A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Grievance. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: “Nothing Personal”

This week’s episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., “Nothing Personal,” or as I like to call it “Let’s See How Skye Gets Out Of This One,” is a middle of the road affair, but a necessary one all the same. With the panic of Hydra beginning to fade, the series was bound to need a pause for breath before plunging into the season finale.

In a roundabout way, “Nothing Personal” makes a point of having our agents earn that pause, both emotionally and physically. As opposed to the cliffhangers of the last few episodes, this episode peters out with the agents hanging out glumly by the pool in a crappy L.A. motel. It’s a credit to the show that, as a viewer, you just want to cuddle up with them.

Let’s recap how we got here.

Maria Hill is on the phone with Pepper Potts, having just been grilled by another interminable congressional board about the collapse of S.H.I.E.L.D.. The security agencies are just as bad, but at least they have a working knowledge of how intelligence and security organizations work. “Who or what is a Man-Thing? I swear I need a cocktail!” she says, basically echoing a phrase I use at the end of every work day.

It’s not really part of the scene, but Hill’s conversation with Stark head Potts is about privatizing security and it makes me curious as to why Tony would be into such a direction for Stark Industries. Which makes me think that maybe this is a very soft hint about the origins of Ultron in the forthcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron movie. Tony and Pepper are forward-thinkers, and the events of Avengers, Iron Man 3, and Captain America 2 have overwhelmingly demonstrated a need for S.H.I.E.L.D. to be there to handle the emergence and countering of superpowered threats. Hydra took down S.H.I.E.L.D. by taking advantage of its human element over the course of decades. What if Tony could offer a S.H.I.E.L.D.-like force that doesn’t rely on a human element? A fleet of iron men manned by people he can trust?

That would, of course, get way out of hand, but that’s probably the point of Avengers: Age of Ultron. One of the biggest aspects of Tony’s character that we have yet to explore in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is what happens when Tony overreaches and fails, and trying to replace S.H.I.E.L.D. with Iron Men or Ultrons or Mandroids or whateverthehell sounds like a good, destructive way to demonstrate that.

Anyway, that was a sidebar!

May takes out the CIA/NSA/NRO spooks tailing Hill so she can chat about Coulson. There’s a lingering thread to his resurrection that only May seems to care about: Fury resurrected Coulson under someone else’s orders, but he only took orders from Hydra’s head Alexander Pierce, so was Coulson re-programmed to be the ultimate Hydra sleeper?

Back at Providence, Coulson seems grossed out by the very notion that he’s a Hydra sleeper. Or, actually, it’s because he’s watching surveillance footage of Skye and Agent GoingSteady holding hands. We know how you feel, Coulson. We’re good at two things: eating lunch, and puking whenever Ward demonstrates affection. And we’re alllll out of lunch.

The team can’t figure out why Ward and Skye would boogaloo, although Coulson admits to them that May’s absence is straightforward: “May walked away because I told her to. I was mad and I was mean.” No one seems all that worried about May’s absence, though, since she never really made herself a part of the group. Which depresses me to no end. May is capable, dissenting when its wise to do so, and has saved the team’s ass on multiple occasions. But because she doesn’t want to socialize, ultimately no one feels too much of a pull to go after her. We know she’ll be back, but that doesn’t make me feel better about their inaction. At some point the team should get her a great big apology ice cream cake. Except not ice cream cake because ugh, that’s like ruining two great things.

I’m talking about food a lot all of a sudden.

And so are our team of agents, as Simmons decides that Pancakes Are A Good Idea Now and ends up stumbling across Koenig’s drippy body in the pantry. Just in case there is any doubt as to who killed Koenig, Fitz stumbles across a secret message that Skye hid in the bathroom.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 1, episode 20: Nothing Personal

Despite finding smoking gun evidence, Fitz won’t believe that Ward is Hydra and when Simmons confirms it WITH SCIENCE—forensic SCIENCE—Fitz finds himself in a glass case of emotion and starts rage-throwing-and-kicking things which… I’m so confused as to what Fitz is supposed to want. Is this misdirected anger at his bond with Simmons becoming looser? Does Fitz just see Simmons and Agent BroFriend as relationships that bring him out of his shell? Considering his actions in “Seeds,” I can sort of see Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. setting Fitz up as someone who needs to be around people lest he hide entirely within himself. Is he mad because he’s making a real effort to connect with Simmons and Ward, and is now seeing those efforts undone in such a casual manner? Why do I have to create this kind of head-canon just so Fitz’s actions make sense?

Fitz’s character might need the kind of dramatic intervention that Ward got from Captain America: The Winter Soldier, honestly. As Ward and Skye take the Bus to where the hard drive has been geo-locked, Ward’s sociopathic nature is given free reign rein. Skye is so uncomfortable having to keep up the romantic overtones of her cover that everything Ward says and does becomes loaded with menace. “I promise that until this thing is over I’m not gonna let you out of my sight.” Ward seems to be having a little too much fun toying with Skye, and although it makes him very, very interesting to watch, the tone he sets doesn’t quite match up with the confession we’ll receive later on.

The two make their way to the diner from way back in the “Pilot” episode and Skye uses SCIENCE—computer SCIENCE—to stall them at the diner for an hour, which he is not happy about even though that means they’ll have time to order dessert. Ward would prefer to hail Hydra when others would prefer to hail pie-dra. HAIL PIE-DRA!

As part of his court-ordered mandate to be a jerk, Ward snipes at Skye as she works, pointing out in minute detail how nervous Skye must be since they’re wanted by the government and hanging out in plain sight in this diner. Skye counters that last time she was in this diner she was sitting across from Mike Peterson. “A good man. Who turned into a murderer.” Somewhere deep in his oily carb-equed brain, Ward registers a feeling of remorse. And thus begins Round 2 of this bout of Double Agent Punch Out.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 1, episode 20: Nothing Personal

Coulson and company are still back at the ranch, having figured out where Skye and Ward ran off to, but they’re detained just a little bit by a squad of Special Forces led by Glenn Talbot: The Haircut That Thought It Was A Man. Though surrounded by his troops, Coulson is actually amusingly flirtatious in the face of the general’s tough guy attitude, or he is until Talbot reveals that Maria Hill herself led the army to Providence. We find out that her being able to join Stark in the first place is because she traded Coulson’s agents for her own freedom.

Coulson is nakedly furious that Hill can’t trust that he and his agents aren’t Hydra. The two of them have it out on how Fury and she thought Coulson was disloyal when they should have been paying attention to Hydra. “Grow up, Phil. Of course you’re a liability,” she snaps, prompting me to look at my list of Things To Do To Get Grown Up and sure enough, “Become a liability” is right there at number four, just below “Bald awkwardly in fits and starts.”

Both of them have a point. From an outside perspective, Coulson’s team is wacky and unorthodox and in possession of a surprising amount of arcane knowledge. In Hill’s mind, this is a liability that makes them prime targets for Hydra infiltration. In Coulson’s mind, this is is a virtue that… makes them prime targets for Hydra infiltration. The two of them take a little while to arrive on this same page and Coulson finally has to admit that one of his team is Hydra and is a link to a whole batch of bad stuff that’s about to pour forth from Garrett and the Fridge. Hill’s priorities finally align with Coulson’s and the two of them essentially punch and night-night their way through Talbot and his forces.

P.S.—May has been digging up Coulson’s grave this entire time. Just thought we’d like to know.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 1, episode 20: Nothing Personal

Back at the diner, some cops are making Ward edgy. “Chill out. They don’t know you’re pretending to be someone you’re not,” Skye snarks. Then she asks about Ward’s deep-cover missions and how hard it must be to live a double life and betray his friends. Skye taunts him about “shooting” his mentor Garrett, and rolls it all into a reveal that she has tipped off the cops in the diner to their presence. “Hail Hydra.” Round 2 goes to Skye.

Round 3 is short and goes to Ward and Hydra, unfortunately. Although Skye manages to escape in a cop car, Deathlok shows up and bundles them all back to the Bus so Skye can be interrogated as to where the hard drive is actually geo-locked. Despite his day-glo shirt panels, Deathlok’s presence brings about a serious final showdown between Ward and Skye. Skye knows she’ll be killed regardless of whether she gives up the information and lets Ward have it. “You always had that Hitler Youth look!” and summing up “I will never…EVER…give you what you want.”

Ward’s facades of personality go through a weird cascade failure at this. His feelings for her are real, he insists, although it’s a confession delivered so weirdly, and so out of line with how he’s been acting in this episode, that the only reason that we know he’s telling the truth is because of the events of “Yes Men.” The whole episode has been building to this confrontation—really, the last few episodes have been building towards this—but despite Skye’s expert-level rancor Ward comes off as unengaged. He’s not willing to take a hard line against Skye and his confession of TRU WUV isn’t even believable, so suddenly the threat that Ward has been representing is utterly drained.

Even Deathlok agrees, so he stops Ward’s heart since Skye seems to be the only person on the Bus that actually cares about things. It’s a good move on the part of the episode. We want Agent JackHeart to die, but actually seeing him die is too much for us and for Skye. We relent.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 1, episode 20: Nothing Personal

Then we find out that underneath all the Deathlok stuff, Mike Peterson still lives. When Ward yells at Deathlok for stopping his heart, Peterson responds with a smirk, “It wasn’t personal. I was just following orders.” Nothing personal? That’s kind of, like, your name now, isn’t it Ward?

The episode moves even faster once Skye reveals how to unlock the drive. The Bus is met by Maria Hill in her own plane, but Ward calls her bluff. Except it wasn’t a bluff, it was a stalling tactic to give Coulson time to climb up through the Bus’ wheel well. He springs Skye immediately, only to then discover Deathlok’s presence on the plane. They can’t possibly match his strength and weaponry head on, so Coulson does the only thing he can do: Hop in Lola and back out of the plane in mid-air in an awesome controlled crash!

Skye is saved but the day is not. Garrett, Ward, Hydra, the hard drive, the Fridge…they all remain an issue. They’re still wanted by the government and it’s starting to feel like their life is now just a series of defeats that they squeak through. The agents stop at crummy roadside motel in L.A. and eat their feelings around the pool. They know they have a day to save, but can’t it keep until tomorrow? They’re tired. Just…tired.

 

Tidbits:

  • “I told you to buckle up!” A trite line, I know, but Skye dangling in front of a greenscreen sold it for me anyway.
  • Hill: “I can’t believe he shot Lola.” Coulson: “I can’t talk about it.”
  • “Say hello to Stark for me…oh yeah, nevermind, he thinks I’m dead.” Coulson got a lot of good lines this episode.
  • Coulson giving the valet $20 was priceless. Of course, Coulson would. That guy’s just doing his job!
  • IT IS ALMOST 2015. THERE IS OUR HOVERCAR.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 1, episode 20: Nothing Personal

  • Alright, let’s talk post-credits scene. May is back with the answers Coulson has been wanting from day one. And those answers are: Coulson basically engineered his own resurrection technology, but suggested to Fury that it be discarded just before the events of The Avengers. That resurrection tech drives people insane, making memory replacement a must. The reveal makes a lot of things kind of moot, and I wonder if that’s why they hid it in a post-credits scene. Why was the info buried in his own grave? Why couldn’t Coulson just be told He Did It? I don’t know, but at this point I don’t care enough to want to know.
  • Although it does make Kree Juice a good way to weaponize people. 1.) Heal their mortal wound as an incentive. 2.) Point them towards your threat. 3.) Watch them go berserker on it, probably taking themselves out in the process.
  • The way Coulson explains the resurrection tech makes me think they intended this for Tony’s heart condition. Good thing Tony used SCIENCE—electromagnetic SCIENCE—to fix it instead.

Chris Lough is the resident Tor.com Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. recapper and is still hungry…for science! Find him on Twitter, because he’s funny there, too.

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