I try to go into each episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. with an open mind, but whatever I expected from "Ragtag," I didn't think we'd see Grant Ward snipe an adorable dog with a rifle. A few weeks ago, I suggested that murdering Patton Oswalt officially marked Ward's point of no return — but if any viewers were still holding out hope that Ward would be redeemed by the power of love or friendship, those hopes were obliterated by the bullet that put his faithful dog down.
That moment — effective and disturbing as it is — also crystallizes the tonal difficulties that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. continues to grapple with. "Ragtag" handles the moment as ambiguously as possible; we only get a brief glimpse of Buddy through the rifle scope, and you could probably argue that the scene was pure symbolism, designed merely to highlight the parallels between Ward's training and his decision to turn on Fitz and Simmons. But even implying the murder of an animal is one of the few things guaranteed to alienate a large portion of your viewership, and a brief Twitter search after the episode turned up a large number of parents who weren't exactly pleased about what their children had just seen.
Which raises a timely question as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. heads into next week's finale: Who is this show's intended audience, anyway? It's easy to imagine a version of this series that plays like the big-budget, live-action equivalent of a Saturday morning cartoon, backed up by lunchboxes, trading cards, and a complete set of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. action figures. It's equally easy to imagine a version of this series that's essentially 24 in the Marvel Universe, grappling with difficult questions about surveillance, government overreach, and the need to protect civil liberties versus the need to protect civilization.
I'm much more interested in the latter version of the series (and if you're taking the time to read this review, I suspect you feel the same way) — but the Old Yeller moment in "Ragtag" gave me a moment's pause. There's no question that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has improved tremendously since the Captain America: The Winter Soldier tie-in episode "Turn, Turn, Turn," but there's still a fundamental dissonance in the mood from scene to scene; even tonight's episode, which hinged on the warped psyche of Grant Ward, managed to squeeze in a goofy bit in which Coulson and May did their best Fitz and Simmons impressions.
With all that in mind, it's impressive that "Ragtag" felt so cohesive and entertaining. Once again, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has managed to move the story forward, deepen our understanding of a few characters, and pack in a few impressive few action sequences.
Last week's stinger teased that we'd finally learn the origins of Ward's treachery, and on that score "Ragtag" doesn't disappoint. In a series of flashbacks, "Ragtag" reveals why Ward is so deeply loyal to John Garrett, and the story is compelling (if not entirely convincing). Yes, Garrett saved Ward from juvenile hall — but after that, he dumped him in the woods with a dog and some vaguely survivalist platitudes about building his own shelter and killing his own food. When Garrett came back six months later, he complimented Ward before shooting a bunch of his supplies. If Ward learned anything from that ordeal, he should have learned to rely on himself and not anyone else — like, say, the psychopathic S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who left him to die in the woods in the first place, and who orders him to kill the dog who served as his unfailingly loyal companion for five years. If Ward had really taken Garrett's teachings to heart, he'd have abandoned, betrayed, or killed him as soon as it was convenient. Instead, by his own account, Ward has done everything Garrett has asked since the day they met.
While Ward is suffering through his thematically appropriate flashbacks, our heroes are in the midst of a whiz-bang mission that takes them to California and Cuba. While infiltrating the office of a HYDRA affiliate called Cybertek, Coulson and May make a surprising discovery: Garrett himself was the first Deathlok, as the test subject in the early experiments that led to Mike Peterson's modern version. As it turns out, that 1990 technology hasn't aged so well; Garrett is dying, and he needs the GH-325 that saved Coulson and Skye to bring himself back to health.
Coulson manages to track down the location HYDRA's hidden base, though he fails to realize it's disguised by the cheapest barber in Havana. Miles away, Fitz and Simmons track down the group's plane — and are suddenly confronted by Ward at gunpoint.
This is the first time any of our non-Skye heroes has encountered Ward face-to-face, which should make for some truly powerful drama — so it's a shame that we're stuck with Fitz, who's adorably/embarrassingly naïve for a secret agent. Despite all evidence to the contrary, and the opinions of literally everyone else on the team, Fitz believes that Ward's betrayal can be explained away by mind control or brainwashing. "We're friends, aren't we?" Fitz asks. "I know you're a good person."
Alas, as Ward has specifically reminded everybody multiple times, he is not a good person. In an echo of their past, Garrett gives Ward another challenge: kill Fitz and Simmons. Unfortunately for Fitz and Simmons, Ward's training has successfully made him believe that caring about anyone is a weakness — so while he's clearly not thrilled about it, he chases them into a locked crate and dumps it into the ocean as ordered.
"Ragtag" ends on a series of cliff-hangers. Garrett, who seemed to be on his deathbed, has a super-drug cocktail coursing through his veins. Fitz and Simmons are in a crate that's sinking somewhere off the Cuban coast. Raina has discovered the truth behind Skye's (apparently monstrous) parents, and thinks she might have a similar personal connection. Everyone is jonesing for revenge on HYDRA — but once they've stopped Garrett, Ward, and the rest of their fellow HYDRA operatives, what's left for our heroes? As Maria Hill said in last week's episode, it's over; whatever the outcome of this final mission, there's no S.H.I.E.L.D. for the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to go back to. There are plenty of questions left to be answered, and just one episode left to do it — so let's hope Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has saved a few major twists for its final hour.
Let's hit this week's S.H.I.E.L.D. points:
- Slimy HYDRA affiliate Ian Quinn (David Conrad) returns in the episode's stinger with a pitch for some high-ranking American generals. "How much did you spend to get bin Laden? $30 million? $50 million?" he asks, offering a force of a thousand HYDRA-created supersoldiers for a fraction of the cost. It's a surprisingly grounded reference point, though it always raises weird questions when Marvel weaves real politics into its distinctly non-realistic cinematic universe. Was Iron Man too busy to help out or something?
- Howling Commando descendant Agent Triplett brings out a goodie bag from the time his ancestor spent fighting alongside Captain America. The Q-style gadgets include a laser disguised as a cigarette, an EMP disguised as a joy buzzer, and a walkie talkie disguised as a quarter (which will almost certainly be the impetus for the rescue of Fitz and Simmons in next week's finale).
- I think all our remaining heroes will survive the season, but I wouldn't be totally shocked if either Fitz or Simmons were killed off next week. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has always had one quirky British scientist too many, and could use the emotional heft that would come with a major character death. Of the two, I think Fitz is the likelier candidate; the series probably wouldn't have bothered with teasing the Simmons-Triplett romance if it weren't going to pay off someday, and a noble sacrifice would be a fitting way to cap off Fitz's whole "coward to hero" arc.
- Extremis + GH-325 = whatever terrifying supervillain Garrett will evolve into in next week's finale. Which character will have the honor of taking him down? I'm betting on a last-minute redemptive act for Ward or Deathlok, but it's just as likely that Coulson will end up with the coup de grace.
- Let's all guess what weird alien race Skye is going to turn out to be. I call Spartoi!
- Don't forget to check back for next week's recap of an episode that will close out Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s freshman season and give fans a "special Marvel guest star."
Scott Meslow is the entertainment editor for TheWeek.com.