When was the last time something described as a "game-changer" was actually game-changing? When Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. showrunners Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen launched the show in September 2013, they already knew that their basic story would be irrevocably changed by the Captain America sequel — which they had no creative control over, and which wouldn't be released until April 2014. Tonight's "Turn, Turn, Turn" takes place more or less concurrently with the superhero blockbuster, and like the movie, it fundamentally alters the building blocks of the Marvel universe.
(If you haven't seen Captain America: The Winter Soldier yet, and would prefer it to remain unspoiled — even though you likely watched “Turn, Turn, Turn,” thereby spoiling some of the movie’s plot lines for yourself anyway — this is where you should stop reading.)
Yes, S.H.I.E.L.D. as we know it is gone — and given that this TV show is called Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., it's safe to say that will have a fairly significant impact. It's something that the show's creative team has been bracing for since the very beginning; in a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Tancharoen revealed that Marvel warned them that the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier would permanently alter Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. "literally a day or two" after they were picked up for a full season.
None of this excuses Whedon and Tancharoen from the numerous missteps of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s first 16 episodes. It's the showrunners' job to make a great TV show regardless of the limitations forced upon them — and for most of its first season, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. hasn’t been anything close to a great TV show. But I also have a newfound understanding (and a degree of sympathy) for the show's seemingly inexplicable pacing and story problems; Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been vamping for time until the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier allowed them to push the plot forward.
I'm happy to say that they rose to the task. "Turn, Turn, Turn" was a very strong episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. — probably the strongest in the show's history — and better yet, it lays some very significant groundwork for the top-tier drama Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. could eventually become.
The unprecedented artfulness is clear from the first scene of "Turn, Turn, Turn," which uses Blue Öyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper" to set the stage for an aerial dogfight. (It's the first of many moments buoyed by the work of veteran TV director Vincent Misiano, who has credits on everything from The West Wing to Prison Break.) Agent Coulson still has the duplicitous Melinda May at gunpoint, but there are bigger problems on the horizon: S.H.I.E.L.D. has taken control of the plane, and Victoria Hand has ordered the deaths of everyone onboard as soon as it lands.
In the midst of all this pressure, an unexpected message pops up on the computer screen. "Out of the shadows, into the light. HYDRA," says the computer — a message designed to get hundreds of deeply embedded, anti-S.H.I.E.L.D. sleeper agents to turn on any non-evil agents around them. (They probably should have picked a more discreet way to get the message out.) Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has little choice but to repeat the Captain America sequel's big reveal: HYDRA, a Nazi organization thought destroyed during World War II, had actually survived and infiltrated the highest levels of S.H.I.E.L.D.
The news leaves everyone scrambling to figure out whom they can trust. When May hears that Nick Fury is dead, she finally tells Coulson that she's been reporting on his actions all along. Back at the Hub, Simmons reluctantly allies with Agent Triplett, and eventually with Victoria Hand, who turns out to be one of the good guys after all. Hand tries to convince Simmons that Coulson, whose suspicious actions have caught her eye, must be the real villain. Meanwhile, Coulson and Garrett lead the team on a mission to rescue Simmons and Triplett — and, insists Garrett, to kill Victoria Hand, whose alleged affiliation with HYDRA makes her too dangerous to live. This is some dense plotting for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and it's fascinating to watch the lies and half-truths that have built up over the course of the season call virtually everybody's judgment into question.
Of course, the real Clairvoyant turns out to be John Garrett, who has been under suspicion from the moment the suspiciously big-name guest-star Bill Paxton was cast. Garrett's villainy was all but guaranteed from the moment Paxton appeared onscreen, but he still makes the most of the big reveal. "Let's just say I felt the wind changing direction and turned my sail," he explains in a chillingly banal justification of the innumerable murders he's been happy to commit for HYDRA. After a solid throwdown in which even Fitz manages to shoot somebody, Victoria Hand takes Garrett into custody for an indefinite stay in a S.H.I.E.L.D. prison.
But despite its predictability, the John Garrett twist also provided a smokescreen for the episode's far more surprising reveal: The villainy of Agent Ward, whose Patrick Bateman–esque good looks have been the cover for an actual Patrick Bateman all along. HYDRA members "hide in plain sight," warns Victoria Hand earlier in the episode. "They earn our trust, our sympathy. They make us like them." Ward, who has successfully seduced both May and Skye, is exactly the kind of agent she's warning against. Unfortunately, Hand didn’t take her own words to heart. As soon as he gets the chance, Ward shoots Hand and frees Garrett (though he stops short of dropping a "Hail HYDRA," which raises intriguing questions about how deep his allegiances really go).
There's still a fair amount of heavy lifting to be done in the last five episodes of the season. I can't quite picture what a "regular" episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will look like when all this dust settles, or what the long-term future of a S.H.I.E.L.D.-less Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will be. (Despite the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it's hard to believe that ABC will actually change the show's name, so Coulson will probably end up giving one of those generic inspirational speeches — "We'll call ourselves the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. because we still believe in what S.H.I.E.L.D. was supposed to stand for," or whatever — but you get the idea.) And the show can't kill off a major character or introduce a new mole in every episode; at some point, the main characters will need to be interesting enough to make it worth tuning in for a regular mission-of-the-week.
But this is basically the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I was hoping to see last September — and now that Marvel has taken the gloves off for Whedon and Tancharoen's storytelling opportunities, I'm eager to see what they can really do.
Let's hit this week's S.H.I.E.L.D. points:
- S.H.I.E.L.D.'s new mandate, per Agent Coulson, is to "survive," and I hope the show takes that idea to heart. The idea of a scrappy team of experts without their customary technology and resources sounds like a modern, Marvel Comics version of The A-Team (and I mean that as a good thing).
- HYDRA's logo replaced the S.H.I.E.L.D. logo that normally appears at the end of each episode, in the TV equivalent of a post-credits stinger. If Hand is right, and Coulson is the highest-ranking S.H.I.E.L.D. member alive, how many are left below his pay grade?
- I'll be curious to see if "Turn, Turn, Turn" gets a ratings bump from the people who saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier this weekend — and if those viewers will be impressed enough to turn up again for next week's episode, which will air an hour later than usual.
- Every time I think I have this show's various love connections all worked out, they do something to throw a wrench into it. Anyone else get a distinctly romantic vibe from May's "You mean a lot to me" confession to Coulson?
- Let's all pour one out for Victoria Hand, who died before anyone could pump her full of a crazy alien resurrection drug. Better luck in the next life, Vic.
- Don't forget to come back for next week's recap, when our heroes rendezvous with special guest-agent Patton Oswalt.
Scott Meslow is the entertainment editor for TheWeek.com.