I’ve been eagerly anticipating tonight’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. since it was first announced for one reason: Because it represents the apex — or, potentially, the nadir — of Marvel’s grand experiment in corporate synergy. The central story arc of tonight’s “The Well” ties directly into Thor: The Dark World, which is currently riding the top of the box office, with our TV heroes dealing with the small-scale fallout from Thor’s big-screen adventure.
On one level, this is Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s raison d’être. A well-executed version of “The Well” would add additional context to the events of Thor: The Dark World and encourage fans who enjoyed the episode to check out the movie. On another level, “The Well” is a risk — an episode that could further alienate an audience that’s already declining every week by building its narrative on a movie that many of them probably haven’t seen. With that in mind, I decided not to see Thor: The Dark World, so I could judge if “The Well” worked as a stand-alone hour of television without any preconceived notions.
The good and bad news is that “The Well” is virtually indistinguishable from the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episodes that have come before it. Sure, there are a few more references to Thor than usual, and a brief highlight reel from his latest big-screen adventure at the beginning of the episode — but other than that, it’s business as usual. Our heroes do some globe-trotting as they track down some villains-of-the-week. Skye makes lame jokes. Melinda May kicks some ass. Coulson crawls another inch forward in his molasseslike quest to figure out what really happened to him in Tahiti.
The best thing about “The Well” is that writer Monica Owusu-Breen found a way to take an episode that was ostensibly about Thor: The Dark World and smuggle in a surprisingly compelling story about Grant Ward’s past. Just as the past two episodes served as a kind of quick-fix character rehabilitation for Simmons and Fitz, “The Well” pivots Ward into the center of its narrative, and gives him several intriguing bits of character shading along the way.
But before we dip into the Ward psych, let’s discuss this week’s two-dimensional villains, a Norse pagan hate group so frightened or enraged by the implicit threat Thor represents that they’ve resolved to become gods themselves. Fortunately, fate has handed them a convenient way to do it: an Asgardian staff, cut into three pieces, that gives anyone who holds it uncontrollable rage and the strength of twenty warriors – and, less fortuitously, a flashback to the most traumatic memory of their lives.
In the hunt for the berserker staff, Coulson reaches out to Professor Elliot Randolph (guest star Peter MacNicol), a Norse mythology expert who suddenly became a historian when actual Asgardians landed on Earth. As it turns out, Professor Randolph is nursing a dark secret of his own: He’s the Asgardian berserker who originally hid the three pieces of the staff, abandoning life in the Norse realm a thousand years earlier to camouflage himself as a human on Earth.
But for an otherworldly being, Randolph is surprisingly useless when it comes to fisticuffs — so the responsibility falls to Agent Ward, whose thinly concealed rage is pushed to the breaking point after he grabs the berserker staff. At first, it basically turns Ward from an aloof jerk to an openly angry jerk, which I’m not entirely convinced was a bad thing; wouldn’t Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. be a lot better if the characters ripped into Skye a little more often?
But it’s not until late in the episode, when Ward squares off against the (easily defeated) Norse pagan soldiers, that we learn the root of his childhood trauma — and it’s a little more interesting than the vague sob story he originally told Skye. As it turns out, a young Ward once stood over a well with a drowning young boy (presumably his brother) in it, and reluctantly refused to throw down the rope that would save him. That does seem like the kind of thing that might stick with you.
For all Ward’s efforts, the hero at the end of the day is the Cavalry. Melinda May picks up all three pieces of the berserker staff, eliminating the would-be gods in about fifteen seconds of battle. When later asked how she managed to stand the psychic trauma caused by the staff, she says she thinks about it on her own every day.
I’ve complained before about the antagonists in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and these paper doll villains didn’t do the show any favors. But Ward’s self-loathing and May’s mysterious past have more potential than any of the mustache-twirling super-villainy we’ve seen so far. Randolph warns Ward that the side effects of the staff may take a couple decades to wear off — and if Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. follows through, it’ll be nice to see that these missions can have actual consequences.
And speaking of consequences: What should we make of Ward and May’s rendezvous in the hotel room? We don’t know what they’re doing behind that closed door with that bottle of whiskey — maybe they really are just swapping war stories — but it certainly looked like more, and Skye-Ward fans will probably be out for blood. (As for me, shipping isn’t exactly my favorite part of this show, but given the total blandness and lack of chemistry between Chloe Bennet and Brett Dalton, I’d be happy to see both characters romance literally anyone else in the cast.)
In the end, I’m a little relieved that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s big crossover with Thor: The Dark World turned out to be virtually Thor-less. Synergy is all well and good, but Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. needs to make sure we care about the characters we’re hanging out with every week before it starts using them to push its other properties — and “The Well” was a nice step in the right direction.
Let’s hit this week’s S.H.I.E.L.D. points:
- Simmons has mentioned her parents in several previous episodes, but she also went to school in the United States, and she spends most of “The Well” dodging their calls. What’s the story there, anyway?
- “Horny. Met a French girl in 1546. God, she loved stories.” — Professor Randolph, explaining why he revealed his secret identity and almost doomed the human race to servitude under a bunch of Norwegian Über-mensches.
- I liked how annoyed Professor Randolph was when Coulson asked if he knew Thor personally. I guess it’s a little like asking a British person if they know Prince William.
- Elliot Randolph is one of the more interesting side characters Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has introduced, and he seems genuinely taken with Coulson’s suggestion that he move to the Pacific Northwest. Here’s hoping we visit him stateside in an episode to come.
- Lest we somehow forget about Coulson’s death and resurrection for more than 30 seconds, the stinger for “The Well” actually takes us on a flashback to Coulson’s time in “Tahiti,” where a “masseuse” — who will probably turn out to be a Life Model Decoy Engineer, or whatever — tells him it’s “a magical place.” Drink!
- Don’t forget to come back for next week’s recap, when the S.H.I.E.L.D. jet is nearly blown out of the sky for the second time in nine episodes.
Scott Meslow is the entertainment editor for TheWeek.com.