The title of last night's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was "End of the Beginning," and if we're lucky, it doubles as a promise. "Okay, okay, we'll stop wasting your time," the title implies. "Now that you know who all these characters are, we'll start doing something interesting with them."
Fortunately, that title came attached to a very solid episode. "End of the Beginning" has several of the show's usual flaws — clunky dialogue, spotty characterization, S.H.I.E.L.D.'s weirdly blasé attitude about murder — but it also demonstrates an impressive commitment to keeping the plot moving forward and sets up for a final run of episodes that seems far more intriguing than anything we've seen so far.
At the end of "Yes Men," Coulson finally committed to tracking down the mysterious Clairvoyant and making him pay — and fortunately for all of us, he doesn't waste any time. As "End of the Beginning" begins, Coulson assembles a formidable group of agents, including John Garrett, Victoria Hand, and Felix Blake. After a quick briefing, the top agents agree to play a role in a risky mission designed to track down the Clairvoyant once and for all. (Well, almost all of them; Jasper Sitwell abandons the mission when someone calls and tells him he has "a boat to catch" instead. If you'd like to see how that loose end gets tied up, go see Captain America: The Winter Soldier this weekend.)
In a double-blind engineered by Skye, "End of the Beginning" splits our heroes into three pairs of two: Coulson amnd John Garrett, Ward and Antoine Triplett, and May and Felix Blake. It's a well-chosen opportunity to get the show's central agents out of their comfort zones, even if it's immediately obvious that Felix Blake — who might as well be wearing a red shirt — will be the one to take a bullet.
But predictability doesn't take away from the reappearance of Mike Peterson — or what's left of him, now that he's been crafted into the cyborg assassin Deathlok. From its very first episode, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has devoted considerable time to developing Peterson's character, and it pays off in "End of the Beginning." The onetime S.H.I.E.L.D. ally can take as many bullets as a Terminator, and not even a reference to his son can stop him from following Centipede's orders.
Peterson escapes, but our heroes track him to Pensacola, where he leads them straight to the man that everyone blindly assumes is the Clairvoyant: Thomas Nash, a paralyzed man whom S.H.I.E.L.D. had previously tested for psychic powers. In an extremely brief guest appearance, Brad Dourif manages to make the wheelchair-bound Nash one of the creepier and more memorable villains from the show's first 16 episodes. "A force beyond your comprehension is coming for you and Skye. She has something we want, and she will die giving it to us," says Nash through a computerized voice, in a monologue that abruptly ends when Ward shoots him in the chest.
It's a genuine shock, though I'm not sure what to make of Ward's bizarrely defensive attitude about the whole "screw due process, I'm going to murder this guy" thing. "I don't regret what I've done. Not if it means you're safe," explains Ward. Is it a trenchant commentary on life in a police state? Is Ward some kind of Patrick Bateman-esque psychopath? Or was he somehow influenced by something beyond himself, like the dose of berserk rage he received from an Asgardian artifact a half-dozen episodes back?
Skye comes to a shakier conclusion: The Clairvoyant has access to Ward's psychological profile, knowing exactly what to say to make him pull a gun. I don't really buy it — is anyone who can be easily manipulated into shooting an unarmed prisoner really worthy of being a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent? — but it does lead Skye and Coulson to the right conclusion. Nash was just a patsy, and the Clairvoyant isn't a psychic at all; he's just a person with a very high S.H.I.E.L.D. security clearance.
Unfortunately, they come to this conclusion just as Fitz discovers May's mysterious private phone line. It's not exactly a Sherlock Holmes-ian leap of logic, and May doesn't help herself when she refuses to explain her top-secret phone calls, or when the plane she usually pilots makes an unplanned detour.
Of course, the mole isn't May; it's someone with an even higher pay-grade. Let's talk Victoria Hand, who appeared in several episodes before tonight's "End of the Beginning." (Though Saffron Burrows's unusual hair has made a stronger impression than her performance.) In the comics, Hand was always a bit of a cipher; though she sometimes seemed to be at opposition with the Avengers, she later argued that the ends justified some of her more questionable means. Though I'm still not sold on Saffron Burrows's affectless performance, I'm impressed by Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s take on the character, which is smart enough to use Marvel fans' own knowledge of Victoria Hand against them. Is she a true villain, as she seems to be in the TV show — or is she a big-picture antihero who's playing a much longer game, as it eventually turned out in the comics?
I'm honestly not sure, and that's a good place for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to be. If we've really come to the end of the beginning, I'm eager to see what's in store for Phase 2.
Let's hit this week's S.H.I.E.L.D. points:
- Shortly after last night's episode ended, Marvel executive editorial director Ryan Penagos tweeted that fans should watch last night's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode, then go see Captain America: The Winter Soldier this weekend, then tune in for next week's episode, promising that "it's all connected." We can thank corporate synergy for the very existence of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but Marvel is laying the whole thing on a little thick for my tastes — particularly because they turned over the last few minutes of tonight's episode for a Captain America preview.
- Having Bill Paxton as a guest star has given Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. a nice little shot of energy, but his John Garrett was a little too chummy with everybody in tonight's episode. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. could really benefit from a morally questionable, Jack Bauer-ish kind of agent, and Garrett's introduction feels a missed opportunity to slip some genuine tension into the ranks.
- In a recent interview at The Hollywood Reporter, showrunners Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen dismissed complaints about the show by saying that fans had gone into Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. unfairly "expecting to see a Marvel movie every week." They've leveled this charge before, but it's always struck me as disingenuous; the vast majority of complaints I've seen have been about uneven plotting and dull, paint-by-numbers characters. Fortunately, they also admit that it took them a while to find their footing, so here's hoping the show's worst days are in the past.
- "End of the Beginning" offered more fodder for SkyeWard shippers, because nothing says "romance" like murdering the wheelchair-bound man who seems to be threatening the woman of your dreams.
- Last week, ABC announced another very strong guest star: Amy Acker, who will appear as Coulson's oft-mentioned violinist ex-girlfriend in an upcoming episode. Fingers crossed that it won't be a one-off appearance.
- Don't forget to check back next week, when Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will air what ABC's relentlessly enthusiastic promo guy has dubbed "the most explosive, game-changing episode of the season."
Scott Meslow is the entertainment editor for TheWeek.com.