It's the second-to-last episode of the first season of Agents of SHIELD, and the action is moving towards a thrilling conclusion -- but don't worry, there's still time to stop off for a whole bunch of origin story flashbacks starring some trees.

We'll find out next week at the network upfronts whether Agents of SHIELD is coming back for a second season. Based on ratings, it seems a dead cert for renewal. It's actually the storyline that leaves it on shaky ground. Will there be a SHIELD to build a show around in the second season, or is it going to be months of Coulson and the gang relaxing poolside at the motel? We don't know! So let's enjoy the show while we still can. Or, let's try, anyway. Spoilers ahead.

The episode opens on a flashback to a young Grant Ward being recruited out of a Juvenile Secure Unit fifteen years ago by John Garrett (Bill Paxton). Young Ward is played by Austin Lyon, who doesn't look at all how I'd imagine a 16-year-old Brett Dalton would look. The actors could pass for the same age, and Lyon looks like he could break Dalton over his knee.

There are flashbacks all through this episode to Ward and Garrett: The Wonder Years. We learn that Garrett took Ward out into the woods and left him to fend for himself with nothing but a dog that he would inevitably be asked to kill, and a bag full of Abercrombie shirts. Don't worry, he came back later to indoctrinate his young ward, Young Ward.

And after five years of woodland fun (five years), Young Ward became Present Day Ward (Brett Dalton), but with a slightly less moussey haircut, and Garrett finally told him about HYDRA and sent him off to SHIELD to be a mole, with a cheery heigh-ho and a copy of "Oh, The Places You'll Go".

And he told him to shoot his dog.




I'm recapping all of that up-front to do you a favor, dear reader, because the flashbacks are not very exciting. Dumping Ward in the forest feels like about the least interesting thing Garrett could have done to brainwash the kid into dutiful obedience, and the very fact that we're spending this time on Ward's back story leaves me convinced that the show intends to try to redeem the character, no matter how murky they'll make him in the meantime.

In the present day, the former agents of NOT-SHIELD are still holed up in the motelcarrier (just a motel, actually), where Coulson (Clark Gregg) uses a flip chart to explain how everything connects back to Cybertek, the company behind Deathlok.

Now, it turns out only two things connect back to Cybertek; Deathlok and smarmy industrialist Ian Quinn (David Conrad). But Coulson has a flipchart, and damn it, he's going to use it. Cybertek is really the only lead they have, so, flipchart or no, they decide to go to a Cybertek building and stick a doodad in a machine to activate Skye's trojan horse virus that will clue them in on Garrett's blah blah blah et cetera.

As they're no longer SHIELD agents, Triplett (B.J. Britt) digs out his grandfather's Howling Commando spy tech, which includes laser cigarettes, a "hypno-beam", and a hand buzzer that's actually an EMP. (The show conspicuously still doesn't tell us which Howling Commando was Trip's grandfather.) All this old school spy tech is actually rather charming. It's nice to see the show utilizing goofy gadgets and going a little Get Smart.




Coulson and May (Ming-Na Wen) go for a job interview at Cybertek, essentially masquerading as Fitz (Iain DeCaestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge). They don't get the job, but they do get to kung-fu and gadget their way into a secret room where they discover... all of Cybertek's sensitive files are stored on hard copy in filing cabinets.

So they throw the Deathlok filing cabinet out of the window and zipline to freedom. Huzzah! Spying.

The Deathlok files reveal that the Deathlok we know and endure is not the first; the program goes back as far as the 90s (the whaaa--!?) and the first Deathlok subject was none other than John Garrett.

Speaking of which; over on the wingycarrier, the Agents of HYDRA go ahead with an episode of their TV show, in which they give each other suspicious glances and talk about serums. Specifically, Raina (Ruth Negga) has almost perfected a synthesis of the Kree blood serum that saved Coulson (she is way quicker at science-ing than Fitz or Simmons), and Garrett reveals he needs the serum to save his life. His organs are shutting down and he's been given a month to live.

We also learn that Raina has worked out that Skye (Chloe Bennett) is the baby whose appearance in Hunan Province, China, left a trail of dead bodies all those years ago. Remember that subplot? I feel like it's been a while. It's a plot from back before HYDRA turned up and threatened to make things interesting. Anyway, Raina says that Skye's parents were the "monsters" that killed everyone, so presumably Skye is an alien or an Inhuman or Fin Fang Foom or something.




The "good" guys track the "bad" guys to Havana. Fitz and Simmons find the wingycarrier on an airfield, but get captured by Ward. Fitz uses the joy buzzer to short out Garrett's Deathlok bits, leaving him close to death, and he and Simmons run for their lives. Garrett orders Ward to kill them.

And lo, we learn that it's because of situations like this that Garrett told Ward to kill his dog all those years ago; because he couldn't afford to get attached to anyone or anything. We learn from the flashbacks that Ward couldn't actually bring himself to shoot the dog point blank, so he let it run away and then used a sniper rifle to...

Well, we still don't know if he killed the dog. It's implied he did, but if Agents of SHIELD were to actually show Ward killing a dog, you just know it couldn't go through with the redemption story. Shooting a paralyzed man ten days ago is one thing, but shooting a dog ten years ago is something America will never forgive.

Because Ward is such a sentimental softy, he kills Fitz and Simmons by avoiding eye contact and ejecting them into the sea in a giant box. It's sort of hilarious. Bye Fitz! Bye Simmons!

Wouldn't it be amazing if they were actually dead?

Raina injects Garrett with the serum to save his life. Garrett convulses, burns up Extremis style, and stabilizes with a huge moon-faced maniac grin on his face. He says he can feel "the universe". So now he's Captain Universe! Or, probably, not.

While all this exciting nonsense is going down, the rest of the n'agents have found the Evil Cuban Barbershop where Garrett used to hang out. The secret HYDRA HQ in the basement is now mostly empty but for an even secreter room full of computers and... a bunch of HYDRA super soldiers and a guy holding the Asgardian berserker staff. Cliffhanger!




You know, I kind of thought Graviton or Blizzard might show up for the finale. Not that it's too late for that, but, just the Asgardian berserker staff feels like a poor use of the show's assets. Not that the audience isn't used to that by now.

Anyway, speaking of super soldiers, the kicker finds Ian Quinn meeting with US military bigwigs to sell them on his new super soldier program. Yes, it's the penultimate kicker of the season, and they gave it to Ian Quinn's business pitch. There must be at least fifty more interesting things happening in the Marvel Universe at any given moment than Ian Quinn boasting about his new offices, but that's what we get. More squandered assets. What are the odds that next week's episode finally shows us Man-Thing and the Griffin, but they're in suits and selling us encyclopedias door-to-door?

Who am I kidding? Man-Thing and the Griffin wearing suits and selling encyclopedias would be awesome.

Credit where it's due:

'Ragtag' was directed by Roxann Dawson and written by Jeffrey Bell.

SHIELD, the Howling Commandos, and HYDRA, were created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Deathlok was created by Doug Moench and Rich Buckler. John Garrett was created by Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz. Brand Corp was created by Gerry Conway and Tom Sutton. Metrobank was created by Mark Gruenwald and Ron Wilson. Cybertek was created by Dwayne McDuffie, Gregory Wright, and Butch Guice. The SHIELD hypno-beam was created by Chris Claremont, Sal Buscema, and Steve Leialoha. Phil Coulson was created by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway.