It was going to be difficult for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to top last week's "Turn, Turn, Turn," which ended with S.H.I.E.L.D. in tatters and the revelation that one of our heroes had been a villain all along. That's the kind of glacial shift that necessitates a breather, so it's not quite a criticism when I say that tonight's middle-of-the-road "Providence" felt like the transitional episode it was — a comedown from the twisty events of last week's episode, and a table-setter for next week's promising-looking "The Only Light in the Darkness."
"Providence" splits its time almost evenly between our heroes and our villains, who have vastly different experiences at two distinct top-secret S.H.I.E.L.D. bases. The newly released John Garrett — better known to his more gullible henchmen as "The Clairvoyant" — is free to launch the next phase of his plan: infiltrating a S.H.I.E.L.D. base called the Fridge and stealing all the dangerous, occasionally alien goodies inside.
Garrett embarks on his mission with the help of his newly uncovered mole, Grant Ward. Ward clearly studied at the Star Trek school of villainy: Now that he's a bad guy, he's no longer interested in shaving. Since Garrett's introduction in "T.A.H.I.T.I.," we've heard that he taught Ward everything he knows, and now that they've each been unmasked, we can finally see the full impact of all that training. To gain access to the Fridge, the duo stages a clever gambit by pretending they're under fire from HYDRA agents, which convinces the reluctant guards to let them in.
Of course, Garrett and Ward are the ones who staged the HYDRA attack in the first place — and once they're in the door, it's no great effort to bring the entire base down. (Of course, the TV show's production budget also ensures that the mission goes off without too many gunshots or explosions.) "This ought to keep Coulson busy for a while," says Garrett, gleefully, as he allows an entire cell block of S.H.I.E.L.D. prisoners to escape. But the real prize comes with the gadgets S.H.I.E.L.D. has acquired over the years, including a plasma particle beam and the world's only known supply of gravitonium.
Agent Coulson's mission is considerably less interesting, if only because we know where it's going before it even begins. (Seriously, ABC, cool it with the spoilery promos.) S.H.I.E.L.D. has officially been labeled a terrorist organization, and hilariously mustachioed Air Force colonel Glen Talbot (guest star Adrian Pasdar) is sending a "peacekeeping force" to interrogate the remaining agents. That's enough to set off Coulson's warning bells, and a ridiculously convenient plot contrivance means that a mysterious set of coordinates literally appear right in front of him.
Coulson being Coulson, he interprets this as a sign that Nick Fury is still alive. (He's right, of course, but it's still an incredible leap of logic.) He insists on leading his team to the coordinates before it's too late, and after the requisite hemming and hawing inevitably ends with Coulson getting his way, they end up at a mysterious mountain base manned by S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Eric Koenig (guest star Patton Oswalt).
Again, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has forced one of its characters into a position that seriously makes me question his ability to protect the world from Chitauri or Dark Elves or whatever else might try to kill us. On a character level, Coulson's crisis of conscience makes perfect sense; he's worked for S.H.I.E.L.D. since high school, and made innumerable sacrifices to keep their secrets. But as sympathetic as he may be, there's no real excuse forcing his sheep-like underlings to fly into the middle of nowhere — and with no fuel to return home — just to chase down his last, desperate lead.
May suggests that any message Coulson receives on a S.H.I.E.L.D. channel is just as likely to lead them into a HYDRA ambush. It's an extremely valid point — but unfortunately, the show barely even bothers to feint at the idea that Coulson's judgment might actually be wrong this time. Instead, Coulson delivers the inspirational speech that will save ABC from needing to change the show's title: "We are not 'Agents of Nothing.' We are Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.!" His misguided recklessness is rewarded with a new ally, a bunch of classified information, and a safe place to lie low.
Of course, if HYDRA gets its way, the "safe place to lie low" thing won't be true for much longer. Skye calls Ward and tells him exactly where our heroes are located, and he shows up at the door, ready to wreak some havoc. (Again: S.H.I.E.L.D. really needs to work on this "top secret" thing.)
With just four episodes left in the season, it's clear that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is gearing up for some kind of climax — but what will it be? In the past two episodes, Ward has done some seriously evil stuff — like, say, murdering two S.H.I.E.L.D. security guards by shooting them execution-style — and I'm really, really hoping that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. isn't laying the groundwork for some kind of redemptive arc as the first season draws to a close. It's painfully easy to project where this could be going: Ward realizes he made a horrible mistake when he betrayed the team, switches back to the good guys, and sacrifices himself to save our heroes and take down Garrett.
The "one last heroic act" turn is something audiences have seen over and over again — but if Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is brave enough to take Ward down a darker path, it will gain a lot more in the bargain. One of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s biggest, most consistent flaws has been its weirdly Pollyanna approach to global security. As Ward correctly notes, Coulson's team is made up of people he thought he could help — a weakness that Ward was easily able to exploit. That's not the kind of flaw that makes your characters more humane or relatable; it's the kind of flaw that makes viewers question whether they're smart enough to do their jobs.
When our heroes inevitably discover Ward's treachery, it shouldn't make Ward change — it should make our heroes change. The last time this team realized they had a traitor in their ranks, they yelled at her for an episode before giving her a "get out of jail free" card. Despite the improvements of the past few weeks, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. still lacks the stakes that these life-or-death missions require. Ward's betrayal should be an unforgettable, irredeemable act — and it should push our heroes to reconsider everything they thought they believed, about the world and themselves, in the episodes to come.
Let's hit this week's S.H.I.E.L.D. points:
- So much for synergy: Despite the record-setting box-office earned by Captain America: The Winter Soldier, last week's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was actually the lowest-rated in the show's history. Still, ABC clearly knows that last week's "Turn, Turn, Turn" was a cut above the rest; "Providence" aired an hour later than Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s usual time slot, which instead featured a repeat screening of "Turn, Turn, Turn" for anyone who missed it the first time around.
- Hey, remember when everybody was really obsessed with finding out who Skye's parents were? Good times.
- It looks like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is already getting ready to have Agent Triplett (B. J. Britt) replace Ward in our lineup of regulars. Triplett isn't well-defined enough yet to make much of an impression, but I like the idea of an Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. that isn't afraid to shake up the roster — and if the show gets picked up for a second season, I'd love to see more of it.
- Eric Koenig was a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Hitler Youth when he was originally introduced in Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos in 1966. (He eventually became disenchanted with Hitler and joined the Allies.) I think it's safe to assume pretty much none of that backstory will factor into Patton Oswalt's performance on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
- Lots of old guest villains rearing their heads again in tonight's episode, including Raina (Ruth Negga) and Ian Quinn (David Conrad). Unfortunately, neither Graviton nor Blizzard put in an appearance. Must be at some other S.H.I.E.L.D. base.
- Don't forget to check back in for next week's recap, when Amy Acker guest stars as Coulson's oft-mentioned cellist ex-girlfriend.
Scott Meslow is the entertainment editor for TheWeek.com.