Last night's episode of Agents of SHIELD delved into the season's big bad, John Garrett, and gave Bill Paxton tons of material to chew on. And we saw how Garrett "mentored" Grant Ward into becoming the psycho he is today. Most fascinatingly, Garrett constantly warns Ward against weakness — but Garrett is weak as hell. Spoilers ahead...
Top image: Poster art by Emma Ríos
What is weakness, to John Garrett? He preaches a gospel of extreme self-reliance and Thoreauan ruggedness, insisting that any personal attachments or sentiment will just get in the way. And yet, Garrett is so afraid to die that he goes to insane lengths just to keep sucking air a bit longer — and in the end, his work is kind of pointless.
In the flashbacks in "Ragtag," we see how John Garrett found Grant Ward in juvenile hall, after the military school cadet stole a car and tried to burn his house down with his "mean older brother" inside. Seeing a serial killer in the making, Garrett busts Grant out of there. "Let me be clear," Garrett says in the flashback. "Going with me will be the hardest thing you've ever done. But on the other hand, no one will ever screw with you again."
Garett takes Young Grant to the woods, where he left him for six months with nothing but a few bits of clothing and a dog named Buddy.
The "stuck in the woods" thing is just one of a couple tests that Garrett puts Young Grant through — and Grant aces it by thinking outside the bounds of the exercise. Garrett tells Grant the only food and shelter he can have are what he gets for himself — so Grant winds up stealing from the nearby cabins. After that, Grant has a tent and a gun, and he can hunt for food.
The second test is to shoot Buddy, the faithful hound that's been Grant's only companion for five years at this point. Failure to shoot the dog is a sign of weakness, and proof that Grant isn't worthy to be a Hydra infiltrator inside SHIELD. But Grant shoots in the air, letting Buddy run away... and then we see Buddy, running, through a rifle sights. Did Grant just give Buddy a sporting chance? Are we seeing through Garrett's sights instead of Ward's?
What happened to the dog?
But the flipside of Garrett's self-reliance is extreme self-obsession. All that matters to Garrett is his own personal survival. He was injured by an IED in Sarajevo, and realized that nobody was coming to get him out — SHIELD had cut him loose. So he shoved his intestines back inside, duct-taped them, and got out.
And as Coulson's gang learns when they go inside Garrett's front company CyberTek, he turned himself into the first cyborg subject of the Deathlok program, back in 1990. (The "1990" thing is a neat shout-out to the first Deathlok miniseries.)
Raina, his mad science helper, is kind of put out to realize that all of Garrett's cunning schemes have just been about ensuring his own survival — the Centipede program, the research into why Coulson came back to life, all of it. Coulson begged for death, but Garrett is determined to stay alive whatever it takes. He's even willing to throw away the whole Centipede program, if he has to.
And indeed, that's more or less what he does in this episode. After Fitz uses a vintage Howling Commandos joy-buzzer EMP on him, Garrett's electronics shut down, and he's about to die. So he takes the only sample of Raina's version of the miracle drug that saved Coulson, and uses it all to save himself. The drug seems to work — it makes him glow all yellow/orange, and then he announces that he can see the universe. (And it probably looks like himself.)
Meanwhile, Grant is pissed that Garrett had Deathlok stop Ward's heart to put pressure on Skye last week — but he shouldn't be surprised. Garrett told Ward all along not to trust him, and that the only person Ward could ever rely on was himself.
And after Grant finds Fitz and Simmons spying on the team's old jet, he faces a choice that's compared with shooting Buddy the dog. Garrett wants the two techies dead, especially after Fitz almost kills Garrett with the joy buzzer. (One wonders if the tracking device that Fitz is also carrying, disguised as a quarter, got fried by that EMP.)
So Grant chases after Fitz and Simmons, who lock themselves into a cargo hold. Grant admits that he cares about them — but it's a weakness. He jettisons the cargo container into the ocean, where Fitz and Simmons will probably drown or die of oxygen starvation or regular starvation. But just like Buddy the dog, Grant gives them a chance.
Fitz won't give up on Ward, even after everything he's done — Fitz spends a lot of the episode insisting that Ward might have one of those eyeball trackers in his head, something that both Skye and May believe is unlikely. Or Ward could be conditioned. Or something.
Fitz's denial approaches pathological levels, until he's finally looking straight at Ward, pleading for his life because he can't believe this man isn't his friend. Oops. Of course, Fitz and Simmons will probably be fine — this show wouldn't kill off both of its lovable nerd characters in one go. One, maybe. Both, never.
Fitz has been conditioned by SHIELD, but especially by Coulson's insistence that the team is a family and that you look out for your friends — the opposite of Garrett's nihilistic every-man-for-himself philosophy. Coulson stresses in this episode that he can't order his people to do anything, because now they're just "vigilantes," as Fitz puts it. They're doing the right thing, on their own authority.
Meanwhile, what the heck is going on with Raina? Mike Peterson (who's getting to see images of his son in a cell as a reward for killing a Colombian drug dealer) asks her if she's got an eyeball control unit, too, and she says no — she's working for Garrett of her own free will. Because she wants to help special people with emerging powers — like Scorch, the pyrokinetic guy in Hong Kong — and she sees Garrett's work as a way to do that.
Edited to add: And Raina is apparently superhuman or alien or something, given the way she says that she and Skye have "a lot in common."
But Raina was already disappointed that the "Clairvoyant" wasn't actually someone with paranormal abilities — and now she's disappointed a second time, that Garrett only wants the miracle serum to save himself, not to create an army of awesome demigods. She has some obsession with special people, and she thought Garrett shared it. Garrett, in turn, is unnerved by what's behind Raina's eyes.
And then Raina, looking through Skye's pilfered data, discovers something weird about Skye — her DNA is a match for "someone I heard about a long time ago." Raina heard the same story we've already gotten, about how baby Skye was hidden in a village in Hunan province, which was slaughtered by monsters looking for her. But according to Raina's version, the monsters were Skye's parents. (How does Raina have a DNA sample from "someone I heard about"? What makes her randomly test Skye's DNA against that sample? Does she just test every blood sample she comes across against that DNA from Baby Skye? It kind of makes no sense, but on television, DNA is magic.)
In any case, more confirmation that Skye is special — and meanwhile, she's left a Trojan on Garett's computers. Unfortunately, she needs to access one of Garrett's machines to activate it, which is why Coulson and his gang are inside Cybertek at the start of the episode. Towards the end of the episode, they track Garrett's crew to a barbershop in Cuba — only to get ambushed by a whole mess of super-soldiers.
And meanwhile, Ian Quinn is in Washington, pitching a super-soldier army to the brass, on the strength of Deathlok killing that drug lord. (Presumably, Quinn didn't bump into Greer pitching Samaritan and Jedikiah pitching paranormal assassins. Everybody is pitching their weird shit in Washington on TV this week.) But is Quinn selling vaporware? With Garrett having injected himself with the last of the miracle drug, can they even make any more supersoldiers? Or will they all turn out to be unstable and flawed?
Maybe it doesn't matter any more — Garrett has perfected himself, the only thing he ever cared about.