What is it about former Star Trek actors that brings out the best in Marvel's Agents of SHIELD? Until this week I'd say the series' strongest episode was 1.05, "Eye-Spy," directed by Star Trek: Voyager's Roxann Biggs, aka B'Elanna Torres.

This week's episode was directed by Jonathan Frakes -- Star Trek: The Next Generation's William Riker -- and it was the new best episode of the series so far. More than that; it was the first episode I'd actually feel comfortable recommending to friends who gave up on the show after the lackluster pilot. (Or the lackluster second episode, or the lackluster third episode.)

Spoilers follow.

What made the eighth episode of Agents of SHIELD good? Was it the front-and-center use of Marvel concepts and a close connection to the movies? Well, sure, that was part of it. But a secondary part. What really lifted the episode up was that the actors finally seemed comfortable in their parts and the rapport between the characters felt natural.

The recent release of Thor: The Dark World means this is the first time Agents of SHIELD could directly sync up with a Marvel movie while it's in theaters (It'll happen again in April with Captain America: The Winter Soldier). The show seized the opportunity to re-establish its connection the Marvel universe, even opening with a Thor-style voiceover and a few flashes of movie images.

Thor: The Dark World saw parts of Greenwich trashed in a fight, so 'The Well' opens with the SHIELD agents on clean-up -- and offering expository dialogue to establish for the TV audience that the Asgardians are not gods, but aliens who visited Earth a long time ago and were mistaken for gods. (Erich von Däniken originated a similar theory in one of my all-time favorite books, the amazing and ludicrous Chariots of the Gods).

The opening scene offers the first signs that the cast is finally gelling. I'm not sure if the actors are more comfortable with the dialogue, or if the writing is playing more to the actor's strengths, or if it's a case of meeting in the middle, but the banter felt natural and, dare I say it, charming. Ward (Brett Dalton) calling Fitz (Iain DeCaestecker) "our little monkey" even made Ward seem likeable. (And this episode has only just begun to humanize its most wooden character!)

It turns out that the Greenwich action is not what this episode is about. In fact, the real story doesn't have very much at all to do with Thor: The Dark World. The actual plot kicks off with a young couple cutting an Asgardian artifact out of a tree in a Norwegian wood. The girl at once has a power, or should I say, the power at once has her.

Our agents arrive on the scene to try to work out what the couple found, and there's a nice scene where Ward tries to get Simmons to control her fear, which is a theme. Meanwhile, the young couple is spotted starting riots in Oslo and burning the words, 'WE ARE GODS' into the blacktop. They're identified as a "Norse paganist hate group" -- probably the sort of people who get upset about Heimdal being a black guy -- and the artifact is identified as one of three parts of a macguffin. Collect them all.

So this isn't a story about something left behind by the events of Thor: The Dark World, but a story about people being inspired by the events of Thor: The Dark World. That's probably the cleanest way to tie these things together. It's less satisfying if you're a hardcore fan, but more comprehensible if you're not.

The agents consult with an expert in Norse mythology (or history, as it's now become), Professor Eliot Randolph, played by special guest that-guy Peter MacNicol.


Randolph says the artifact is part of a "Berserker Staff" that gives the bearer super strength fueled by uncontrollable rage. It was broken up and hidden by an Asgardian warrior who chose to stay on Earth. There are poems that give hints as to where the pieces are hidden. Blessedly we only hear one of them, because it's doggerel with a modern English rhyme scheme, and not Old English, which would have been a tidier fit.

The poem leads the agents to a church in Barcelona where Ward finds Professor Randolph with the second part of the staff. Ward touches it and has a flashback-rage-blackout. Randolph escapes, only to be cornered by the Norse paganist hate group who flip his car and take the staff.

Coulson (Clark Gregg) takes Randolph into custody while the science nerds check on Ward's health. The artifact has made Ward aggressive, angry and mean, and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) is relieved to note that the staff's effects produce a bio-chemical reaction, i.e., it's not magic. We are not doing magic. You may never get that Dr. Strange movie you deserve.

And then it's time for a twist! Coulson works out that Randolph is the Asgardian berserker warrior who stayed behind, basically because of the expensive pen he owns, and he sends Ward in to try to stab him. This is aaaaaall dumb as heck, it's writing the events to fit the pre-determined outcome, but the show gets away with it because the Randolph reveal is a solid twist (Mind you, I feel like an Asgardian should have been able to defend himself better against those Norse pagan nutters).

The agents go to a church in Ireland to find the last part of the staff, only to get jumped by the pagans. Randolph gets stabbed through the chest. Ward grabs the head of the staff and fights the pagans while Coulson tries to save Randolph's life by massaging his heart (by first finding his heart).


Ward takes the pagans down one-by-one while the rage consumes him and his flashbacks get more intense. The "well" of the title is one Ward's younger brother fell or was pushed into. Ward's older brother told him not to help him. We see Kid Ward lower a rope, but we don't see what happens next, or how any of this happened. Ward calls this moment the first time he experienced hate. It's not much background, but it's enough to establish some sympathy and interest in Ward, which is more than I've ever had previously.

More pagans show up, but Ward is worn out, so May picks up the pieces of the staff and goes to work. Unfortunately we don't get to see inside her head, and of course she has to girlfight the female pagan, though she does at least get to take down one dude first. It's a good moment for May, as it shows us that she can control her anger, but it's also frustrating that we're still kept at such a distance.

The staff gets put in a box and probably shot into the sun. Randolph decides to up sticks and move on. Coulson recommends Portland, stating that the city has a "great Philharmonic," at which point Coulson fans everywhere flip out. The Avengers established that Coulson had been dating a cellist and they broke up when she moved to Portland, so Coulson is really telling Randolph to do the thing that he most wants for himself.

Ward is shaken up by the day's events. He rebuffs Skye's (Chloe Bennett) offer of a friendly ear and accepts May's (Ming-Na Wen) wordless offer of a post-Asgardian super-power shag. This is not one of the show's pre-established breeding pairs, so it's a welcome subversion -- adults behaving like adults! -- but it does now mean that all the women in the show have now shown an interest in Ward's apparently irresistible combination of high cheekbones and stoic blankness. Ward and May as agents-with-benefits is perhaps the most plausible relationship the show has offered us thus far.


In the kicker, Coulson has a nightmare about getting a massage from a beautiful woman on a beach in Tahiti, poor baby. There's not much to it, but it keeps the Coulson resurrection story in focus, and it offers one intriguing hint. Coulson says to the masseuse, "Did I fall asleep?" She replies, "For a little while." Those familiar with Whedon's other work will know that as the dialogue used in the show Dollhouse when one of the programmeable agents (the "dolls") is restored to factory settings. The implication is that Coulson might also have been re-written in some way. What does that mean? God willing, we'll find out soon.

Is Agents of SHIELD a good show yet? It's reached the point where I'm actually looking forward to the next episode, which is a new feeling for me. It's biggest challenge was making the characters feel real, and it took eight episodes but it's finally there. If it can keep that up, and keep building its connection to the Marvel universe, it may yet become a good show.

Next week really needs to be an Agent May episode, though.

Credit where it's due:

'The Well' was directed by Jonathan Frakes and written by Monica Owusu-Breen. SHIELD and Hulk were created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Marvel's versions of Thor and Asgard were created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby. Vibranium was created by Stan Lee and John Romita. The Chitauri were created by Bryan Hitch and Mark Millar, based on the Skrulls created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Phil Coulson was created by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway.