After the highs of last week, I was a little nervous that this episode might see the show lapse again, and the first couple of minutes give us a gentle, quiet scene which almost seems to be devolving into soap opera before we get a gut punch of a twist that really sets the tone for the rest of the episode. People often joke that in the MCU, nobody really dies – SHIELD is the exception which disproves this rule, and never more than here.
Ward is back, and doing what Ward does best – this time twisting a knife in Coulson’s particular back. Coulson isn’t about to take this lying down. He’s furious, lashing out blindly in pain, including at poor Hunter for not having finished off Ward when he was supposed to. It’s nice to see Clark Gregg get something to do other than hand out quips and wry smiles, and we really feel his pain here.
Elsewhere, Fitz and Simmons talk with Agent Banks, who happens to know where the programme Will was a part of (funded, no surprise, by Malick) was being run, and they determine to go and see what they can find. Unfortunately, they are expected, and Fitz and Simmons find themselves in deep trouble.
Coulson, Hunter and Bobbi depart on a mission to track down Ward and end him once and for all, leaving a reluctant Mack in charge as temporary director. How awkward this is for him is emphasised when he receives news of Fitz and Simmons’ capture, eventually calling Coulson on the phone to ask for advice.
The mission to get Ward involves tracking down the one remaining person he gives a damn about, who the team capture in a fairly unusual fashion. That done, we get a wonderful segment of conversation between Ward and Coulson, interplaying nicely with the exchanges between Ward and Fitz and Ward and Simmons. It’s a contrast in the power plays the two are willing to make, emphasising Ward’s assertion that at the end of the day, he and Coulson are two sides of the same coin.
But if Coulson has inherited Ward’s ruthlessness in this episode, he also gains a little of his recklessness as well. His determination to finish the job and take down Ward once and for all leads to him making some ridiculous decisions on the fly, exposing himself and the team to danger, and culminating with a metaphorical and literal headlong dive into danger.
Back at base, Mack finally reaches a decision, Daisy quipping that she’s finally getting her team as she and a couple of other familiar inhuman faces board Zephyr One with everyone else who’s left to join in the fight. The question is, will they be too late, and are they even ready for what they are going to face?
With Gemma being loudly tortured in the next room, it’s no surprise that Fitz agrees to give HYDRA what they want. More surprising is the manipulation of Ward by Malick into leading the quest for the Big Bad on the other side of the portal. Ward starts off cynical and reluctant, but seems to give in fairly easily to blatant ego-stroking – my money is on an ulterior motive being there somewhere, though thinking about it, this is Ward, so make that at least five.
The End Tag gives us another glimpse of the alien planet, and the various people now on it. The sandstorm is blowing, there’s definitely something out there watching them, and from our last shot of Coulson, it’s clear that this is going to be a really bad day…
Verdict: Deaths, torture and a real sense of loss and grief. This is an episode that keeps the viewer on their toes and gives the lie to the oft-heard accusation that AoS is ‘just for kids’ next to the darkness of other superhero shows. Tense and gripping, and deeply effective. 9/10
Greg D. Smith