The Uprising story arc continues tonight, and events over the last two weeks have left more questions than answers. We get two new guests with fan recognition – and geek cred – in Adrian Pasdar (from Heroes) and Patton Oswalt (who needs no introduction), which show a willingness on the part of showrunners to continue bringing in new faces to maintain momentum. As far as the continuing narrative of the show is concerned, we return to a team divided and on the run, not only from Hydra but from government and military agencies. Where will Coulson go? What is Ward really doing? And how long will he survive if May ever gets her hands on him? Click through after the break for my episode recap and review.
<<Spoiler Alert: This review of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. S01E18 – “Providence” – will discuss major plot points and events in the episode, as well as spoilers that apply to events in the recently released movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier; read at your own risk!>>
We begin with Raina, the lady in the flower dress, now dressed in prison grays as she folds an origami flower. She adds it to a shelf full of other origami flowers, when she hears an explosion and gunfire. She sits on the bed and waits, and we hear keys at her door. It’s Ward, and she asks him what she’s doing there. He hands her a gift, and tells her it’s from the Clairvoyant. Inside is a beautiful floral print dress, black on red.
At the Hub, Coulson is getting things under control, taking in reports and issuing orders. Skye walks up to him, with a report on the number of secured S.H.I.E.L.D. bases. He asks if there are seven, but she replies that there are three. “Plus the Hub,” he says. “Including the Hub,” she replies.
Jump to Havana, and Ward is taking Raina inside a barber shop. She introduces her to the Clairvoyant – Garrett is sitting there having just gotten a shave. He thanks Raina for her work on the Centipede project, and reveals that he isn’t really a psychic. She’s disillusioned, accusing him of being a fraud and a con-artist. He replies that he’s “an artist,” but denies the fraud. All the time they’re talking, Ward is standing in the background, smirking and generally looking evil. I was kind of beginning to enjoy Brett Dalton’s work as Ward, as he seemed to be showing a bit more range, but here he’s just plain camping it up. It’s almost as though you can hear the director in the background, saying, “Look more evil! Look like you’re relishing every eeeeevil moment!” Of course, said in a thick German Werner Herzog accent (or Russian, with director Milan Cheylov at the helm). Garrett leads Raina to the barber’s chair, getting her to sit. “Welcome to Hydra,” he says, as he hits a switch and the chair begins to sink into the floor.
At the Hub, Fitz is trying to fix the Bus’s hanger bay door, and is arguing with Simmons over the future of S.H.I.E.L.D. and of the team. This is a recurring theme throughout tonight’s episode, with Fitz and Simmons kind of acting like the show’s conscience at times. As Fitz works, Simmons points out that he’ll need to ground the wires, but he ignores her. He tells Agent Triplett to turn on the power. The connection sparks wildly, nearly electrocuting Fitz. Once it’s turned off, Trip walks over and tells him it’ll need to be grounded. Fitz is visibly angry with Trip for trying to help.
In the Hub’s control room, Coulson receives a call from Colonel Talbot, an American military officer. I just need to take a moment here and say: Talbot’s mustache is the worst fake mustache I have ever seen. It looks more fake that a fake mustache worn on Halloween purely for laughs. That it’s worn here by a serious character makes it even funnier, but it doesn’t really fit with the otherwise serious tenor of the episode. Coulson tries to reassure him that things are being taken care of, and that the Hub is under S.H.I.E.L.D. control, but Talbot doesn’t seem to be buying it, informing Coulson that he’s coming with a group of Peace Keepers in order to monitor and check out the Hub. Turnabout’s fair play, and Coulson doesn’t buy Talbot’s speech about Peace Keepers, either. He tells May and Skye that he’s “initiating Odyssey Protocol,” and tells Skye that this means they’re “getting the hell out of here.”
May informs Coulson that there’s not a lot of fuel for the Bus at the Hub, so their range is limited. Trip approaches and asks to be brought aboard. Coulson refuses, but after Simmons intervenes, he relents – but Trip is Simmons’ responsibility. In the background, Fitz looks shocked at Simmons’ actions, and none too happy either.
They all head onto the Bus, and Coulson assesses their total supplies. There’s not a lot, and only a couple of day’s worth of food. Trip informs Coulson that there’s a fuel leak – which he can fix once they land. They have maybe four hour’s fuel on board with the leak taken into account. Coulson heads to the briefing room, where he sees Skye – “Tell me good news,” he says, and she replies, “We have Internet.” “Yay,” he responds in a particularly listless manner. Skye mentions that Ward and Hand must have arrived at the Fridge by now, and Coulson gives his phone to her so that she can call Ward. He further tells her to collect everyone’s badges once she’s done, and to use her skills to completely erase all information about all team members from off the net, effectively rendering them non-existant.
We see Ward and Garrett, in their underground lair in Havana, planning things nefarious, when Ward’s cell phone rings. Garrett looks annoyed, and Ward looks at the phone – “It’s Coulson,” he says. He answers, and calls Skye by name so that Garrett is aware of whom he’s speaking with. He tells her some story about being chased by Navy jets to explain why they haven’t arrived at the Fridge yet, tying it in to her report that Colonel Talbot is going to the Hub. They banter and flirt, Skye telling him that she’s erasing his identity as they speak – he can now be anything he wants to be. Quite the loaded comment – but instead of saying something witty like, oh, Hydra double-agent, Ward suggests Tom Brady. Garrett mocks him as soon as he gets off the phone, pointing out that Ward hates the Patriots. Ward counters that the Ward Skye knows doesn’t. Garrett compliments him on his ability to hide in this other skin, saying, “I don’t even think Romanoff could pull that one,” making reference to the Black Widow, an absolute mistress of disguise and alternate identities. Thing is, Ward’s actually kind of angry. Garrett tries to dismiss his concerns, but Ward says, “Shooting Skye wasn’t part of the deal.” Garrett reminds him that he wasn’t to get close to Coulson’s team, although it did provide them with useful information – it was through Ward’s discussion with Coulson that Garrett was able to find out about the cellist, for example. The one key thing that their conversation reveals, however, is that Ward didn’t get turned – he’s been Hydra’s man since the beginning. His recruitment coincided with his recruitment into S.H.I.E.L.D.
Raina enters – she seems to have come to terms with Garrett’s distinct lack of psychic ability. He tells her that he wants her to complete Phase III. They’ve not only saved all the equipment that Raina though was destroyed, but Garrett smuggled out as many samples of drugs as he could fit inside his vest while he was in the T.A.H.I.T.I. facility with Coulson. He shows her several of the test results – a series of dead bodies, the one he exposes covered in huge red welts. Ward pulls the hard drive Skye backed up the Bus’s computers to, and hands it to Raina – he tells her that all the bloodwork Simmons has been doing on Skye and Coulson is on the drive, and it may provide the breakthrough she needs. Garrett and Ward turn to leave, telling Raina that they’re going to go attack the most secure S.H.I.E.L.D. facility. “The Fridge?” she asks. “Oh, you’ve heard of it,” Garrett replies. “Yeah, well, we’re going to raid it.”
Cut to the Bus, which is flying low enough to the ocean to raise a wake behind it. In Coulson’s office, Skye hands over the team’s badges, telling him that Simmons in particular was unhappy about giving hers up. Coulson opens his safe, but as he’s placing the badges inside, he notices a series of numbers lighting up on the base of his badge. It’s coordinates, and he’s certain they’re being sent by Director Fury – that Fury is, in fact, still alive.
We jump to the briefing room, where Coulson fills in the team – they’re heading to the location indicated by the coordinates, high in the Canadian north. Trip and others express concern, and he tells them that anyone who doesn’t want to come is welcome to leave – there are parachutes in the hanger bay.
Garrison is getting his assault team prepped for the raid on the Fridge (there’s a moment of humor when one over-zealous Hydra soldier throws both arms up in the air, saying “Hail Hydra!” Garrett tells him he looks like a cheerleader). Ward and Raina are off to one side, Raina probing. Ward accuses her of trying to get to him, to manipulate, and she demurs, suggesting that if that were the case, she’d be talking about how he got in close with Coulson’s team. She turns earnest; she’s met Coulson, and he’s a good man – surely, she asks, Ward owes him some loyalty? Ward looks over at Garrett. “Sure,” he says, “but I owe Garrett everything.”
Coulson is sitting at his desk and May approaches. He’s very dismissive, borderline rude – he’s not ready to forgive her for going behind his back anytime soon. She doesn’t help matters when she tells him she’s there to relieve him of his weapon. She’s worried; the primary reason Fury had her watching Coulson was that they weren’t sure what effects his massive surgery and other treatments would have on him. She suggests that if they were able to implant images of Tahiti in his brain, they may have implanted deeper, more sinister thoughts – Hydra, perhaps? May admits that she doesn’t know who was behind the project to resurrect Coulson – only Fury does, and as far as they know, he’s dead. Coulson refuses to hand over his gun, and challenges May – she backs down.
Below in the lab, Trip is helping Fitz and Simmons moving items about. He says that he respects Coulson, but he doubts his judgement in this case. He suggests that Coulson is “chasing the white whale.” Fitz, ever on the defensive around Trip, reflexively takes on the opposing viewpoint, asking, “Have you even read Moby Dick?” Trip says he has, and asks Fitz if he has too – but Fitz replies, “That isn’t relevant,” and points out that Coulson has yet to steer them wrong, and that they should trust him. Simmons backs up Trip, and Fitz, again, looks stunned.
Ward and Garrett arrive at the Fridge. There’s only one way in, from the roof, and they’re dropped off by a transport that immediately takes off again. The guards at the entrance refuse to let them in; their orders are to only open the door to Agent Hand. Ward acts annoyed, and pretends to phone Hand, when suddenly an attack chopper pulls up over the edge of the roof and opens fire on them. This seemed just a little beyond belief to me – seriously, would S.H.I.E.L.D.’s “most secure base” not have a) radar to warn of incoming aircraft, or b) air defenses if they came under attack? Not a very secure site at all, really.
The guards inside cave-in pretty easily, allowing Ward and Garrett inside. Ward shoots the guards, and they don gas masks. Below, we see them walking by several bodies, the rest of the Hydra team now with them. They remove their masks, and start to raid the base. It turns out that the Slingshot program – the program which sends extremely dangerous items rocketing into the sun – is a cover; all the items that were supposedly destroyed are kept here in a secure room. Garrett has access, and he tells his team to grab everything they can carry, the more dangerous the better. He and Ward grab the plasma beam weapon Coulson’s team found in Peru back in Episode 102, “0-8-4” (read my review here).
In Canada, the Bus is arriving, landing in a clearing in a dense forest. Coulson, dressed in winter gear, informs the team that it’s a seven mile hike over tough terrain to the coordinates, and despite their doubts, he’s going “with or without you.” They have eight hours before a NATO satellite will be over their location, so they need to move immediately. The team follows.
Back at the Fridge, Ward is looking at the Asgardian staff that causes so many problems in Episode 108 “The Well” (you can find my review here), while Garrett uses the beam weapon to free high-security prisoners. He wishes them well, and gloats over how much of a distraction they’ll be to Coulson – we may have just seen several episodes’ worth of baddies stream by the camera. Ward takes the beam weapon and points it at the floor. Garrett insists they’re on the bottom floor, that he’s seen the blueprints, but Ward disagrees – they make a bet; loser buys the other dinner. Ward fires the weapon, and the two crouch down, smiling. “Well hello, gorgeous,” Garrett says.
In the northern forest, Coulson and co are making their way through the snow. Fitz and Simmons hang back a bit. Fitz is now expressing some doubts, but Simmons reminds him, “We still have each other.” Fitz reads this in a way Simmons doesn’t intend, replying, “Good. Because the last thing I want is for things to change.” Again, misunderstanding dictates her answer, as she says, “Fitz, it’s too late for that.” She’s speaking about their overall situation – they, the team, still have each other to depend on, but the situation has changed: S.H.I.E.L.D. destroyed, Hydra ascendant. Fitz reads the interaction as a commentary on their personal relationship. He’s hoping to still enjoy their platonic love for one another, and is jealous of Trip’s attraction to Simmons – and her reciprocation. He thus reads her second comment as a dismissal – he didn’t act when he had the chance, and she’s moved on. Elsewhere, Skye approaches May and asks her why Fury had her spying on Coulson. May hesitates a moment, then, weighing Fury’s death and the need of people around her to trust her again, she tells Skye that the doctors who worked on Coulson were concerned that he might become unstable, unpredictable, if he were to learn of the procedures done to him.
After some time, the team comes to a halt. Coulson says they’ve arrived, but there’s nothing at all to be seen, no sign of Fury or a base. The rest of the team’s concerns are voiced by Fitz – fitting, as he’s been the most adamant that Coulson be followed. He asks whether they shouldn’t perhaps head back, Trip echoing the same. Coulson admitting the fact that there is no fuel left in the Bus simply exacerbates the situation. Coulson attempts to regain control. He says, “The world needs us. Hydra is out there. We cannot let them win. We…we cannot let them define us.” He catches his breath, and apologizes to the team, tossing his badge away in frustration. Suddenly, a turret erupts from a rock, tracks the badge briefly, and destroys it in a flurry of bullets. They all leap for cover, uncertain who or what is controlling the weapon. Coulson says there’s one way to find out, and steps out from cover. A robotic voice asks him to identify himself: “Phil Coulson, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.” The voice responds, “Welcome Agent Coulson; we’ve been expecting you.” A rock wall behind the turret slides open, revealing a well-lit corridor going back into the rock.
Garrett and Ward are arriving back in their Havana lair (I could say base, but all great villains have a lair, don’t they?), and Garrett is telling his protege that he’s never been happier “to buy a man a steak in my life.” “Wait until you see the bill,” Ward says, which can be read in two possible ways: humorous banter, or a hidden, cryptic meaning. The writers keep trying to toy with us, but sometimes it just comes across as confused. Raina has bad news for them – she’s used three different hackers, but none of them can access the hard drive: Skye’s made it so that if anyone tries to access the information, it will erase itself.
Back in the north, the team walks inside, and is greeted by Agent Eric Koenig [Patton Oswalt], who has been here in isolation keeping this secret base prepared for Director Fury since the Chitauri invasion. He also tells them that he calls the base Providence, although there is no actual official name, as it doesn’t officially exist. He apologizes for the defensive guns outside, and asks what it was that set them off. When Coulson tells him it was his badge, he pauses: “That will be…difficult to replace.” He does, however, tell Coulson that he’ll issue him with a lanyard, although no one else gets one for the moment. He takes Coulson aside for a private conversation. He tells him he’s been enjoying the isolation, playing a lot of Call of Duty with his brother online. He asks Coulson if he plays it too, and he replies, “Of course, but not much lately.” Small talk done, Koenig informs him that Fury is, in fact, still alive – but he’s not allowed to tell anyone else on the team. Coulson reluctantly agrees to keep it secret for the moment.
Meanwhile, Skye and Ward have been chatting on the cell phone, and Ward informs Garrett about the secret arctic base. Garrett tells him he knows what he has to do, and commiserates: “Hey, we all have our weaknesses,” he says, as he pulls his shirt down over a metal plate covering his left side. It looks almost alien – could be of Chitauri origin, but it’s uncertain from the brief glimpse we’re given. Garrett helps get Ward back into character, punching him in the face and stomach, making Ward introduce himself over and over again. “Convince me,” Garrett says.
We cut to the hidden Providence base, and Skye is opening the door for a bloodied and bruised Ward. She says that once they’re done with business, maybe they can grab that drink. She heads down the hallway, and the camera lingers on Ward’s face – he’s doing his whole “eeeeevil leer” again, and then he follows her. Better hope that this super secure hidden base, which is being run by a paranoid and isolated agent who doesn’t trust anyone else on Coulson’s team, doesn’t have a camera near it’s entrance – again, a bit silly. We don’t need a reminder that Ward is a bad guy now, so the leer does nothing more than twirl a metaphorical mustache, and says the writers don’t trust us, the audience, enough to understand what’s going on. Frankly, a bit of an insult right at the end of the episode, which left a bad taste in my mouth.
The stinger takes us back to Havana, where Quinn has arrived, fresh from his imprisonment at the Fridge. He’s angry, more so when he finds out that the Clairvoyant isn’t psychic at all. He’s ready to call it quits on Hydra, when Garrett turns to Raina and says, “You didn’t tell him?” “I wanted to keep it a surprise,” she says. Garrett takes Quinn to a locked storage box, and opens the lid. Inside is Quinn’s gravitonium – and Quinn’s right back on Team Hydra again.
This episode was a bit hit and miss after the last two weeks of superior outings. Running parallel storylines following the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and Hydra was a good idea, and played out well. Patton Oswalt’s Agent Koenig was acted with just the right touch of fanboyism, showing that while Coulson’s a bit of a fanboy when it comes to Captain American, Coulson himself has his fans among lower ranking agents. I thought this added some depth, and made Koenig a) instantly likeable, and b) fleshed out a character in very short order. Coulson is the most popular character on the series, so someone fawning over him aligns them with the audience immediately. The dissension within the team was well done, but Simmon’s willingness to agree with everything Trip says so soon after meeting him seems a little contrived; of course, if she’s never been in love before (which is indicated by her lack of social graces or understanding), then this might in fact be a natural reaction to the feelings she’s dealing with. Fitz was the strongest all around supporting character tonight, as he struggled both with his feelings and jealousy in the Simmons arena, and with his contested loyalty to Coulson competing with his internal doubts. Iain De Caestecker is quietly becoming one of the strongest components of the show. The addition of Patton Oswalt as Agent Koenig worked for me, and it appears the writers are allowing him some leeway in his presentation (I’m almost certain the lanyard comment was ad-libbed by Oswalt). It’s yet to be determined if Adrian Pasdar’s addition will be as smooth, but I really hope they do something to improve his fake mustache.
Where I really felt let down was in Brett Dalton’s reversion to campy, mono-dimensional acting, and with Bill Paxton’s constant mugging for the camera. Dalton [Agent Ward] is a relatively new actor, so I place most of the blame for this on the writing and directing. His concept of “now I’m evil Ward” is to sneer and nod a lot at everything Agent Garrett says, and to slightly change the timbre of his voice – but he just comes across as sounding whiny rather than menacing. I really enjoyed the depth he was developing in his relationships with the team; this week felt like a real step back for him. Paxton, on the other hand, has no excuse whatsoever. He’s an experienced actor who appears to not be taking his part on the show terribly seriously. If this were the 1960’s version of Batman, he’d fit right in – but in a show that purports to take itself seriously, he seems to be approaching the whole thing as a bit of a lark. I appreciated this when he was being the “hail fellow, well met” with Coulson the first couple of times we met him, but at this point, it’s almost as though he read every book on how to act as a stereotypical evil mastermind, and is applying it with tongue firmly planted in cheek. I think these two are being written to have a bit of comic effect, certainly in their repartee, but for now it’s just missing far more than it’s hitting. Another issue I had was with security. First, at the Fridge, they don’t have air defenses (or any way to detect an incoming hostile aircraft)? And then the guards disobey orders and let two people in, despite S.H.I.E.L.D. being under very serious attack? Not believable in the slightest. Second, if Agent Koenig only trusts Coulson, I suspect he’d only allow him in to begin with, and isolate the other people in some sort of lock-down, rather than giving them the run of the base, and allowing them to open the door for more additions (cf. Skye letting Ward inside).
These things aside, I did enjoy the episode, and I look forward to seeing how Uprising continues next week. On a side note, I’ll be in Hawaii for the next two episodes, so my reviews may take a little bit longer to get up (three hour time difference from the west coast, plus I’m on holidays!) – but the reviews will be up at some point.
Steve’s Grade: B
Some interesting new developments and a pair of new characters do something to mitigate terrible over-acting on the part of the Big Bads. Lots of McGuffins brought out of cold storage (read: the Fridge) mean that Coulson and co. should have their work cut out for them heading into the final stretch of four episodes this season.