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Review: Marvel’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” episode, “The Well”: Anger Management 101

UPREVIEWS_S.H.I.E.L.D._01Episode Grade: A

Warning! Spoilers ahead for the ending of “Thor: The Dark World!”

“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” was never going to have a crossover with any of the major Marvel films. The series likes to reference them a lot, sure, but all of the key players in the movies are established actors with busy schedules and a lot of other things to do. Plus, it would make the show go way over budget. A cameo from someone like Chris Hemsworth as Thor or Natalie Portman as his scientist love interest, Jane Foster, was never really in the realm of possibility.

However, the newest Thor movie gave “S.H.I.E.L.D.” a perfect setup for their much-hyped crossover episode. London is in a state of disarray after the events of “Thor: The Dark World.” There’s a lot of opportunity to really show firsthand how S.H.I.E.L.D. takes care of the aftermath of the main Marvel movies in depth; unfortunately, it’s glossed over in favor of a bad guy/mysterious object-of-the-week plot.

It’s not that this episode is a bad one. In fact, it’s one of the best episodes the series has had so far. With a lot of character development for Ward (Brett Dalton), a solid plot involving an ancient Asgardian artifact with powers fueled by rage and really well done fight scenes, this is easily my favorite episode this season. Still, while the plot is solid, the villains and conclusion are not.

In the beginning of the episode, the Agents head to London to clean up the mess that Thor left behind during his latest visit to Earth. Skye (Chloe Bennett)  is ecstatic to find out that not only are the Norse gods real, but that they are actually aliens, leaving open the possibility of other mythological gods and aliens being real as well. The rest of the team is not as excited as she is, with Coulson (Clark Gregg) in an especially sour mood. Understandable, considering that this is the second time he’s had to clean up the wreckage that Thor has left behind.

It’s fun to see the stark differences in their worldviews — Skye is practically foaming at the mouth at the idea of potentially finding anything alien, especially something like a spaceship — while Coulson is against anything alien being in human hands at all.

Coulson has good reason for these worries too. Over in Norway, a pair of backpackers, Petra (Erin Way) and Jakob (Michael Graziadei), apparently following some kind of cryptic directions, sneak into a national park and cut down one of the trees. Inside the tree is a staff, and as soon as Petra gets her hands on it she is filled with a savage rage, immediately showcasing super strength to go with it as she fights off forest rangers who try to arrest the two.

The Agents soon find out that the duo are part of a group of Norse pagans, who are running rampant through the streets of Norway declaring themselves gods–and they’ve got the power to prove it.

Coulson takes the Agents to meet an old contact of his and expert in Norse mythology, Professor Elliott Randolph (Peter MacNicol), who explains that the staff is just one of three pieces of a larger artifact, the Berserker Staff. The Agents try to intercept the paganists before they acquire the next piece, but things go wrong and Ward (Brett Dalton) ends up coming into contact with it, unleashing a darker, angrier and potentially more dangerous side to him. The race is on to find the last piece of the staff, stop the paganists and return Ward to normal before it’s too late.

The plotting in this episode is phenomenal. No scene lasts longer than it needs to, and the pacing feels makes you feel like you’re watching a movie more than an episode of a TV show. The transitions feel natural, and the writers manage to cram a lot of really interesting ideas and character development into one hour.

That being said, there are two issues with the episode’s writing. The first are the villains. We see that Jakob is the leader of the paganists alongside Petra, but we never see why. We don’t get much detail on their motivations other than “they’re part of a hate group” and “they’re obsessed with Norse mythology”. They’re there to provide a reason for Ward to get his hands on the staff and go, well, berserk. This could have been a very interesting group of bad guys, but they’re sidelined to make way for Ward’s character development and other developments in the plot that I won’t spoil here.

The second issue is the conclusion–not so much the ending itself, but the anti-climax of the episode’s final battle. It just sort of…ends. Without spoiling anything, the battle itself is pretty awesome, and it shows off more of May’s (Ming Na-Wen) fighting capabilities, but instead of the action rising up to a big finale, it rises and stops. It’s kind of disappointing, but the actual ending was pretty solid.

Ward is the character in the spotlight this episode and Dalton manages to make his anger feel real, deadly and terrifying. Dalton convincingly goes from slightly annoyed to completely insane with rage, giving the idea that Ward’s anger isn’t just a result of the staff, but something he’s kept bottled up for a long, long time.

Bennett’s Skye is fantastic in this episode, providing a much needed counterpoint to Dalton. All of Dalton’s acting wouldn’t be half as effective if Bennett wasn’t there to react and respond to it. Bennett really shows some development as Skye, portraying her as a caring friend–and maybe more–to Ward in his time of need. Bennett also manages to capture a sense of wonder in Skye, who is still the outsider brought into a much bigger world, especially in the episode’s first scene.

Gregg’s Coulson is less somber in this episode, and plays a role similar to Bennett’s, providing advice and care to Ward, though he manages to still convey that Coulson, when he’s not being a nice guy, is a bit of a wildcard. A scene midway through the episode has him using Ward to test a theory he has–without spoilers, it involves a knife–and when it works, Coulson flippantly admits that it would’ve been “awfully embarrassing” if he was wrong. Coulson is still a force to be reckoned with, and Gregg spares no expense in making this abundantly clear.

Fitz (Ian de Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) don’t get much screentime this episode, going to their usual mission support roles. However, something about Henstridge’s scenes in this episode really get on my nerves. Throughout the episode, Simmons is insistent on referring to anything magic as a form of science. Anytime magic is brought up, Simmons is there to say, “You mean science!” A similar situation bugs me with May during “Eye Spy”, when she insists magic isn’t real either.

It’s hard to understand why the writers are trying to be so insistent that there is no such thing as magic. Are they trying to foreshadow an episode where there is actual magic involved? Are they giving hints to future Marvel movies or something?

Still, Henstridge does give her scenes a more natural feel to them, with Simmons holding off on talking to her parents after her brushes with death in the most recent episodes. She also has a very funny scene with Dalton where Ward is trying to convince Simmons to overcome her fear of heights and climb up the trunk of a fallen tree. This somewhat makes up for her more annoying moments in the episode.

Na-Wen, once again, has very little to do this episode. However, what she is given does show promise for May’s character, as well as more of her fighting skills. For instance, we see May wind up holding the staff late into the episode, and yet she doesn’t seem to be too affected by it (or rather, she is, and manages to retain her wits regardless). This follows up the hint we get during “Fzzt” that there is much more to May than meets the eye, and I’m willing to bet we’re getting a May spotlight episode sometime soon.

MacNicol’s Prof. Randolph has a pretty big presence this episode, and he manages to hold his own against all of the strong actors in the main cast. He has a very distinct personality as Randolph–enough to make him seem like he’d fit right in with the Agents–and I honestly hope he appears in more episodes after this one.

All in all, this is a very engaging episode with enough character development, action and story to make for one hell of an hour. Sure, the villains aren’t perfect and it sort of goes out on more of a whimper than a bang, but there’s more than enough good in the episode to make up for the bad. “The Well” gets an A.

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