The more bedraggled and miserable the Agents of SHIELD get, the more watchable the show seems to be. That's not much of a surprise — misery is usually more fun to watch than comfort — but what's especially great is how these characters have seemed to come to life as their world dies. Spoilers abound...
So Agents of SHIELD still doesn't feel like a Joss Whedon show, although it's starting to remind me more of what I liked about Dollhouse, the last show that Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen had a big hand in. In particular, the apocalyptic feeling of the "SHIELD falls apart story" reminds me of the two flash-forwarding season finales, a wee bit. In a good way.
In "Providence," SHIELD has actually been declared a terrorist organization and it's gone public, thanks to Black Widow releasing all those secret documents at the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Everybody knows about SHIELD and thinks it's pure evil. Coulson thinks he and his team can hunker down at the Hub for a while and try to regroup, but Colonel Glenn Talbot (whom longtime Hulk readers will remember as Betty's one-time husband) announces that he's sending a "peacekeeping force" to the Hub to take over. Which means the Hub is screwed, and they have to flee in a hurry.
Unfortunately, once they're airborne, the "bus" has sprung a fuel leak, and they can't exactly refuel it just anywhere. Plus every spy agency in the world is going to be looking for them, and they have to stay off the radar, literally. They wind up just flying around aimlessly, while Coulson tries to suss out their next move.
Back when I did a phone interview with SHIELD showrunner Jeffrey Bell, I wanted to know two things: How soon SHIELD would turn evil, and how soon we would see Coulson fall apart.
And now that SHIELD is officially evil (more or less) we're finally getting to see Coulson lose his shit, and it's as good as I'd hoped. Coulson is clinging to the idea that SHIELD still matters with crazy rigidity, even as SHIELD is being wiped out around him. And all the questions about what happened to Coulson when he was dead are suddenly more relevant, because they play into whether he's actually reliable.
Early on in the episode, Coulson almost refuses to let Agent Triplett on his plane, because he doesn't trust Triplett after his boss Garrett turned out to be the Clairvoyant. But also, because Coulson has a fanatical obsession with his "team" and how the only thing he can trust now is his team. As long as the team is together, and all good, they can fight Hydra. The team is all he has left, which... that's going to be interesting when Ward comes back.
And then just as Coulson is discarding his precious SHIELD badge, he discovers a set of coordinates on it. A message from Nick Fury? A trap? He becomes absolutely determined to take the crew to the frozen north of Canada, because he can't accept the loss of hope.
As Coulson gets more quietly maniacal, two opposing theories of his mental deterioration are floated. Melinda May tells Coulson to his face that it's possible whoever implemented the Tahiti program and brainwashed Coulson to forget his surgery could have implanted some Hydra instructions. And she tells Skye that she was told to watch Coulson because if he learned the truth about his resurrection, he might become unhinged. Which he now is, sort of.
It all culminates in the scene above, where Coulson arrives in the middle of nowhere, and finds... nothing. And reveals that they don't have enough fuel to fly anywhere else, and they're abandoning the plane. He loses his shit at last, shouting that they can't be "Agents of nothing," they have to be Agents of SHIELD. This has to mean something — this, meaning either the badge he gave his life for, or the glowy message on it. Coulson finally starts to realize he's been a maniac, and throws his badge — only to have it shot down by a hidden automatic machine gun.
And then Coulson makes a final leap of faith, stepping out in front of the machine gun and identifying himself. He's rewarded with a super-secret SHIELD base and a helpful agent (Patton Oswalt)... and the news, for his ears only, that Nick Fury is actually alive somewhere.
But meanwhile, the loss of confidence among his team is still devastating. Early in the episode, Simmons tells Fitz that maybe Coulson's orders are just requests now — because Coulson's authority doesn't come from anyone any more. Fitz wants to keep having faith in his man, just like Coulson has faith in the team and Fury, but you can see the cracks. And late in the episode, Fitz is left clinging to the idea that as long as he and Simmons have each other, they're fine. But Simmons tells him things have already changed, you can't keep everything as it was.
Even Skye seems to have doubts about Coulson — but she also recognizes at last that Coulson was right. You can't let all of this alien tech and weird horror out in the world with no control, or you'll just unleash hell.
Is Grant Ward actually evil?
The obvious outcome to the "Grant Ward is a traitor" arc would be that he's actually just pretending to be evil, in order to take down Hydra from within. But this is looking somewhat less likely.
For one thing, he's been working for Garrett since the beginning, and apparently got himself on Coulson's team on purpose, to find out what Coulson knows about his resurrection. He genuinely seems to have total loyalty to Garrett, and their camaraderie in this episode is unlike anything that we've seen between him and the folks on the bus. (Although if he was playing Garrett, that's exactly how he would act.) He seems miffed that Garrett had Skye shot, but otherwise is okay with everything.
Also, Ward gives a pretty credible account to Raina, the flower-dress lady who ran the Centipede program, of how he played each of the members of his team — including having sex with Melinda May to win her over, and jumping out of a plane to save Simmons. It could just be a put-on, but it's at least reasonably convincing.
There's also how far Ward has already gone. He shot Hand and two other agents — granted, not in the head, but you'd think Garrett would check to see if they were alive. He helps kill a ton of agents at the Fridge, the super-prison that he helps Garrett take over in this episode. And he lets out a ton of WMDs into Hydra's possession. None of the atrocities and crimes at the Fridge could happen without Ward's help — so if he's a double agent, he's beyond ruthless. And strategically, whatever value he'd have undercover is less than the cost of giving Hydra those WMDs.
Grant Ward has gotten hold of the hard drive on which Skye put all of the secrets from the Bus — including how Coulson and Skye were saved by the mysterious goop, and all of Simmons' research on it. But Skye was smart, and encrypted the drive. So Ward is ordered to go back to his old team and get the password out of Skye. He only has 24 hours, and then Garrett resorts to meaner tactics.
The Clairvoyant is a Letdown
One of the fun things in this episode is how much glee Bill Paxton puts into Garrett telling people he's not psychic or magical or fancy — he's just a high-level SHIELD agent who's good at conning people. Raina and Quinn, both of whom bought the Clairvoyant hype, take this news very badly and Raina seems especially devastated that her mystical patron is just a swaggering thug.
But you can't argue with results — and we see Garrett carting off a lot of really nice hardware, including that supergun from Peru. And he's releasing a ton of SHIELD prisoners, and giving Raina everything she needs to restart the Centipede research. (Except Skye's intel, which he's getting now.)
And you can see Garrett working all of his people, including Ward — he knows that Ward has a thing for Skye, and quotes Woody Allen: "The heart wants what it wants." Then he beats the crap out of Ward so Ward's escape from the Fridge will look convincing, but also so that Ward can fake what Coulson naturally has: a frayed, embattled, desperate faith in SHIELD.
Oh, and now Quinn has the Gravitonium. That's bad, right?