When ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ became great

At long last, here we are.

When Marvel launched its first live-action TV show, I couldn’t have been more excited. We were still fresh off the nearly universal crowd pleaser of The Avengers, and every big detail only caused more excitement. Joss Whedon would produce! His brother and sister-in-law would be showrunners! Coulson would be back (somehow)! The pilot was charming if mildly flawed, and only served to bring expectations higher. Heck, we even got a Nick Fury cameo in the second episode.

But things didn’t progress the way many of us hoped. The show didn’t seem to be taking advantage of the universe it was living in. Ratings went down and fan frustrations went up. Even then, I thought there were highlights – strong episodes like “The Well” and “Yes Men” – and the show has been on a generally strong build since the start of 2014. But we still hadn’t hit greatness.

Until last night.

As someone who’s been reading comic books more than half his life, I tend to brace myself when I hear something called a “game changer”; most events struggle to really live up to that billing. But “Turn, Turn, Turn” delivered on it promise. Coupled with the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it’s clear that nothing can ever be the same for the show after this episode.



We’ve had a lot of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. coverage this week. Andy gave some possibilities for where the show could go next season; he’d call the ideas humorous, but I couldn’t be more serious about loving the idea of Agents of U.P.S. And I gave some theories on where the show could go after Winter Soldier, both this season and beyond. I was wrong about more than I was right. Sure enough, the show wasn’t afraid to immediately spoil the biggest reveal of Winter Solider: that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been infiltrated at every level since its beginning by Hydra. But I thought the show might play out its final six episodes simultaneously with the drawn-out events of Winter Soldier; instead they sprung it on their characters pretty fast and hard. Nick Fury is believed dead by all these characters. By the end of the episode, Captain America has taken out the helicarriers and S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ., from the movie’s climax.

Once Hydra is out in the open, we get hot and heavy into layers of who’s gone bad and who’s still good. Victoria Hand goes after both Coulson’s team and Agent Garrett, leading to our main characters deciding on the first layer of reveals: Hand must have been the Clairvoyant all along. Execept that doesn’t last, and the second reveal drops: Hand is on the side of the angels, but mistakenly believes that Coulson isn’t. May turns out to have still been a good guy, as expected, but we still get a bombshell from her: she put this team together, and she and Fury manipulated Coulson into thinking it was his choice; the entire purpose of this team was to keep an eye on Coulson. The shock on Clark Gregg’s face says it all. More and more, everything he thought he knew is being taken away, and it’s only about to get worse.

So let’s pull back that next layer: Garrett tips Coulson off that Garrett knew something he shouldn’t, and Coulson realizes the implication instantly: Garrett is the true Clairvoyant, a popular fan theory coming true. While I lobbied on Monday for Arnim Zola, after Winter Soldier, I couldn’t be anything less than thrilled with how the episode played out instead. Garrett gets the upper hand instantly, and Bill Paxton settles in to give us our first great villain of the show.

In an outstanding bit of acting, the calm, easy demeanor that Paxton has played Garrett with all along never wavers as he slips into villainy. In Winter Soldier, Robert Redford played the chief villain, Alexander Pierce, with a sincere earnestness; he never gives up trying to convince those he’s battling – the council, Romanov, especially Fury – of the justness of Hydra’s cause. Garrett soliloquizes as well, but his ideology is far simpler: he saw which way the wind was blowing. The simple matter-of-factness with which he threatens Fitz with suffering, and tells Coulson that Coulson has been serving Hydra all along, gave me chills.


And yet, there was still one more layer to go. With the battles over and Garrett in custody, there were still a few minutes left. Hand offers Ward a spot transporting Garrett to S.H.I.E.L.D. prison, and at that moment, you start to feel it. This couldn’t be the end of the Clairvoyant so soon. One more twist had to come. So while I won’t say I was shocked as Ward shot the guards and freed Garrett, I was still floored by the palpable dread in the air. As Ward coldly executed Victoria Hand, I was more surprised; it felt like she would have a role remaining. And now, we had another big villain.

It wasn’t just the big surprises and reveals that made the episode so great. There were outstanding action scenes, from Coulson’s shot to take out the final drone, to the melee between Coulson’s team and the Hydra agents. The acting was top-notch, particularly from the aforementioned Paxton and from Clark Gregg, who wears such pain and resolve on his face. But it wasn’t just all of that, either; the episode was ultimately more than the sum of its parts. And I think I know why.

It comes down to the complaints I mentioned at the beginning, that the show wasn’t taking full advantage of the universe it lived in. No one can say that about this episode. Just five days after Winter Soldier opened in theaters, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was taking on Hydra and plainly announcing Nick Fury’s “death.” Despite huge box office numbers, not everyone who’s going to see Winter Soldier has done so yet, but the show went boldly ahead anyway, and in doing so, found its identity. It’s a show for fans – even, dare I say, for fanboys. It’s for people who can’t get enough of the Marvel cinematic universe, the kind of people who definitely saw Winter Soldier on opening weekend and wanted more. The success of Marvel Studios has been built of being able to give fans what they want, and now, this show could do the same.

Where do we go from here? Hell if know. I called Ward being a traitor, but hardly anything else. The show still has five episodes left this season, with Samuel L. Jackson thankfully booked for the finale. I can’t help wondering if the end of this episode was really the final word on Ward’s allegiances; could he be infiltrating Hydra? Could there still be a redemption plot down the road? Personally, I hope not; the coldness of that final shot of Ward’s face really stayed with me. Let’s keep him villainous.


I would imagine the rest of the season could be all-out war between what’s left of S.H.I.E.L.D. and what’s left of Hydra. Before going off to her death, Hand told Coulson that she and he might be the two highest-ranked S.H.I.E.L.D. officers left alive and loyal; now, that’s just him. Garrett, as the Clairvoyant, may well be the same for Hydra (at least since we surely won’t get into Baron von Strucker on the show). I’m hoping Agent Triplett doesn’t follow his fellow Garrett protégé in being secretly bad; my idea of having a spot open up for him to join the team seems to be coming to fruition.

But maybe most of that’s wrong, just like most of my previous guesses were wrong. If so, that might be all the better. Because now, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is looking like a show that’s willing to make bold choices and take chances with new directions. It’s looking like a show that’s ready to contribute to the wider Marvel Universe. It’s looking like a show that’s finally found greatness.

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  1. Blue Oyster Cult

    Absolutely love the post. You’re dead on. This is the SHIELD TV show we’ve wanted since it was announced, and the one we’ve hung around for. In many ways, it’s like AOS was biding its time for CAP 2 to come out, so they could unleash this on us. Hopefully that’s not going to be their MO (long bouts of lame episodes of the week, followed by an “Uprising” just in time for the newest movie) going forward. Thankfully, the next Marvel movie is in August, and AOS won’t be back until September, so we won’t have that problem until the Fall, if ever again. I could see Skye’s origin having some small iota to do with Guardians of the Galaxy, or being related to a minor character in it.

    Anyways: we wanted more cowbell, and we got more cowbell (I loved the Don’t Fear the Reaper song to bring us into the episode; I almost thought we were veering into flashback land).

    I love that they just ripped the Band-Aid off in regards to the events of CAP 2, thrusting our team into the midst of the Hydra crisis, learning that Fury is “dead” (presumably until the finale), and blending that into the fabric of the show. In your predictions post, you debated the time frame, and I was right there with ya, half-expecting ABC and Marvel to tease out the Hydra takeover, Fury’s death and the Clairvoyant until the end of season 1. This is so much better.

    I didn’t really pay attention to all of the theories, but I loved that practically ANYONE could’ve been the Clairvoyant in this episode. One of the main team, Hand, Garrett, Zola, or whatever’s behind the Door to Level 8, were all possibilities. It’s taking Whedon’s shaky continuum of good and evil to the nth degree. Not only are characters not solely good, or evil, but we don’t even know which side of the spectrum they’re closest to.

    It wasn’t exactly surprising how they went, but the impact was there. They brought Melinda May’s allegiances forth too early for it to really be her, and Ward’s murdering the previous Clairvoyant seemed off, even with the “I have a hankering for Skye” reason. In this episode, when Ward seemed almost too malicious toward May on the plane, I figured something was up more than jealousy. Once Skye and Ward kissed, it was a done deal. While Skyward (I made that up as their name) probably has the smallest group of shippers on the internet, it definitely increases the impact of his betrayal for the 9 people rooting for that relationship to happen. Plus, he also got a chance to show off his unbelievable fighting skills right after, reminding us again why he’s such a big threat. Once Garrett was ratted out to be the Clairvoyant, it made perfect sense that he’d follow his SO, adding Agent Triplett as the other side of the coin (and his able replacement on the squad).

    Bill Paxton has been fantastic since joining the show. I loved him turning out to be the Big Bad, but I couldn’t help but harbor a bit of sadness that he was the Clairvoyant, since I was holding out for someone with superpowers or with rich MU backstory, but as you said, the impact Paxton’s turn cut surprisingly deep, despite being a recent guest star. I suppose he might not even turn out to be truly the Clairvoyant, since he never outright said he was, but I’m sure he is, and I’m more than okay with that, since we’ve just now scratched the surface on Paxton’s villainy.

    While I wasn’t shocked that Ward proved to be working for Hydra, I was completely surprised that he murdered Victoria Hand. Not only was it right after THE reveal, but Hand seemed like a character with a long future on the show. She has a weird fan following, and all sorts of comics continuity to draw from, like H.A.M.M.E.R. and what have you. Of course, we didn’t see her death, but I hope it sticks, because it shows AOS isn’t messing around.
    I really hope Ward’s not in deep cover, since that doesn’t really make sense. I guess he’d assume that Garrett could usher him into the ranks of Hydra after saving his life, and learn more about the organization…but killing Garrett, keeping Hand alive, and regrouping with his team seems like the better move.

    I love that I have no idea what’s going to happen next now. I don’t know if I’ve been more excited to be a Marvel fan than right now, following the best film in the MCU, and the best episode of AOS, in quick succession, with the promise of more greatness in short order. The best part is that this episode packed the wallop of a season finale…but we have 5 (!) more episodes to go, including Patton Oswalt, Amy Acker and Samuel L. Jackson! Ahhhh!

    I don’t know if I’ve been more excited to be a Marvel fan than right now, following the best film in the MCU, and the best episode of AOS, in quick succession, with the promise of more greatness in short order. The best part is that this episode packed the wallop of a season finale…but we have 5 (!) more episodes to go, including Patton Oswalt, Amy Acker and Samuel L. Jackson! Ahhhh!

    What do you want to see over the next 5 episodes? My prediction is that Coulson and company will try to track Garrett and Ward down, and Garrett will end up kidnapping the Cellist (Acker). They’ll save her…but not before a big death, and before Ward or Garrett get away (or maybe Ward dies saving Skye to “redeem” himself). The finale will end with Nick Fury revealing himself to be alive, and offering Coulson and his crew a chance to rebuild SHIELD from the ground up, or…to go into space.

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