Don’t Shoot the Dog. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: “Ragtag”

We are promised The Back Story of Ward in this week’s episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and “Ragtag” gets right to it, kicking off the episode by showing us a pouty Teen Ward in prison scrubs. He has every reason to be pouty, we learn. It’s 1997 and Ward has just learned that the Smashing Pumpkins’ follow-up to Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness will be an electronica album*. On top of that, he’s in juvenile detention for arson and attempted murder and his parents are threatening to get him tried as an adult.

*I had to do a relatively ludicrous amount of research for that joke. I’m not proud of that, but I’m not not proud.

Agent John Garrett comes to visit this troubled lad and knows that he just needs a secretive paramilitary organization to mentor him and give him something to believe in. Actually, Garrett just straight up kidnaps him from prison under the pretense that Ward has any kind of choice in the matter. Garrett makes his recruitment speech, armed Hydra agents burst into the prison visitor room, Ward hastily agrees to join, and Garrett and Teen Ward walk out. The episode keeps this exchange punchy, and Bill Paxton is at his charmingly oozy best, but the show doesn’t dare linger on the darker issue presented here. Namely, that Garrett is targeting a vulnerable population—kids in prison—and forcibly recruiting them into Hydra. What are the odds that Teen Ward would have survived refusing Garrett’s offer?

We just watched Ward get trafficked into a terrorist organization.

Hydra, as we’ve learned over and over in this series, is about taking control of your life away from you. Fifteen years ago they did it to Ward, and currently they’re doing it to Mike Peterson, who we find out was just sent to hunt down and visibly kill a Columbian drug lord. Peterson is just a piece of the puzzle, though, and Coulson has a fun chart that explains the one entity that ties Deathlok, his resurrection, Garrett, and a whole bunch of other things together: Cybertek.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season one, episode 21: Ragtag

We also find out that Skye left a trojan horse on the hard drive that will map the system and files of anything it’s connected to, like Cybertek’s internal computer systems. Skye gets mad props from the team, but she demurs. She never got to finish the trojan horse completely, so the info it’s collected has to be physically re-obtained from Cybertek’s systems. (Later we find out she rigged it so it would transmit the info over a UHF signal which…eee! So nerdy!) Coulson and May have to infiltrate!

But they’re not S.H.I.E.L.D. anymore. They have no back-up, no plane, no guns, no gadgets. Well, actually, they have gadgets because remember how Tripp’s grandpa was a Howling Commando? Here’s a suitcase full of his old-timey atomic-era spy stuff. Coulson understandably GEEKS. OUT. and the over-sugared toy binge between him and Fitz is a joy to watch, although Fitz underestimates the potency of his laser cigarette and lights a window curtain on fire. “Watch out Hydra, here we come…,” May intones sadly. Earlier in the year I would have found such a remark very fitting, but now that the overarching plot has forced the characters to own that sentiment I find myself rooting for them like proper underdogs. Don’t worry, agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.! You might be the Bad News Bears of the Marvel universe but you’ve got pluck! And determination! And a trail of dead bodies in your wa… okay, that comparison got away from me. Still. Now I want them to succeed instead of wanting them to leave me alone. These are the days, my friends!

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season one, episode 21: Ragtag

Coulson and May’s plan to infiltrate Cybertek is the essence of the show’s appealing new scrappiness. As Dio Tiddle and Doctor Rome (THOSE OUTFITS) they interview for Cybertek’s R&D division and are roundly dismissed by two Silicon Valley twerps in lab coats who you just know would be wearing Google Glass if the show could afford thousands on a throwaway joke like that. Everything S.H.I.E.L.D. did was kiddy stuff, the twerps argue, their slackened gazes waiting for the day when their stock is fully vested and they can quit. Cybertek has found that Hydra agents make way better, and younger, private sector recruits. So, sorry Tiddle and Rome, but Cybertek has nothing to offer you. Except this security guy who will follow you into the elevator and maybe try to murder you.

I said maybe! Probably Coulson and May just need his security key to get to the fourth floor, and knocking him out does that nicely. Skye’s outside the building in a van, but her trojan horse hasn’t been able to find any files in Cybertek’s system. There’s a heavily secured area on the fourth floor, however, so the two of them make their way through the hallways…

…only to find themselves in a tense stand-off with a security guy in a blazer. A red security desk phone sits on the wall between him and May. Who will get there first?

Not May. She wastes times flipping and flipping and flipping down the hallway while the security breaks into a straight run, grabbing the phone first. But don’t worry. The flipping? It’s just May’s way of having a little fun. She gets there. She kicks the dude in mid-flip. She grabs the phone out of the air and hangs it back up. Coulson’s sweater is itchy. Her glasses are barely even askew. She’s got this.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season one, episode 21: Ragtag

Coulson and May break into the unmarked room and find out why Skye hasn’t been able to find any files: they’re all hard copies. Skye isn’t the only person to think of going low-tech. Begrudgingly, the two of them begin digging through the filing cabinets for info on Deathlok.

Can we talk about Teen Ward for a second here? Because he got abandoned in the woods by Garrett almost immediately after being sprung from prison, with nothing but his clothes and Garrett’s dog Buddy to help him fend for himself. “You want a warm place to sleep, you make it. You want to eat, you kill it,” Garrett explains. “I’ll be back in a couple of months, either you’ll be here or you won’t. It’s up to you.”

Teen Ward is righteously pissed about this “character building” exercise, and it shows when Garrett shows back up not two months but six months later. Ward greets him down the barrel of a gun. Six months of wilderness living has forced him to start raiding people’s homes for resources. Although, we suspect that at this point Teen Ward has some decency to him and only takes what he needs, as evidenced by the space he’s started clearing to build his own cabin. “Give me one reason not to blow your head off,“ he tells Garrett.

Garrett: “I brought tacos?”

But Garrett is lying, even about this, which somehow feels like more of an indignity than abandoning Teen Ward in the woods was. Tacos = caring. Garrett doesn’t care about Ward. The only reason he’s even come back is to teach Ward the skills he’ll need to become a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. It’s a weird mix of qualities that Garrett is grooming within young Ward. The boy is thankful for the opportunity to build his own life (i.e. cabin), and Garrett has given him time to grow into someone who is resourceful and self-reliant. But at the same time, Garrett is careful not to let Ward stray too far out of his influence. Garrett offers a mockery of freedom to Ward, leaving him to make personal accomplishments, then returning to gaslight him about those very accomplishments. Now we see. This is how Ward became dependent on Garrett’s approval. This is how it became more important to Ward than anything else.

Back at Cybertek, Coulson makes a discovery. The Deathlok program stretches back to the 1990s—only a few years before Garrett recruited Ward—and it all began with a single patient: Garrett himself. “I got fragged by an IED outside of Sarajevo,” we’ll hear him explain later in the episode. He was compromised, so S.H.I.E.L.D. refused to pick him up. We know firsthand that this is something S.H.I.E.L.D. likes to do from time to time. Ward and Fitz themselves would be dead if May hadn’t defied orders and extracted them during the events of “The Hub.”

For Garrett, Sarajevo was the turning point, and he vowed to treat S.H.I.E.L.D. like it had treated him: disposable. “So I stuffed my intestines back inside, duct taped myself shut and humped out of there.” It escapes Garrett’s notice that his grooming of Ward parallels his abandonment by S.H.I.E.L.D., but that’s how abuse perpetuates itself. Ward has yet to experience the same turning point, the same moment of clarity, that Garrett had in Sarajevo. What happens when he does?

Finding out that Garrett is being kept alive by Deathlok-tech is the final puzzle piece that Coulson’s team needs. Time to go. He radios Skye to “Get ready for a large file transfer.”

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season one, episode 21: Ragtag

Then he and May zipline out like bosses. The entire Cybertek infiltration is one of the best sequences the show has ever put together, an almost-comedy that makes virtues of the character’s flaws and lets the writing team and the actors have fun with the world they inhabit. I didn’t point it out above, but even before the “large file transfer” I totally lost it during the interview scene when Coulson and May awkwardly tried to repeat the technobabble that Fitz and Simmons were earpiecing to them. They lose control of the terms so quickly that they start imitating their accents just to keep up and it sounds so strange, like suddenly Coulson and May are having a psychotic break. I wonder if that was an improv by the actors? They must make fun of each other’s accents all the time in between filming.

Coulson’s team pieces everything together. Garrett’s missing some torso and he must want the GH-325 to regenerate with since the Deathlok tech is old and probably can’t sustain Garrett for much longer. Thankfully, they’ve managed to track The Bus to Cuba and the second half of our packed episode begins! Coulson wants revenge! And his plane back!

Skye wants revenge, too. And May. Skye asks May how she manages to stay so Zen all the time, especially after May and Ward had a sort-of relationship. Skye’s been regretting that she didn’t let Ward die last episode, even though Coulson is proud of her. Fitz’s continuing insistence that Ward is not evil is really pissing her off, as well. May explains: “What [Fitz] said, it’s what he needs to believe.” She admits to Skye that she IS furious at Ward, but doesn’t want to waste her anger on a tantrum. “I’m going to mine it, save it, and when I find Ward I’m going to use it all to take him down.”

Skye wishes to learn this Hate-Fu. Lessons are at 5 every morning, May offers.

While we’ve been talking about our feelings and learning Ward’s past and infiltrating places, we’ve also been finding out more about Raina and the THX-1138 or whatever it’s called. Despite Raina’s brilliance at isolating the regenerative properties, Garrett doesn’t trust her. He can’t bully her into loyalty like he did for Ward. She’s there, she tells Deathlok, because she wants to know what makes super people like him tick, she suspects that she and Skye have something in common in that regard. Something internal.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season one, episode 21: Ragtag

Coulson’s team splits into two. Fitz and Simmons track down The Bus while Coulson and the rest search the Hydra base under the Havana barber shop. The latter turn up nothing, as Garrett, Ward, Raina, and Deathlok have already transferred to The Bus. Garrett is closer to death than he’s let on. The Deathlok tech will give him a month, maybe more, tops, and that’s with the Extremis in his bloodstream already giving him a boost. Ward does what he can to keep Garrett going, charging and rebooting the hardware as needed, but Garrett is already ailing, he needs a Cybertek facility and a safe place to administer the TK427WhyAren’tYouAtYourPost serum.

Fitz and Simmons are dragged before Garrett and Ward as The Bus takes off. They’re almost certainly going to be killed, so Fitz goes for broke, pleading with Ward to see that he still has a choice as to what he can do. Then he activates an EMP, critically damaging Garrett’s systems. If Hydra is going to kill them, then Garrett’s coming, too.

Fitz and Simmons manage to escape briefly and lock themselves in a chamber on the plane where Hydra can’t get to them. Garrett orders Ward to personally kill the two of them. Ward seems to hesitate and Garrett pounces. Is that weakness?

Ten years ago Garrett taught Ward about weakness. Five years of survival and training in the woods had done Ward well and made him a talented killer. Talented enough to be accepted into S.H.I.E.L.D. as a sleeper Hydra agent. But being Hydra means not having any attachments or affections…any weakness in you. Ward has to fight the weakness within him at every opportunity, Garrett urges. Then he orders Ward to shoot Buddy the dog, the only companion he’s had for the last five years.

A shot rings out in the woods. The bullet sails upward. Ward can’t do it. Buddy runs off.

On The Bus, Fitz continues to plead with Ward. They’re safe, but they’re trapped. Ward is blocking the only exit. “You can choose right now to be good. It’s a choice.”

Ward’s rifle scope tracks Buddy the dog as he runs. A second shot rings out in the woods.

Fitz and Simmons scream as the chamber they’re trapped in slides out of The Bus and drops into the ocean.

Underneath a barber shop in Havana, Coulson and his team find themselves surrounded by multiple Deathloks.

Garrett writhes as the GH-325 repairs his body and sends the Extremis surging through him. “What are you feeling?”“ Ward asks. “THE UNIVERSE.”

There is no weakness left to save any of them.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season one, episode 21: Ragtag

LOOK WHO'S CRAZY

 

Tidbits:

  • Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has gotten WAY better at cliffhangers. I seriously have no idea how any of these characters are going to get out of this and that is fantastic.
  • Garrett not only sports his usual turtleneck in this episode, but multiple turtlenecks. He obviously stole the idea from Archer.

  • Stupid Ward! Everyone knows that you set the dog free so that it will help you in the fight against the El Gigante later on!
  • Wait, so if Ward’s dog helped him survive in the woods by hunting…then basically Garrett put Ward through a real-life version of Duck Hunt. Which means that whenever we play Duck Hunt…we are Ward. OH GOD.
  • Raina has a weird reveal in regards to Skye’s parents. Apparently her real parents were the ones who killed everyone in the Hunan Province village that Skye was found in? So…their daughter’s blood made them insane? Or does Skye have some other quality that made her immune to the crazy? I suppose this mystery will have to wait until season 2.
  • Speaking of…ABC has yet to announce a renewal for the show, although I would consider it guaranteed. Network upfronts are this week and an announcement will most likely be made then.
  • I’ve read that season 2 might get split into two chapters, with a Peggy Carter mini-series running in between those chapters. I wonder if that’s another reason why ABC has delayed announcing the next step for this show. If a Peggy Carter mini doesn’t get greenlit then that would change Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s plans a bit.
  • Roxann Dawson directed this episode and wow is she good at putting the spy in this spy show. Her previous outing “Eye Spy” was one of the show’s better episodes in this regard, as well.
  • Dawson really loves framing her subjects, too. The shot of Raina in the post above is far more memorable than the scene itself. She visualizes Ward the same way as he sends Fitz and Simmons to their doom.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season one, episode 21: Ragtag

  • The whole drug lord in Columbia detail was to set up the post-credits scene, where Hydra Quinn pitches an army of efficient Deathloks to the U.S. military. In the light of the other cliffhangers in the episode, this one comes off a bit toothless. Maybe it’s just setting up cannon fodder for Avengers: Age of Ultron? We sure could use some Deathloks around when Tony’s robots start going nuts!
  • We’ve said it before, we’ll say it again: Duct tape has SO many uses.

Chris Lough is the resident Tor.com Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. recapper and promises never to fool you with tacos.

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