Shows like Agents of SHIELD are always more interesting when people are doing terrible things and making big mistakes than when everybody is being a paragon. And thank goodness, this show finally has enough confidence to let its characters go off the deep end. Spoilers ahead...
Early on, Agents of SHIELD suffered from being a bit too upbeat and (to coin a Whedonesque term) shiny. The show's suspense-free pilot felt as though Joss Whedon was taking a victory lap after Avengers. The early episodes just wanted to tell us how awesome these people are, over and over. Especially Skye, the hacker-waif. We've spent a lot of time exploring how cool it is to be part of SHIELD.
And little by little, the show has been getting its hands a bit dirtier — and last night's episode took a few more steps forward, by making Grant Ward commit a pretty shocking act, and by having Melinda May apparently turn against the rest of the team.
And meanwhile, Skye gets promoted to an actual SHIELD agent, which feels incredibly quick and unearned — but everybody assures us that she's earned it, so I guess she has.
So in last night's episode, Coulson leads a manhunt for the Clairvoyant, with pretty much all the non-movie-star characters coming back to join in. Everybody splits up into two teams, and Skye comes up with three leading candidates out of the list of "Gifted" individuals whom SHIELD rejected as recruits. The whole thing is a bit of a wild goose chase, but there are a few confrontations with Deathlok, who's looking more and more like his comics counterpart — the best visual being Skye's view of Deathlok's cyborg insides.
And then the crew actually finds the guy who appears to be the Clairvoyant, the allegedly psychic mastermind who's been one step ahead of them all this time. And it appears to be Thomas Nash, a disabled man who's speaking through a computer. Nash basically taunts our guys — especially Coulson, whom he calls a broken man who didn't know he was broken — and threaten's Skye's life, until Grant Ward shoots him out of the blue.
This shocking act propels the rest of the episode into high gear. Grant Ward went off mission and shot an unarmed, non-violent prisoner in cold blood — and also destroyed a valuable asset who could have provided more intel. (Not to mention, as Coulson eventually figures out, "Nash" was just a decoy. He may not even have been the one speaking through the computer. So for all they know, Ward shot a totally innocent man.)
Oh, and meanwhile, Fitz and Simmons are planning their own quiet rebellion against Coulson — he won't let them send Skye's blood samples to SHIELD HQ, so they can find out more about the miracle drug that saved Skye's life. So instead, when Simmons gets stationed at the Hub to help SHIELD understand more about Deathlok, she's going to use their facilities to do some analysis of her own. (Which could wind up with those blood samples falling into the hands of other SHIELD people.)
At last, Coulson starts to figure out that Nash was just a decoy, and that he's been played. And then the show unveils a genuinely clever twist — this whole "Clairvoyant" thing was a put-on. The mastermind behind all this knew what everybody was going to do not because of psychic powers, but because he or she (or they) had access to SHIELD files — except for the sealed documents about Coulson's recovery. This included psych evals, which let that person play the agents (especially Ward) like violins.
So the so-called Clairvoyant is a SHIELD agent. Or maybe, a whole lot of SHIELD agents. (My money is on Bill Paxton being evil. It was telegraphed insanely heavily in this episode, which spent a lot of time telling us that Paxton is the one guy you can always trust no matter what, yessirree, you should trust that guy 100 percent.)
It's at this point that Fitz finds Melinda May's secret secure encrypted line, in the cockpit — which May used to warn someone (probably Nick Fury) that "Coulson knows" last week. And Skye does the smart thing, telling Fitz to cut the line before May can warn her contact that she's been compromised. This leads to May hunting Fitz with a gun loaded with non-lethal rounds, before Coulson and Skye get the drop on her.
At which point, Victoria Hand, back at SHIELD HQ, has the plane re-routed, and orders her people to kill Coulson's team when they land, but keep Coulson alive.