While I think it's sometimes reductive to argue that anything that runs 23 hours over the course of a year is “about” any one thing, it seems like tonight's episode of “Marvel's Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.” helped focus the overall theme of this season's arc. It seems fitting considering this a show about a top-secret military organiation that has suddenly lost face, because it seems like more than anything, this is a show about trust.
As soon as I saw “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” it was obvious that there were going to be major changes in the Marvel universe, and I wondered how they're going to retain the title of this series next year. Several people wrote me to say that there will be a magical re-set button and everything will be back to normal by the time the start of next year rolls around. I would argue that the start of tonight's episode makes it pretty clear that is not the case. Short of putting out a press release that says, “The start of next year is not just going to re-set everything to zero. We promise,” I'm not sure what else the producers could do at this point to make it clear that they are shaking things up permanently.
Starting the episode with Maria Hill on the phone with Pepper Potts, talking about her new job working for Tony Stark, is a good indicator of how things will change. It looks like Stark is proposing a new private security answer to S.H.I.E.L.D., which neatly bookends the things I already know about “Avengers: Age Of Ultron.” If the security of the Marvel universe can no longer be trusted to S.H.I.E.L.D., someone's got to step in and replace them, and while I'm fairly confident Coulson and whatever remains of his team by the end of the year will become part of whatever that new organization is, I'm not sure I know what that makes them. The title of the show becomes almost ironic at that point, and I can't help but wonder if that's always been the plan.
After all, there's that moment tonight where Coulson repeats that to Adrian Pasdar's character. “We're agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”, and Pasdar's reaction says volumes about what that means to everyone in the Marvel universe now. Coulson is holding onto this sense of identity because it's the only thing that he can use as an anchor considering everything that's happened and all the betrayals that they've had to endure over the past few weeks. The entire episode looks at the way Fitz and Coulson and Skye all deal with their reactions to Ward's true identity, and the way the world at large is dealing with their reactions to S.H.I.E.L.D.'s true identity.
I've been saying lately that Iain De Caestecker is one of my favorite things about the show, and one of the running threads this year has been watching the gradual development of a sort of grudging respect between Ward and Fitz. It makes sense that Fitz would take this particularly hard, and I thought the moment between him and Simmons by the pool was lovely and sad. Whether they ever become a romantic couple or not, Fitz depends on Simmons. He needs to believe that she is going to be there, whatever other changes are forced upon them. It's such a human, basic thing, and I'm glad the show slowed down this week to really let all of this land on the characters. We needed to see them deal with this.
By far, though, the biggest moment tonight came at the very end. May's return was accepted as fairly matter-of-fact by Coulson, which says a lot about their history together. When she showed him the evidence about who ordered the ultra-secrecy around Coulson's death and resurrection, I can honestly say I did not expect that particular answer. And how angry can Coulson be if he's the one who gave that order? He's had so much invested in the idea of finding that person and making them pay that finding out he's the one he's been looking for would seem to offer up a major problem for him.
That tape also suggests that both Coulson and Skye should be worried about what is going to happen to them in the near-future. Will they suffer the same sort of deteriorations that the test subjects did? Did Coulson avoid that by creating the cover story about Tahiti? I'm going to guess that they've got some rough days ahead, and that we're not done with the story of the alien tissue used to bring them back to life. Will it happen by the end of the season, two weeks from now? I'd guess they will at least start to explore the effects, but that they'll leave the majority of that for next season.
The rest of this year is going to deal with the personal grudge between Garret and Coulson, and it's going to get bloody. I'm going to say that there's no way Garret makes it out of this season alive, and I'd only give Agent Ward a 50/50 shot at surviving as well. Anyone who still thinks that Ward is just pretending to be a HYDRA agent has got to be crazy. He's not playing a part. It's obvious that he is not quite as cold-blooded as he seemed to be next week, and I think the idea that he genuinely thinks he and Skye might have any future at all between them is sort of sad. When Skye calls him out in that diner, it's a great moment. She is very clear about just how she feels, and even so, he seems to think she'll come around.
These last two weeks are going to be important, and if they do a strong job of pulling everything together and laying the groundwork for where the show is going next year, then it will make up for what felt aimless during the first half of the year. They appear to be learning from every new episode, and they've had a consistent solid run now for several weeks in a row. I'm looking forward to seeing how they wrap it up, and I hope it's a solid sign of things to come.
“Marvel's Agents of SHIELD” airs Tuesday nights on ABC.