I'll say this for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: It knows how to do a cliffhanger. This week's "The Only Light in the Darkness" ratchets up the stakes with one pivotal plot development: Skye now knows that Ward is working for HYDRA — but if he figures it out, he'll kill her. It's a big moment for the series, and it probably could have been drawn out longer. But with just three episodes to go this season, it makes sense for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to stop dropping all its bombshells now — and after irritating viewers with a slow start, the series feels poised for a comparatively big finish.
After each member of his team passes a brief lie-detector test administered by Agent Walter Koenig (Patton Oswalt), Coulson gets back to the mission at hand: tracking down the villains and supervillains freed by HYDRA. To that end, he takes off with Triplett, Fitz, and Simmons, and leaves Skye, Ward, May, and Koenig to hold down the fort at the S.H.I.E.L.D. base.
The heroes who aren't on the mission thin out quickly. May takes off after concluding that Coulson will never forgive her or trust her again, which saves Ward the hassle of putting a bullet in her. Koenig isn't so lucky. Suddenly, Skye and Ward are alone, having the beginnings of a tryst in a romantic top-secret base to call their very own. "There are things about me you wouldn't like if you knew," confesses Ward, before revealing a minor detail from his sad childhood instead of the whole "secretly being a HYDRA operative" thing. It's not enough to turn Skye off, but the blood she finds on his face is — and it's not long before she finds Koenig's body and discovers the truth.
It's safe to say that Skye goes through a range of emotions in "The Only Light in the Darkness." In general, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has gotten much better at the "show, don't tell" school of character development, and Chloe Bennett deserves credit for much of the episode's emotional weight: her relief and attraction to Ward, her shock and horror at Ward's betrayal, and the resourceful will she needs to playing along with him. It's a strong narrative, and it sets up a fascinating dynamic for next week's episode, when Skye will need to be convincing enough to keep the ruse alive until she can get the drop on Ward.
Unfortunately, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. decided to counterbalance all the promising narrative developments in the Skye/Ward story with a case-of-the-week centered on one of the show's weakest villains yet: Impossibly Bland Energy-Stealing Man. (Okay, okay, it was Marcus "Blackout" Daniels — but I'd be shocked if anyone who wasn't already familiar with the Marvel character could even remember his name.) Blackout has never been a top-tier Marvel villain, but "The Only Light in the Darkness" doesn't even bother establishing his personality. Instead, he's an uninteresting and virtually undefined bogeyman, with shaky-looking CGI powers and an obsession with Coulson's long-awaited cellist girlfriend, Audrey Nathan.
The problems with Blackout also extend to Audrey, whose introduction has been highly anticipated by fans since her existence was first teased in a throwaway line in The Avengers. On paper, Amy Acker is terrific casting — but her big debut doesn’t leave much of an impression. It's not that there's anything wrong with Acker performance; it's that the story doesn't give her anything interesting to do. Acker, who was so magnetic in Joss Whedon projects like Angel and Much Ado About Nothing, is stuck alternating between "terrified" and "mournful" without the opportunity to do anything non-clichéd with either.
Of course, the person who Audrey's been mourning is alive and within 30 feet of her the whole time — but because he concludes that she's already begun "healing" (and definitely not because this plot requires a ridiculous plot contrivance) Coulson refuses to walk into the room and tell Audrey he's not dead. Instead, our heroes use Audrey to bait Blackout into showing up before blasting him with enough light to "overload his system." Audrey is knocked aside, and Coulson sticks around just long enough to mess with her head before he runs away again. (But don't worry, she's still healing!)
It's fairly obvious that this whole underwhelming scenario was cooked up just so everyone else would have something to do while we focused on Skye and Ward, and the idea of using the time to fill in some backstory isn't a bad one — even if the execution was fairly lacking. But there's not a whole lot of time left for this show to fill, and I'd be surprised if we see another episode like this before the first season ends. With three hours left, there are plenty of loose ends to be addressed: the whereabouts of Garrett and his cohorts, the full story behind T.A.H.I.T.I., Skye's mysterious parents. We'll see if our heroes (and this show) are ready to sprint to the finish.
Let's hit this week's S.H.I.E.L.D. points:
- Simmons's flirtation with Triplett continues to blossom, to the immense irritation of Fitz (whose own brief thing for Skye seems to have been brushed under the rug). When he gets the chance to express his true feelings, he punts, saying he just "hates change." Fitz is so boring.
- How long will Melinda May spend wandering through Canada instead of working alongside Coulson, who's about to need her help more than ever? I give it one episode. There's a reason they call her the Cavalry.
- In Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing, Amy Acker played Beatrice, the niece of Clark Gregg's Leonato. See, HBO? Networks can do incest, too.
- Eric Koenig's gruesome death pretty much guarantees that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. won't be giving Ward a redemption arc. Who's going to forgive the guy who murdered Patton Oswalt?
- List of items our heroes would want to have on a desert island: a machete (May), a cell phone (Triplett), Simmons (Fitz), the TARDIS (Simmons), a laptop (Skye), a pistol (Ward).
- Don't forget to check back in for next week's recap, when Agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) returns for the first time since Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s pilot for the ominiously titled "Nothing Personal."
Scott Meslow is the entertainment editor for TheWeek.com.