Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.: “Providence”
B+

Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.: “Providence”

Secrets, betrayal, and Patton Oswalt

For the final episodes of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s first season, Marvel Studios has been releasing promotional posters drawn by notable comic book artists, beginning with Mike Del Mundo’s labyrinthine image for “Turn, Turn, Turn.” This week’s artwork comes courtesy of Paolo Rivera, the Eisner Award-winning penciller of Daredevil and painter of this kickass Captain America: The Winter Soldier poster, and he delivers the kind of smooth, cinematic visual he’s known for, making great use of negative space to emphasize an atmosphere of cold desolation for Coulson and his team.

Ward and Rayna appearing inside the outline of Coulson’s body is a very clever way of showing that he may actually be a Hydra pawn, a plot thread explored in this episode, and the combined S.H.I.E.L.D./Hydra logo looming over the group boils down everything a viewer needs to know about the show’s new status quo in one evocative visual. These S.H.I.E.L.D. posters are a fun way to take advantage of this show’s synergy with the comic book world, and if this series gets picked up next season, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of its characters started showing up on the comics page.

Tying in to the MCU films helps this series appeal to a wider audience, but incorporating more comic-book connections is the easiest way for this show to gain favor with its target audience of Marvel Comics fans. Arrow has done great work pulling inspiration from comic books for its stories and characters, regularly including background Easter Eggs, cameos, and references that may not mean much to non-comic viewers but excite DC Comics readers. Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t need to have fully costumed superheroes, but it does need to feel like it has a connection to a larger Marvel universe, and the writers are becoming more aware of that.

“Providence” includes an appearance from Heroes’ Adrian Pasdar as Colonel Glenn Talbot, an enemy of the Hulk in the comics, as well as references to Johnny “Griffin” Horton, a member of the comic-book Masters of Evil, and The Cube, a secret S.H.I.E.L.D. facility introduced in Grant Morrison’s Marvel Boy that serves as a prison for alien beings. John Garrett mentions Griffin in passing, recounting to Ward a past S.H.I.E.L.D. mission involving a man who had replaced his hands with lion claws, but The Cube name-drop definitely feels like setup for something, most likely later in this season.

We know that S.H.I.E.L.D. somehow got its hands on a potentially extraterrestrial blue-skinned corpse, probably a Kree considering their role in the upcoming Guardians Of The Galaxy, so it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to assume that they have a living alien imprisoned in The Cube. This show has to solve the mystery of Coulson’s resurrection by the end of the season, because there’s still the off chance that it’s not getting picked up and fans are going to be pissed if that thread is left dangling, and The Cube could be the place for that revelation to occur, maybe by introducing a Kree character that directs the viewers’ attention to Guardians. (The fanboy in me is hoping that The Cube means Noh-Varr, a.k.a. “Marvel Boy,” who could be given blue skin for this show so everyone knows he’s an alien.)

While last week’s episode showed what Coulson and his team were doing while the events of The Winter Soldier destroyed S.H.I.E.L.D. in the background, “Providence” reveals what happens after the dust settles and the agents are forced to pick up the broken pieces. S.H.I.E.L.D. has been labeled a terrorist organization after Black Widow leaked all of its secrets, the evil forces of Hydra continue to pursue their agenda of world domination, and Coulson and his crew are caught in the middle, struggling to find their footing after the rug is pulled out from under them.

When Colonel Talbot sends troops to The Hub to question the remaining S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, Coulson decides to take his team off the grid and on the run so that they can continue doing the Earth-saving work they signed up to do. Coulson has Skye erase any digital trace of the team and its individual members, effectively wiping everyone’s identities, and they fly away on a barely functioning Bus that is almost out of fuel, joined by Agent Triplett, who is still not a double agent at this point.

After receiving a set of coordinates via the S.H.I.E.L.D. badge given to him by Nick Fury, Coulson is convinced that his best friend is alive and directs the plane toward the mystery location. May is afraid that Coulson may be having a mental breakdown, and reveals the latest wrinkle in the mystery of Coulson’s resurrection: Fury wasn’t responsible for it. “Project: T.A.H.I.T.I.” was overseen by other members of S.H.I.E.L.D. who may have been affiliated with Hydra, and May was given her surveillance mission to see if Coulson had been compromised by the enemy in any way.

The Hydra reveal has given new life to this series, and Coulson’s resurrection becomes a far more interesting plot point with the revelation that he may be a Hydra agent and not even know it. May thinks that Coulson is letting his emotions get the best of him and is not thinking clearly, but thanks to her secret surveillance, Coulson isn’t willing to give May’s opinions much thought. As the Bus continues toward the coordinates, Hydra tries to recreate the procedure of Coulson’s resurrection with the help of a newly freed and florally clothed Rayna, who runs experiments with different glowing blue substances as Garrett and Ward ransack The Fridge.

This episode provides more insight into Garrett and Ward’s relationship and paints it as a darker version of the Fury/Coulson dynamic, with Garrett pulling Ward from a traumatic home life to introduce him to the spectacular life of working for S.H.I.E.L.D. Garrett likely indoctrinated Ward to the ways of Hydra, giving him the deceptive tools he would need to infiltrate the team and gather intel on Coulson’s revival. May was the biggest threat, so Ward pushed their relationship in a more intimate direction while building a bond with Skye, the wild card that Hydra wants. The problem is that Ward has started to develop legitimate romantic feelings for Skye, but when Garrett tells him that he needs to remember what the assignment is, who gave it to him, and why, Ward puts his feelings aside for the greater evil. (I wonder if the Red Skull is going to be involved with this somehow. Maybe Hydra is trying to revive him? It would be easy to recast the role if Hugo Weaving doesn’t want to do it, which he likely won’t.)

This show really pushed its special effects budget last week, and ABC was clearly pumping more money into the Winter Soldier tie-in to make it as cinematic as possible. The production values take a noticeable dip with “Providence,” particularly Ward and Garrett’s rooftop action sequence with very shoddy CGI, and yet while the environments may not be especially convincing, at least the show is starting to spend more time outside of that goddamn plane. The special effects and production design aren’t quite cinema quality, but the violence is becoming much more impactful, and showing Ward shoot two S.H.I.E.L.D. agents in the face at point blank range is an incredibly effective way of cementing his allegiance to the bad guys.

Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. began with formulaic stories that introduced all the goodies that Garrett and his goons steal from The Fridge this week, and while the series could have done a better job building an overarching narrative across those first episodes, the writers have found a way to incorporate those cases-of-the-week into the larger season arc. Garrett doesn’t just rob The Fridge, either. He also sets free the criminals that were being held in custody, giving Coulson and his a bunch of new problems to deal with while Rayna tries to figure out the alien science stuff for Hydra.

Coulson’s coordinates lead the team to a secret S.H.I.E.L.D. base hidden in a frozen forest, a safehouse created by Nick Fury and operated by Patton Oswalt’s Agent Eric Koenig, who has given it the name Providence even though it doesn’t have a name because it technically doesn’t exist. Oswalt brings a delightfully grounded energy to the cast, playing a slightly aloof S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who doesn’t take things as seriously as the rest of his comrades. His physicality and delivery are relaxed and a little clumsy, and his immediately likable presence even gets May to crack a smile.

Koenig only shows up in the last 15 minutes of this episode, but he’s a breath of fresh air after all the tense events leading up to his appearance, including a total breakdown from Coulson, who finds himself desperate to fight for something because he feels powerless and misses his friend. After telling Coulson’s team that Nick Fury is indeed dead, Koenig pulls Coulson into his office for a private conversation and casually drops the bombshell that Fury is totally alive. Only a few people can know and the rest of Coulson’s team hasn’t been vetted so he has to keep this a secret, which is a smart course of action because Agent Ward arrives at Providence shortly after to find out how Hydra can gain access to Skye’s encrypted hard drive.

The episode ends with the reveal that Garrett has recovered Ian Quinn’s Gravitonium, a mercurial substance that potentially contains the consciousness of Franklin Hall, the civilian identity of the comic-book supervillain known as Graviton. The pieces are falling into place, and the products of all those formulaic early episodes are now coming together to create something much less predictable. “Providence” doesn’t have quite the same momentum as the last two chapters, but it’s still an entertaining hour of television that captivates by delivering regular twists and giving these characters more complexity. The future is uncertain for Coulson and his team, but there’s something exciting about not knowing what direction this show is heading and just going along with the ride.

Stray observations:

  • Is this show setting up a Simmons/Triplett romance? It’s sure beginning to look that way. I approve of this development.
  • Skye’s hair extensions are getting a bit out of control. Does a secret agent really need that much hair volume?
  • Adrian Pasdar is wearing a horrible fake mustache for Talbot, right? Because it looks like two piece of electric tape.
  • Garrett has some cybernetic modifications on his torso. Interesting…
  • Coulson: “Tell me something good.” Skye: “We have Internet.” Coulson: “Yay! (Pause.) And boy, have I lowered my expectations.”
  • Garrett: “Hail, Hydra!” Kaminsky: “Alright, alright. Put your arms down, Kaminsky. You look like a West Texas cheerleader at a pep rally.”
  • Fitz: “Okay. Have you even read Moby Dick?” Triplett: “Yeah. Have you?” Fitz: “That’s not the point.”
  • “Lanyards for others will be distributed on a case-by-case basis.”

More TV Club