the good of the main characters! Still, she’s unable to find Agent Coulson, who she believes to be in league with Hydra: how else would you explain how an agent was put in the ICU on a Coulson-botched mission shortly after coming to her with suspicions of a Hydra conspiracy, his recruitment and protection of a known cyber-criminal, or any of the numerous other fishy things about his tenure as a team leader.
This begs a number of questions. If Hand uncovered the Hydra infiltration but is not a Hydra agent, why hasn’t she been removed from command and arrested by other Hydra agents at the Hub as part of their orders? And if she’s managed to become a double agent (more plausible), why didn’t the rest of the Hydra agents figure out that something was fishy as soon as she ordered Agent Garrett, one of their high-ranking members, killed? The episode could have used a brief exclamation of surprise from a Hydra-aligned agent at the presence of Agent Garrett with Coulson’s team. It wouldn’t have given away the twist, any more than having him say “Hydra always comes back” would, but it would have established that Hand had managed to keep her attempts to take him out secret from everyone but her few trusted agents.
Unless… the episode means to posit that Hand’s foreknowledge allowed her to gain total control of the Hub, in which case I wish that had been made a little more clear.
Anyway, Coulson et. al fake their way past some Hydra cameras and into a control room with the old “escorting a prisoner” ruse, but wind up having to blast every Stormtrooper in the room anyway and then call down to their superiors and clumsily explain that a weapons malfunction has caused a large, dangerous reactor leak and DANGIT THAT’S STAR WARS AGAIN I am so sorry.
Skye and Ward’s mission to the processing center finds it heavily guarded, and Ward prepares to take them all on himself to clear the way for Skye and he doesn’t care that it’s really dangerous because he is just now getting a bunch of fee fees about killing an innocent man.
Sorry, Ward, I’m not letting go of the blasé reaction everybody had to you killing a paralyzed prisoner. He admits that he has feelings for Skye and that he didn’t act on them because he needs to keep his feelings compartmentalized. “And also because you are her superior officer and mentor,” I add, “but, like, Hydra is taking over so this probably isn’t the time to—” but then they just keep talking about it and agree to go get a drink together if they both survive this and then they kiss and ew ew ew
Your relationship has an inherent unequal power dynamic no no NO.
Ward steps out of the room and kicks all the butts without dying, to the surprise of no one. They go plant a bomb in the processing room.
And now, time for the episode’s big twist: Garrett tries to convince the rest of the team to kill Hand without asking any questions first, and when Coulson objects on moral grounds, Garrett starts listing all the terrible things she’s done as the Clairvoyant, specifically mentioning that Raina spent time in the brainwashing machine. Coulson realizes that there’s no way Garrett could have known that detail, since he never mentioned it to anyone. Garret is the Clairvoyant, and I’m kinda disappointed.
But I probably should have guessed: Garrett is a character who is otherwise completely superfluous in all his characteristics. He’s not the only SHIELD team leader on the show, he’s not the only friend Coulson has from the old days, he doesn’t even give us that much insight into Grant, even though he’s his former SO, etc, etc.
Garrett admits defeat, guards bust in, and Coulson tries to get them to arrest him, but of course, the half of them that are Hydra shoot the rest on Garrett’s orders and Garrett takes Coulson, May, and Fitz into his own custody.
Garrett stops to monologue, because this is a superhero show, but he admits that he’s just following Hydra because they’re the biggest show around, because this is a superhero show with pretensions of realism and completely evil villains are way comicbooky. Garrett knows better than to ask Coulson or May to join Hydra, but he does approach Fitz who is oh my gosh crying Fitz baby it’s going to be okay.
Just after Fitz tearfully declines Garrett’s offer, Ward and Skye’s bomb goes off, throwing out the regular lights, and everybody defends to hand to hand fighting in the confusion, except for Fitz, who hides under a desk. Coulson fights Garrett, May, handcuffed and injured, fights everybody else. (Except for one guy that Fitz does eventually shoot.)
Once they’re done, Hand decides to make an appearance with Simmons and her hand-picked guards. She heard the whole conversation on the room’s surveillance systems, so she doesn’t need to kill Coulson any more. We get a slow-mo montage of Hydra agents being escorted… somewhere? while Trip and Ward react to their mentor turning out to be a bad guy.
Coulson and Hand sum up their resources. Hydra has completely taken control of some important parts of SHIELD’s operations. Captain America’s status is unknown, and she and Coulson might be the highest ranking Agents who aren’t dead or gone over to Hydra. Nobody asks about Agents Romanoff or Barton, though it’s said that it’s too soon for a proper inventory. The end of Winter Soldier took place in what felt like the aftermath of Hydra’s thwarted takeover, after all, there was time enough for headlines to roll, for folks to sift through all of SHIELD’s intel as released by Black Widow, and for senate hearings to be convened. I suppose it must be assumed that this takes place a bit before that.
Hand says she’s going to take Garrett to the Icebox immediately, which seems a bit premature if an “inventory” hasn’t taken place. Like maybe just hold him in some kind of local brig while everything else is sorted out? I mean if Hand’s test for prisoners is to see if they’d rather die than join Hydra, it seems odd that she’d just trust that the Icebox is fine and not, for example, pretending to still be under SHIELD control as a lure for honest SHIELD agents. Ward volunteers to go with her under the pretext that he wants to make sure his former mentor is buried deep.
Back on the Bus, Coulson starts acting like the potential new director of SHIELD he knows he now is, ordering swift repairs to the plane, telling May that he can’t consider her a friend anymore, but he knows she’s an ally, so she’s still got a place with them. What’s next? Survive. Whatever the heck that means.
On the way to the Icebox Hand offers Ward a chance to shoot the Clairvoyant again and this time, get the right target. So he shoots everyone else. After laying Hand on the ground, he even puts two more bullets into her, so we can’t even hope that maybe she can play dead and get out of the situation. He looks very blank as he does this, which could either be a clue, or just Brett Dalton‘s “villain Face.”
The stinger: Basically this, but with Ward instead of Calgon.
Alright, lets get this out of the way: I was partly disappointed and partly excited to find out that Victoria Hand wasn’t the big bad. Disappointed because I feel like she is objectively a more interesting character than Agent Garrett and so I was looking forward to having her as an antagonist. Excited, because, as I said, it’s rare to see any kind of popular media that features loose cannon authority figures as the heroes where the rule-minded pragmatist superior officer turns out to be acting in everyone’s best interest. Especially when that character is a woman.
I’m also disappointed because Hand outranks Agent Coulson. Before she was gunned down by Agent Ward, there was a possibility that we’d see her as the new director of SHIELD, a role that runs right alongside comics canon. Now? Who knows. Maybe she’ll be implausibly brought back from the dead, but it would be really implausible, but I’m not holding my breath.
In more plausible predictions, I really hope that Ward has genuinely been a sleeper agent this whole time, and that this defection does not represent, like, his Asgardian berserker staff reprogramming or something. I like characters with difficulty voicing their emotions as much as the next person (maybe more, see also: Elementary, a life-long obsession with Batman) but I’m real bored with Ward “So Bad At Handling Emotions That I Shoot Powerless Prisoners” Good Guy. Maybe he’ll be more interesting as an Elite Mook or second in command to the real villain.
One more thing until I get into a more metatextual topic: Coulson mentions, in front of Ward and Garrett, that the gravitonium has been buried real deep at the Icebox, heretofore a secret that only he has kept. It’s possible that we’ll see Dr. Franklin Hall’s Gravitron fairly soon.
These are all ultimately questions and concerns about this first season of SHIELD in isolation. The bigger question that has concerned me since seeing Winter Soldier is whether Agents of SHIELD has been significantly hamstrung in a number of ways by its central gimmick: that it will directly tie in with the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s absolutely ridiculous for the first season of a new television show to air six new episodes in a four month period, but it’s not when a brand new show needs to span from October (the release of Thor: The Dark World) through April (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) with enough give on either side to air a minimum of four or five episodes. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the all-time-low ratings for last night’s episode.
Trying to get viewers to come back to the show by promising that #ItsAllConnected is not a particularly good enticement. The payoff of everything coming together in the end is nice, but in isolation, that’s all it is. If the audience isn’t engaged by each early bit by itself, there’s little reason for them to trust that those bits will eventually pay off, and if the audience isn’t engaged by those early bits the eventual payoff becomes an a “oh, huh” not an “OH, WOW.” If the show was really building to this moment then it needed to have built faster, both by having fewer hiatuses and a more condensed season-long narrative. It is not particularly good for a television season of twenty two episodes to be comprised of fifteen episodes of setup, a two parter that reinvents the plot and setting, and then a mere five episodes set in this new situation. And this is definitely a new situation: half of SHIELD is dead or criminals. Nick Fury is officially dead. Victoria Hand is dead. Coulson may be next in line for the directorship of whatever is left of the organization, if anything is left of it. Of course, if SHIELD were to have a premiere schedule that allowed it to get to all this stuff faster without spoiling Winter Soldier‘s April release, it’s very likely that the show could not have tied in to Thor: The Dark World‘s October one (which, it should be pointed out, it did with the absolute minimum of effort).
Marvel Entertainment has so far done a very good job of making its very isolated film productions feel like they exist in the same universe, and it has done so partly by making sure that each of its movies remain fairly isolated from each other until the big team up event, some cute in jokes and references aside. That requires a small amount of give and take on the part of the various filmmakers at work on these projects. Agents of SHIELD feels like the production has been all give and no take. Marvel may turn out a “decent” superhero film instead of a “great” one more often than not, but its “coherent universe” game has all ways been on top. Except in the case of SHIELD, where it seems the show might have been given a better chance if it were allowed to premiere with Winter Soldier to cover the SHIELD aftermath, rather than seven months before it.