Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has a Grant Ward problem. This week's episode is absolutely jammed with interesting stories: Coulson grills Rosalind on her true motives, Fitz and Simmons get real, Lincoln and May clear up all their leftover tension, Bobbi and Hunter goof around in the field.
But the episode's key arc, and the one that seems likeliest to drive the engine for future developments, is the one that pushes Ward, our S.H.I.E.L.D.-agent-turned-Hydra baddie, into the center of the narrative. "Many Heads, One Tale" advances the S.H.I.E.L.D. vs. Hydra narrative in some very intriguing ways — even as it raises questions about whether Grant Ward is truly vital to this story anymore.
To be fair, this type of creative yo-yo-ing has been a part of Ward's character from the very beginning. Throughout most of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s first season, Ward was one of the show's least appealing characters — a blandly cocky young S.H.I.E.L.D. agent whose abilities bordered on superhuman, complete with a de rigueur tragic childhood.
And then, suddenly, the first season's late-breaking twist — which revealed that Ward had been a deep-cover Hydra agent all along — instantly made him into the show's most unpredictable and interesting character. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s second season got a lot of mileage out of this reveal, which only got more interesting as it became clear that the series would eschew a standard-issue redemption arc in favor of a longer and more complicated narrative. I never really bought his love story with Agent 33, or his obsessive revenge quest against S.H.I.E.L.D. for her death — but at the very least, putting Ward at the head of a rebooted Hydra sounded promising.
But here we are, almost halfway done with season three, and "Grant Ward, evil superspy" feels like the least interesting of S.H.I.E.D.'s myriad allies, which have grown to include a shadowy mustache-twirler, an Inhuman-killing Inhuman, and a crazy monster on the other side of a bizarre portal.
Part of it is that Ward's stories are almost invariably disconnected from the larger narrative, so they often feel both peripheral and undercooked. Part of it is that Ward is simply too capable for anyone else to seem like they pose a serious threat. And part of it is that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. tends to fall back on the same kinds of stories for Ward over and over again. "Many Heads, One Tale" features another variation of a scene Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has done several times before: Ward flirts with a beautiful (and instantly enamored) woman before revealing that he has some sinister motive. (This time, it's ripping open the exit door on a commercial airline flight before leaping out with a parachute.)
If Ward is going to remain a vital part of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., he needs to keep moving forward, and his final encounter with Gideon Malick is a hopeful sign that the series might have something more interesting in store for him. "You're a smart predator, but you don't live on top of the food chain," warned Gideon at the beginning of "Many Heads, One Tale." By the time Ward has killed a half-dozen of his men and popped up in a secret vault, Gideon has changed his tune, complimenting Ward as a possible "second head" for Hydra while delivering a grandiose speech about the organization's long, dark history. The problem, of course, is that Gideon is already a more interesting villain than Ward has been all season. How many heads of the Hydra do we really need? Doesn't the metaphor imply that it wouldn't be that big a deal if Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. lopped one off?
Unfortunately, Ward's ascension up the Hydra food chain isn't equaled by Gideon's other alleged protégé: Rosalind Price, whose connection with Gideon is less sketchy than it might have seemed last week. After an interrogation from Coulson that moves beyond their usual sexy-spy foreplay and into some actual spy stuff, Rosalind reveals that she's truly in the dark about ATCU's weird Inhuman experiments, which seem to be aimed at turning as many people into Inhumans as possible.
I'm a little disappointed Rosalind didn't turn out to be a part of whatever grand evil plan Gideon is working on through the ATCU. As a character, Rosalind is more interesting as a mastermind than a sap; when it comes to Coulson, she's more interesting as a sinister adversary than a soggy love interest/ally (particularly when she's saddled with uncharacteristically groan-worthy lines about how Coulson is as cold and unfeeling as his fake hand). Still, I have faith that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has more planned for Rosalind; she's too well-drawn to be a total dupe, and she'll surely have an interesting role to play in whatever S.H.I.E.L.D. does next.
And the episode's final twist — which reveals that Will's portal-exploring Project Distant Star and Hydra are just two aspects of a much larger, much older group designed to serve that mysterious death creature on the other side of the portal — is delightfully bonkers. I never really expected Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to pivot into Lovecraftian-style horror, but hey — if the show really wants to dig into ancient cults, blood sacrifices, and whatever that crazy Inhuman on the other side of the portal turns out to be, I am totally there. That's a villain we can all get behind.
- Any chance there's a second twist coming, in which Rosalind is an actual baddie who just tricked Coulson into trusting her by pretending to be Gideon's victim? I suspect that might be one too many double-crosses, but I'd love to see it happen.
- For what it's worth, there is a basis for Hydra's centuries-long history in Marvel comics. Per 2010's S.H.I.E.L.D. No. 1, the organization's origins can be traced to an Egyptian warrior named Imhotep, whose proficiency with weaponry inspired the founding of a group called the Brotherhood of the Spear, which established the basic Hydra ideals of sneakily controlling every aspect of human development.
- Hunter and Bobbi's goofy infiltration of the ATCU was a welcome moment of levity in a pretty dark episode. At this point, I'm sure the duo could carry that proposed spin-off, but I'd much rather they stay right here.
- Was that the same axe that chopped off Coulson's hand I saw hanging in a place of honor on his office wall?
- "Many Heads, One Tale" also offered some much-needed catharsis for FitzSimmons shippers, as the duo finally kissed after a heated (and accurate!) argument about how Fitz is too nice. As always, it's easy to sympathize with each of their frustration in an impossible situation. Imagine being able to say "the bloody cosmos wants us apart" and having it actually be kind of true.
- On the other hand: No, I still don't care about the Daisy/Lincoln romance. Keep it up if you must, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but you're going to need to do better than a brief, awkward conversation.
- In two weeks (after a brief pause for the week of Thanksgiving): Ward launches the first big phase of his grand revenge scheme against S.H.I.E.L.D.
Scott Meslow is the entertainment editor for TheWeek.com.