Friday, September 4, 2015

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 2, Episode 8, "The Things We Bury" RETRO-REVIEW (SPOILERS)

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Can you say “villain-centric episode”?  That is essentially what “The Things We Bury” is:  an opportunity for us to learn about the villains and their motivations.  And this episode does an adequate job of that.  We learn who Daniel Whitehall is and how he came to be the man he is.  We learn more about Skye’s father, the enigmatic “Doctor,” and what is driving his actions in this war between S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra.  We even learn some more about the villain for the second half of the season, though it’s not until near the end of the season that she is revealed as such.  And we get a little more information on Ward—or do we?  You really can’t tell with that guy.  Regardless, everything in the episode ties in with the theme of “buried secrets.”

The episode begins near the end of World War II, with Hydra scientist Werner Reinhardt conducting experiments with the Obelisk.  Evidently the Obelisk was discovered by Chinese villagers who dug it up (it was buried), and Reinhardt is forcing each of them to touch it in turn, measuring the rate at which they are changed to stone.  This all changes, however, when the guards force a woman’s face into contact with the Obelisk and the Obelisk begins to glow.  Reinhardt realizes that there is something special about the woman and orders that she be prepped for surgery.  This order is delayed, however, by news of Red Skull’s death and the Allies’ approach.  I assume that this sets up the scene at the beginning of “Shadows” (2x01) when Peggy Carter and the Howling Commandos captured Reinhardt and the Obelisk and presumably freed the woman.  From there the next flashback is to Reinhardt in an interrogation room at the old S.S.R. prison called “The Rat,” where Peggy Carter interrogates him.  He tells her the “story” of a legend about a star the fell from the sky and blue angels who appeared bringing a gift for mankind… only he believes that the visitors actually came to conquer the world—an assertion which Cal (in the present) corrects:  they came to “end” the world, leaving a worthy few behind.

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Peggy refuses to make any deals with Reinhardt, instead saying that she will lock him up, bury his research, and make sure he’s forgotten about.  44 years pass by in a quick aging montage until Undersecretary Alexander Pierce arranges for Reinhardt’s medical parole shortly after Hydra discovered that same woman in a Chinese village.  Obviously this was arranged by Hydra (a fact made abundantly clear when the man who came to free him whispered “Hail Hydra” in his ear when they were alone—are you telling me the Rat doesn’t have cameras in the cells?  Meh…).  Hydra smuggles Reinhardt to his same facility in Austria, where they show him the elders from a certain Chinese village, one of whom he recognizes as that same woman (whom we now know to be Jiaying).  He says he’s going to experiment on her to find out why she hasn’t aged, and we hear her screaming as she is dragged from the room.  The vivisection montage was surprisingly graphic for a network TV series, even airing an hour later than it did in the first season.  I’m surprised they got away with showing as much detail as they did.  Once Reinhardt had taken as much from Jiaying as he could, he injected into himself, de-aging himself by 44 years and reinventing himself as Daniel Whitehall, and had her body disposed of (which they did by just dumping it in the woods—you really thought that one through, guys).

This leads into the second villain’s story:  The mysterious “Doctor.”  At the beginning of the episode all we really know about him is that he is Skye’s father and blames S.H.I.E.L.D. for taking her away from him—that’s why he went to work for Whitehall.  However, in this episode we learn that he knows all about the alien city (just not its location) and that he also knows a lot of the secrets behind the Obelisk.  He knows that it is a key which will “divine” who is worthy of entering the city and unlocking the power within.  When Whitehall asks about his motivations, Cal says that he wants revenge on S.H.I.E.L.D. for taking away everything from him, after which he will be reunited with his family… “in the Afterlife” (note the capitalization… whoa).  When he comes into contact with Coulson on his mission, however, Cal reveals that he does not have any interest in working for Hydra; his sole interest is in bringing his daughter to the city so she can learn about her history (and receive her birthright).  Instead of really hating Coulson, he is motivated by the desire to avenge his wife (revealed in a major twist to be Jiaying) and be reunited with his daughter.  And finally at the end of the episode the real kicker comes when Cal discovers Jiaying’s body in the woods and mourns over her.  The pairing of this flashback with his line about “looking your enemy right in the eye” brings his full motivation into sharp focus:  he knows what Whitehall did to his wife, and he has placed himself in the perfect position to take revenge on him.  I really like what they did with Cal’s character all through this season:  he was very much a villain from the get-go, but starting in this episode he really becomes more sympathetic, to the point where we almost want him to succeed (particularly with how he defines “success” in the mid-season finale).  In fact, at the end of the season he’s as close to a hero as that character can ever be, choosing to kill his evil wife in order to save their daughter.

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The final villain in this episode is of course Ward, who captures his brother Christian while he’s on the way to the family cabin for a romantic getaway (with his mistress, the cad).  Ward takes Christian into the woods and forces him to dig up the old well which their parents had buried.  This scene gives us some interesting insight into both of these characters, though I’m not entirely sure if we can believe any of it!  After all, Ward and Christian have both accused the other of being a manipulative liar, and both of them are in professions where manipulation and lying are considered virtues.  So which one of them really pushed Thomas into the well?  Did either of them tell the truth?  Christian’s “confession” was obviously coerced out of him, but that doesn’t necessarily make it false.  About all we can say is that we really can’t trust either of these characters.  Or rather we can’t trust Ward, especially after he straight-up murdered his parents, framed his brother for it, and torched their house!  And now Ward has joined Whitehall’s little cabal as his S.H.I.E.L.D. expert, joining Cal who is serving as the Diviner expert.  At this point we know that these three will be trying to locate the alien city, though each for entirely different reasons.

There are also two interesting S.H.I.E.L.D.-centric stories going on in this episode.  The first is Bobbi’s continued efforts to interrogate Bakshi, which lead to S.H.I.E.L.D.’s discovery that Whitehall is actually Werner Reinhardt (and our discovery that Simmons has a bit of hero-worship going on for fellow-Brit Peggy Carter).  This connects very well with Whitehall’s back story, but it also gives us some interesting character moments between Bobbi and Hunter.  Hunter has been badmouthing Bobbi all season and never quite seems to trust her, and now we know why.  Their history together is really bad, but he really does seem to love her.  So even though he believes he can never trust her, he still wants to.  And that leads to the two of them having sex in the S.H.I.E.L.D. van.  On the one hand I can see how their “hooking up” is part of their character development, especially in light of the “Real S.H.I.E.L.D.” plot in the back half of the season, but on the other hand it felt kind of gratuitous.

The other S.H.I.E.L.D. story involved Coulson’s team going on a mission to “borrow” U.S. geological satellites in order to use them to find the alien city.  Coulson uses Skye and Trip to place the two parts of an E.M.P. device into play where they will knock the U.S. Air Force facility in Hawaii offline, giving S.H.I.E.L.D. an opportunity to install a backdoor into the U.S.A.F. system at a secondary facility in Australia.  There’s also a quick reference in there to Audrey, who gave him the tie which he had Trip pick up from the dry cleaners.  You can read into that that Coulson still cares for her, but it’s not much to go by.

Coulson then takes the team to Australia, where he, Trip, and Fitz infiltrate the facility so Fitz can install the backdoor transceiver.  It’s nice that they show Fitz practicing the installation a few times and struggling with it.  We knew he was most likely going to do it, but that let us see the struggle—he’s still not up to full strength because one of his hands is still not quite right.  A Hydra team is there for them to fight off, but only as a way for the Doctor to get close enough to Coulson to give him a message.  It seems a little convenient that Hydra showed up there at the same time that S.H.I.E.L.D. did, but I suppose it is possible that they had been staking that facility out because the Doctor knew S.H.I.E.L.D. would need the satellite system to find the facility.  This gives the Doctor a little more character development as someone who is unstable and only working with Whitehall to get close enough to kill him.  He also cares about Skye a lot, which may have been the only thing that prevented him from killing Trip.

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As far as villain-centric episodes are concerned, this was pretty good.  It introduced all the villains for the season (including Jiaying, something we didn’t realize until “Scars,” 2x20) and explored their motivations.  There was some decent action with the fight at the military facility, but it kept the focus squarely on the characters.  I haven’t been commenting on the effects too much lately because the effects largely seem to be stunts and practical effects and I haven’t seen anything really bad.  However, I do want to comment on the age makeup they used for old Whitehall and young Cal.  I really wasn’t convinced with the Whitehall makeup; it looked like it was too much and too thick and he really couldn’t move under it.  Young Cal, by contrast, was quite well done—helped along by the dark lighting, I think.  Considering how well Marvel has been able to age Hayley Atwell for Peggy Carter in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Ant-Man I’m surprised that Whitehall’s age makeup wasn’t more convincing.  However, I didn’t find myself getting pulled out of the story too much by it, so I guess I can let it go.

What did you think of this episode?  Do you like these villain-centric episodes?  Do you think Marvel Studios needs to do that with a movie or two—focus exclusively on the villains (a la Sinister Six, Masters of Evil, or Thunderbolts)?

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