Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.: “Nothing Personal”
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Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.: “Nothing Personal”

The reality of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s collapse sets in

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Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

"Nothing Personal"

Season 1, Episode 20

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What Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. has needed from the very beginning is a high-octane action sequence involving Lola, the flying red 1962 Corvette. Ending the pilot with a shot of Lola soaring through the air was a great way of building confidence that this would be a fun action series tied to classic S.H.I.E.L.D. comic-book concepts, and that thrill returns when Coulson and Skye find themselves falling through the air in a rapidly descending piece of shiny red metal this week. Sure, the effects may not be the slickest, but it’s one hell of an ambitious sequence for a network TV series, and a great way to cap off this show’s most intense episode yet.

You know it’s going to be a good episode when it starts with Maria Hill making a reference to Man-Thing. After making a cameo in the pilot, Cobie Smulders returns as the former Agent Hill to put another nail in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s coffin, helping the U.S. government track down leftover bases and agents that may be compromised by Hydra. While on the phone with her new boss at Stark Industries, Pepper Potts, Maria complains about having to testify for an inept Congress and mentions a specific question: “Who or what is a Man-Thing?” 

This may be a throwaway reference that goes nowhere, but it excites me to no end. For those that don’t know, Man-Thing is a former scientist who injected himself with an experimental drug, crashed his car into a swamp, and became a horrific plant creature. He secretes a chemical from his body that burns anyone that is afraid, an ability that gave the Man-Thing series its kickass tag-line: “Whatever knows fears BURNS at the Man-Thing’s touch!” With a strange, striking design, Man-Thing is one of those weird characters that exists on the fringes of a superhero universe, which makes him a great candidate to appear on Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.

He may never show up, but there is now evidence that Man-Thing exists in the MCU, which is a victory in itself. The character appeared in a live-action Syfy TV movie, so it’s not like he’s a total stranger to the screen, and he makes an ideal guest star if this show wants to do a horror episode at any point. Just imagine: Agent May is fighting a bunch of Hydra goons in a swamp. Man-Thing shows up and burns everyone fighting her because they freak out when they see him. May is completely safe because she’s fearless, gives the big green guy a hug because he’s awesome. How cool would that be?

For season two, I’d love to see this show turn into an exploration of the corners of the MCU that will likely never make it to the big screen (which is what it should have been since the beginning), and Man-Thing is as good a place to start as any. With the upcoming Marvel Netflix series being set in the MCU, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. would be a natural way to introduce some of the less well-known characters like Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, and Disney has a strong enough relationship with Netflix where that is a definite possibility.

The more this show embraces its comic-book heritage, the better it becomes, and the presence of Hydra, Maria Hill, Glenn Talbot, Deathlok, and a flying car help make “Nothing Personal” the series’ best episode to date. A name like Glenn Talbot may not mean anything to a large percentage of people watching this show, but for those that recognize Talbot from the comic books, his name does mean something. It means that maybe another character from the comics will appear next week, and maybe it will be a character that is more important than Glenn Talbot. Maybe it will be Man-Thing. Maybe it will be Danny Rand. Or maybe it will be some background character from Captain America #322. Either way, the possibility of seeing a character from one medium represented in another is one of the reasons superhero comic fans tune in to these shows. 

That said, you could fill this show with Avengers and it would mean nothing if the story is bad, and the plot of this series has gotten so much better since Winter Soldier turned everything upside down. The Ward reveal has ramped up the tension considerably and dramatically altered character dynamics, and the team’s new status as renegade agents cleaning up Hydra’s mess is much more proactive and engaging than what came before.

The stakes are extremely high, but the script by Paul Zbyszewski and DJ Doyle balances the drama with comedy to make those more emotional moments hit even harder. In the middle of Agent May’s solo mission to uncover the truth about Coulson’s resurrection, there’s a humorous scene in a cemetery where a grieving man hears May digging up Coulson’s grave. She acts completely nonchalant and offers her condolences as she leaves with a flash drive, and little bits of comedy like that are invaluable in episodes like “Nothing Personal.”

Brett Dalton has started to bring a bit of Jack Nicholson-like mania to Ward’s character in moments of extreme stress when he drops his S.H.I.E.L.D. Boy Scout mask, and the further Dalton pushes that side of the character, the more interesting he becomes. Caught between Garrett, the man who saved him from his abusive home life, and Skye, the young woman who allowed him to be a mentor in the way Garrett was to him, Ward is becoming mentally unhinged and has no idea how obvious it is. The opening scenes with Ward and Skye depict the characters as horrible liars who can’t believably sell their respective lies, and their personal feelings prevent them from being able to deceive each other.

Ward has a mission that he needs to accomplish and betraying his team is part of that mission. It’s not personal for him. It’s his job. And he hopes Skye will accept that because he honestly really likes her. For Skye, this is all personal. She’s being betrayed by someone she put her trust in and gave her heart to. She’s finding out someone she cared about is a frickin’ Nazi. She despises Ward and she can barely contain her hatred long enough to put his information on the most wanted list, labeling him a fugitive before she reveals that she knows the truth and she loathes him for it.

In an exhilarating sequence, Ward fights off local police officers while Skye runs off and tries to get herself arrested, once again showing that close quarters are highly beneficial to the fight choreography on this show. (A fight sequence pitting Coulson and Hill against Glenn Talbot and his soldiers similarly benefits from a tight space, and it’s a lot of fun watching those two characters kick ass together.) While Ward fights inside the diner, Skye claws at police officers and tells them that she’s a fugitive agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., but then Ward fires off two rounds and kills the two men in a moment that could be pulled from a serial-killer thriller. As Skye flees in a stolen police car, Deathlok appears in the distance, then jumps through the air, lands on the hood of the car, and punches through the windshield to choke Skye as the episode cuts to commercial.

The scene is a gripping combination of secret agent and superhero action, and Chloe Bennett does particularly strong work selling Skye’s mix of fear, desperation, and perseverance. She’s never been a more admirable character than when she’s standing up to Ward, and the violence of her reactions during their conversations heightens her emotional state. She’s so mad at Ward she headbutts him at one point, and there’s a lot of satisfaction to be had in watching that happen. It would be awesome if this show defied expectations and completely ignored a Ward/Skye romance in the future, because Bennett’s performance makes it hard to see Skye’s feelings softening any time soon.

While Skye deals with Ward and Deathlok, Coulson and the rest of the team are coming to terms with the discovery that Ward is an agent of Hydra. Seeing the impact of that knowledge on the characters is what really makes this episode stand out, and the reveal of Ward’s true allegiance gives the writers the opportunity to explore the personal toll that the events of Winter Soldier had on all S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, not just Coulson and his team.

After discovering that one of their own has been working for the enemy, Coulson’s group is feeling what every other non-Hydra affiliated S.H.I.E.L.D. agent is feeling, and the attention given to those emotions makes “Nothing Personal” the complete opposite of its title. Fitz is taking the Ward news the hardest and throws a temper tantrum while Simmons tries to be strong for the both of them, and their quiet poolside talk at the end of the episode makes the strongest case for their potential coupling yet. They balance each other out, and the writers are getting better at showing the distinctions in their personalities and how they complement each other.

Coulson saves Skye with Maria Hill’s help, and the team settles at a motel to ponder their next move. Before Maria leaves to be a part of Tony Stark’s new privatized global security initiative (an Avengers initiative?), she tells Coulson that he needs to come to terms with the fact that S.H.I.E.L.D. is gone. The band isn’t getting back together, and he’s not on an officially sanctioned mission. This is Coulson pursuing a personal vendetta, and when he’s done, he should walk away. There’s something scary about not knowing what the future holds, but for now, Coulson is going to hold on to what he does know, and that’s the team he has holed up with him at a budget motel, a family of renegade secret agents without an agency to call home.

It wouldn’t be a family without Agent May, who reconciles with Coulson by appearing in his bedroom and showing him a video that reveals who ordered him to have his memory wiped of any involvement with Project: T.A.H.I.T.I. It turns out it was Coulson himself who ordered the memory replacement after witnessing the rapid mental deterioration caused by the drug, which S.H.I.E.L.D. was experimenting with in hopes of finding a way to revive fallen Avengers. The best way to prevent those side effects is by removing any memory of treatment, and Coulson had his memory altered so he wouldn’t go insane. What happens now that he knows? That’s the fun part.

This series really should have started in the winter and done an abbreviated first season, which would have forced the Clairvoyant and Coulson storylines to move more quickly and made the series more unpredictable by introducing a major status quo shift earlier in its existence. A major twist at episode six feels like it’s part of the groundwork for the series, but a major twist at episode 16, after the show has already stumbled around for over half a season, gives off the impression of course correction even it was intended from the start. Now that Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is unshackled from its titular organization, it has the freedom to be anything it wants, and that has ultimately unlocked the series’ potential. Hill tells Coulson to walk away when his current mission is over, but hopefully this show’s creative team gets the opportunity to keep him and his team moving forward now that the series is on the right track.

Stray observations:

  • For more adventures in flying red muscle cars, check out Ales Kot and Michael Walsh’s current run on Secret Avengers, which just concluded its opening two-parter that sent Black Widow, Spider-Woman, and Hawkeye into space to save Agent Coulson and Nick Fury, Jr. from floating to their deaths. It’s a really fun book with incredible artwork, and M.O.D.O.K. is a member of the team. Go read it.  
  • I find it hard to believe that Tony Stark hasn’t noticed that Coulson is alive again. He’s Tony frickin’ Stark.
  • I love the bits of humor in the Lola sequence: the thrusters that don’t work correctly, Skye and Coulson’s hair when they finally land.
  • It looks like Adrian Pasdar decided to grow a mustache this week instead of wearing a horrible fake one, and Talbot looks all the better for it.
  • “Hail Hydra.”
  • “It’s in the S.H.I.E.L.D. handbook. Chapter One: The Red Skull, founder of Hydra, was a big fat frickin’ Nazi.”
  • “You know you always had that Hitler—youth—look—too, so it’s really not that surprising.”

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