Even after last night's episode of Agents of SHIELD is over, it's still really hard to tell who got played, and who was the player. Who's telling the truth, and who's twisting everything around? Politics and spycraft make for a heady combination. Spoilers ahead...
In last night's episode, "A Fractured House," we meet Grant Ward's brother, a U.S. Senator who seems very eager to keep his family relationship to a Hydra terrorist secret... until Coulson changes his mind. And Hydra poses as SHIELD in an attack on the United Nations, in an attempt to manipulate the world into hunting SHIELD down, which almost succeeds. (But Hydra still manages to take out a number of SHIELD agents along the way.)
Incidentally, this moment is not going to stop creeping me out for a while:
A lot of this episode seems to come down to who has the best poker face. Is it:
Christian Ward, the U.S. Senator who proposes a new UN resolution to authorize extreme methods to take out the SHIELD "terrorists," and seems terrified that people will find out about his psycho brother Grant? Until he suddenly does an about-face, and decides that putting Grant on trial is just the good publicity he needs going into a tough election? He seems very keen on convincing Coulson that Grant's the only sociopath in the family, in spite of all the stories that Grant told his ex-teammates about Christian's childhood sadism.
Grant Ward, the Senator's brother and former Hydra operative within SHIELD? Grant definitely seems to be trying to play Skye with info about Skye's father, until she plays him back (or does she?). Does Grant really think his brother's the true psycho? And when Grant warns Coulson not to hand him over to his brother, is Grant actually hoping Coulson will do just that? After all, he escapes within moments of being delivered into U.S. military custody. A lot depends on how delusional you think Grant is — he not only thinks he's got some kind of relationship with Skye, he also still seems to think he's a member of Coulson's team, after murdering Koenig and Hand and nearly killing Fitz and Simmons. But how much of Grant's insanity is just a cover for his agenda, and did Coulson just play into Grant's hands?
Phil Coulson himself? He definitely seems to have gotten better at poker lately. And this whole episode can be seen as one long session of Coulson playing both Wards off against each other for his own ends. He dangles Skye in front of Grant, because he knows she's Grant's weak spot — and then pulls her away just as he thinks he's starting to get his hooks in her with his knowledge of her father. Then later, he lets her go back down and get all the intel she can from him before they ship him off. And meanwhile, it certainly seems like Coulson plants the idea in Christian's mind of putting his brother on trial and seeming like a courageous truth-teller — or maybe that's what Christian wants Coulson to think?
Whitehall, the Hydra boss? He doesn't actually appear in this episode, but his fingerprints are all over it. And his merc, Marco Scarlotti, definitely seems to have SHIELD chasing its own tail for most of the episode. (Fun fact: Scarlotti is better known in the comics as Whiplash, but that name is already taken in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.) First Scarlotti convinces everybody that SHIELD has graduated to high-level terrorism, attacking the UN. And then he tricks SHIELD into thinking that the next target will be Beckers, a Belgian diplomat — when in fact, Beckers is a Hydra operative and the grandson of the designer of Hydra's latest superweapon. (As seen in the GIF above.) Hydra's scheme in this episode definitely costs SHIELD some agents it can ill afford to lose — but maybe forcing Coulson to make an ill-advised deal with Christian Ward was part of Hydra's endgame all along?
Bobbi Morse, the newest member of the team? A lot of the key intel comes from Bobbi this time around, and she waltzes into a secure Hydra facility in Japan by using her Hydra cover... until May and Lance Hunter discover that Bobbi's cover has been blown. But maybe there's no cover to blow? The whole theatrical business of the Hydra agents getting sent a picture showing that Bobbi helped Gemma Simmons to escape could just be designed to divert suspicion away from her. She's also the one who feeds the team the idea that Beckers is the target, rather than one of the assassins.
In any case, when the episode ends, SHIELD has apparently gotten back a piece of its legitimacy — at least, judging from Senator Ward's speech, and that handshake between Glenn Talbot and Melinda May — but Grant Ward is in the wind. And SHIELD's last secure facility may have been compromised.
The other big piece of this episode comes in the form of two odd couples dealing with being back together — Fitz and Simmons, and Bobbi and her ex-husband Lance Hunter.
The Fitz/Simmons relationship was this endlessly chatty bubbly source of geeky goodness, back in season one. And now, in this episode, we're seeing them together for the first time since Fitz sustained a serious brain injury due to drowning at the end of season one. And... heartbreaking doesn't even begin to do it justice.
Actually, what's really sharp about the scenes between Fitz and Simmons is how underplayed they are. Fitz had gotten used to having a version of Simmons in his head, who somehow knew exactly what Fitz was trying to say — and just as he's finally coping without his imaginary Simmons, the real person is back. But unlike the hallucination, the real Simmons can't magically know what Fitz is thinking.
To make matters worse, she tries to step in and complete his sentences and "help" him, but she just makes him more frustrated that he can't think of the word on his own. And even when she stops trying (and failing) to guess what's on Fitz's mind, she keeps giving him a sad-puppy look that screws him up. "I'm trying not to treat you any differently," she says. "I know," he responds. "But I am different."
And meanwhile, Fitz's new friend Mac has learned to communicate with Fitz just fine, as we've seen in some previous episodes. (Like when Fitz kept saying "I didn't solve this today," and Mac figured out he meant that he'd solved it previously.) And in this episode, once Simmons steps aside, Mac is able to unravel Fitz's latest idea, which winds up saving the whole team.
As Mac explains to Simmons, he's able to communicate with Fitz because he doesn't try to "help" him — and he doesn't expect Fitz to be anyone other than who he is now:
Oh, and you gotta love Simmons telling Grant Ward very simply that if she ever sees him again, he's dead. I kind of desperately want to see her make good on that.
Meanwhile, the comedy version of the Fitz/Simmons reunion is the Morse/Hunter squabbling. Bobbi's not amused to find that her ex has been telling everybody she was a "hellbeast," and meanwhile Lance has to watch his ex-wife lie like a pro and make out with another man. Honestly, the best part of all this is when May breaks into Hunter's whiny monologue with, "You know I don't like you, right?"
But the "punchline" (so to speak) of this marital reunion is that Bobbi and Lance can't be in the same room without trying to tear each other down — but as soon as they're in a fight in close quarters together, they're a finely oiled machine. They take down a whole squad of Scarlotti's goons with perfectly coordinated acrobatic moves, almost as if they're telepathic.
But once the fight is over and they've won (and Lance has saved Bobbi's life for the third time that day) they're going their separate ways. Lance is in the wind, while Bobbi is sticking with SHIELD — even if she's not sure what SHIELD is, or what her role in it is, any more. (And she still might be evil, or brainwashed.)
All in all, I stand by everything I wrote yesterday — this is a show that's firing on all cylinders, and it's not just keeping me entertained, but also keeping me guessing.