On tonight's Agents of SHIELD, Phil Coulson utters the line, "HYDRA just released the entire population of the Fridge into the wild". If you think this is going to be an hour of Baron Strucker in a forest weepily shooing away a recalcitrant pack of bacon like John Lithgow chasing off a bigfoot, you're going to be disappointed.

But if you're looking for underwhelming spy drama dancing around the edges of a hugely popular nerd film franchise, boy, do we have a show for you! Spoilers for Agents of SHIELD and Captain America: The Winter Soldier follow. Hail Harry and the Hendersons.

Agents of SHIELD is still riding high on the game-changing reveal that SHIELD is HYDRA. That doesn't change the fact that the show has had about thirteen episodes too many, or that it didn't lay out as interesting a landscape as it could have given that the showrunners knew this reveal was coming, but HYDRA has given the show a much-needed kick that could be its redemption.

Unfortunately this episode already bears signs that Agents of SHIELD may settle back into its usual comfortable lack of ambition with a supervillain story that should be emotionally resonant but ends up forgettable.

The episode opens with said supervillain, Marcus Daniels (Patrick Brennan), killing a guy and stealing his truck so he can drive to Portland. Daniels is able to sap energy out of both the truck and its owner.

The episode's other villain is Ward (Brett Dalton), who has rejoined his erstwhile team in their bunker hideout, Providence, in an effort to get Skye (Chloe Bennett) to decrypt a harddrive full of data vital to HYDRA's interests. Ward tells his team that HYDRA over-ran the SHIELD prison "the Fridge" and released the inmates, but he wisely leaves out the small detail that he's HYDRA. He pretends that Garrett (Bill Paxton) is dead at his hands.

Coulson is alarmed to learn that Marcus Daniels is one of the escapees. A computer screen gives Daniels' alias as Blackout, for it is he, the former Nova villain with the ability to manipulate dark energy. To the best of my recollection no-one in the show ever refers to him as Blackout, because... I don't know. To make me sad, probably.

Before letting anyone run off on a mission, Providence station chief Koenig (Patton Oswalt) makes everyone take Nick Fury's mega lie detector of ultimate lie detecting to confirm their loyalty.

On the one hand this scene throws out some scraps of potentially interesting background information about the team, and that's fun. May (Ming-Na Wen) used to be married. Triplett (B.J. Britt) is the grandson of a Howling Commando. (Koenig is impressed; a likely nod to the fact that Koenig is named after one of the Howling Commandos.) Skye has no surname, but the name she was given at the orphanage was Mary-Sue Poots. Yes, Skye is actually a Mary-Sue. I'll give the writers their due for that bit of meta-commentary.

On the other hand, the lie detector scene obliges us to watch Ward beat a mega lie detector with the help of a needle under his fingernail and the power of true wuv. This is meant to build tension, but Ward beating the lie detector really serves to make SHIELD look inept. Koenig notices odd results and pulls a gun on Ward, but Ward wins him around by saying that his secret agenda is Skye. Bleargh. "Cool," says Koenig, like the great idiot he is. Don't worry, he dies for it later.

Coulson, Fitz, Triplett, and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) take Ward's jet to Portland on the trail of Audrey Nathan (Amy Acker), a woman Daniels was obsessed with. And here's how that story plays out:

  • The agents find Audrey.
  • The agents use Audrey as bait.
  • The agents disintegrate Daniels.
  • The end.

It's exactly that linear and almost that boring.

There is a wrinkle, though. Last time SHIELD caught Daniels, Coulson came to Audrey's rescue, and the two of them fell in love. Audrey is the famous cello player first alluded to in The Avengers. She now believes Coulson is dead following the events of that movie, and Coulson allows her to keep believing it so that she can carry on with her life.

What should be a touching tale of love and sacrifice feels sadly perfunctory and half-baked in execution, probably because the story doesn't move anything forward. Audrey thought Coulson was dead. Audrey still thinks Coulson is dead. Coulson was miserable about it. Coulson is still miserable about it.

The story offers a minor reveal in that Daniels' energy powers were apparently boosted by SHIELD while he was at the Fridge. But at this stage it's a bit late to tell us SHIELD was doing dodgy things, given that, you know, HYDRA.

The better half of the episode unfolds back at Providence, where Ward is... Hydrating, I guess. Skye reveals that her hard drive encryption is location-based, which is weird and macguffiny, but let's go with it. So Ward switches to plan B; getting rid of everyone who isn't Skye.

Fortunately May is already in the process of getting rid of herself. Coulson no longer trusts her now he knows she was spying on him for Fury, so she packs her bags and walks out into the snow, where she will later run into Baron Strucker yelling at a pack of bacon, god willing.

Koenig isn't as fortunate as May.

Skye is least fortunate of all, because she gets to be romanced. It seems Ward's feelings for Skye are real, even though she's a Shark and he's a Jet. He admits that he had a dark past, that he's not a nice guy, and there are hints that he actually wants redemption. This is a real shame, because I really don't want to sit through his redemption arc.

They kiss. Ward has a bit of Koenig's blood on him - whoops - so he goes to clean up, and Skye uses the tracker in Koenig's lanyard to go looking for him.

She finds him. Dead. Stashed in a closet. She puts two and two together and comes up with "Ward is HYDRA".

Not unreasonably, Skye goes to the bathroom and has a good cry. But she gets it together in time for Ward to find her. She plays it cool. They kiss again. Ward tells Skye they have to take the wingycarrier to rendezvous with the rest of the team -- but once they're airborne he tells her they should fly to the right coordinates to decrypt the harddrive.

This is all hellaciously contrived, but at least it puts the characters in an interesting place. Ward is HYDRA and has to pretend he isn't. Skye knows he's HYDRA and has to pretend she doesn't. Can these two crazy kids still find excuses to make out?

By the way, there is some very silly business here with a coin on top of a door, which is Ward's way of working out if anyone's been into the closet where he stashed Koenig. Skye brilliantly covers her tracks by... putting the coin back on top of the door.

This is not ace spycraft, people. James Bond famously pulled a similar stunt with a hair across a door in Dr. No, but the thing about using a hair is that the person who opens that door will not notice that they've disturbed the hair. Coins falling out of the sky are less subtle, and so easy to reset that even Mary-Sue Poots could do it. How did Ward get into one superspy organization, let alone two?

In the kicker, May gets picked up by her mum (Tsai Chin), a retired secret agent who has information on the location of "Maria".

Come back next week for Colbie Smulders and Ming-Na Wen in, "How I Met Maria".

Credit where it's due:

'The Only Light in the Darkness' was directed by Vincent Misiano and written by Monica Owusu-Breen.

SHIELD, Nick Fury, the Howling Commandos, Bruce Banner, and HYDRA, were created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Captain America was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Black Widow was created by Stan Lee, Don Rico and Don Heck. Blackout was created by Marv Wolfman and Carmine Infantino. Eric Koenig was created by Stan Lee and Dick Ayers. John Garrett was created by Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz. Maria Hill was created by Brian Michael Bendis and David Finch. Alexander Pierce was created by Bob Harras and Paul Neary. Victoria Hand was created by Brian Michael Bendis and Mike Deodato. Phil Coulson was created by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway.

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