All week, ABC has been lauding this week’s episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. as a tie-in to the just released Thor: The Dark World. While this might be a good thing for the series, which has yet to really find its feet, it also has the potential to derail any kind of momentum the show has been able to build up so far. Is having viewers directly comparing the TV series with its cinematic counterparts really what the people at Disney/Marvel want right now?
<<Spoiler Alert: This review of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. S01E08 – “The Well” – will discuss major plot points and events in the episode; read at your own risk!>>
The episode opens with Simmons doing a voice-over as we see sweeping vistas of alien planets, shots taken right from the movies. Asgaard is shown, and we cut to Greenwich, where the team is busy cleaning up the aftermath of one of Thor’s set-piece battles. Coulson laments that Asgard never seems to send “the god of cleaning up after yourself” when they have these big fights on Earth. He suspects they must have a broom – perhaps Sweepjnir? – to do this kind of work. Skye and May both agree that Thor is “Dreamy,” which seems to mildly annoy Coulson, and we see Simmons dealing rather uncomfortably with talking to her family. She’s not sure what to tell them about the battle that just ravaged parts of London (in the movie), nor is she ready to tell them that she almost died recently.
The main story follows the discovery of part of an Asgardian staff grown into an old tree in a forest in Norway. A man and a woman, using a poem as reference, find a tree surrounded by a ring of rocks, and cut it down. Inside, they find the staff, and when the woman grips it with her bare hands she is filled with an intense rage – one that also gives her tremendous strength, as we see when she knocks a forestry worker back a couple of dozen yards with a straight arm to the chest.
The team shows up to investigate. Again, Simmons deals with her personal demons, a new found fear of heights, as she needs to climb the tree to investigate the hollow left behind by the staff. Once they realize it is Asgardian in origin, Coulson takes the team to meet with a professor of mythology in Seville – apparently, Thor is now “off the grid,” and unable to help them translate the runic inscriptions on the side of their reproduction of the staff. In Seville, they ask Professor Elliot Randolph (Peter MacNicol) if he can help. He’s fascinated by the staff fragment they’ve copied, and quickly finds a description of a similar item in one of his books: an Asgardian Berserker staff. He tells them the story of the Berserker army that came to Earth ages past, and how one of the warriors fell in love and stayed behind while the rest returned home. He broke his staff in three and hid the pieces – being Asgardin, it contained power, in this case the power to enrage, so it was safest broken and hidden. Three verses in the book describe where they were hidden, the first speaking of a stone circle surrounding a tree – obviously, the location of the first piece that has been found. The other two refer to a crypt and to a place “close to God.” Back on the bus, Coulson and team figure out a likely location for the second staff – an ancient cemetery, and Coulson delivers the best line of the night in absolute deadpan: “Let’s see what we can dig up. See what I did there?” It’s little moments like this that reveal the no-nonsense Coulson from the early Marvel films, and makes me suspicious over the possibility (perhaps likelihood at this point) that he is an LMP (Life Model Decoy). Although everything has been pointing in that direction from the very first episode, there are still the occasional moments that cast a little doubt – but I suspect these are just minor red herrings.
Ward and Skye go into the crypt to see if the second piece of staff is there. Fitz notes that there is an alien energy signature nearby, but it is moving – someone has beaten them to the staff. Ward rounds the corner, only to find Professor Randolph clutching a bag with a poorly concealed Asgardian artifact poking out the top. Ward grabs it, and is suddenly filled with the same intense rage we saw the woman experience earlier in the episode. We see flashes of a boy in a well, with another boy standing at the top looking down – a flashback to Ward’s childhood, but which child is he? Randolph gets away, only to be confronted by the Norwegians, now made up of about a half dozen enraged and empowered goons. They throw the professor’s car through the air, and take the staff. Coulson finds him picking up his books. “I screwed up,” he says.
They take the professor back to the bus, where Coulson interrogates him, and Ward deals with some anger issues. He insults the three younger members of the team, saving his worst for Fitz, whom he basically accuses of being too weak to save Simmons. This one hits Fitz particularly hard, even though he knows it’s the staff, not Ward, that is behind the aggression. Ward then almost punches May, but her reflexes are up to the task, and she offers to help him deal with his rage. Ward approaches Coulson and tells him that whatever the staff has done to him has made him unreliable – but Coulson points out that in recognizing his problem, it shows that he can be relied on. He sends him in to speak with Randolph, encouraging him to use his rage. Ward pulls a knife, but as he swings it at the professor, Randolph grabs it and twists the metal blade in his bare hand. “You were right,” Ward says to Coulson, “he’s Asgardian.” Coulson twigged to this fact because, despite the fact that the staff had been hidden for centuries, the professor was able to find it with almost no effort. This does not, however, take into account two real issues with suspension of disbelief in this episode: if people have been searching for this staff, and they have all had access to the same verses revealing the location of the pieces, how is it that the Norwegian duo found the first one, and that the S.H.I.E.L.D. team is able to so quickly figure out the second verse? Why didn’t researchers at S.H.I.E.L.D. already look into every Norse myth and resource out there, following the revelation that Thor et al are real? If Mjolnir exists, surely there is the potential for other artifacts of immense power, and this is precisely the sort of thing that S.H.I.E.L.D. is designed to deal with. Coulson tells the team that he has used Professor Randolph before with regard to Thor, and Coulson is far too focused on the details not to have scanned/noted every title of every book in the professor’s library. The fact that, when posed with the second verse revealing the location of the staff piece, it takes the team literally seconds to figure it out, speaks of a heavy-handed Deus ex machina at work. The logic of the episode broke down for me a bit at this point; fortunately, the internal logic flaws did not detract overly much from other, more interesting aspects of the episode.
It turns out that Randolph is actually the Asgardian Berserker who fell in love and stayed behind on Earth. He tells us that he was nothing, a mere worker, when the call to battle came. He grabbed it as his chance for glory, but found that war was not his forte. He’s been living on Earth ever since, falling in love constantly, if his flirtatious and poetic turns are to be believed. He takes the team to a monastery in Ireland, only to discover that the piece of staff has already been removed. The Norwegian duo and their cadre of large angry men (made angrier by their contact with the staff) have shown up ahead of them, and now the team has to face an enraged horde, all of whom are imbued with god-like strength. Just a quick aside: again, how do the Norwegians figure out this location with such ease? They’re three for three, and just as good as (really, better than) the S.H.I.E.L.D. team is with their Asgardian insider. Back to the scene: the leader of the group stabs Randolph through the chest, and Randolph falls to the ground dead. Fitz and Simmons try to save him with CPR, but they don’t understand Asgardian physiology. Coulson intervenes, thrusting his hand through the wound and directly manipulating Randolph’s heart, trying to save him. Meanwhile, Ward is in the nave of the church, taking on the enemies. His advanced combat training combined with the rage and strength still coursing through him enable him to deal with most of the enemies, but he’s wearing out fast. May takes over, gripping two of the staff pieces and defeating the woman who had the initial contact with the staff at the beginning of the episode. As she fights, the staff starts to come together, and she is soon holding the staff made whole again. She’s unbeatable, and as the bad guys lie in heaps all around her and Ward, she looks to be in complete control. Randolph comes to at about this time up on the balcony overlooking the nave, and stares up at Simmons leaning over him. He tells her that she is the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen, and she blushes as Fitz looks just a little uncomfortable.
Ward has been fighting his inner demons throughout the episode, seeing flashbacks of the well over and over again, each time revealing a little more of what happened, each time a little more intense (especially when he grips the staff again in order to gain its strength). He’s the boy at the top of the well looking down, but he isn’t helping the drowning boy. A subsequent flashback shows us why: his older, stronger brother threatens to throw him down the well with the other boy, should he try to help. Does the boy live or die? We don’t find out at this point. After the fight, he asks May how she’s able to deal with the images the staff brings into their minds, and she tells him its the same image she deals with every day – no repressed memories for Agent May.
The denouement of the episode finds the S.H.I.E.L.D. team packing up the staff for storage and research, and the team limping their way back to a hotel for some much needed r&r. Ward is having a drink at the hotel bar, and tells Skye to enjoy the downtime, because it is such a rarity. He retires, and while standing at his door sees May enter her own room, a bottle (Scotch or Brandy) with her. She gives Ward an intense look, and leaves her door open. After a moment of hesitation, he follows, shutting the door behind him. Of all the possible trysts that have been hinted at in the show, this one surprises me the most. It isn’t because there’s no attraction between them – Ward has made it clear that he admires May – and it isn’t because of their age difference. For me, it was surprising because May very rarely shows her emotional, personal self. But in this episode, she and Ward have experienced the same kind of psychological pain, and in Ward she now sees someone who understands her on a level perhaps only Coulson does – and he’s the boss, so nothing is going to happen there, even if it may have in the past.
The stinger shows us Coulson lying on a massage table, having his back oiled and rubbed. “Did I fall asleep?” he asks. “For a little while,” the masseuse replies. “Honestly,” Coulson says, “Tahiti’s too good to be true.” She replies, “I know. It’s a magical place.” Coulson jolts awake in a cold sweat aboard the bus. This has been his catch phrase anytime his death and convalescence come up, and to hear someone else say it, especially in a vivid dream, causes Coulson to question his own memories and reality. He’s said before that he doesn’t remember anything for certain stretches of time, coming to in Tahiti with no knowledge of how he got there. He’s also been investigating his own physical and mental state, as he clearly recognizes that something is amiss. But here we see him realize for the first time that he’s been programmed in some way – whether through brainwashing, or literally through coding (if he is, indeed, an LMD). Not only his reality, but his existence as a viable, sovereign individual must therefore come into question. But the thing is, the writers haven’t been exactly subtle about this whole mystery. Their hints at Coulson’s unusual circumstances are getting heavy-handed, and I’m really hoping they resolve these questions soon – hopefully in next week’s episode (they’ll be going on a two-and-a-half week hiatus after that, returning on Friday, December 13th).
There were some problems with this episode. The focus on Ward’s back story was interesting, although it seems now that each and every one of the team members is fighting inner demons. Simmons has her fear of heights and confrontation; Fitz is insecure about his ability to perform when surrounded by people he views as superior; Skye has mommy issues; May is feeding off of her own inner pain (and may be the most well-balanced of the team for it); Coulson is questioning his humanity; and Ward is dealing with brother issues. I guess that, in the grand scheme of things, humans are complicated, and we all carry that weight with us. It’s just that for a one hour television drama, the writers seem to be really trying to push this on the viewers a little too quickly, and it comes across as disingenuous and forced. A natural story arc that shows character development over the course of the season would work much more effectively here, but instead it’s as though they have tried to cram three or four seasons of character into eight episodes. I would like to see some resolutions within the season, so that they can begin to focus on bigger issues. It’s obviously important to build up sympathy with the audience, else they’ll lose more viewers. But their heavy-handed approach has already turned people off Skye due to her early Mary-Sue manifestations, and this still makes her difficult to like even after the last four episodes have treated her as just another team member. If they continue to treat their audience as though it doesn’t understand nuance, they’ll continue to lose more viewers. The staff MacGuffin acts plot-wise in exactly the same way as the centipede device, the gravity particle, and the centipede injections have in earlier episodes, so not really a lot new there. Calling it Asgardian is merely convenient, but not necessary – what it does provide is an opportunity to address the “gods among us” issue that has been a subtext of the entire series so far. The motivation of the Norwegian questers after the staff is more of that: they know that gods exist, and want to be gods themselves. To be honest, they look more like they’re getting ready to go to an Apocalyptica concert than getting ready to take over the world, so they likely had a lot of pent up rage to begin with (maybe they’re more Rammstein than Apocalyptica). They have great black shirts and some faux goth cred, but of the bad guys we’ve seen so far, their motivations are the least well-defined, with no back story at all and just a few scenes of angry people shouting between fights.
I did enjoy this episode. It had some decent action, a nice tie-in to Asgard and the Thor movie, and some subtle character development (May and Ward bonding) to go with the heavy-handedness. While Asgard plays a role, to call it a true tie-in is stretching a bit. The episode and the movie share one location and an alien race, but that’s about it, which works in the episode’s favor. If they had tried to connect it too closely to the movie, it would likely have paled in comparison with the big budget production. I’m looking forward to seeing what – if anything – happens between Ward and May, and how the other team members will react (if they even find out, although I suspect that Coulson will know). The Fitz/Simmons budding romance seemed to cool off a bit this week, which isn’t a bad thing (see my comments on forced character development above). Skye’s role was minimal and non-invasive. Perhaps I’ll start liking her again at some point. Overall a solid journeyman episode.
Steve’s Grade: B
A good episode that focuses on Ward and the inner demons that plague us. Coulson is beginning to wonder just how magical Tahiti really is, and May reveals that she has learned to tame her demons, and is willing to help Ward tame his as well.