Too Much Love Will Kill You: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., “The Only Light in the Darkness”

As supervillain powers go, “turning off the lights without having to get out of bed” is dubious. You can jazz it up like this week’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode did and claim that what Blackout is really doing is absorbing energy, but that still means your villain’s greatest weakness is A Bunch of Flashlights. Thanks for the takedown, trick-or-treating group of kids! We’ll call you next time he escapes.

If this was earlier on in the season, I feel like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. would have tried to hang its entire episode on this monster chase in an attempt to dazzle the viewer with the concept alone. It’s a sign of the continued growth of the show that “The Only Light in the Darkness” now pushes that to the margins in favor of spending its time with our non-super-powered—but more interesting by the week!—team of agents.

WE OPEN ON a beautiful solo cellist on stage at the Portland Philharmonic, a sensuous vrrmmm shakes the air around a stoic figure in the shadows: Coulson. A single tear rolls down his…okay, sorry, that’s not how the episode actually opens but my faith in the show is still shaky enough that I was really afraid it might. I love the cello, myself, but god that would have been the worst.

No, the episode establishes our threat first. Here’s that tall guy from last week’s episode. He makes lights go out. And he wants your truck, lobster fisherman but dammit this is America you’ve worked hard even though you didn’t catch any lobster but enh, it doesn’t matter. Blackout can kill you with a touch. From this point onwards in the narrative, the character of “Blackout” will represent the effect that the banks have had on personal economy just some dude.

I appreciate the episode establishing our villain-of-the-week before the credits, as it allows the meat of the episode to be devoted to the real villain, Ward, and his return to the roost. Now that we know his true agenda it’s fun to watch how his dynamic has, or has not, changed with our team of agents. In most ways his rapport with the team is fluid and automatic, as it would be with anyone you’ve worked with for a length of time, but the Wardness of Ward: Temple of Abs notably becomes a flat caricature of himself whenever he starts taking the initiative. It’s an interesting way to play the character, as Ward proposing ideas or strategies isn’t actually an odd thing for him to do from the perspective of Coulson and his teammates, it’s just that it is for the viewer since we know the ulterior motive behind what he proposes. Ward feels unnatural now, so to see the other characters treat him normally generates a wonderful inner scream in us. He’s going to get you! He’s going to get all of you!

The episode spends most of its time working this tension, at first between Ward and the team, then between Ward and Keonig, then finally between Ward and Skye. He circles in gradually, stripping Skye of any support she might be able to call upon.

Agents of SHIELD season 1, episode 19: The Only Light in the Darkness

In contrast, Coulson, Tripp, Fitz, and Simmons going after Blackout is a pretty straightforward affair, devoid of suspense. Considering that Blackout is targeting the now infamous “cellist in Portland,” Coulson is remarkably detached from the proceedings. He zeroes in on the threat, gets The Cellist Audrey to safety, then spends the rest of the storyline trying not let his feelings get in the way of what should be a straightforward op. His refusal to engage is mostly just frustrating. Audrey thinks Coulson died and they both certainly still have feelings for each other, and once we know that, all we want to see is how they’ll reunite.

Ward and Skye, on the other hand, won’t stop reuniting and their confessional scene is a perfect storm of uncomfortableness. The more he explains just who “Ward” is the more transparent he becomes to us, but for Skye the opposite is the case. She falls, really stupidly hard, for Ward’s wounded story. As if that was all she needed to hear, or all she wanted to hear. And we all know by now how good Ward is at providing just that.

Agents of SHIELD season 1, episode 19: The Only Light in the Darkness

As we discover in the first half of the episode during the lie detector sequence, Ward may have actual feelings for Skye. That won’t stop him from using her, though, or leading her to her death. Whether we’re considering S.H.I.E.L.D.-Ward or Hydra-Ward, “The Only Light in the Darkness” does reveal some truths about him: He doesn’t know how to care for those who want to care for him. And he probably doesn’t feel like he deserves that care in the first place. Love is not a coin he can accept, even when he feels it towards others.

The story of Coulson and Audrey highlights this with its lovely, if rushed, conclusion. After using Audrey to lure Blackout into the closed space of the orchestra chamber, the team gets all Ghostbuster-y on him, overloading him with stagelights gamma radiation until he bursts. Audrey gets caught in that blast and knocked out for a few seconds. Coulson rushes in, gives her a peck on the head and tells her he’s still with her. When Audrey opens her eyes it’s not Coulson she sees, it’s Simmons. “He was here. It seemed so real this time…”

Agents of SHIELD season 1, episode 19: The Only Light in the Darkness

As opposed to Ward, who is clearly plunging into darkness, caring about others is the only thing that keeps Coulson truly motivated and increasingly heroic. He repeats this early on in the episode when underlining his reasons for hunting down Blackout. They’re safe in a bunker while the Fridge loonies roam free, but no one else has that luxury. Coulson is determined to be the shield in manner and not just in name.

In this regard, it makes sense that Coulson would not want to reveal himself to Audrey. He loves her but he also cares about her, and this time the latter trumps the former. Better that he exist in memory, in between waking moments. For now, his reappearance would only hurt them both.

Just like Ward’s reappearance hurts Skye. The episode ends with Skye having determined Ward’s true allegiance and knowing that she is unlikely to ever see her family of agents again….

Love hurts.

 

Tidbits:

  • Like I feared, the episode does eventually use cello music as a centerpiece, but as a way of ratcheting up the panic of Skye’s realization that Ward is Hydra. Nice touch, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
  • Another trope that the episode was able to invert? The lie detector! What could have easily been the most tired sequence in the episode was instead the most fun and revealing.
  • “What’s in the box?”
    “That’s a hard one…let me think…the TARDIS.”
    BEST ANSWER. INSTANT LANYARD.
  • Aw, Triplett is the grandson of a Howling Commando.
  • Awww, May was married once.
  • Haha, “Mary Sue Poots.” I wonder why she chose “Skye” as a new moniker?
  • The loose theme of “love” in this ep also serves to give us a little more information about how Fitz considers Simmons. We knew he was carrying a torch for her still but wow is he really carrying a torch for her. From the lie detector test to the Portland mission, he repeatedly puts her on a pedestal. I’ve been very cool on this relationship in the series so far, but considering how infatuated Fitz seems to increasingly be getting I can’t wait to see how this mess bursts forth.
  • Ward fooling the lie detector by revealing romantic feelings for Skye seemed a little thin, especially after Koenig pulled out a gun. I was hoping Koenig would reveal he was on to Ward the whole time. (Ward could still have easily killed him, after all.)
  • “Nothing bad ever happens when you work with something called ‘Dark Force’…”
  • According to Fitz, “dark force” is shorthand for the concept of negative energy in physics, which is something you could probably handwave into being real when your universe includes aliens, gods, and monsters. Hooray for comic book science!
  • Overloading Blackout with gamma rays actually makes sense in-universe as well. If photon wavelengths aren’t working on him anymore, upping to gamma wavelengths is essentially using maximum force.
  • MAY’S MOM = Best post-credits scene so far. Calling her mom to pick her up 500 MILES AWAY. The disdain! May’s thanklessness! May going into the secret agent field just like her mom! It was a short scene but it communicated so much. I hope we see May’s mom again. Their interplay was fantastic.

Agents of SHIELD season 1, episode 19: The Only Light in the Darkness

  • So May is off to see Maria Hill. Is that the marriage May referred to? Hill and May have both been attracted to guys on the show, but maybe that’s not all they’re attracted to? That would be an amazing character trait to establish, though I’m not sure if they could get away with it at 8 PM on ABC.

Chris Lough is the resident Tor.com Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. recapper. One time he fell in love with a cellist but didn’t die.

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