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Agents of SHIELD Recap: “The Well”

Recap

So this is SHIELD’s Thor: The Dark World tie in, where they directly tie in to the movie for about the first five minutes and then never do so again.

We begin with space, the final frontier, and Simmons voiceovering what could be the SHIELD motto: We had gods, they became myth, now we know the myths were real, and they leave a great big annoying mess. The team is picking over wreckage in Greenwich University, the site of the final battle of Thor: The Dark World. Fitz says that a monkey could do this job, and while Ward’s comeback emphasizes that he is serious and thinks the work is important, he doesn’t exactly disagree, either, and neither do I. Considering that this is the only scene in the episode that is actually causally connected to T:TDW, I wonder if this exchange was the writers trying to lampshade the fact that Coulson’s special team is kind of too special to be a cleanup crew. Some other minor things happen here before the episode completely abandons explicit ties to T:TDW so I’ll just list them.

  • They find one, like, Dark Elf gear or something.
  • Simmons hangs up on her parents calling. She hasn’t talked to them since before “FZZT.”
  • Skye and May agree, contrary to Coulson, that Thor is dreamy.

And now, to Norway, where a young, disheveled European couple follow some vague directions to a tree surrounded by stones and chop it down. (The guy stands on the tree while cutting into it with a chainsaw, so he’s just begging to be in the next day’s globally viral gruesome fail video.) They extract a rune covered rod that lights up red (a possible, subtle reference to the Aether of Thor: The Dark World?) and grants them super strength. Some park rangers, who are removing Futhark graffiti from an informative sign, attempt to stop them and get thrown around for their trouble.

The graffiti is an Elder Futhark symbol that Wikipedia tells me was the equivalent of “O” and that Tolkien used as the Dwarven rune for “U.”

Our team inspects the scene and confirms what we’d already been told in most of the promos: the rod they pulled out of the tree was of Asgardian origin, and had probably been there for at least a millennia. I would like to compliment the scene, however, for having good use of a Stark Holographical Interface That Makes Actual Desingers DroolTM. Then they start hearing reports from Oslo: A group of Norse Paganists have incited riots, and some of them appear to have super strength. They’ve written “we are gods” on the streets in fire.

I’m going to go ahead and assume the actual Norse paganists who were unhappy with the inaccuracies of the Thor franchise are not too happy about this episode, if they watched it.

Judging by the partial 3D replica the team has managed to create of the rod, there are two more pieces of it, so they need to assemble it in order to find the Well of Souls before Hitler does, hence the title of the episode. Just kidding, this is SHIELD, they need to find it so that regular human beings can’t use it. The Pagans couldn’t have found it by chance, so off they go to Coulson’s pocket expert on Norse mythology (or history, as the show deftly acknowledges the change in the study of Norse myth that Thor’s first appearance on Earth in modern times created), Professor Elliot Randolph.

Randolph, in a fit of brilliant casting, is played by Peter MacNicol (I’ll talk about why later), and we first see him giving a student a chance to rewrite an essay for a better grade… while also establishing that they’ll be going out to dinner later, a bit that sets us up to think he’s a sleazy professor, which turns out to be both a clue and a misdirection. He immediately identifies the rod from the model they give him as the Berserker Staff. There is a legend, he says, of an Asgardian soldier in a berserker army who came to earth to fight and fell in love with humanity. He decided to stay when his army left, and broke the staff into three pieces to hide it. Fortunately ancient texts tell us where they are, apparently.

Hmm. We must have missed that part of the Eddas. He recommends specifically that they start at some recent Canadian dig sites. This is also misdirection, but not metatextually. Just regular.

SHIELD has already found nothing at those Canadian dig sites, and Skye can’t find any clues on the Paganists message boards (which are shown as fairly Web 2.0 but come on, I’ve been around the internet some, and they would totally look like a heavy metal webring from 1999. If you don’t know what a web ring is, ask your parents. If your parents don’t know, ask the nearest person who wears a leatherman on their belt.) What Skye and May have found is a crypt in Spain in a town that Vikings viked to and sacked twice. Coulson says they should head there and “see what we can dig up.” Leave comedy to the bears, Phil.

In Spain, Ward and Skye investigate the crypt, and I suppose she’s there because field agent training. Who else do they find but Professor Randolph, who has already grabbed the staff piece. In attempting to stop him, Ward grabs the piece with his bare hands and gets a dose of bad Asgardian juju. He flashes back visions of a child stuck in a well, and when Skye finds him unconscious, he wakes up in a panic attack. While making his getaway, the Professor runs into a group of the Pagans, who toss some cars around, attracting Coulson’s attention, but he gets there only to find Randolph picking himself up, having had the staff piece wrested from him.

Under questioning in the hex room, Randolph doesn’t give away much. He says he went after the staff piece so that he could be the first academic to study it, and prove the berserkers were one of the real Norse myths. “I’ve spent some time with gods before. Cases like this are personal to me,” Coulson says by way of a threat, which, though it goes a ways towards giving a nice in character explanation for why he would have such a cool attitude towards investigating Asgardian technology, doesn’t impress Randolph much.

In the lab, Ward is having tests run on him and is exhibiting all the classic signs of having encountered an alien device designed to turn people eeeeeevilllllll. He says terrible things to Skye and Fitz, watching Randolph’s interrogation agitates him, so does Simmons’ offer to sedate him, and he is very focused on recovering the rest of the alien artifact. The staff made him think of “something I haven’t thought about in a long time,” and he continues to have more flashes of the memory as he works over the punching bag: it is revealed that there is also a boy at the top of the well, and that one of the two children is calling out to Ward. May attempts to give him advice, after he almost lays one on her, saying that punching is “the last thing you need.”

It’s unclear what her actual advice is, but the next time we see Ward he’s in Coulson’s cabin asking to be relieved of his duties. Or he would be if this were Star Trek, but it’s SHIELD so he’s just talking out loud about his feelings instead. He suppresses his childhood memories so he can focus on his job, but the staff has changed that: he can’t stop thinking about the first time he felt hate, and he does’t trust himself. Coulson tells him that if he can admit that, he’s probably trustworthy, which is pretty typical of Coulson’s management style in Agents of SHIELD but a not a response I’d want my boss to have to a subordinate who is clearly frightened that he will lose control and harm his coworkers.

So long as you’re afraid of losing control, Coulson says, why don’t you interrogate the guy who is literally standing between you and your current goals? So whoa hey no that’s a terrible idea and I brace myself for the return of Stranding-Untried-US-Citizens-in-China-Coulson, but it turns out the episode has a nice twist for us. The interrogation goes pretty normal until Ward pulls a knife on Randolph, who catches it barehanded and bends it at a right angle. Turns out Randolph is an Asgardian himself.

During the commercial break I have enough time to think of a lot of questions. It was made clear in Thor: The Dark World that Hiemdall is omnipresent, at least when he wants to be. Is this guy somehow out of Hiemdall’s sight? Is he on Earth because he has permission, or because nobody cares? Are there other Asgardians chillin’ on Earth? Naturally, the episode does not explicitly answer any of these questions. Peter MacNicol was a great casting choice for Randolph because of his particular reputation as a character actor for playing underlings and awkward academic types. The metatextual assumption that he was chosen because he could play a skeezy professor was enough to keep me from wondering how implausible it was for his character to have the money to jet over to Spain on very little notice, and enough for me to forget about some of the other roles he’s made memorable. Mostly, another one that’s connected to artifacts and gods who are really men.

We come back to a nice cross section of the characters reacting to the fact that he’s Asgardian. Coulson explains how he figured it out, Simmons wants to “cut him open” for tissue samples, Skye wants to ask him about history, May just seals the interrogation room. Turns out it’s made of a vibranium alloy. I wonder if Coulson has ever figured out how many Captain America shields he could make out of it.

It turns out that Randolph isn’t just any Asgardian, he’s the Berserker Warrior who hid the staff in the first place, and the whole legend only exists because he got chatty with a woman he was sleeping with a few centuries ago, and she told a priest the story and it got lumped in with the rest of the Norse myths and preserved. And he liberally embellished his account: he wasn’t really a born warrior, just a mason.

A mason? THE MASON, THE ONE WHO BUILT THE WALLS OF ASGARD AND THE GODS TRIED TO STIFF ON THE BILL BY ASKING LOKI TO HAVE SEX WITH HIS HORSE?

No, just a regular old mason who joined the army to travel and never much liked being a berserker anyway. As a “pacifist” he’s not particularly inclined to help them recover the last piece and confront his unwanted Paganist believers. In the long run, which is his only run, a bunch of angry young people with super strength are not really going to mess with his life that much. He throws some great Asgardian shade here by saying that the thing he likes most about Earth is that it changes.

Locking him in the hexroom forever, while it would require starving Coulson and Ward, is at the moment the only real threat they can hold over him, until Coulson threatens to call Thor, bluffing a bit, as he’d said that was impossible just earlier this episode. This works on Randolph, which I think is probably good evidence that he’s not really supposed to be on Earth, but is allowed to be because he keeps a low profile.

As they get ready to head to the location of the last staff piece (it’s in an Irish monastery where the monks were nice to him once), Ward asks Randolph about the emotional effects of the staff. The good news is, they wear off in decades! Yay! Other members of the team quietly ask Coulson if Ward is okay for field work, and he reiterates that Agent Ward knows that he’s acting strange, therefore they can trust him. On the one hand, Coulson turns out to be right, but on the other, that’s really not a huge confidence building reason for your team, Phil.

The team arrives at the church, and Randolph pulls out the last staff piece just in time for a whole bunch of superpowered Paganists (lead by the man from the beginning of the episode, carrying a staff piece) to show up and stab him with it. So Ward grabs the staff piece in Randolph’s chest, pulls it out, and goes full berserker on their butts, because he’s gotta protect everybody even if he’s frightened of becoming his older brother.

Coulson and the SSibs attempt to keep Randolph alive long enough for his quick Asgardian healing to kick in by Coulson physically palpitating his heart by shoving his entire hand through the entry wound. I wish the show had dwelled just a bit more on the parallels of this moment to Coulson’s own death, for a scene where Agent Coulson attempts to save the life of someone who has been stabbed in the heart by an Asgardian weapon by unorthodox and very personal/physical means.

Meanwhile, Ward is kicking butt and we’re seeing more of the Well memory. Skye attempts to calm him down, but May pulls her away. While watching the episode I assumed this was for Skye’s safety, but in retrospect I wonder if this was out of a more pragmatic estimation of the team’s survival chances if Ward wasn’t totally out of control.

This is when we get the entirety of Ward’s memory: he is at the top of the well, and his younger brother is the one drowning, and calling out to him. Ward has a rope, but before he can throw it, his older brother appears and threatens to throw him into the well too, if he rescues their younger sibling so soon. After his older brother leaves, Ward does eventually throw down the rope. We are not explicitly shown that his younger brother survives, but the way Ward talked about his siblings in “The Asset”, implies that he survived.

We come back from this extended flashback when Ward regains consciousness to discover that he has taken out every one of the Norse paganists. Of course, this is when the woman from the first scene, carrying a staff piece, and one last paganist walk in the door. Maybe they dropped everybody else off early and then went to get parking? Skye helps Ward stumble towards the two staff pieces, but May holds him back, saying “this time, let me help,” possibly a reference to how he didn’t let her help back on the Bus.

May grabs grabs the two pieces simultaneously, handles the transference of power better than anybody else previously in the episode, disarms the Paganist leader, assembles all three pieces, defeats her, and then deliberately sets the staff down. Across the room, Randolph regains consciousness, and it’s all over but for tying up the emotional aftermath.

Simmons finally calls her parents. May explains to Ward that she was better abel to handle the Berserker Staff because she doesn’t or can’t repress her bad memories like him. Coulson and Randolph bond over being stabbed. Coulson describes his death and revival in the most detail he has yet:

I was killed, well almost. Afterwards is kind of blank. I have no memory of being revived, of being in a hospital, I just woke up a few months later.

Randolph is unimpressed and has no advice. He decides that he needs to start over somewhere where people are less fascinated by Norse things. Coulson recommends Portland and their “great philharmonic,” an attempt at a reference to his ‘cellist paramour he mentioned to Pepper Potts in The Avengers. SHIELD, if you are going to mention that relationship, you better explore how Phil Coulson feels about not being able to reveal to someone he was romantically involved with that he’s still alive. Don’t tease me.

Ward hits the bar, and Skye joins him to try and get him to talk. She says she “can overlook a little Hulk rage,” so uhhhh…

Skye in your universe the Hulk actually destroyed a bunch of Harlem, that joke seems a little off color. Ward doesn’t really feel like talking at length about his emotional problems at that moment, so he lets her down gently and goes to bed. In keying into his hotel room (the team is being housed outside of the bus since they’re working overnight in Ireland) he notices May doing the same down the hall, except she has an entire bottle of hard liquor in one hand. They meet each other’s gaze, and then she walks into her room, leaving the door open. Ward follows.

And honestly, it’s kind of unclear what happens next. The show ends with Ward entering her room, the kind of punctuated ending to a man following a woman into her hotel room that might imply sex in another series (it goes without saying that if they were two men or two women this would not have the same level of ambiguity). But every interaction the characters otherwise had in this episode was about how they deal with emotional trauma, not really a “flirting” kind of connection. The episode could have avoided confusion simply by adding a couple more shots to the end: Ward taking a glass full of alcohol from May, who is holding another in her other hand; the two of them sitting in different chairs, not talking or looking at each other, just drinking.

I imagine there’s going to be lots of fan fiction about what happened after the credits rolled, but I hope the show doesn’t play coy with the contents of that fade to black. Especially when we really haven’t been told much about May yet. The sexually aggressive female spy trope (not to mention the sexually aggressive female martial artist or warrior) comes with a lot of outdated-views-of-gender baggage. It is not impossible to make a good character who fits the characteristics of those tropes, I’d just hoped to learn more about May before we wandered into the territory of reclaiming tropes. If, of course, we’re wandering in that direction at all. Curse you, possibly unintentionally ambiguous ending!

This episode marks a bit of a reversion from the last two in terms of balanced character focus, but I didn’t mind it as much. Ward has gotten a lot of plot time devoted to him, but “The Well” seemed to actually advance what we know about him and give him an emotional hurdle to clear in future episodes, provided the writers follow up on Randolph’s assertion that the effects of the Berserker Staff lasting decades. And speaking of Asgard…

Sure, this episode concerned an Asgardian artifact, but its discovery, recovery, and origins were not a direct result of anything that happened in Thor, Thor: The Dark World, or The Avengers. Do I think that’s a completely reasonable level of direct contact for the show to have to the movie? Yes. But this is Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, which loves to present itself as the coolest thing to ever happen to movies because it’s a shared universe. With the hype given to this episode as a Thor tie-in, I don’t think I can be faulted for assuming that the main plot of the episode would be causally linked to the movie, not the first five minutes alone. And like I said, that’s reasonable for the circumstances and production deadlines of both the show and movie, but if SHIELD really wants to sell itself on its connection to the greater Marvel Universe, it needs to exceed what is “reasonable” just to meet expectations.

The Stinger: Coulson gets a massage from a beautiful brown-skinned masseuse in a post-card perfect Tahiti. ”Tahiti’s too good to be true,” he tells her. She answers “It’s a magical place,” and Coulson bolts upright from bed in his cabin on the Bus (no hotel for the weary team commander?) and SLASHER MOVIE MUSIC PLAYS.

Previously in Agents of SHIELD Recaps

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