Agent Ward actually becomes a human being in the penultimate episode of ‘Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.’

Television is such a particular beast when it comes to storytelling, and one of the reasons that I love the modern television landscape is because of just how elastic definitions have become and just how far we've come in terms of how people both observe and break the traditional rules of the form.

When you factor in that “Marvel's Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.” is, at heart, a fairly cynical proposition for a show, a sort of ongoing advertisement for already-omnipresent movie events, it seems like it would be silly to expect it to be anything but an uneven and uninteresting affair, and if you'd asked me five or six weeks into the season if it was worth the effort, I would have told you no.

At this point, though, they've done what only a show that knows it has a full run of 22 episodes to play with can do, which is slowly but surely figure out exactly what show it is they're making and, also slowly but surely, get better at actually making it. If the show had been as confident about what it's doing at the start of the season as it is now, people would probably be pretty darn excited about what's happening here in the home stretch. As it is, I'm just happy to see a creative team come together like this, no matter what the show.

Tonight's episode makes it clear that any idea of Ward playing a game here is obviously wrong. Instead, the framing device for tonight's episode shows us exactly how Ward ended up becoming the man he is. It was handled in a really interesting way, and I missed the first few seconds of the episode, so I didn't realize it was taking place at an earlier time. It was only halfway through that I finally caught up to the idea that we were seeing a story that took place over several years. When it became apparent that this is the story of how Garrett discovered and cultivated Ward, I thought it was handled really well. We see how clearly this was a long-term project. Garrett never made an overt pitch. It's not, “Hey, want to join a secret terrorist organization dedicated to overthrowing the US government?” Instead, he made Ward completely dependent on him, and he broke him down, then built him back up. It is a complete indoctrination, and as we see by the final moments of the week, not a seamless one.

It's far more interesting to make Ward someone who is fanatically devoted to Garret but who still wrestles with those pesky stirrings of conscience and humanity than just making him a bad guy who joined HYDRA because he's a bad guy. Honestly, HYDRA seems like the last thing on Ward's mind. He is devoted to Garrett because of everything that Garrett taught him, and it's completely understandable thanks to this new context.

It also makes Fitz less of a chump and more of a moral compass. He wants to believe that whatever he saw in Ward during the most unguarded and human moments they shared was real, because if it wasn't, then Fitz can't trust his own observations about anyone. Even once everyone else has given up on Ward completely, Fitz is determined to appeal to that better part of Ward's nature. And, as we see in the final moments between them in the episode, that may be Fitz's undoing. Or it may be the only thing that brings Ward back from the point of no return. Either way, it's not going to be as cut and dry as it initially seemed.

There was a surprising amount of new material revealed this week. We learned that Garrett was the original subject of the Deathlok program. We learned that Skye is evidently a monster. We learned that Fitz can be a cold-blooded killer when properly motivated. And we learned that this entire game has been about selling Cybertek's super-soldier technology to the Army, making the huge personal transgressions seem even worse, somehow.

I'll say this for Garrett as a character. He's honest about his dishonesty. He's hen he tells Ward early on, “Don't trust anybody ever. Especially me.” Even in the moments where he's trying to teach Ward lessons about what will be expected of him, he cheats. There is no more ugly moment this year in this show than when we see Garrett's rifle scope on Buddy the dog after Ward is too personally invested to kill him. Garrett is truly an empty man, willing to do anything for his goals. Watching the way he treats Deathlok, the way he treats footage of his son like a dog treat, he's grotesque. Whatever fate awaits Garrett next week, I hope it hurts.

I really liked the use of the old suitcase full of devices that were designed to be used by the Howling Commandos. One of the signatures of the Marvel approach to telling these stories is the liberal use of humor, and Fitz's move with the laser cigarette was pretty great, as was May's wry, “Watch out, HYDRA, here we come.” The use of paper files to keep everything out of the digital realm is clever, and I liked the way they handled the “large file transfer” as a result. It was fun watching May and Coulson play Fitz and Simmons with the real McCoy bickering there in their ears.

Raina makes some big breakthroughs this week. She manages to create one dose of a synthetic answer to “GH-325,” just in time as Garrett's body seems to be failing completely at this point. She's also the one who brings in the backstory about a baby in China and the monsters that came looking for it, setting up what I'm going to guess will be next week's biggest moment. Skye's got to manifest her abilities in some way before they wrap up the season, right? No way they push that entire payoff to next year.

My guess is she's going to have to dig deep if she's going to beat Garret, who is obviously deeply affected by whatever it was that Raina's serum did to him. It looked like he had an Extremis reaction to it first, and then gets it under control. When asked what he's feeling, he replies, “The Universe.” Okay, then. That's probably not a good thing, and we'll see what form that takes when the season premiere plays out next Tuesday.

Oh… and Nick Fury's coming! So we'll see how he's been doing since his untimely demise, just in time to wrap up the first season of this show. Whatever happens with Marvel TV moving forward, I would imagine this has been an illuminating year for all involved, and just watching it week to week, it's been a fascinating tightrope act.

“Marvel's Agents Of SHIELD” airs Tuesdays on ABC.