We’re living in a freaking golden age of superhero television shows right now, especially if you count things like Netflix. But even with such a wealth of amazing stuff hitting our screens lately, Agents of SHIELD feels pretty unique. And last night’s non-stop-madness episode was the proof.

Spoilers ahead...

Agents of SHIELD has always had its ups and downs—but it’s also a show that has a pretty solid track record of paying off, if you give it enough time. For those of us who were wondering if the stuff about the ATCU, that government agency set up to deal with all the newly-empowered Inhumans, would prove worthwhile—we got a decent answer with last night’s “Closure.”

And there was a lot of stuff in “Closure” that only packs its full impact if you’ve been watching Agents of SHIELD since day one, because it’s an episode that really rewards an in-depth knowledge of that freaking psycho bastard, Grant Ward.

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In a nutshell, here’s what happens in “Closure.” Grant Ward goes after Coulson, shooting Coulson’s colleague/love-interest Roz in the middle of a too-good-to-last romantic moment. Coulson, in return, goes off the deep end, so determined to eliminate Ward that he’s willing to go “off books” with some crazy stunts. Meanwhile, Ward and his new bestie, Gideon Malick, are putting their actual plan into action—with some reluctance on Ward’s part. They lure Fitz and Simmons into a trap, interrogate them, and finally convince Fitz to help them go to the distant planet where Simmons was trapped, so they can rescue the ancient Inhuman monster that Simmons glimpsed there. (The one that tends to drive people insane.) Fitz, Ward, and some Hydra goons travel through a portal to the alien world—but they bring along a stowaway: Coulson.

“Closure” starts and ends with some pretty shocking events and over-the-top action—but its linchpin is the stuff in the middle, where we delve into just what makes Grant Ward the person he is. And we’re forced to ask just how much like Ward Coulson is willing to become, in order to get revenge for Roz’s death.

Coulson is being totally reactive, but he still plays it somewhat smart. He gathers all of his original team from season one, and questions them about Ward, trying to pinpoint anything they may remember about their ex-teammate that could help. It’s actually super fascinating to see all those relationships from a couple years ago, filtered through what we know about Ward now.
And the interesting bit comes when Daisy sort of lets slip that she does really understand Ward, and even sympathize with him a little bit. They both had similar “messed-up” childhoods, and that became a filter through which they see everything else. They got used to hiding parts of themselves, and lying in order to survive. Daisy understands Ward—but she will never forgive him.

“The reason Ward kills isn’t because he feels nothing,” says Daisy. “It’s because he feels too much.”

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This enables Coulson to find Ward’s weakness and exploit it—Ward’s brother, Thomas, whom he trapped down a well when they were kids at the instigation of their psycho older brother Christian. All of those flashbacks to the kid down the well, from season one, suddenly take on a new significance when we meet Thomas and see just how scarred he still is by Grant’s abusive behavior. (Plus their evil parents, and Christian.)

So we end up with a situation where Ward and Coulson are both pushing each other’s buttons as hard as they can, and they’re both being driven over the edge by their emotions. The only person who’s even trying to be the voice of reason is Bobbi, who’s used to this kind of shit with her on-again, off-again love interest Lance.

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And on Grant’s side, the voice of reason is weirdly Gideon Malick, who tells Grant that closure is bullshit. Closure is not for closers. “What I believe in is moving forward.” Instead of obsessing over wrongs from his past and trying to balance the scales and all that therapeutic stuff, Malick just wants to bring that nightmare creature from the other planet back to Earth, which is allegedly Hydra’s founding mission, from hundreds of years ago.

Malick wins that argument, by convincing Ward that he can be a leader in Hydra, instead of obsessively chasing the Road Runner of Coulson and SHIELD. And once he’s found the monster and brought it back to Earth, “we can do whatever the hell we want.” Ward sort of knows he’s being manipulated, but he still goes along with it.

Meanwhile, Coulson is being led by his emotions, and on a crazy rampage, after the fridging of Rosalind. But he does make one good call—he makes Mack the acting director of SHIELD while Coulson is off doing things the SHIELD director shouldn’t be involved in, like kidnapping Ward’s brother.

And one of the great things in the episode is getting to watch Mack step up and slowly start making the tough calls. Including recruiting two Inhumans, Joey and Lincoln, to the SHIELD team attacking the facility where Ward and Malick are holding Fitz and Simmons. Mack actually makes a really good leader—probably better than Coulson, because he shares his intel with others and tries to take care of his people. (Coulson’s the one who sends Fitz and Simmons into that trap, without enough backup.)

Speaking of which, Fitz and Simmons both wind up face-to-face with Ward, right after doing all that soul-searching about him to Coulson. And Ward is in full-on psychopath mode, having his telekinetic friend torture Simmons while he manipulates Fitz. The end result is that Fitz folds, agreeing to go to the other planet as their guide. (But Fitz also sort of promises Simmons that he’ll rescue Will, the plucky astronaut that Simmons was involved with, but he won’t bring back the terrifying creature that drives people mad. Good luck, Fitz!)

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So as the episode ends, Coulson has parachuted into the portal just as it’s closing, and he does not have a particularly soft landing on the alien planet. He seems out cold, or possibly injured. Meanwhile, Ward, Fitz and the Hydra goons are already on their way.

This was a standout episode—not just because it kept you guessing about what was going to happen next, but also because characters we’ve had a few years to invest in were making some seriously scary choices. Coulson, in particular, seems like the loss of Rosalind, who was his equal and someone he could actually confide in, is turning him into a monster. It’s a fascinating paradox that the one person who offers useful advice on how to avoid letting the past turn you into an abomination is Malick, who’s the most horrendous character of all.


Charlie Jane Anders is the author of All The Birds in the Sky, coming in January from Tor Books. Follow her on Twitter, and email her.