Agents of SHIELD has had a lot of chances. It's had guest stars and movie tie-ins. It's had extended hiatuses when it could have re-tooled. It's had heavily pushed event episodes that were meant to reinvigorate the show. But for sixteen episodes the show has failed to catch fire. Now, after the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the show has one more chance to prove itself.

SPOILER WARNING: This recap not only contains spoilers for tonight's Agents of SHIELD, it also contains spoilers for Captain America: The Winter Soldier. If you haven't seen the movie and you want to remain unspoiled, do not read on.

Before we get to the recap; I've been accused of criticizing this show to appear cool, of mocking it for the sake of comedy. Let me dispel that delusion. I don't criticize the show to get snaps from the Heathers or hot dates with cute guys. That's not how the world works. Scathing at an ABC primetime drama doesn't earn you respect or admiration. In truth, I really wish this show was better, and that I had nicer things to say about it. I want it to succeed. I get paid to watch it either way.

You can be mad at me for saying the show is bad, but I'm not lying. The show is bad. I actually think I've been indulgently generous in my appraisals. Every week I looked for signs that they might turn it around, but the showrunners never expressed any inclination to learn from their mistakes.

Now, anyone who has seen Captain America: The Winter Soldier knows that something major happened in that movie that significantly affects this show. Captain America discovered that SHIELD was compromised by the Nazi organization HYDRA, and he shut it down. There is no more SHIELD.

That plan has been in the works for longer than this show has existed, so the show was built around this twist. That means that re-tooling the show before now would have been difficult, and while that really doesn't excuse how bad the show has been (and in fact gave them something great to work with), it does buy them another chance. Yes, another another chance.

It also means that the show faces a dramatic status quo change that really does make it interesting again. There is no SHIELD. I don't expect to see the organization back before Avengers: Age of Ultron in May of next year at the earliest. For the rest of this season and for much of next (if the show is renewed), Agents of SHIELD has to operate under a new premise.

I wish we had more interesting characters to explore that with. I wish the most exciting thing to ever happen in this show was not a thing that happened outside this show. But this could be the kick the show needs to help it find its potential.

With all that in mind, let's watch the episode.



At the end of last week's episode, Ward (Brett Dalton) was in lock-up for killing a paralyzed prisoner who presented no immediate threat; May (Ming-Na Wen) was held at gunpoint by Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Skye (Chloe Bennett) after shooting at Fitz (Iain DeCaestecker), who had disabled her secret secure line; Simmons (Elizabeth Hentridge) was down at the Hub working to analyze Skye's magic healing Kree-infected blood; and Victoria Hand (Saffron Burrows) had remotely turned the wingycarrier around so she could kill everyone on board.

This episode opens with SHIELD drones attempting to shoot Agent John Garrett (Bill Paxton) out of the sky, before taking us back to the stand-off between Coulson and May.

May drops her weapon and reveals that she's been reporting to Director Fury this whole time, and Fitz admits that he and Simmons are analyzing Skye's blood. Coulson realizes this places Simmons in danger. Down on the ground, Simmons is cornered by Agent Triplett (B.J. Britt), so she tells him about the blood.

Skye discovers a blanket signal jamming SHIELD frequencies and tries to decode it. Garrett manages to break through to ask for help. Coulson puts May down with a sleeper gun and dumps her in the cell with Ward, and then shoot downs the drones. Garrett comes on board in time for Skye to break the code. "OUT OF THE SHADOWS INTO THE LIGHT. HYDRA".

It's nice that they sign their coded messages. But why not "HAIL HYDRA"?




The team realize that HYDRA has infiltrated SHIELD and this signal has activated them. Simmons also learns about the infiltration from Agent Weaver (Christine Adams) at the academy. Triplett pulls a knife... and gives it to Simmons to show her that he's trustworthy.

The wingycarrier lands at the Hub and comes under attack from SHYIELDRA agents. Coulson tells May to call Fury, and they learn that Fury is dead. How effectively this syncs up with the events of The Winter Soldier, I will leave to more patient fans than me to figure out.

The death of Fury gives May the freedom to make a big reveal; the team of agents that Coulson put together was actually based on her blueprint. A tech and a medic to look after Coulson and a specialist to kill him if needed. The team is Nick Fury's way of watching over his resurrected friend. That's a pretty cool reveal, even if it has the feel of a retrofit.

The agents get ready to bust out of the plane and rescue Simmons -- just as soon as they're done backing up the hard drive. Implausibly, none of the data on the plane about all the gizmos and discoveries from the past sixteen eps are in SHYIELDRA's computers, and they want to keep it that way. This done, the sneak off the plane by cutting a hole in the floor -- the same tech Fury used to escape from the Winter Soldier in the movie. Apparently it's a Fitz design that never got approval. Nice continuity.

Simmons and Triplett get captured. Victoria Hand tells them to swear allegiance to HYDRA or die. Triplett grabs a goon and holds him at knifepoint, to show that he's not going to hail any hydras today. And it turns out he just passed a test; Agent Hand isn't HYDRA, and she needed to be sure that they weren't either. The reason she wants Coulson taken down is that she believes that he is HYDRA. (And she makes a pretty good case, framing all his ludicrous actions throughout the series as evidence. No, Victoria; never attribute to HYDRA that which is adequately explained by sloppy writing.)




Hand's innocence is a second great reveal. A lot of people read the end of last week's episode as a statement that Hand was the Clairvoyant, but they missed the glaring ambiguity of what the show was actually saying. I never thought Hand was the Clairvoyant, but it's still a well-delivered twist.

Coulson, May, Fitz and Garrett go looking for Simmons, while Ward and Skye try to disable the... building, I guess. Ward and Skye share a moment, in which Ward says he killed that paralyzed prisoner for Skye. Like a cat with a mouse, maybe? She is so moved by his hair-trigger murder-incontinence that they share a kiss and promise to go for a drink together when all this is done.

If you've been wondering if Ward might be a HYDRA agent, this was your last chance to catch on before the reveal. The sudden advance of a romance subplot requires the introduction of a new obstacle, and what could be a better obstacle than "sudden HYDRA agent"?

Ward fights some dudes.

Elsewhere, Coulson tries to come up with a strategy to take down Hand, who he still believes is the Clairvoyant. Garrett says they have to kill her, but Coulson wants to question her. After tut-tutting at Ward's murder last week (he wanted to put him before a "review board", remember) he's decided that "murder without consideration" is a bad deal.

Garrett reels off the Clairvoyant's crimes, including torturing Coulson in the same machine used to brainwash Raina. And the penny drops. It's a classic (cough cough hackneyed) "I never told you that" moment. Garrett could only know about Raina if he was the Clairvoyant (or working with the Clairvoyant).

Ta-da, Garrett is HYDRA.




Gunmen enter the room. Garrett orders the HYDRA goons to shoot the non-HYDRA goons, and we get a Bill Paxton Texas-style, "Hail HYDRA", which is the TV version of a Robert Redford California-style "Hail HYDRA".

Garrett gives a villain speech, in which he admits he's not a true believer in the Nazi cause, but a cheerful opportunist. He tries to recruit Fitz and is rejected, so he orders that Coulson and May be executed and Fitz crippled. At which point Ward and Skye take out the lights.

More fighting. Fitz shoots and kills a guy. The good guys win.

Hand and crew storm the room. Having overheard Garrett's confession, they now know Coulson can be trusted. Ward watches on in despair as his former mentor is taken into custody. OK, this is your final clue that Ward is a Hydra agent.

Hand tells Coulson the plot of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and reveals that the two of them may be the most senior surviving SHIELD agents -- but SHIELD itself is no more. Ward volunteers to escort Garrett to lock-up. OK, OK, this is your final clue.

Coulson tells his team to patch the plane together. What are they going to do now? "Survive".




Meanwhile, on a plane taking Garrett to prison, Agent Hand invites Ward to execute Garrett and save them all a headache. This proves to be an ill-conceived idea, as Ward takes out his gun and shoots two other SHIELD agents and Hand.

Hey! Ward is a HYDRA agent!

And Hand is probably dead.

The episode ends on a cool HYDRA logo and the camera panning in on Ward's eyes as he thinks about what he's done. He doesn't seem very repentant. (Being evil, Ward is suddenly more attractive than previously.)

So, there we have it. SHIELD is gone, the team is in retreat, and Ward is a bad guy. And it was actually a lot of fun! It was, dare I say it, a good episode, one that sets up some promising stories and reframed the characters in ways that make them much more interesting.

Is Ward really a bad guy? Well, he just shot two guys in the head and shot Hand three times at close range, so it'll be hard to come back from that. My hope is that the show commits to this course of action, and if that's the case, I suspect it's why Agent Triplett was added to the show (and that's a very welcome substitution).

If this turns out to be an elaborate double bluff in which Ward has been sent undercover into HYDRA, I'm less interested. (Though it would explain why Ward was actually instrumental in ruining Garrett's plans by turning the lights off at the wrong moment.) Killing people seems like a rough way to get an agent in undercover, but this show does have a rather odd view of murder. And before you ask, no, the HYDRA agent reveal does not excuse the insouciant way everyone who isn't HYDRA reacted to Ward's sudden intemperate and very un-agent-like murder of a paralyzed prisoner last week.

Is Hand really dead? I hope not. I like her as a character, though her desire to execute Garrett makes her as bad as the worst of them. We're certainly led to believe she was shot three times, but any time I feel I'm being led to believe something in a show, my instinct is to doubt it.

Should we expect any more reveals or betrayals? I'm counting on it.




For the first time in a long time I'm excited for the next episode of Agents of SHIELD, and there's tremendous opportunity for the show to go in interesting directions from here. The HYDRA reveal means a real comic bad guy is finally front-and-center, which has been the show's biggest shortcoming since the start, and it never needed to be this way.

I actually wouldn't be surprised to learn that there isn't a second season of Agents of SHIELD and there was never meant to be. That would be bold. And I'm curious to know how the reveal that HYDRA has been in SHIELD since the start will affect the possible Agent Carter show, which is about the foundation of SHIELD.

While we're on the subject of rampant speculation, can we talk about my theory that the cinematic versions of Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver are meant to be Baron Strucker's kids, and the Maximoffs have been merged with Fenris? No, this probably isn't the place for it. I just had to get that out of my system.

But, see, it's a good time to be a Marvel fan. We get to geek out on this stuff. And for the first time, Agents of SHIELD feels like it might actually be part of the fun.

Credit where it's due:

'Turn, Turn, Turn' was directed by Vincent Misiano and written by Jed Whedon and Maurssa Tancharoen.

SHIELD, Nick Fury, Jasper Sitwell and HYDRA were created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Captain America was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. The Helicarriers were created by Jack Kirby. The Triskelion was created by Bryan Hitch and Mark Millar. Victoria Hand was created by Brian Michael Bendis and Mike Deodato. Deathlok was created by Doug Moench and Rich Buckler. John Garrett was created by Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz. Felix Blake was created by Eric Pearson. Phil Coulson was created by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway.

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