It’s Not Given, But Discovered. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: “Providence”

“Providence,” this week’s episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., is what it looks like to see a new show commit to itself. No more jumping-on point or one-off episodes for viewers this season. The rollercoaster is no longer boarding, you’re either familiar with the show or not.

This isn’t a bad thing for any show to do, and the embrace of serialization seems to be making Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. downright playful. (This might also be because the show doesn’t have to wait for Captain America: The Winter Soldier anymore. Thom Dunn expertly points out the crumminess about that.) And although we seem destined to bonk around in the Marvel Universe toy box until the end of the season, “Providence” provides hints that we may be seeing more of a transformation than a serialization.

(Spoilers ahead for Captain America: The Winter Soldier.)

“Providence” continues right off from the events of the previous episode, giving us a bit of a breather to show how our agents are dealing with the collapse of S.H.I.E.L.D. and how S.H.I.E.L.D. itself is mopping up after Hydra’s resurgence. The episode is initially a bit disappointing in this regard. The agents talk about their situation while making repairs to The Bus, but none of them ever seem to hone in on the real question of who they are now that there’s no longer anyone to give them orders. You don’t get a clear sense that the show is going to deal with the loss of its original framework and Coulson’s reaction in the episode’s opening is the epitome of this haziness. We find him away from his crew, standing in The Hub’s active situation room as if nothing has happened.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., season 1, episode 18: Providence

It’s a disappointing visual to present because more than anything, the last few episodes have given Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. an opportunity to bust out of stale environments like this, like The Bus, and be more proactive in defining what kind of show this is and what kind of people these characters are. This episode responds to that worry in due time, but at first it lets you wonder if it’s backsliding, and since the show is now focusing directly on the viewers that have stuck with it, backsliding is by far its worst enemy.

Even more so than Garrett and Ward, whose parallel story provides an exceptionally strong spine to the episode. While Coulson and company are just scrambling to figure out what the next step is, Garrett and Ward relentlessly push their plans forward, busting Raina out of prison and launching an assault on The Fridge in order to procure its arsenal of craziness. The show has a lot of fun with weaving in the D-listers of the Marvel Universe here, cracking jokes about the Griffin, letting Ward lovingly fondle the Asgardian berserker staff from “The Well,” and basically providing a legion of losers for our agents to round up in the future. Through this storyline, “Providence” provides an uncorking of S.H.I.E.L.D. that I’d hoped for following the events of Captain America 2.

The episode could have gotten away with just showing this type of in-jokey chaos, but it really ups its game by using the Fridge infiltration as a backdrop for turning the season’s villains into singular characters with differing motivations. Raina’s re-introduction was particularly well-handled, I thought. Having her really believe in “The Clairvoyant,” only to be immediately let down when she realized she’d been manipulated by a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent this whole time, was a fascinating wrinkle to give to what had previously been a charismatic but flat stock villain. Although she signs back up with Garrett, she’s a wild card now and I’m looking forward to see how her personal agenda manifests through Garrett’s plans.

The real MVP of the episode is Ward, though. (Two episodes running! Is this Opposite Land?) The scene where he runs through the various reactions he had to Coulson’s team was nicely played by Brett Dalton. It’s a huge infodump, but Dalton handles it in such a way that you end up learning more about Ward than Ward probably knows about himself, subsequently making it clear where the character’s loyalties truly are. This is a man who loves manipulating people, at being skilled at slipping into different ideals and desires in a snap, so much so that he probably doesn’t know who he even is anymore. His loyalty to Garrett is more than just gratitude, it’s possibly the only connection Ward has to the person he was before S.H.I.E.L.D. made him monstrous.

I feel no shame in admitting this: I was wrong about you, Agent SquatThrust. You’re not just a stereotypical Yo Dawg male. You’re so much better/worse.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., season 1, episode 18: Providence

The only person we don’t really dig into is Garrett himself. He’s a politically gregarious character on the screen and the episode acknowledges that by making sure to show that Garrett makes time to interact with every person who serves him, even as he casually dismisses their deaths. He’s a born leader, and he loves doing it, but that’s not what motivates him. Thanks to the events in “Providence,” we know that he has a metal plate on the side of his torso, and that this is why he’s hunting for something that will regenerate his body (and where the Deathlok tech came from), but I’m curious if there’s a personal reckoning to come from Garrett. If he achieves his goal, what then? How does he live with the chaos he’s caused?

The episode’s “Fun in Hitler’s Bunker” storyline goes a long way towards crafting an interesting confrontation between the two teams. With Ward currently able to travel between them, things should get even more interesting.

Coulson’s team is definitely going to need some motivation in that regard. Although “Providence” tries to frame their mission in this episode as Coulson being unable to deal with the dissolution of S.H.I.E.L.D., it doesn’t quite play. Either Coulson is not crazy and Nick Fury sent him coordinates to a Canadian secret base, or Coulson is crazy and now everyone is going to die in the Canadian wilderness. The latter is obviously not going to happen, which robs the storyline of its tension even as Clark Gregg emotes his heart out. I’m all for the term “agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” being more than a title for these characters, but this needs to be developed further. It’s time for Coulson to turn these people from subordinates into Big Damn Heroes.

This is what I mean when I say that this episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. hints at more than just tighter serialization. This need for the characters to discover what personally motivates them to be heroes, to discover providence instead of having it provided for them, plus the mess caused by the Fridge break-out, these two elements define the crucible that the show will (hopefully) go through in its relentless run to the end of the season. And although you have to already be on board with the show to enjoy the story, when next season starts it’s very possible that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will finally be the show we’ve been wanting from the very start.

 

Tidbits:

  • Who was the guy who Garrett told should “[Not] forget to follow your dreams”? The only character I can think of is Nightmare, but that kind of demonic character doesn’t seem like a good fit for this show.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., season 1, episode 18: Providence

  • Quinn is back. I’ve never liked this character, but at least now we’ll get to see Skye thank him for shooting her.
  • S.H.I.E.L.D. stations are so weirdly named. How does “The Cube” differ from “The Box”? Also wasn’t the gravitonium and plasma cannon in “The Box”? Oh well, as long as the D-list criminals are free, I don’t care.
  • Did Garrett and company free the Abomination or that freeze-y kid from “Seeds”? I was hoping they would mention the former, if only to say, “Maybe…keep this one locked up.”
  • Did anyone else immediately think of the towers in Dubai when they showed The Fridge?
  • The show has added…a Comfort Inn lobby with posters of Tahiti to its already vibrant surroundings. Does Patton Oswalt serve a continental breakfast every morning?

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., season 1, episode 18: Providence

  • “Do you play Call of Duty?” Coulson: “Of course.” “Dude, my life is Call of Duty.” FTFY.
  • Why didn’t they fly Lola to the coordinates?

Chris Lough is the resident Tor.com Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. recapper.

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