Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has a serious shipping problem. "A Fractured House" started on a strong note, as Hydra attacked the U.N. with a brutal new weapon while posing as S.H.I.E.L.D. It doubled down on the intrigue with the introduction of a promising new character: Senator Charles Ward (Tim Dekay), the allegedly sociopathic older brother of Grant Ward. It was all humming along just fine — and then Hunter and Bobbi popped in with their Mr. & Mrs. Smith routine and ruined everything.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has changed a lot since it premiered last year, but one thing has remained the same: its total inability to make romantic relationships either convincing or interesting. The show has toyed with all kinds of pairings: Ward and May, Ward and Skye, Fitz and Simmons, Triplett and Simmons, Coulson and his supremely uninteresting cellist ex-girlfriend … as soon as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. hints at romantic tension, all of its characters morph into shallow, hollow versions of themselves.
Unfortunately, Hunter and Bobbi haven't turned out any better. Earlier this season, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. handled Hunter's introduction with relative grace: He's both unpredictable and useful enough that Coulson is willing to risk the former for the latter. Last week, Adrianne Palicki made a top-notch debut as Bobbi, dispatching several Hydra agents with ruthless efficiency. We don't know either character particularly well, but it's obvious that they're extremely talented at what they do and proud of it.
So why do Hunter and Bobbi turn into bickering idiots as soon as they go out on a mission together? S.H.I.E.L.D. is purported to be Earth's sole non-superheroic defense against pretty much everything, but Hunter and Bobbi find time to have one of those canned, clichéd network-TV arguments that ends with them simultaneously shooting a rival dead during a high-stakes mission in Okinawa. It's more than annoying; it's a disservice to both characters, who are supposed to be über-competent field operatives. (To its credit, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is self-aware enough to have both Coulson and May complain about it — but if the show's characters find them annoying, there's a real risk that the audience might feel the same.)
The same problem plagues this season's molasses-slow B plot: the fallout from the severed bond between Fitz and Simmons. I sympathize with poor Iain De Caestecker, who's been tasked with playing Fitz as a mumbly, charisma-free lab rat all season. But whatever Fitz's fate, surely Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. can find something better to do with Elizabeth Henstridge, who spent the first part of the season showing how much more interesting Simmons could be when she was out in the field — and, more to the point, when she was far away from Fitz.
Fortunately, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. still handles non-romantic relationships pretty well. Captain America: The Winter Soldier forced the show's creative team to build the S.H.I.E.L.D.-Hydra conflict into its DNA, but it also provided the single best evolution in the show's narrative: the revelation that Grant Ward was a double agent, which instantly turned him from the show's least compelling character to its most.
Ward is at the heart of "A Fractured House," and he makes it count. Brett Dalton has spent the entire season in a single room, embodying Ward's frustration at being stuck, Hannibal Lecter–like, in a high-tech cell at the S.H.I.E.L.D. base. But where Fitz's confinement to a single location has often felt dull and restrictive, Ward's confinement has been liberating, allowing him to both prod and be prodded by the allies he betrayed last season. Ward versus Skye, Ward versus Fitz, Ward versus Coulson … now, those are relationships worth investing in.
The attack on the U.N. finally brings Ward's story to a head. Charles Ward wants to destroy S.H.I.E.L.D. once and for all, and he has the power and the resources. After weighing the options, Coulson concludes that Charles Ward might agree to back off in exchange for his brother, Grant. It's a smart play; by the end of the episode, Charles Ward is delivering an impassioned speech about the need to destroy Hydra, not S.H.I.E.L.D. "Just as good and evil existed within S.H.I.E.L.D., the same existed within my own home," he confesses, promising that Grant will be punished for his crimes.
But the truth is a lot more complicated than the black-and-whites of the speech would have you believe. Grant warns Skye that Charles is a twisted, psychopathic liar who can't be trusted. Of course, that's exactly the same thing Charles tells Coulson about Grant. "Underneath every lie he tells is just another lie," Charles warns. "I know what I am, but my brother, he's worse," says Grant.
Whom should our heroes trust: Charles, Grant, or neither? Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn't tip its hand. S.H.I.E.L.D. ends up siding with Charles Ward, but they fail to hold up their end of the bargain. As he's escorted from one cell to another, Grant manages to overcome his guards and obtain a gun, free to wreak havoc or make amends as he chooses.
It's an ending that points to the key thing Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s romantic relationships don't have: complexity. Ward's twisted obsession with Skye, which seems to be the driving force behind most of his actions, is genuinely interesting now — but it was a long, dull road from the flirtation they struck up in the show's early episodes.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has greatly benefitted from patience, and I'm inclined to give them a little slack as they chart the show's future — but if they're looking to juice up their relationships, maybe they should start with their own example.
- Mark Scarlotti, the knife-whip assassin who squares off against Melinda May, is better known to comic fans as Whiplash. You might remember an entirely different version of the Whiplash character from Iron Man 2, where he was played by Mickey Rourke.
- More Marvel references: Glenn Talbot describes the Chitauri alien attack that took place in 2012's The Avengers; May reveals that Scarlotti nearly killed Clint "Hawkeye" Barton a few years back; Hydra's "splinter bombs" were originally designed for Red Skull.
- More dubious: Charles Ward's name could be a reference to H.P. Lovecraft's The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (and if it is, our heroes should be careful around him).
- Rest in peace, Agent Walters, who was presumably not She-Hulk. We hardly knew ye.
- Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. viewers got a slightly longer version of the Avengers: Age of Ultron trailer that leaked online last week. The opening scene depicted a lighthearted (and inevitably unsuccessful) attempt to lift Thor's hammer by his fellow Avengers, before dovetailing into the grim chaos of the original trailer.
- In place of next week's episode, ABC will be airing a one-hour celebration of Marvel/infomercial hosted by Captain America: The Winter Soldier's Emily VanCamp. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will be back in two weeks.
Scott Meslow is the entertainment editor for TheWeek.com.