Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 1, Episode 21, "Ragtag" RETRO-REVIEW (SPOILERS)

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“Ragtag,” the episode right before the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season finale, doesn’t waste any time.  Everything seems to be in overdrive as they put the pieces into place for the action-packed season finale.  However, even with all of that there is still time to explore Ward’s back story and learn just what he owes to Garrett and why he is so loyal to him.  The episode ends with a major cliffhanger as there is no telling which of the characters is in the most danger.  And at the same time, the villains look to be one step away from victory.

Reminder:  Retro-Reviews contain potential spoilers for all of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. seasons 1 and 2.

The episode is largely structured as a “flashback episode,” showing several flashbacks of Ward’s history and using them to illuminate Ward’s actions in the present.  It begins with a young Grant Ward (played by Austin Lyon) being escorted into a visitation room at a juvenile detention facility.  There he meets with Garrett, who explains that the headmaster at Ward’s military school is an old friend of his, and that he mentioned a young recruit with incredible hand-eye coordination who drove 1000 miles to torch his parents’ house (with his older brother inside).  Garrett tells him that his two options are to either stay in jail, where his parents are pressing charges and his brother is petitioning for him to be tried as an adult, or to leave with Garrett.  Ward agrees to Garrett’s proposal and joins him in leaving the facility.  Garrett then drops him in the middle of the Wyoming wilderness to fend for himself for six months with only his dog Buddy for company.  Ward manages to survive by raiding cabins and stealing supplies, including a shotgun to hunt with.  Over time, Garrett trains Ward to shoot and indoctrinates him into Hydra.  I find this whole process fascinating:  Garrett mixes punishment, fear, and praise in such a way that Ward finds himself helpless to do anything but follow him, seeking out more of the praise which only Garrett has ever given him.  In a way, Garrett and Christian (Ward’s older brother) aren’t very different—they both force Ward to do terrible things and demean and belittle him; the only difference is that Garrett actually gives Ward praise on occasion as a reward for good behavior.  Understood this way, it’s really not surprising that Ward is so fiercely loyal to Garrett without caring for Hydra in the slightest.

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We also get to see a glimpse into Garrett’s ultimate plan in this episode.  He sends Deathlok to Bogota to take out a major drug lord (with Hydra ties) in the most spectacular way possible—punching the guy’s head clean off.  Though Ward remarks that he could have done the job without attracting attention, Garrett tells him that the spectacle was the job:  They wanted to draw as much attention as possible to Deathlok, their “product.”  Garrett is planning to use Quinn as his “front-man” to market their super-soldiers (aka Project Deathlok) to the U.S. government (possibly to other governments as well; it’s not really explored).  At the end of the episode, Quinn sits down with two of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington, DC, and explains to them that a super-soldier can complete a mission like taking out Osama bin Laden at a fraction of the cost of traditional Special Forces units.  He then invites them to tour the new Cybertek facility where they are constructing their units.  I actually find this plan fascinating.  Though Garrett never managed to implement it (he went a little too crazy to carry it out), I suspect that his goal was never to make money off the soldiers, but rather to place them within the U.S. military so he could use them to take over.  It’s only ever alluded to by Ward in the season finale—most of this is just my suspicion—and it perfectly in line with the kind of thing Hydra would do.

Coulson and the team, meanwhile, work out the connection between Garrett and Cybertek, and decide to infiltrate Cybertek and use their computer system to activate Skye’s Trojan horse.  Trip also offers to let them use all of his grandfather’s old Howling Commandos gear—and Coulson geeking out over all the old spyware was probably the most pure fun in the episode.  I like that they’ve taken his trading cards thing from The Avengers and run with it to such a degree.  Considering that one of the show’s target demographics is “geeks,” Coulson being a geek is a really good decision!  Coulson and May attempting to pose as S.H.I.E.L.D. technicians (mimicking everything Fitz and Simmons say in their ears) was the funniest moment of the episode—of course, there really weren’t a lot of those.  While in Cybertek, Coulson and May discover that all of Cybertek’s records are kept on paper, and steal a file cabinet full of records from Project Deathlok.  I actually liked the throwback bit when the two of them got to the fourth floor:  they are spotted by a guard, and there’s a red phone halfway between them.  The guard runs for the phone while May flips her way toward him.  He picks up the phone just as she reaches him, and she knocks the phone in the air, knocks him out, catches the phone, and puts it back on its cradle.  That’s the kind of thing that just wouldn’t fly under normal circumstances, but in an episode where they infiltrate a completely low-tech company while using spyware out of the 1940s-1950s, it actually makes perfect sense.

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From the files, the team realizes that Garrett is the first “Deathlok,” and that he has been working with Cybertek ever since the 1990s.  In a flashback, we learn that Garrett was on a S.H.I.E.L.D. mission when he was injured.  S.H.I.E.L.D. refused to send a medevac, so he decided that they didn’t care as much for him as he did for them, and that if he survived he would do everything in his power to destroy S.H.I.E.L.D.  He willed himself to survive, had Cybertek patch him up, and joined Hydra.  I love just how much background we are getting on the villains.  I’m a little disappointed that we didn’t get it until the very end of the season, but that’s really to be expected when the true villain’s identity is a huge twist like this.  Season 2 kind of did both:  it gave us Whitehall right off the bat as a villain and filled in his back story along the way in the first half, but then in the second half it didn’t reveal the true villain until just about the end.  However, we did learn a lot more of Jiaying’s motivations along the way in season 2.

The team manages to track Garrett and Ward to Havana, and they go to try finding them.  Fitz and Simmons locate the Bus on an airstrip, but are caught by Ward and brought onboard.  Fitz sets off a pocket EMP, frying Garrett’s bio-mechanical components—the only things keeping him alive at this point.  Garrett orders Ward to “put down” Fitz and Simmons (just like he’d ordered him to “put down” Buddy 10 years earlier when he left for the Academy), which Ward sort-of did by ejecting the pod in which they had taken refuge over the water.  Meanwhile, Garrett has Raina inject the GH-325 serum derivative she had concocted into the container of Centipede serum housed within one of his implants.  She does so—meaning there’s really no chance to replicate it again—and Garrett’s body starts to heal itself.  I actually liked Raina’s scenes in this episode.  When she was talking to Mike Peterson about her motivation being “people like him,” it suddenly became clear just what she was doing with Hydra.  She was never a believer in anything other than the Clairvoyant (she really picked a winner there…); she was only interested in powers—and specifically what will happen to her when she transforms.  Then when she was talking to Ward, she dropped the crucial information that she has heard stories about Skye’s past, and that the “monsters” who destroyed the village were actually the baby’s parents.  This explains all the information that Ward had on Cal in Season 2 (not much) and why he thought he might have a chance with Skye once she knew the truth.

While all of that is happening, Coulson, May, Trip, and Skye go to the barbershop which fronts the abandoned S.H.I.E.L.D. base that Hydra has been using.  Though they initially fail to find anything of note, Trip uses one of his vintage Howling Commandos devices to look behind the walls and find a hidden room.  Coulson opens it and they enter, only to discover several Centipede soldiers, one of whom is wielding the Berserker Staff.

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That’s pretty much where the episode ends:  Fitz and Simmons are trapped in a pod at the bottom of the ocean.  Garrett is alive and “feeling the universe” (and he only gets crazier from there).  Coulson, May, Trip, and Skye walked into a trap and are about to fight a whole bunch of Centipede super-soldiers.  And Quinn is marketing super-soldiers to the U.S. military, which will be touring the Cybertek facility where Garrett and Ward and going.  The pieces are all in place for an epic season finale that will answer all our questions.

I really liked this episode for what it was:  a set-up episode for the season finale.  However, it did more than just set up the finale; it also gave us our only “villain-centric” episode of the season.  There were other episodes where the villains got a lot of attention, but this episode is the only one to fully explore Ward’s and Garrett’s motivations and what made them turn to Hydra in the first place.  Garrett is clearly an evil narcissistic psychopath who doesn’t care about anything except his own survival—using the GH-325-derived serum on himself when it can’t ever be recreated is proof enough of that.  Ward, on the other hand, is more sympathetic:  his past put him on a path that had to lead here.  There was very little hope that he would turn out otherwise than what he is—his older brother and Garrett saw to that.

What was your favorite part of this episode?  Who is your favorite Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. villain to-date?

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