Last night’s episode of Agents of SHIELD was easily the best episode of its freshman season, although this has to be the first time ever that a television show has completely spoiled the entire plot of a blockbuster film only five days after its release. I suspect that Marvel assumed that anyone who still watched Agents of SHIELD must have been a big enough fan of the Marvel universe to have seen Captain America: Winter Soldier on opening weekend. But if you didn’t — if you were away on business, if you had a school or family event that prevented you from catching the film — then you should know that Agents of SHIELD gave much of plot away, including (SPOILERS, obviously) the fact that Nick Fury had died, that HYDRA had taken over SHIELD and destroyed it from the inside, and that Captain America saved the world from deadly helicarriers.
But no big deal, those were only the three major plot points in Captain America: Winter Soldier, and I’m sure that Fury’s resurrection will be taken up in next week’s episode.
Still, for those who had seen Cap’s movie over the weekend, the synergy between the television series and the Marvel cinematic universe finally paid off in a huge way. Last night’s SHIELD weaved all the plot turns in Captain America into the episode while still managing to spring several twists and surprises on us along the way.
The series had already been improving steadily, basically since Bill Paxton arrived on the scene, and it’s notable that last night’s most successful episode gave most of the screentime to its best actors: Clark Gregg, Bill Paxton, Ming Na Wen, and Saffron Burrows, who I would argue did the most lifting in the episode as Agent Victoria Hand, because our sympathies with that character shifted so frequently during the episode. She went from who we thought was the Clairvoyant trying to take down SHIELD, to the enemy of Agent Coulson (who she believed was the Clairvoyant), and finally into a crumpled, bloody pile on the floor after it was revealed that John Garrett was the Clairvoyant and TADA Agent Grant Ward was his accomplice inside HYDRA. Grant put three in her chest, and we bid farewell to Agent Hand.
It was an impressive series of twists, and it worked in part because SHIELD has been such a generic show for so long that many of us only expected the obvious. Granted, I think most of us figured out that Paxton was not who he claimed to be before it was actually revealed, but it didn’t dawn on me until Grant Ward was inside that cell standing next to Agent Hand that he could be HYDRA. That sequence got a serious slow clap out of me.
Who knew Ward even had that kind of duplicitousness in him? Suddenly, the least interesting character in the series is one of the best characters, and it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out over the final five episodes. Hopefully, not in a way that suggests he’s being temporarily brainwashed, but in a way that sees Grant Ward own the villainous role and go down with it.
The rest of SHIELD — Skye, Fitz, Simmons — mostly played supporting roles, and that’s really what suits them best. This was a Big Boy episode, and the veteran actors — and some fancy writing from Maurissa Tancharoen and the Whedon brothers — finally showed what SHIELD is capable of, although without the more direct links to the Marvel universe, it’s hard to know whether the series will be able to maintain the success it achieved last night.
But one thing is for certain: Agents of SHIELD will play a central role in advancing the overall narrative of the Marvel Universe, so at the very least, we have a stake in the series now. Good or bad, if we want to know what happens in between Captain America: Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy, it will probably behoove us to continue watching SHIELD.