Four weeks into the “Uprising” arc, and the tension keeps getting ratcheted up. With the wolf rejoining the flock, how long will it be before things come to a head? Lest I give anything away, I’ll wait until after the break to begin discussing tonight’s episode: click through to read on.
<<Spoiler Alert: This review of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. S01E19 – “The Only Light in the Darkness” – 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 open at a marina. One of the escapees from The Fridge is walking down a dock, looking sinister in a trench coat. He approaches a fisherman getting ready to go home, and tells him he needs a ride to Portland. The fisherman refuses, and the man waves his hand – the truck stops running. “How’d you do that?” the fisherman asks, and the man says, “Like this,” as he touches his hand to the other man’s chest, his eyes going dark and his skin graying immediately. He breathes his last and falls to the ground, and we see the escapee driving the truck away. On his wrist is an orange bracelet: “Daniels, Marcus” is what it says. As he drives away, street lights start going off as he passes. For fans of the comics, Daniels’ name may be familiar, and if it isn’t, his superpower certainly might be: he’s better known as Blackout, a villain who has been imbued with “Darkforce,” a kind of gamma ray equivalent that, while giving him powers, is also slowly driving him mad.
We jump to Providence base, where the entire team is surrounding Ward as Simmons patches him up. He tells them about Hydra’s attack on The Fridge, and about his narrow escape. He does throw in some truth – the prisoners freed, artifacts stolen – with some fancy – he shot Garrett twice in the back of the head – in order to keep things sounding legitimate. Coulson is particularly interested in whether or not Marcus Daniels was one of the escapees. Later, in another room, Coulson, May, and Skye are talking about likely problems to arise from the raid on The Fridge. Coulson states that he’s going to take part of the team to go after Daniels, but May objects – she very rightly points out that now, with S.H.I.E.L.D. splintered and Hydra on the rise, is not the time to go splitting up their team. Coulson will have none of it, telling her that there may be no S.H.I.E.L.D. at the moment, but he intends to go on protecting people. There’s more to this than initially meets the eye; Coulson is actually acting here based out of emotion rather than logic, and this, combined with his current distrust of May, prevents him from seeing clearly on the topic.
This is reaffirmed when we cut to Agent Koenig telling Coulson exactly the same thing – no one leaves. Coulson insists, and Koenig relents, kind of: he tells Coulson that “nobody leaves, until they go through Orientation.” I swear, you can hear the capitalization in his voice. Orientation is an extremely advanced lie detector – it looks somewhat like a Voight-Kampff machine from Blade Runner. and no one is eager to be the first to use it.
We see a series of team members going through, answering baseline questions and moving to more advanced ones as the scene progresses. They’re all given a scenario that places them on a deserted island with a box beside them, and asked what’s in the box. Simmons had the most interesting answer, saying, “A Tardis.” Perhaps the most telling answer was one of May’s – asked why she was with the team and what motivated her, she replied, “Coulson. It’s the only home I’ve ever known.” We also find that she was married once before, but not to whom – interesting. Trip is fleshed out a little bit more via the question and answer session, when we find out that he is a second generation (or third if his father was also an agent) S.H.I.E.L.D. agent – his grandfather was a Howling Commando (first seen cinematically in Captain America). Outside of the tardis comment, we do get one sop thrown out to all the Skye haters (I’ve been part of this number from time to time, although I’m finally warming toward her). Apparently, her birth name was “Mary Sue Poots.” Mary Sue is a nice bit of fan service, as Skye has been called one since the early weeks of the series. And while Poots is a real surname, it is also slang for “fart,” which I’m sure was something they were thinking about when they chose the name. Some fans may take this as insulting, but I suspect the writers had tongues firmly planted in cheeks when they wrote this scene.
Throughout this sequence, the only person we don’t see is Ward (other than Coulson, who must have already been vetted somehow by being Coulson, I suppose – I mean, think about it, in a reality that includes LMDs (Life Model Decoys), plastic surgery than can change appearances convincingly and seemingly at will, and advanced brainwashing techniques, why would Koenig take Coulson at face value?). Ward’s levels are all out of whack – he tells Koenig he’s in a lot of pain, and Koenig admits this might skew the results. As the questions begin to head into Hydra territory, Koenig notes some results on his graphs that get him worried. He pulls out a gun and cocks it, pointing it at Ward. At one point, he asks Ward if he’s involved with Hydra, and Ward answers, “Yes. We all are. They infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. to the highest levels.” This answer doesn’t satisfy Koenig, and he presses on. He asks him why he’s come to the base, and he replies, “I’m an agent.” Koenig is – rightly – dissatisfied with this kind of ambiguous answer, and he presses on, raising the gun. He asks Ward again what’s he doing at Providence, the gun pointed right at Ward’s chest. Ward hesitates, then says, “Skye. Came back for her.” Koenig reads the graphs – Ward’s telling the truth – and he uncocks the weapon and puts it down.
The obvious question I have here is why didn’t Koenig ask his obvious question: “Are you an agent of Hydra?” That would have been the clincher, and is the only question he needed to ask anyone once the baselines were set. That, or some variant (“Are you loyal to S.H.I.E.L.D.?” comes to mind) would have exposed Ward and ended his charade. But that wouldn’t have worked into the story arc the showrunners have planned for us, so they assume we’re not going to think of the obvious ourselves, and that we’ll admire Ward’s “clever” manipulation of his answers enough to forgive the glaring oversight made by an extremely paranoid agent placed here specifically by Director Fury due to his ability to get the job done. This sloppy writing is used simply as a set-up (for what the lanyards are really for, as we’ll see in a bit), as well as a way to show how clever Ward is in his deep-cover role. You can almost hear the writers in their dark cavern, sitting around their writing table at their 1930s-era Underwoods (I assume this is how most teleplays are written), congratulating themselves on how cleverly Ward answers Koenig’s questions with double entendres, all the while missing the fact that the questions themselves are inane, implausible, and serve to undermine not only Koenig’s credibility, but the judgement of Director Fury himself in placing Koenig in charge of Providence. Joss Whedon and Disney take note: you’re allowing your brother to have a much greater (and negative) effect on your beloved MCU than you might realize – and comic book fans are nothing if not a highly intelligent and observant group (not to mention the omnipresent canon lawyers who are at every convention and part of every discussion – and are very, very vocal when pointing out errors).
Back to our recap. While Ward is busy “spoofing” Orientation, we jump over to Coulson who is filling in the team on who, exactly, Daniels is. He tells them that he’s taking Fitz and Simmons for their technical expertise, and when Trip offers to fly, he takes him as well. This will leave May, Skye, Ward, and Koenig at the base. Done with the lie detector, we see Ward hiding around a corner, removing a metal splinter from his under his thumbnail – he was using pain as a way to beat Koenig’s test, something Koenig should really have checked for (I mean, they’ve all had much of the same training, haven’t they?). Fitz comes around the corner, and Ward tells him that if he feels something for Simmons, he needs to tell her. Fitz frowns, and tells him that he doesn’t sound like the Ward he knows – Ward adjusts, and tells him he really doesn’t care. “Welcome back,” says Fitz as he walks away.
May approaches Coulson – she’s angry he’s not taking her, not trusting her to do the job. He turns it back on her, telling her that a real friend would have told him everything she knew. She brings up orders again, but he won’t listen. He has no interest in nor time for her.
In transit on the transport plane Ward flew in, Coulson fills in Fitz and Simmons about where they’re going. They’re heading to Portland, because there’s a cellist there whom Daniels fell in love with – he referred to her as “His only light in the darkness,” hence the title of tonight’s episode. What he isn’t telling them, is that this cellist – Audrey Nathan – is the same one he told Ward about earlier in the season, the woman that he was in love with, and who believes Coulson to be dead. Cut to Audrey, who is zipping up a Portland Philharmonic hoodie, thus telling us who we’re looking at. She puts in her earphones, but before she can get running, the sound fizzles and cuts out. A look of horror – she knows why the sound died. She turns around to see Daniels. He walks toward her, when a car screeches to a halt in front of her. It’s Simmons in the backseat, and she tells Audrey to get in. They speed off, as a second car arrives. A group of drones fly out and around Daniels, and Fitz turns up the light. However, Daniels tells them that they made him stronger at The Fridge, and he first blasts the drones, then blasts both Fitz and Coulson with Darkforce energy.
Back at Providence, Skye and Koenig are discussing The Fridge losses, and Skye notes that Koenig is keeping track of the remaining people at the base on his datapad – apparently their lanyards are tracking devices, and Skye gives Koenig kudos for his foresight. She laments the loss of S.H.I.E.L.D. satellite coverage; she thinks she might be able to see what happened at The Fridge with a good enough feed. She then thinks of an alternative: why not hack the NSA and use their feeds? This elicits one of the best lines of the night, when Koenig replies, “Why poke the bear? The big scary water-boarding bear?” Ward enters, and he backs up Skye’s idea, also suggesting that she should decrypt the hard drive with The Bus files on it – she tells him that it’s location locked, so she can’t decrypt it yet. Koenig agrees to allow her to use Providence’s resources to try to hack into the NSA, and Ward, nonchalantly, asks how long it will take: about an hour. The clock is ticking.
In Portland, Audrey is in a safe house, but she lets Simmons know that not only does she know they’re not CIA, she in fact knows they’re S.H.I.E.L.D. She harbors no ill-will toward the organization, and tells Simmons and Trip about how S.H.I.E.L.D. protected her from Daniels the first time around. She tells the story of how he stalked her, and how one particular agent, Phil, helped her out and protected her – and how she came to love him. Simmons looks taken aback – “Phil” she repeats, connecting the dots. She was obviously in love with him, and she tears up as she speaks. As they talk, we jump back and forth between them, and in another room Coulson and Fitz as they listen in. Fitz asks Coulson why he doesn’t tell her he’s still alive, but Coulson points out that she’s moving on, and that he couldn’t stay with her right now in any case. As the conversation continues, Fitz gets a thoughtful look – he tells Coulson that he knows how to stop Daniels, but that they’ll need to use Audrey – of course, Coulson immediately rejects the idea.
Providence: Ward has a gun, loaded, and he hides it in his waistband behind his back. He’s following May, but as it looks like he’s going to take her out, he hesitates – she has a duffel over her shoulder, and is apparently getting ready to leave. He asks her what’s going on, and she tells him that she’s tired of trying to prove her loyalty to Coulson, so she’s leaving – she has, however, fixed The Bus, which is now ready to fly. She goes outside into the cold Canadian winter (I think it’s around June).
Inside, Koenig is in the control room, watching the various feeds Skye has set up. Ward enters and asks how things are going, Koenig telling him that the NSA feeds are good, and they should be able to see what happened momentarily. Ward acknowledges his approval, and closes the door behind him.
Portland, and Simmons and Trip are escorting Audrey to a music hall – it looks as though Coulson overcame his own objections. They tell her that their best agents are watching, so not to be worried. Meanwhile, Fitz explains to Coulson what they’re doing – they’re going to use modified gamma ray projectors, developed by Bruce Banner himself, in order to try to overwhelm Daniels’ increased strength.
Things are beginning to heat up as the episode gets close to climax. We jump back to the far north, where Skye is returning to the control room. She’s looking for Koenig, saying, “Eric?” but instead finds Ward. He tells her that Koenig has left to upload the NSA data to NATO. He also tells her that May has left, and he seems to see this as an opportunity to get all romantic. Skye is hesitant – she asks him if he had any feelings for May. He tells her he didn’t, although kudos to her for telling him “There’s still no rush on ‘us’ being an ‘us.'” She points out rightly that their first kiss was done under the auspices of imminent death, and should not be taken as indicative of their current status.
In Portland, as they’re waiting for Daniels to show up, Fitz asks Coulson again why he doesn’t just tell Audrey that he’s alive. “We have a job to do,” he says, meaning not only saving Audrey, but undoing all the damage that Hydra has inflicted.
Things are getting cozy in the cold north, although in a case of cosmic irony, the audience is cringing with Skye instead of, as per the norm, because of her. Ward comes up with some BS about operatives being lone wolves, of being “different,” that they live different lives from the rest of us etc. etc., and Skye seems to buy at least part of it, especially when he points out that Skye is different, too. She tries to get him to open up, and he does, perhaps more tellingly than she realizes. He tells her that the story he told her some time ago, about his older brother forcing him to bully his younger brother, was a lie, that he bullied his brother on his own. He tells her, “There’re things about me, you wouldn’t like,” that he isn’t a good man. Skye misreads this as a degree of self-deprecation and lack of confidence, but this is about as honest as he’s ever been with her. “I am not a good man, Skye,” he says. “Yes you are,” she replies, and leans in for a kiss; however, she stops when she finds fresh blood on his ear. He tells her one of his wounds must have reopened, and he goes to “clean up.”
At this point, we jump into climactic montage mode, jumping back and forth between Providence and Portland. We see Audrey playing her cello; Skye moves some papers, and sees Koenig’s datapad. “There you are,” she says; as Audrey continues playing, the lights in a nearby hallway begin to go out; Ward, washing the blood off his ear, pulls out his garrote and cleans it as well; Daniels arrives, and Audrey halts mid-note. “No, keep playing,” he says. “I know that I’m a monster, but you’re the one that can save me.” Ward returns to the control room, only to find Skye gone – she’s looking for Koenig; Trip, Simmons, and Fitz prepare to hit Daniels with their gamma rays.
Back with Skye, we see her following Koenig’s signal to a storage room, and opens the door, a penny falling in front of her to the floor as she does so. She goes inside, and is shocked when she sees blood dripping to the floor. She looks up, and sees Koenig’s lifeless body, the blood coming from his throat. She looks down at the pad again: Ward is approaching, and quickly.
The team in Portland hit Daniels with their three gamma rays, but he resists, pushing the rays back on their emitters and throwing them all back, knocking Audrey back as well in the process. He approaches Audrey, but is pinned down by a fourth ray, this one shot by Coulson. He’s in the shadows, but Audrey clearly sees him. Somehow, this one beam is able to stop Daniels momentarily where three weren’t a moment before. He’s held long enough for the other three to get back up, and to lock him with their rays. The combined force of the four gamma ray beams is too much: Daniels explodes into vapor.
We cut back to Skye – she’s hiding in a bathroom, saying, “Oh no no no no.” In the background, we hear Ward: “Skye? Skye?” He looks angry and determined – he’s ready to do what he has to do if he’s been exposed. In the bathroom, Skye vocalizes what she’s been thinking: “He’s Hydra.” She scrambles about, checking the medicine cabinet, but there’s nothing there that’s going to save her. She sees a picture on the wall of a cityscape, and starts to think – is she going to use Koenig’s alternating scenery to try to send a message or clue to Coulson?
In Portland, Coulson goes to check on Audrey. He sees that she’s breathing, that she’ll be okay. “You’re safe,” he says, but as she comes to and sits up, it’s to see Simmons, not Coulson looking over her.
Ward goes to the storage room, opening the door. He puts his right hand out, and the penny falls into it – he “knows” Skye hasn’t been in this room yet. She approaches from behind, saying, “Hey, thought I’d be hiding in a closet?” She approaches him and gives him a kiss – she’s very convincing, and he seems secure again. He tells her they need to go, that The Bus is ready and fueled. She tells him she needs to grab a few things, but he grabs her arm – he tells her there’s no time. At this point, Ward should twig that she knows – she doesn’t resist, she hesitates a moment, but agrees to go. This is not the Skye we know, but Ward is so wrapped up in his own machinations that he fails to see hers.
Back with Coulson, Fitz asks him if everything is alright. Coulson replies that he’ll tell Audrey the truth one day – but more importantly, the situation has made him reevaluate what’s been happening with the team. He tells Fitz that a soon as they return to Providence, he’s going to make things right with May. He leaves, Simmons entering as he does so. Simmons expresses concern over Trip, and Fitz, echoing Coulson’s sentiments, decides it’s time to open up to Simmons – is he going to tell her his true feelings?
We see the team arriving back at Providence, only to find that The Bus is gone, along with, apparently, everyone else. We cut to the cockpit on The Bus, where Skye is sitting beside Ward in the co-pilot’s seat. They’re heading toward the coordinates – not told to us – that hold the key to decrypting the hard drive.
The after-credit stinger sees Agent May being picked up on a roadside. Inside the car is her mother who, in a brilliant piece of casting, is played by Tsai Chin, who played Ming-Na Wen’s Auntie Lindo in 1993’s The Joy Luck Club, Wen’s breakout movie. May asks her mom, “Did you get it?” Her mother hands her an orange piece of paper, saying, “I may be old…” She admonishes May, pointing out that her agency hasn’t fallen apart. So, we know that her mother is also involved in espionage of some sort, or at least has been, and that she still has valuable contacts. Her mother asks May, “You’re not going to take her out, are you?” May says she won’t, to which her mother replies, “Good. I always liked Maria.” On the orange piece of paper? The whereabouts of Agent Maria Hill [Cobie Smulders, reprising her role from The Avengers which she also played in the “Pilot” episode of Agents], who, in the absence of Director Fury, is likely the highest ranking S.H.I.E.L.D. agent left outside of Coulson. This should lead to some interesting developments in the next episode.
I had a few issues with tonight’s episode, primarily Koenig’s failure to ask the really obvious (and best) question that would have exposed Ward – and saved Koenig’s life. I really enjoyed having Oswalt on the show even if only for two episodes (although some people are speculating that he might be back – either as a LMD (Life Model Decoy), or in the guise of his brother, with whom he plays Call of Duty). I thought that Coulson’s ability to pin down Daniels/Blackout with a single gamma ray after he had previously fought off three beams was a little suspect, but I imagine we could argue that Blackout was weakened by the first attack (although that flies in the face of his ability to absorb energy, thus becoming stronger). And I didn’t think that Ward’s misreading of Skye at the end of the episode was terribly realistic.
On the bright side, we had a real villain in Blackout, and he came across as appropriately menacing, killing one man and nearly defeating the team. We had some excellent character building, especially with Coulson (we get to meet his love, and understand his motivations), Fitz (who learns a great deal from observing Coulson, which is how a good mentor/student relationship should work), Trip, who became 125% more interesting when we found out about his lineage, and May, whose scene with her mother is a true highlight of the episode. Not least of all, we learn a lot more about Ward and his motivations, and the scenes between he and Skye, especially before she realizes what he really is, are very telling. He basically tells her exactly who he is, and we, the audience, know this – but her growing attraction causes her to see him only as a bad boy needing a loving touch – until she finds Koenig’s body.
Despite my misgivings about this particular episode, the “Uprising” arc continues its strong run, maintaining its high narrative pace with plenty of tension, action, and deaths. With the addition of Agent Hill in tonight’s episode, hopefully things will get even more intense. Skye is in danger, May is off on her own, and Coulson is left in Fury’s secret base with no idea which way to turn. Should be interesting.
Steve’s Grade: B
While not as strong as last week’s episode, “The Only Light on the Darkness” did plenty of in-scene character exposition, while also including another real villain to join Deathlok. Hopefully the roster of baddies Coulson and team need to contend with will continue to grow.