Asgardians give us so many emotions, you guys. Even when their presence is limited to all the smashed up stuff they leave behind. “The Well” was Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s tie-in episode to the recent Thor: The Dark World movie and although it lacks the spectacle of that movie’s various settings, the episode still delivered a strong, fun story.
We begin with our agents in London, doing what they’re actually qualified to do: pick up Thor’s garbage.
Serious spoilers for Thor: The Dark World ahead!
The crew cleans up and contains the wreckage left over from Malekith’s attack on London, moaning all the while. Coulson is particularly disappointed in his buddy Thor, wishing that he would have thought to send a God of Cleaning Up, while Skye spends her time double-checking that we are all cool with living in an era where it turns out the gods are real, and aliens, and dreamy. When you’re dealing with a huge interconnected universe like the Marvel U., little gossipy scenes like this become extremely worthwhile. Every so often you need to stop, let the characters just be themselves, and ask all of the little questions that the audience is thinking. You never end up learning too much, but everyone becomes a bit more real as a result, and that effect is cumulative. It’s why Everyman Coulson was so useful in the Avengers movies in the first place.
While they’re doing that, we meet our Threat of the Week in the Norwegian forest. We don’t quite know what Luna Lovegood and her boyfriend are up to, but they like spraypainting symbols, chainsawing old growth trees, and body-checking park rangers, so they can’t be on the side of the angels so much. They free an
inanimate carbon rod Asgardian staff from the tree and I don’t know what happened to Luna after she graduated from Hogwarts but the rod really pisses her off and suddenly she and her boyfriend are totally A Hate Group that wants to cleanse the earth of all lesser beings.
Coulson and company get the tip, console a weeping park ranger who rides the “there are no small parts” axiom for all its worth, and figure out that they’re not actually done mopping up after Asgardians. Coulson says Fury says that Thor is off the grid which probably means that Fury called Jane Foster and got the “I’m sorry I can’t hear you the reception is bad because I’m making love with Thor on top of a mountaaaaain okbye!” brush-off. Luckily, Coulson says he knows an Asgardian expert nearby.
Unfortunately, it’s not Pantsless Dr. Selvig but it is Peter MacNicol and he’s quite friendly to Coulson because of a little jam Coulson helped him out of in 1989. (Hey, I’d say that definitely falls under S.H.I.E.L.D. purview, wouldn’t you?) Ol’ Janosz is a professor of Norse mythology at a university in Seville, Spain and not only has a super fancy pen that Coulson geeks out over, but is able to immediately identify the rod that made Luna Lovegood go crackers.
Turns out it’s a staff that Asgardian Berserkers would be supplied with so they could, you know, go berserk. It would give them the strength of twenty men and make them really hard to calm down after their favorite sports team lost. The one the hate group found appears to be one of three pieces to a single staff left on Earth by a Berserker warrior who abandoned the Asgardian army thousands of years ago. He loved Earth so much, the legend goes, that he even put a down payment on a lake house upstate.
The other two pieces are still hidden, but clues to their whereabouts can be found in a short verse included with the myth. (Short answer: One’s in a tree, one’s in a grave, one’s in a church.) Peter MacNicol suggests that they start their search on Baffin Island in Nunavut, Canada, where new Viking ruins have just been found. And hey, there’s even a Mount Thor, featuring the Earth’s tallest vertical drop! The agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are now on a mystical quest!
And mystical quests are fun! Especially when they involve a race of god-aliens known for gleefully dive-bombing through life. Our agents’ quest continues right there in Seville, as they pick up readings of an alien object. Ward and Skye go creeping around some catacombs but…there’s an intruder! And he’s got the second piece of the staff! And he has to hurry back to the set of Bean: The Movie and, oh, it’s Peter MacNicol. Ward tries to ask him why he’s being all Janosz again, but he doesn’t get very far before he touches the staff and gets TOO ANGRY TO MAINTAIN SHIRT.
The agents bring Ward in and are generally smart and kind about trying to study his ailment but these guys…they don’t understand. He’s angrier than usual and he keeps flashing back to this moment involving his brother drowning in a well and DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND? THEY FOUND A CURE NOT LONG AFTER. Sybok urges Ward to share his pain with him and…woah, sorry… sometimes I get excited and Star Trek V just kind of… takes over. The point here is that the anger that the staff brings out in a person is making Ward the kind of bully that a lot of the team has always somewhat feared. Fitz curls up, hoping Ward will stop noticing him. Simmons stresses herself out trying to do things the way he (irrationally) wants. And Skye, who constantly seeks his approval, is rattled by how his competency has disappeared.
This is somewhat glossed over in the episode, but I hope it comes up again later on in the show. For all that I joke about the character of Ward being a jerk, here his amplified traits actually become poisonous to the working relationship of the team. None of the above reactions to him are reflective of a healthy, effective relationship, and although his behavior and the team’s reactions are extreme, they all have their basis in truth. I know the series has already pointed out that Ward doesn’t know how to relate to people, but we haven’t actually seen Coulson keep an eye on this. And he really should. Whether it’s in school, an office, or in combat, having a team member that everyone defers to out of fear effectively means you don’t have any team at all.
Then again, the more we find out about our agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the more we see why Coulson’s team is considered so odd. They’re quite the damaged lot. I wonder if that was purposeful on Coulson’s part?
Ward eventually calms down from being a Dick about Stuff and helps Coulson interrogate Professor Randolph. I thought MacNicol’s performance here was really, smarmingly, excellent. He had me totally convinced that he was just a professor and knew nothing else about the staff. He didn’t have Coulson convinced, though. Or Ward, who tried to stab MacNicol only to find out that the professor himself was an Asgardian!
As plot twists go, I totally fell for it. It used my own expectation of maybe getting to see someone from the Thor movies in this episode against me, and it gave me a bunch of clues along the way so that I could have figured it out if I really wanted to. MacNicol’s performance is really on point here, as well. The lecherous professor that he’s introduced as turns seamlessly into the self-retired Asgardian army berseker grunt he’s revealed to be. The story about the staff is his story, told to a beautiful woman centuries ago. He really did take a shine to living on Earth. He was a faceless mason in Asgard, never fit to even approach Thor or the royal family. But on Earth he’s anything he wants to be. And if what he wants to be doesn’t turn out so well, then he just has to wait a few decades until that life is gone and he can start fresh. As motives go, it’s wonderfully human, and it’s fascinating to get a peek into a different side of Asgard. You suspect it’s there beneath the gleam of the towers and the lush banquets, but it’s entirely different to actually hear it described.
Professor Randolph has his faults, true, but all in all he’s not a bad guy. He rejected the berserker staff, after all, finding the power of it distasteful considering that the cost was to live constantly within the worst, angriest moments of his life. He promises to try to help any way he can.
Ward pointedly asks if he can be helped. The strength wears off, the Asgardian reveals, but the rage, the anger, the disappointment in yourself takes decades.
The team heads to a church in Ireland to retrieve the final piece of the staff, but they’re too late. Luna Lovegood and the Hate Group (what an awful band name!) are already there and have the final piece, which they promptly embed in Professor Randolph’s chest.
Ward’s not having it! He grabs the final piece of the staff and starts screaming and killing killing killing everything. All he can see is the boy gasping for air in the well. All he can see is the shadowy boy at the top of the well trying to lower a rope down. All he can see is young Ward, threatening to throw that boy in the well, too, if he dares to help the boy already drowning in its waters.
He doesn’t stop until the entire Hate Group is dead on the floor of the church. Ward stands there, spent, his greatest secret revealed: He has always been an asshole. As secrets go it’s…not the most unexpected.
But the shenanigans aren’t over. Lovegood herself bursts into the church, ready to punch some S.H.I.E.L.D. Ward struggles to stand and face her, but May stops him, and urges him to let her help him, for once. She takes all three pieces of the staff and melds them back together again. Before Luna can so much as utter “oh shit um episkey?”, May ker-snaps Lovegood’s legs out from under her and calls it a day, noting that the staff couldn’t really show her anything she didn’t show herself every single living day of her existence.
Oh, also Professor Asgardian lives, but only because Coulson stuck his hand in his gaping chest wound and physically held his heart together long enough for Peter MacNicol’s super Asgardian healing powers to correct the damage. Simmons is fairly ashamed that she wasn’t able to fix him, but Fitz adroitly points out that she shouldn’t exactly expect herself to want to stick her hand in every bloody alien chest she sees.
The team is kind of messed up after all of this rage-dumping and killing and heart-squeezing, so they stay at a nearby hotel for some R&R. Skye tries to offer Ward someone to talk to, but he’s not really ready for that. He’s an asshole, you see, and Skye is…best spared the complication that is Agent Grant Ward.
He goes back up to his room where he runs into May as she returns to her room, toting a half-empty bottle of whiskey, and leaving an invitingly open door behind her. Ward takes the invitation. Why talk to someone who might care about you when you can Fuck The Pain Away?
Tidbits of S.H.I.E.L.D.:
- Simmons gets a small arc in this episode, hinting at trouble with her parents and some serious self-esteem issues, none of which were helped by her sky-dive two episodes ago.
- The big missed opportunity in this episode was exploring Coulson’s reactions to the events. The episode pays some lip service to how pivotal Asgardians have been in his life, but it felt like there was a scene missing between him and Randolph. After cutting so deep in the previous episode, I was looking forward to Coulson maybe being a little uglier towards Randolph, making it clear that he doesn’t quite approve of the trouble-making society he comes from.
- Having Coulson not touch the staff was also a pretty big cop-out. I was waiting for it to happen for the entire episode and instead we got a dream of him in a perfectly not-scary Tahiti that he is somehow scared of.
- Nice callback to Coulson’s “cellist in Portland” that we heard about back in The Avengers, though.
- The tally of things that Coulson is a geek about now includes: Vintage trading cards, vintage spy gear, hand-crafted fountain pens, classic roadsters.
- Speaking of the pen… “Not on a government salary.” What government?
- The show is really starting to find its footing now. I recall Dollhouse starting to pull itself together around episode 8, as well. This might just be how 21st century Whedon shows work.
- Agent May origin story next week maybe!