One thing that keeps occurring to me while watching Agents of SHIELD lately: This show is pretty much 100 percent serialized now, with huge elements of soap opera as well as ongoing plot strands. There’s zero “monster of the week” stuff. That’s been true for a long time, but lately the show is doing this incredibly well.
Last night’s Agents of SHIELD episode, “Many Heads, One Tale,” was once again tightly focused on a handful of relationships, but it also deepened the mythos of SHIELD and Hydra in a pretty interesting way.
And the episode focuses on some of the ways that these characters put their loved ones into impossible situations. Chief among them, of course: Melinda May hands her ex-husband Andrew over to the ATCU, hoping they’ll put him in stasis and work on curing him—but instead he winds up in the hands of Hydra’s Gideon Malick, and worse yet Grant Ward. But also, Simmons enlists the aid of Fitz in rescuing her exoplanetary lover, Will, only to realize that she’s roped him into something totally unfair. And of course, Coulson is maybe kinda sorta falling for Rosalind Price, but feels compelled to put her through his “locked room” interrogation treatment.
So basically, in “Many Heads, One Tale”: 1) Ward survives Malick’s assassination attempt and then gets into a secret vault where he learns the inside story of Hydra. 2) Fitz and Simmons finally reach a turning point in their relationship, and also discover another piece of that Hydra secret. 3) Lance and Bobbi infiltrate the ATCU with help from Daisy and Mack, and find out what Malick’s been up to. 4) Melinda and Lincoln deal with what happened between Lincoln and Melinda’s ex-husband Andrew. 5) Phil Coulson confronts Roz, only to realize she’s not the bad guy here.
One thing that I realized in watching last night’s episode is: Ward is way more fun to watch as the lone asshole on a mission than when he’s trying to rebuild Hydra and lead a whole organization. Not that he’s not fun either way—but Ward on a one-man psycho rampage is just the best. In the gif above, he’s torturing some of Malick’s men, who’ve just tried to kill him, to get the location of the Strucker family’s secret vault of awesome stuff.
There’s an alternate universe where this show took the easy way out with Ward, and started setting about “redeeming” him over the past couple years after he was revealed to be Hydra—starting with him and the rest of Coulson’s team being uncomfortable allies, and slowly showing how he was manipulated and psychologically damaged by Bill Paxton, so we could eventually accept him as an okay guy who’s changed and stuff, after all. Basically, the Spike/Damon/whatever route.
But instead, Ward has just stayed kind of horrific, and the show has made him more fascinating because he’s so irredeemable. Even if they eventually swerve and make him an “unlikely ally” again at some point, he can’t ever be cuddly and lovable, and that’s what makes us love him so much as a character.
Just watch the face of this flight attendant, as she goes from thinking that Ward is flirting with her, to realizing that he’s about to blow out the door on her plane in mid-flight and depressurize the plane, possibly killing everyone aboard:
Ward is awesome enough that Malick (after trying to have him killed) offers him a slot as one of the heads of the new Hydra.
And Malick tells Ward the whole deal about Hydra—it’s not an organization that the Red Skull founded during World War II to do some Nazi super-science madness, but something that’s been around much longer and has a much more insane purpose. Says Malick:
Thousands of years ago, an inhuman was born on this planet, that was destined to rule it—so powerful, so fearsome, that others were consumed with dread. And so they banished it from the earth, sent it through the portal to a distant planet. Hydra was founded with the sole purpose of engineering its return. Over generations, Hydra’s taken different shapes. The entity has been given different names. But every generation has sent men through the portal, hoping to save or at least serve our leader on the other side. Now we’re building an army for it to command when it returns, and you and I will rule beside it.
As they say, it’s a “tall tale,” and a lot to take in. So whoever this Inhuman is, it’s super ancient but hasn’t died of old age. And I’m wondering who from the comics this could be. Agon? Maximus? It’s a tough one.
In any case, Malick has a miniature piece of the Obelisk, the Kree device that’s a portal to the planet where Simmons was trapped. And he wants to know exactly how SHIELD was able to bring Simmons back from the planet—with bungee cords, if I remember correctly—so they can use the same technique to bring back their evil leader.
So now I’m wondering if Will has any connection to this evil Inhuman, and why Simmons never saw it. (And it’s interesting that “it” is the pronoun here.) Maybe it’s MODOK?? I doubt they would intro MODOK on television, but you never know. I hope it’s MODOK.
And because Malick is pulling the strings at the ATCU, he is able to nab Andrew, who’s still trapped in his cube. Malick seems to want to turn Andrew against SHIELD, by playing into Andrew’s bloodlust towards his fellow Inhumans and pointing out just how badly SHIELD has fumbled the Inhuman epidemic. It’s not entirely clear how many in-roads Malick makes in winning Andrew over to the fight against SHIELD.
But then later, Ward shows up and uses mustard gas to try and force Andrew to turn back into Lash—to punish Melinda, whom Ward had a thing with briefly, or to use Lash for some horrible purpose, or both.
Meanwhile, Andrew is the occasion for one of the most affecting moments in the episode, when Melinda is alone with Lincoln, and giving him the silent treatment. Lincoln thinks Melinda is mad at him because he went in half cocked, against orders, and wound up provoking Andrew to turn into Lash, resulting in at least one death. But instead, Melinda is trying to work out the best way to apologize to Lincoln for the fact that Lash killed so many of his friends. It’s one of several moments in the episode that turn your expectations upside down without being showy about it.
Meanwhile, Rosalind Price turns out not to be an evil mastermind, but rather a patsy. Is that better? I guess it’s slightly better. Assuming she’s not just playing Phil Coulson and being deeper about it. She does help get Lance and Bobbi out of danger, though.
But for now, it appears that Roz was just an innocent victim, who got pulled in by Malick and recruited to run the ATCU after he put it together. Malick is connected in Washington, and he came up with the idea of a public agency to deal with aliens and Inhumans.
Too bad Phil doesn’t get to the truth until after he’s already given Roz the third degree and accused her of all sorts of nefariousness, which is kind of a bummer for their relationship. She confesses she did actually fall for him, but now she’s decided that he’s just as much of an emotionless robot as he pretends to be. I’m still not sure how invested I am in this relationship, to be honest, but it’s good to see Coulson with someone who can actually stand up to him and deal with all his secrets.
And meanwhile, Lance and Bobbi are infiltrating the ATCU. This is noteworthy, because it’s the first time they’ve been in the field together since Bobbi got injured by Grant Ward. And their team-up is pretty hilarious, between Lance spouting hacker-speak about Ashley Madison and Bobbi finally wailing on everybody (including a newly-created telekinetic Inhuman badass) with her batons.
The big secret they discover inside the ATCU isn’t that much of a surprise—instead of working on a cure for Inhumans, the ATCU is trying to make as many of them as it can. They’re force-feeding those Terrigen-laced fish-oil capsules to people, so they can either turn or die, because Malick wants an army of superpowered people.
And at least Roz and her main people seem to be on SHIELD’s side, against Malick, by the end of the episode.
And meanwhile, in another instance of avoiding the obvious storytelling road, the Fitzsimmons storyline doesn’t go with the “Fitz is jealous and only pretends to help Simmons rescue her astronaut lover” storyline, or even the “Fitz helps Simmons, but is stewing with jealousy” variant. Instead, the show treats its characters with a modicum of respect, and has Fitz put everything he has into helping Simmons—while she’s the one who feels guilty, upset and conflicted.
Partly because she’s uncovering evidence that Will, her astronaut lover, was part of some kind of weird ancient cult, that turns out to be connected to Hydra. (Oops.) And partly because she’s torn up about how unfair it is to make Fitz work on saving her lover, when she knows Fitz is also in love with her (and she has feelings for him.) She finally loses her shit, in a beautifully acted scene, and demands to know why Fitz isn’t angry, and he says he’s furious—but not at her, at the universe.
And that leads, at last, to this:
Yes, Fitz and Simmons have finally gotten together. Which means that next week, one of them is going to be turned into a newt, or something.
Charlie Jane Anders is the author of All The Birds in the Sky, coming in January from Tor Books. Follow her on Twitter, and email her.