Spoiler warning: This episode is a direct response to the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. There will be immediate spoilers for the movie. Go see the movie it’s really good.
BOOM! I feel like so many of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s weaknesses were directly addressed in last night’s episode. There were twists! And turns! Turns! Turns! And nary a crappy Deathlok costume in sight.
Which means I get to talk about all the things I liked, because the episode was pretty much non-stop Things To Like.
1.) May doesn’t get let off the hook.
“Turn, Turn, Turn” picks up right where “The End of the Beginning” left off, with Coulson and Skye in a tense face-off with Agent May, whom they have just discovered has been informing on them the entire time. In between curse words, Coulson demands an explanation from her and even Fitz gets to have a moment in the sun, demanding to know why May tried to shoot him. May’s explanations are not satisfying, to the agents or to the audience. (We’ll get to that latter point in the Tidbits section.)
Since the episode opens with the team in the midst of a second-by-second crisis, May’s skills and info are necessary, and you expect Coulson and company to back down with a stern “We’ll be watching you.” In a move that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. surprised me with, this only sort of happens. Coulson essentially marches her where he needs her and leaves her handcuffed for the rest of the episode. By the end, when the crisis is more or less resolved, and even though May’s actions didn’t end up having any negative consequences, Coulson doesn’t let the change in circumstances wipe away what May did. She still betrayed them, and now she needs to prove herself trustworthy.
In essence: YAY! Although seemingly harsh, Coulson’s actions really strengthen the consistency of his character. As we’ve seen with Skye, he does not react well to being betrayed, but he also does not ignore the faith you’ve previously shown in him. You don’t get to betray the team and then go off alone feeling sorry for yourself. You are going to work to regain his trust. In just this one scene, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. brings us a clearer rendition of Coulson’s unique leadership style, gives May a rich new character arc that can play out over subsequent episodes, and creates a common ground between May and Skye, two characters that haven't really gotten a chance to interact. And all by adhering (excitingly!) to the emotional logic of the characters and their setting.
This is the kind of rapid-fire drama I’ve wanted from this comic book show from the very start. And this was just the opening scene, too!
(Although did anyone tense up every time Coulson looked away from May? Coulson, that’s just the opening she needs! Isn’t it great that the show can panic us like this, though?)
2.) Everyone took a class in casual funny between episodes.
“Turn, Turn, Turn” repeatedly took the time to sprinkle in funny asides juxtaposed against the serious events going down and the result was so lively and human that it felt like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had woken from a coma. Coulson’s cute little “Booyah!” after shooting rockets at the drones, Garrett’s argument over whether HYDRA’s motto refers to limbs or heads, Ward wondering why Skye’s explosives weren’t as loud as KABOOM!... These touches were small but they go a long, long way in making us invested in the reality of the story. When you see the actors genuinely engaged with what is happening onscreen, you get invested in their struggle in a way that a hundred nefarious supervillains/rousing speeches could never do.
3.) You didn’t have to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier to understand what was happening.
This episode was not only dealing with the show’s ongoing “Clairvoyant” plotline but the events that occur in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Although your viewing was definitely enhanced by knowing what Cap, Fury, Widow, and Falcon are up to, the show wisely stuck to presenting the threat of HYDRA through the lens of what had occurred on the show. The Clairvoyant is revealed as a piece of the larger HYDRA threat early on, leaving the show free to deal with the larger battle. In the end, though, the episode makes certain to have what our characters know about the Clairvoyant become key in getting them all safely out of HYDRA’s reach. It’s a complex parallel to pull off, but “Turn, Turn, Turn” does it, all while using the larger fight in Winter Soldier to highlight the agents’ individual reactions to S.H.I.E.L.D.’s collapse.
Because in the end, we want to know how these huge events affect the characters and of all people Ward is the one who we find out the most about. I’ve made no secret of how much I dislike Ward’s character and this is mostly due to how much Ward is a fresh-out-of-the-box brooding alpha male stereotype that has yet to play any emotion besides Clenched Jaw.
It’s gotten worse over the last few months, as the actor himself is a perfectly congenial and wryly funny personality. If you watch behind-the-scenes clips of the show, or interviews, he comes to a life in a way that the show has never allowed him to do...until tonight.
May’s dressing down visibly rattles Ward, and that rattling seems to loosen him up for the rest of the episode onwards. His talk with Skye in the closet actually comes off as vulnerable and heartfelt instead of monotone and weary. Then he jumps right into an exciting sequence where he has to winnow down 12 soldiers without somehow getting killed.
It’s quite a coup for the episode to pull off, especially since those scenes give us a lot to reflect on when the show pulls out its final twist: Ward’s betrayal. It feels like we just saw him be human for the first time, and then he murders Hand and frees the Clairvoyant. In some ways you see this coming, so the betrayal feels natural, but the episode makes you not want to see it coming, to actively hope that it won’t.
5.) Every twist feels earned.
As opposed to the reveal of Coulson’s resurrection earlier in the season, the twists and turns in this episode feel earned by the character and plot work that has come before it. That brain-spider and the Kree-juice came out of nowhere, but we have just the right amount of information about Victoria Hand and Agent Garrett to have formed assumptions about them that the episode then takes great joy in overturning.
And what a merry chase they lead us through with Hand! I was totally on board with Garrett being the fake-out Clairvoyant and Hand being the real one, so it was funny to discover that the theories about Garrett being the Clairvoyant were dead on.
Hand’s reversal is very well-played and makes sense within the context of HYDRA’s takeover. It makes me want to go back and rewatch the episode to see if any of her actions actually contradict her true agenda. (I don’t think they do!) It’s also well-placed within the plot of the episode itself. Things are looking pretty hopeless until Hand reveals her, um, hand. Then she ratchets up the tension even further be declaring that she’s going after Coulson. You and I both know Coulson isn’t HYDRA, but just planting the seed of doubt is enough to keep things on edge, as is the worry that Hand’s forces will gun down Coulson’s team without knowing any better.
“Turn, Turn, Turn” does a great job in keeping these redefinitions of the playing field clear to us, as well. There are twists upon twists, but you’re given enough time with each one to get yourself properly re-oriented and to get excited about how this affects the overall story. Of course, just as you’re accustomed to the new context, another twist comes about.
Which keeps the momentum in this episode completely relentless. By the time the end came around I was actually getting worried that no one would have the time to slow down and ask what was going to happen to them now that SHIELD is gone. Luckily, the answer to that question was: “We don’t know exactly, but probably all sorts of bad things that you’ve got to hustle to contain!”
Bring it on, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D..
- One small critique: Next time you splurge on the rights for “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” actually play it over your exciting CGI dogfight! Have we learned nothing from Apocalypse Now?
- May reveals that Fury ordered her to build a team that could support and keep tabs on Coulson, since he’s now an unknown element post-resurrection. I hope they flesh this out in subsequent episodes, because it felt pretty rushed here and I don’t entirely buy it. Fury is more than capable of keeping track of Coulson himself. Thankfully, Samuel L. Jackson has been announced as guest-starring in the season finale, so we’ll probably get some light shed on this.
- Having Coulson remove May’s cuffs so he could beat up Garrett with them was one slick symbolic move.
- Did Hand order Ward to shoot her? She agrees to let Ward accompany her and Garrett to the Fridge, even though that’s probably a bad idea. Maybe she knew that HYDRA still needed tabs kept on them and Ward was the agent that Garrett would trust the most. Blood on the hand does not a mortal wound make. If Ward was firing blanks, that is.
- If Ward HAS turned then we’re in for some fireworks. Skye gave him the hard drive detailing all the superpowered nutters we’ve tangled with this past season.
- Is Triplett on Coulson’s team now? That didn’t seem to be entirely decided.
- The agents came out of this episode way more interesting than they were going in. Good job, show.
- “Have a team patch us up.” Um...WHAT team, Coulson?
- Seriously, where is all that jet fuel gonna come from?