Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s mid-season finale, "Maveth," is a textbook example of how sloppy plotting can derail an otherwise promising hour of television.
The story picks up where last episode left off, with Fitz serving as Ward's unwilling guide to the alien planet on the other side of the portal. Ward wants to fulfill Hydra's newly revealed core mission: Find "Death," the confusingly nicknamed creature that allegedly destroyed the planet, and bring it back to Earth. Fitz wants to stop Ward, of course, and rescue Will, Simmons's onetime lover. And unbeknownst to either of them, Coulson is following close behind, hellbent on killing Ward.
This setup has all the makings of a classic three-pronged conflict, as each character pursues a radically different goal. When Fitz manages to rendezvous with Ward, though, "Maveth" begins straining credibility. Ward makes a series of ludicrous errors that seem to solely exist so Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. can push the plot toward the direction it wants to go.
Fitz convinces Ward that Will is the only man who can safely guide them to the return portal. So far, so good. But as soon as the motley crew hits the road together, Ward hangs back about 15 feet behind Fitz and Will, giving them plenty of time to formulate a very successful escape plan.
For this story line to work, you have to pretend that Ward isn't supposed to be one of the deadliest, best-trained spies in the world. You have to assume he's a total idiot. Why does he allow Fitz and Will to walk alone together? Why doesn't he hear them mumbling about their escape plan? It's such a glaring flaw, I began to assume that Ward and Will were secretly in cahoots. Are they luring Fitz into a trap?
The real answer turned out to be much simpler, if not nearly as satisfying: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. needed to separate Fitz and Ward so it could unleash all the twists it did have planned. On the brink of escape, "Will" reveals that he isn't Will at all. It's Death, using Will's corpse as a reanimated puppet vessel. (If that isn't alarming enough, Death seems to have access to Will's memories, too.) As Death uses Will's body to stumble toward the portal, Fitz shoots him — first with a handgun, and then with a flare gun, which finally puts him down. What Fitz doesn't see is Death emerging from Will's corpse, like some kind of Alex Mack–style ooze puddle.
It's a creepy revelation with intriguing implications for the show's roster of villains, but the really interesting conflict is the one between the two humans on the planet. It's unnerving to see how bloodthirsty Coulson has become. He vowed to avenge the murder of Rosalind Price, and he intends to keep that vow. From the moment Coulson gets the drop on Ward, it's clear that at least one of them will die — and given that Clark Gregg is the ostensible star of the series, it's no great surprise that Ward doesn't make it.
As inevitable as Ward's death may have been, I wasn't prepared to watch Coulson use the full strength of his robot hand to snap Ward's sternum, leaving him gasping his final breath on the alien planet. As Coulson and Ward reemerge on the other side of the portal, it should feel like a near-total victory for our heroes, but the cold-blooded murder lingers over the celebration like a nasty hangover.
Of course, this wouldn't be an Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. finale without one last, crazy twist. In its final moments, "Maveth" throws out a doozy of a cliffhanger. As Gideon Malick drives off to his next nefarious plan, his car is interrupted by none other than Death itself — or what appears to be Death itself — which is using Grant Ward's reanimated corpse as its newest vessel.
This is a clever way to extend the life of a villain who had otherwise run his course. (And, more practically, it's a clever way to give Brett Dalton something to do for the full duration of his contract as a series regular.) When Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. comes back, our heroes will square off against the most intriguing rogues gallery the show has ever introduced: Death, Gideon Malick, and Lash, who murders a full roster of Hydra's freeze-dried Inhumans before fleeing into the night.
When it comes to villains, though, I'm most interested in the possibilities raised by the episode's last shot of Coulson, as he stares at Fitz with an uncomfortably cold look on his face. There's no coming back from what he did, and Fitz knows it. How long before the rest of the team catches on, too?
In superhero story after superhero story, the golden rule that separates the good guys from the bad guys is the same: Don't kill anyone. Ward was undeniably evil and exceptionally dangerous. It's compelling to buy into an "ends justify the means" argument for killing him. And yet, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. gave us a mid-season finale in which our alleged hero used his robot hand to crush a dying man's windpipe. I'm with Fitz. I'll never be able to look at Coulson the same way again, and I think that's exactly how Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. wants me to feel. If Coulson really has crossed over to the dark side, how long will it be before his team is forced to turn on the him? It's a fascinating question, and one I hope Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will tackle when it returns next year.
- Another question that nagged at me: If Death's goal is to go through the portal, why does it bother with the whole "pretending to be Will" thing? Couldn't it just go along with Ward's plan and benefit from Hydra's extra firepower? If it needed Fitz to find the portal, then why did it reveal itself at all?
- Back on Earth, the introduction of Daisy's ragtag band of Secret Warriors is curiously subdued. On the other hand, we do see how useful Inhuman superpowers can be when they work in tandem — particularly when Joey discovers he can survive being shot by a bullet.
- As far as I can tell, the names on the Inhuman tanks — B. Robinson, V. Ramirez, R. Gray, et al. — have no direct analogues in Marvel comics. This is probably for the best, since Lash kills them all by the end of the episode anyway.
- "Cut off one head and blah blah blah blah." Fitz is as sick of Hydra's smug self-aggrandizement as I am.
- "I'll be damned. Tatooine." It sounds like Coulson will be first in line for Star Wars: The Force Awakens next week.
- Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will return from its mid-season break on March 8. Thanks, as always, for following along with these recaps. See you next spring!
Scott Meslow is the entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.