As its first season draws to a close, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is finally hitting a groove — and the results, as seen in last night’s episode, are truly impressive. “Nothing Personal” is easily the strongest episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. yet, offering sharp writing, solid action sequences, several series-best performances, and the perfect amount of winking references designed to reward loyal Marvel fans.
Last week's episode ended with a cliff-hanger as Skye and Ward took off together, but "Nothing Personal" begins with a very different familiar face: former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders, reprising her role from The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier). In the wake of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s collapse, Hill has taken a job working for Tony Stark, but that doesn't save her from a nightmarish testimony in front of Congress — or from being ambushed by her former colleague, Melinda May.
Unlike some of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s showier guest stars — Jaimie Alexander's Sif jumps to mind — Maria Hill fits perfectly into the TV show's more grounded aesthetic, and it's a shame that Smulders won't be joining the series full-time anytime soon. But "Nothing Personal" makes the most of her. Just when Hill thinks she's out, Melinda May pulls her back in; Hill joins up with smug Special Forces operative Glenn Talbot (guest-star Adrian Pasdar) to track down Coulson's rogue agents for her own purposes.
By the time Hill and Talbot arrive, Coulson and Co. have already stumbled onto the much bigger fish they need to fry. The drawing-room mystery of "What happened to Agent Koenig, and where are Ward and Skye?" doesn't last long; Simmons stumbles onto Koenig's body in the pantry, and Fitz discovers a hidden message that reads "WARD IS HYDRA." It's not exactly a Sherlock Holmes–level puzzle, but the group's trust in Ward is so unshakeable that they throw out a few other possibilities before finally accepting the inevitable.
Meanwhile, the only person who's in a position to stop Ward is Skye. There was a time when an episode centered on Skye and Ward — who were easily the most frustrating characters throughout the first half of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s freshman season — would have been a nightmare. It's been a long, long uphill climb to redeem Skye's character, but "Nothing Personal" proves all that careful rehabilitation has paid off. In a single episode, we see everything Skye is capable of doing: convincingly maintaining a cover story; devising a clever escape plan; demonstrating rage, sorrow, intelligence, and compassion. It's a tremendous opportunity, and Chloe Bennett makes the most of it, breathing life into a character that's finally as interesting as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. always told us she was.
Skye takes Ward back to the Los Angeles diner where she first met Mike Peterson in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s pilot, which she claims is the only place she can decrypt the S.H.I.E.L.D. hard drive. The process buys her enough time to send out an APB marking Ward as a wanted fugitive, but the former S.H.I.E.L.D. operative turns out to be too much for the L.A.P.D., and after Mike "Deathlok" Peterson shows up to help him out, he manages to abduct Skye for a more coercive interview.
The subsequent exchange gives both Ward and Skye the chance to lay out all the cards they've been holding close to their chests. Ward promises that for all his lies, his feelings for Skye are real, and he would never hurt her. Skye responds with anger and disgust. "You were right about one thing: I wouldn't like the real you," she says. "And I will never ever give you what you want." Even Mike Peterson takes the rare opportunity to get real, lamenting S.H.I.E.L.D.'s inability to protect his son from HYDRA.
But for all the back-and-forth of the big confrontation on the plane, the key exchange happened earlier in the episode, when Skye's critique of John Garrett doubled as an unsubtle attack on Ward. "Would you say he's disgusting?" said Skye in the diner, before revealing that she knew Ward was working for HYDRA. "Would you tell him he's a rotten, back-stabbing traitor? Would you tell him to rot in hell?" But when Deathlok triggers a heart attack that leaves Ward within seconds of death — and Skye personally gets the opportunity to ensure that he does end up rotting in hell — she falters, giving up the secret of the encrypted drive to save Ward's life.
Given Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s proven lack of interest in actually tackling the moral complexity of protecting the world, it's not a surprising choice, but it is a disappointing one: Can you imagine how much more tense that scene would have been for everyone involved if Skye had called HYDRA's bluff? I've long advocated that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. raises some thornier moral situations, and a more extreme version of this scene — in which Skye is forced to ignore her complex feelings about Ward, and his allies are forced to decide whether or not to sacrifice him — would have been a perfect opportunity.
Instead, Skye gives in, saving Ward's life (and giving HYDRA untold amounts of valuable information in the trade). With a key assist from Maria Hill, Coulson shows up to help Skye escape. The episode ends as our heroes and villains retreat to gather their strength for the bigger fight on the horizon.
It seems probable that we're on the most predictable path for Ward's character: Now that he realizes his "allies" at HYDRA have no qualms about dispatching him for the sake of their mission, he'll have a last-minute change of heart and make a noble sacrifice to save the rest of our heroes. (Pardon me while I stifle a yawn.) I'm intrigued to find out why Ward is so loyal to Garrett, but I'm also a little skeptical about the decision to dive into Ward's (presumably tragic) backstory in next week's episode. Villains tend to be a lot less frightening when their motivations are completely explained; just ask Darth Vader, Hannibal Lecter, or the Wicked Witch of the West.
But however these last two episodes play out, it's clear that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is playing for keeps. With just two episodes left in its first season, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has never felt fresher, and there's no reason to think the momentum will stop now.
Let's hit this week's S.H.I.E.L.D. points:
- Skye and Ward's cat-and-mouse game takes up most of this week's episode, but "Nothing Personal" ends with another bombshell: the reason why Coulson was kept in the dark about his own resurrection. According to a video Coulson personally recorded, T.A.H.I.T.I. originally began as a test program designed to revive a fallen Avenger. The secrecy was actually designed to protect him: "Subjects deteriorate mentally, including complete psychosis. Could be biology, could be the awareness of what was done. Memory replacement is the only thing that works." In short: Now that he knows the truth, our heroes might not like Coulson when he gets angry.
- How can you cheer up your fellow super-agents when they're confused and depressed over a mysteriously abandoned base? Make them pancakes! Truly, Fitz and Simmons are paramount to the success of this team.
- "I'm not a Nazi, I'm a spy. I had a job," says Ward in the lamest of his several failed defenses to Skye. Hey, Ward — you should really look up the Nuremberg trials and see how that went for those guys.
- Easter eggs for Marvel fans this week include passing references to Man-Thing, Natasha Romanoff, and the Red Skull. Even Pepper Potts showed up for a cameo (albeit unseen, unheard, and on the other end of a phone call — something tells me Gwyneth Paltrow doesn't do television).
- Lola, Coulson's beloved super-Corvette, takes flight for the first time since the pilot and takes a beating as Coulson and Skye mount their escape. Let's hope there's an auto-body shop that can replace that bullet-riddled windshield.
- Don't forget to check back here for next week's recap, when Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. sketches in the details of Ward's tragic background as it ramps up for the season finale.
Scott Meslow is the entertainment editor for TheWeek.com.