We kind of expected Captain America: The Winter Soldier to give Agents of SHIELD a shot in the arm. But we couldn't have dared hoped for what we actually got: An emotionally powerful episode in which these pristine characters got dragged through some mud. Spoilers ahead...
The scene above was one of the really nice surprises of the episode: a raw confrontation between Coulson and May, in which Coulson genuinely seems hurt. But there were a number of others, including Fitz crying and telling Bill Paxton that he wants to be a big part of making Paxton pay for his crimes. And I even kind of liked Ward and Skye sharing a special moment before Ward goes to beat up a dozen armed men.
So... in last night's episode, we jump right into the big reveals from Winter Soldier, namely that SHIELD was compromised by Hydra, the evil super-science organization that Captain America supposedly destroyed back in World War II. And to Marvel's credit, they jump in with both feet — instead of trying to drag it out over a few weeks, and wait for everybody in the world who hasn't seen Winter Soldier to catch up, they ripped the band-aid off right away.
Hydra sends out a not-terribly-well-coded message on all frequencies telling its operatives within SHIELD to step out into the light and kill everybody else. And nobody knows whom they can trust, especially since Coulson just discovered that Melinda May has an encrypted line in the cockpit she's been using to spy on the others. And then they find out that Fitz was setting up his own encrypted line to talk to Simmons about that miracle drug that Coulson didn't want them talking about. Plus Victoria Hand decides that Coulson and his team must be Hydra because of all the ways that Coulson has played into the enemy's hands lately — so she tries to kill them, causing Coulson to decide that Hand must be Hydra instead.
It's basically your standard "wacky misunderstanding" set-up, straight out of Three's Company. ("Wait, you thought I was a double-agent? I thought you were a double-agent! Let's hug it out.") But it works, largely because the Hydra reveal is so huge and insane that it makes sense that nobody would trust anybody, and also there have been enough smaller screw-ups and betrayals lately that there's good reason for mistrust.
The thread running through "Turn, Turn, Turn" is the question of whether you shoot first without asking any questions. Victoria Hand decides to kill Bill Paxton, plus all of Coulson's team except Coulson, instead of waiting to find out if they're actually Hydra. Coulson and his gang, in turn, hatch a scheme to get at Victoria Hand and take her out. It's only when Coulson pauses and decides to look before he leaps that he uncovers the real traitor, who's Bill Paxton. (Sorry, I can't remember the name of Paxton's character, and he's so distractingly Bill Paxton-y that he has no other identity in my mind. In any case, I totally called it ages ago that Bill Paxton would be the bad guy.)
The thing hanging over this episode is the fact that our guys only just shot the wrong guy, last week — the faux clairvoyant, played by Brad Dourif — and Ward is finally starting to feel a bit of remorse for his insane stupidity. Coulson is the one who's like, we only just made this mistake, so let's pause this time.
Because running around shooting each other in a panic is exactly what Hydra wants the last remaining uncorrupted SHIELD agents to do — and it's also what Hydra people would do, in any case. It's the Hydra way.
Our team also plays into Hydra's hands in a few other ways — Bill Paxton is the one who suggests they should wipe the jet's memory banks before they leave, and incidentally back up all the sensitive info about how to weaponize various artifacts onto a secure hard drive, which he can presumably nab at the earliest opportunity. After Paxton suggests it, Ward is the one who reinforces that idea, until it becomes solid in everybody else's mind. Plus in the course of fighting Victoria Hand's crew at the Hub, they basically blow up the computers and power systems at one of the last uncompromised SHIELD facilities. Good job, everyone.
But like I said, this episode doesn't just pack a lot of decent plot twists and some fun action — there's real emotional punch, too. Like the fact that even after Melinda May all but confesses she's in love with Coulson, he keeps her cuffed for pretty much the whole episode. And the notion that Coulson's team was hand-picked by May to be able to deal with Coulson if he went haywire is pretty intense, too.
Also, the scenes between Simmons and Agent Triplett were pretty nice, including how intense he got about the idea that Simmons is sitting on a magical cure-all for gunshot wounds, when Agent Blake was just gunned down last week. Which is an excellent point that nobody else has brought up, and Simmons only sort of has a good answer to that. Also, Triplett offering her a knife so he can trust her was cute. Those two are becoming kind of a cute couple.
So then the episode ends with SHIELD in ruins and Fury presumed dead. And almost all of the facilities are destroyed (like the Triskelion) or compromised. Except for the Fridge, that huge super-prison, where all of the supervillains that were created in previous episodes are stored. And that's where Victoria Hand is heading, with Bill Paxton as her prisoner and Ward as Paxton's escort.
And that's when Ward suddenly changes sides and shoots Hand and her guys in the head, because he's secretly a Hydra agent. Or is he? I'm guessing this is a trick, or a fake-out. Maybe he and Hand arranged this earlier, and the bullets were fakes. Much as I would like Ward to turn out to be evil — because that would make him a lot more interesting — this very episode spent too long dwelling on his remorse for shooting the Fauxvoyant and his feelings of betrayal towards May and his desire to meet Skye for a drink when all this is over. So while I'm hoping that Ward really is a Hydra agent, life is never that good to us.
All in all, though, this was a really great episode — and the first time, except maybe "Fzzzt," when this show had emotional weight along with some fun plot wrangling.