I haven’t seen Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but I suspect this episode’s success is largely thanks to that film, which promises major changes to the S.H.I.E.L.D. status quo. This is where the connection to the Marvel Cinematic Universe becomes extremely beneficial for Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., forcing the writers to kick the plot into high gear because there are major developments unfolding on the big screen in just a few days. (If you live outside of the United States, you’ve probably already seen The Winter Soldier. Please don’t spoil it in comments.)
“The Beginning Of The End” is far and away the strongest episode of this series, offering legitimate stakes, significant story developments, and characters that have an established place in Marvel history. It finally gives a face to this season’s big bad and plants mysteries for the final episodes of the season, giving Coulson and his team a purpose for existing by making them the rogue team they should have been from the start. It’s a massive step up that also feels like the first time this cast has really gelled as a unit, with each cast member filling a specific role and doing a pretty good job at it.
My excitement for The Winter Soldier makes me more interested in the MCU, which translates to more concern for S.H.I.E.LD. It’s one of the major benefits of being connected to a franchise that has a particularly excitable fanbase, and now that this series has started to work out the kinks of its first season and establish a direction for the future, it can take advantage of that synergy to build a bigger audience. If the rest of this season moves with the same pace as “The Beginning Of The End,” this series may actually live up to the promise of it’s cinematic pedigree.
This week marks the debut of the cybernetic Deathlok in action, who appears along with John Garrett, Victoria Hand, and Jasper Sitwell to make this the S.H.I.E.L.D. episode with the most comic book connections yet. Deathlok’s laser tag vest costume design is very unfortunate, but the rest of the character works well here, turning the former Marine father into a killing machine who has lost his humanity. The design works better after the scene where Deathlok receives an augmentation for his arm that gives him Mega Man-like weapons capabilities; the process of attaching the gauntlet reveals that Mike Peterson has been grafted to technology that is reminiscent of both StarkTech and Extremis, and that’s what the laser tag vest is supposed to be: a big Iron Man-styled chest plate.
The chest plate looks silly with that long-sleeve black shirt under it, but I guess that’s supposed to make him more inconspicuous? Imagine how much cooler Deathlok would look if there was no shirt and you could see the flesh where the machinery had fused to it. There are plenty of make-up artists that could create that effect and straddle the line between cool and gross, and it would help sell the idea that he’s inseparable from these augmentations. An X-ray scan of Deathlok in this episode reveals the character’s traditional comic design with the half-chrome-dome, and it would be awesome if this show had the balls to wear away at Mike Petersen’s skin over time and eventually bring him closer to his appearance on the page.
One of the most interesting moments of this episode is when Petersen shows confusion at not being injured by a bullet to the head, suggesting that he’s unaware of what’s been done to him and adding extra horror to the character’s situation. J. August Richards showed a talent for existential confusion and despair playing Gunn on Angel, making him a smart choice of actor to lend pathos to a character that mostly just shows up, shoots missiles, and runs off.
In terms of other characters from the comics, Sitwell doesn’t do much in this episode, but Hand and Garrett play significant roles. Titus Welliver’s Agent Blake rounds out the S.H.I.E.L.D. guest star line-up, making a brief appearance to turn up the stakes in the first act. Bill Paxton and Welliver are two seasoned actors that know how to work a camera, and they bring a lot of charisma to this episode. Exchanges like Blake hitting on May as they investigate a nursing home are so important to this series, providing moments of humor by showing who these characters are when they’re not in super serious action hero mode. The same goes for Garrett’s car conversation with Coulson, a nice relaxed moment that builds up their relationship by sharing a story from the past.
It’s long been theorized that the Clairvoyant is a high-ranking S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, and while I predicted two episodes ago that it would be John Garrett, we learn this week that the Clairvoyant is in an even higher position of power. (It’s very possible that Garrett is still in on it, though.) Victoria Hand acts super shady from the very start and constantly gets in Coulson’s way as he tries to track down the Clairvoyant, so it’s not a huge surprise when she’s revealed to be the season’s villain, but it’s very nice to finally get a confirmation of the Clairvoyant’s identity. Victoria Hand debuted as a villain in the comics (she would later switch to the side of the angels), so it makes sense to continue the trend on screen, and she’s appeared on the series enough times to give the reveal some weight.
The Clairvoyant reveal is the biggest development this week, but there’s a nice balance of subplots that makes this episode feel considerably more substantial than what came before. To start, this is the first time there’s a real reason for everyone to be on the team. Skye getting injected with alien goo makes her a wild card and gives her a stronger connection to Coulson, and provides Fitz and Simmons with a purpose as they try to figure out the mystery of the drug that brings people back from the brink of death. (Spoilers: the drug is alien goo.)
It turns out surviving a gut-shot and having your cellular structure reformatted by alien DNA is the shortcut to becoming a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, and this episode begins by formally inducting Skye into the organization she and her friends are about to fight. It’s amazing how much Skye’s character benefits from becoming a Level 1 S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, officially turning her into the team’s spunky rookie with unlocked potential and a mysterious origin. Recent events have given Skye a stronger place within the team, and now she’s just the resident savant tech guru instead of the maybe terrorist they keep around against all common sense, and they’ll need her skills as they face off against the world’s most powerful surveillance organization.
Ward and May are the muscle, but their characters become more complex as the episode progresses: Ward lets his romantic feelings for Skye affect his performance in the field, and May is forced to deal with the fallout when the rest of the team finds out she’s been keeping tabs on them. Ward is the big surprise this week, and while the first half of the episode appears to be building to a big romantic moment for Skye and Ward, things take a big turn when Ward kills the paralyzed man who he believes to be the Clairvoyant, presumably because he wants to protect Skye.
Ward killing an innocent man because he’s being manipulated by the organization he’s dedicated his life to adds an excellent wrinkle to his character, and it’s refreshing to see writer Paul Zbyszewski push the Skye/Ward dynamic in a different, more complicated direction. In a show where characters shoot bullets that put people to sleep, the scene with Ward shooting a paralyzed man dead at point-blank range feels like a defining moment, something that would end up in one of those psych evaluations that the Clairvoyant is using to fake psychic powers. Once Coulson finds out that the Clairvoyant is likely someone within S.H.I.E.L.D. with high security clearance, he immediately assumes that Ward was given orders to eliminate Thomas Nash so that the Clairvoyant file would be closed, but his suspicion is directed in the wrong place.
While working in the plane’s server room, Fitz discovers that the plane’s communication systems are being tampered with. He snoops around and finds May’s encrypted line, and all hell breaks loose when Skye and Coulson learn about May’s secret just as they’ve figured out that the Clairvoyant is a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. The tense stand-off between Skye, Coulson, and May is one of the show’s strongest scenes, and Ming-Na Wen gives a particularly textured performance as she finds herself in the middle of a deadly misunderstanding. May can’t say anything because they’re being bugged and she doesn’t want to reveal how much she knows, but Coulson interprets her silence as an admission of her guilt.
There are still six episodes in this season, and recent casting announcements have definitely helped build more interest, starting with Amy Acker appearing in two weeks as Coulson’s infamous cellist ex-girlfriend, and she’s bringing along Patrick Brennan as Blackout, a D-list Nova villain that can manipulate “Darkforce”. Patton Oswalt is also set to guest star as new character Agent Eric Koenig, joining the previously announced Adrian Pasdar as Hulk villain Glenn Talbot. I don’t know how long Acker will be on the show, but I’d love to see her sign up for a few episodes so that she could reunite with her Angel costar J. August Richards when Deathlok develops a taste for the haunting sounds of the cello.
This episode ends with the Victoria Hand reveal, followed by a sneak preview of The Winter Soldier that also serves as a tag leading into next week’s story. While it’s unlikely that the landscape of this series will change immediately, concluding with a clip that is directly related to S.H.I.E.L.D. suggests that something big is on the horizon, and this episode shows that its very possible this series can pull everything together for a satisfying finale to a lackluster first season.
- If you haven’t read Elektra: Assassin, the series the introduced Paxton’s Agent Garret, seek that out immediately and delight in the combination of ’80s Frank Miller writing and incredible Bill Sienkiewicz art. For Deathlok reading, the character was recently a recurring character in Rick Remender’s Uncanny X-Force, one of the best X-Men stories of the past decade. Yay comics!
- I don’t know which studio owns Alpha Flight characters, but this episode drops a reference to Department H, the branch of the Canadian government that monitors and sanctions superhuman activity. Fox might own the mutant characters like Northstar, Aurora, and Puck, but are heroes like Guardian, Vindicator, Sasquath, Shaman, and Snowbird available for S.H.I.E.L.D. to use? The fanboy in me would love that.
- I thought I had no interest in ever hearing about Ward’s family and then Triplett drops a line about Ward’s family being the cable version of the Kennedys. That could actually be interesting.
- Props to the lighting team for that creepy green hallway leading up to Thomas Nash’s room. An easy way to create tension!
- “So you’re saying…we should obey the rules?” I love Elizabeth Henstridge’s delivery of this line. She’s really settled into the adorable Whedongirl role (see: Willow, Fred, Kaylee).
- “Strange is such a subjective term.”
- “And don’t call me Vic, it’s condescending.”
- “Bet the Clairvoyant didn’t see that coming.” Way to throw everybody off your trail with an incredibly shitty line, Ms. Hand.