Who could have guessed that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s biggest problem would be the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.? Having dispatched with S.H.I.E.L.D. itself at the end of its first season, the Marvel drama has spent its sophomore year broadening its scope — and while the central cast has benefited from the new approach, it's the supporting cast that has truly shined. "The Things We Bury" shifted the focus to the Agents of Hydra: Daniel Whitehall, Grant Ward, and Kyle "the Doctor" MacLachlan. And by delving into the pasts of its central villains, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. didn't just move the story forward, it delivered one of its strongest episodes to date.
"The Things We Bury" begins by laying out the secret origins of Hydra boss Daniel Whitehall — or Werner Reinhardt, as he was originally called. To tell his story, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. bounces back to 1945, shortly after Red Skull's death in Captain America: The First Avenger. Like his Hydra cohorts, Whitehall's interests during World War II tended toward the experimental and the arcane. His pet project was the Diviner: a mysterious device that turns anyone who touches it to stone. Everyone, that is, except a woman who was inexplicably unharmed by it.
Whitehall was intrigued, but his experiment was cut short when he was arrested by none other than Peggy Carter, who insisted on his indefinite captivity. It was the worst kind of torture for a person with Whitehall's amoral ambitions — ignored and forgotten, unable to pursue his research as the world moves on without him.
Courtesy of director Milan Cheylov, Whitehall's 44 years in captivity pass in a riveting montage that depicts the passage of time through books, chess, plants, and toilet. In one minute, we watch Whitehall become an old, wheelchair-bound man in his ever-evolving jail cell. But despite Peggy Carter's best efforts, Whitehall's decades of patience pay off: By 1989, Hydra's influence within S.H.I.E.L.D. is strong enough that he's excused for his crimes and permitted to rejoin society.
While the intervening years have aged Whitehall, his brain is as sharp as it was in 1945, and he goes right back to his life's work — discovering, to his shock, that the woman who survived touching the Diviner hasn't aged a day since. "Everyone deserves a second chance, but few are willing to do what it takes to earn one," he says. His second chance? Stealing so many organs and fluids from the apparently immortal woman. He grows younger, gaining back the decades he lost in prison, while she dies on the operating table. In the years that followed, he developed a power that inspired countless young talents to place their faith in Hydra — including Sunil Bakshi, the right-hand man who bites down on a suicide pill when it's clear that S.H.I.E.L.D. has him cornered.
Whitehall's obsession with the Diviner has been the engine driving much of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s second season, and it also led to the introduction of the second season's most intriguing new character: Skye's father, a (still-unnamed) character played by Kyle MacLachlan. MacLachlan's manic, twitchy energy has been exactly what Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. needed: a legitimately threatening villain who falls outside the über-confident, über-professional template set by Hydra. When he confronts Agent Coulson at the end of the episode, MacLachlan blows his own cover almost instantly but improvises a warped kind of hostage situation that allows him to escape unscathed.
MacLachlan's own goals have led him to ally with Hydra in the quest to obtain the full power of the Diviner. "I have nothing to lose," he explains to Whitehall. "I've lost everything important to me, and I want to kill those who took it and finally be reunited with my family. In the afterlife."
Unfortunately for Hydra, "those who took it" turns out to be a veiled reference to Whitehall. The ageless young woman who was killed by Whitehall was Skye's mother — the same woman whose death sent MacLachlan into a murderous rage. He may be unpredictable, but he clearly has a plan, and both Hydra and S.H.I.E.L.D. fall onto his list of targets.
It's a kill-'em-all mentality that also applies to Grant Ward, who spends "The Things They Bury" seeking revenge against the people who triggered own inner demons. Every time it seems like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. might attempt to rehabilitate Ward, the show takes him down an even darker path. His legitimately chilling subplot in "The Things We Bury" saw him confronting his brother Christian over the roles they played in a traumatizing incident surrounding their brother Thomas, who nearly drowned after being forced into a well on their family's estate. Ward claims Christian forced him to do it; Christian claims Ward did it, then tricked himself into blaming Christian out of guilt. "You can't reconcile all the ugly things you do with the hero you so desperately want to become," he sneers.
In the most literal iteration of the episode's title, Ward kidnaps Christian and forces him to dig up the long-buried well in which Thomas almost died. Threatened with being pushed into the well and left to die, Christian relents. "I wanted him dead. I'm sorry," he cries. "Thomas was the only one mother didn't torture, and Dad always let her do it. She loved him so much. It had to end. I wanted her to feel our pain, but I didn't have the courage to do it myself."
Given the intensity of his breakdown, it's likely that Christian was telling the truth about how much he manipulated Ward — but the series doesn't give us the comfort a flashback or an independent source, so there's always the possibility that he was just telling Ward what he wanted to hear in a last-ditch effort to survive.
In any case, Ward gets the revenge he thinks he wants: He kills both Christian and their parents, then stages a murder-suicide for which Christian will be blamed. It's a horrific final legacy for Christian, who prided himself on his public image as a senator. It's also a final act of legacy-torching for Ward, who has killed or betrayed every possible father figure the show has introduced — except for Daniel Whitehall, whom he joins, alongside Kyle MacLachlan, in the episode's closing scene.
And so we end with our three villains in a room together — unless, of course, two of them aren't villains at all. How far will Whitehall go in his search for the ultimate weapon? When will Kyle MacLachlan pull the trigger on his grand plan? And what does Ward really want, anyway? Our heroes' motivations are crystal-clear, but our villains are like Russian nesting dolls of violence, treachery, and deceit. "The Things We Bury" pulled back a few layers, but Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. clearly has much more to reveal in the weeks to come.
- As much as I enjoyed delving into Whitehall's dark past, I was a little distracted by his multiple interrogations with Peggy Carter. When it comes to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, synergy has always had plenty of creative virtues — but it's awfully convenient that Whitehall's backstory doubles as an embedded advertisement for ABC's Agent Carter.
- On the other hand, the tossed-off reference to then-undersecretary Pierce — the S.H.I.E.L.D. leader played by Robert Redford in Captain America: The Winter Soldier — was the perfect way to throw in a cookie without distracting from the story at hand.
- Skye's unnamed mother was played by Dichen Lachman, best known to Joss Whedon fans as Dollhouse's Sierra.
- This week in Fitzsimmons: Fitz practices muscle memory, Simmons finds a file. I'm sure they'll do something interesting someday.
Scott Meslow is the entertainment editor for TheWeek.com.