Despite its status as a show that's technically in the Joss Whedon universe of TV, Marvel's ABC drama "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." has never been particularly great at delivering that very Whedon-esque flourish: the Big Bad. In three years, the show has delivered up a few decent antagonists, but never has the spy drama carried a full-on supervillain from start to finish. In tonight's "Paradise Lost," the show takes steps towards filling that gap by first running through a series of mini bosses with strange to sad circumstances.
At first, there's the false Big Bad of the season: Gideon Malick. In a series of flashbacks, we learn that the Hydra cultist wasn't the only believer in his family line. Aside from his father, Gideon also had a younger brother in Nathaniel -Â a teen we meet in a series of flashbacks. The pair are met grieving for their recently departed patriarch, and we soon learn that their future as inheritors of Hydra Council positions is in doubt. The boys can either continue to offer up an regular sacrifice to the otherworldly god that their people have worshipped for a lifetime or take the path of Nazi mastermind Whitehall who offers them up a place on the path of Hydra's high science division. Whitehall tells them that their father was never a believer -Â just a man who cheated his way out of drawing the short straw (or literally the white stone) that would send him to die on another planet.
Of course, Gideon balks at any talk of their father's lack of honor while Nathaniel (who of course we've never seen before now) seems nervous about their future. The brothers make a vow to walk into their own ceremony together -Â do or die. "Whatever could happen at the end of this story?" asks absolutely no one in the audience.
In the present, things hang a bit more in doubt. Having seen the ghost of Grant Ward last time out, Director Coulson and his team are after Hydra's grand scheme with renewed purpose. To discover what unWard and Malick are really up to, the team has to split into two teams. Coulson and the main force of agents will investigate what weird science Hydra has been getting into at a remote biology lab. Meanwhile, Daisy and Lincoln head West to chat up a crackpot Inhuman refugee named James for info on the god of death that inhabits their former teammate's body.
For the Coulson team, the mission is simply a setup to explore full dimensions of unWArd's new form. As they analyze burned out genetic material from the various sites of the villain's wrath, Fitz and Simmons put together a working theory that the monster (who everyone on our earth call The Hive but who remains nameless within the story) is a parasite feeding off both the physical and mental remnants of its host. Hopes of finding our more when Hive's right hand martial artist gets brought in are all for nought as the telekinetic kick-boxer forces his way out of lockdown in midflight and crash lands the S.H.I.E.L.D. ship right into Hydra's clutches.
Yes, that is a bit of a simplified take on the plotline, but for most of the story's screentime, the episode just leaned into the action of that setup. The locked room fight between May and the mini boss played Mark Dacascos was a fun, visceral few minutes. But aside from establishing who was "Only The Strong" (look it up, kids) the showdown held little weight for the story at hand. More important was the terse exchanged between the jailed baddie and Mack where the full power of Hive's control over the roundhouser came to light. He's not just a true believe in the cause but a mind infected by the parasite's mission to recreate planet earth.
Most vital of all to this story is Coulson's own response to the increasingly insane threat that is their reanimated former ally. The Director isn't just in anguish that Ward is somehow back amongst the living but that by killing Ward in a fit of rage on an alien world, it's actually his fault that the Hive was able to absorb the body and return to earth. You could argue that the monster would have likely made it back through one way or the other, but what you can't take issue with is the moral ground the show is staking out. Sure, people get killed in the spy game, but Coulson has never been a murderer. And now (as he literally points out in the episode) that choice has actually physically come back to haunt him. It's an important distinction not just for the show but for the Marvel Cinematic Universe method of storytelling. Just as the Avengers worked to save a city full of people at the end of "Age of Ultron," the Agents of this spinoff show (or "Daredevil" or "The Winter Soldier" or probably a few other MCU stories past and future) struggle to achieve the moral action in an immoral world. It's a definite shift in sensibility from Marvel's main competitor who are dogged by criticisms of overlooking real heroism on both the big and small screen (at least in "Gotham").
That moral dimension gets a minor workout too with Daisy and Lincoln's story. The pair poker-face negotiate their way to getting an ancient Kree artifact from James by dangling his long-sought Inhuman activation in front of him. Of course, Lincoln balks at the last moment, leaving the outcast bitter and angry and screaming that Daisy will end up dead like her man's last lover. It's only the latest twist that spells out a doomed finish for this pair, but as Lincoln explains that his last girlfriend died as a result of his reckless drunken driving before he found his Inhuman purpose, the show once again brushes with dark pasts before pushing towards a more enlightened moral core. Still, the most compelling aspect of this story may be the ways in which "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." is slowly bringing together Hive's origin with the Inhuman and Kree elements of the world -Â a bit of extensive world-building that even the comics didn't push so far as to undertake.
Still, in the end, this hour was all about the villains. Malick struggles with a prophetic vision of his own death and the memory of the brother he obviously betrayed as unWard sets up shop in his own home. As a council of Hydra's remaining leaders arrive at the Malick mansion with justifiable doubts on the power of the ancient religion the organization was founded on, they find a true believer in the form of Malick's own daughter Stephanie. But Malick himself is more worried that as unWard reveals himself to them all that he himself will be usurped by Hydra's new tentacle-headed god. And he has a right to be worried!
The final act of the show delivers both what you'd expect from this story and swerves just at the right moment. Yes, Gideon Malick did indeed cheat the selection years ago and in turn sent his brother to die on an alien world. Yes, unWard does retain the memories of the betrayal that Nathaniel felt all these years later. And yes, when all this comes to light, Stephanie is repulsed by her father's cowardly ways and fully turns into the Hive's influence. But rather than watch Gideon die as in his vision, the audience is treated to Hive's twist to suck the life out of Stephanie so as to more fully break his "brother's" spirit. Now the true leader of Hydra has brought his one potential rival to heel in the most demoralizing way possible and can move forward with his plans for planet earth.
It's a sharp finish to an episode that could have been all setup for the coming finale. But in adding some personality to Hive's makeup, the weight of using this character as a Big Bad not just for the season but for the entire show to date feels earned. The Hive has no absorbed the threat of two of the show's previous core villains (one way or the other) and steps into the future with an emotional edge on almost everyone -Â Coulson most of all who struggles both with the memory or Ward's betrayal and the guild of his moral failings. It's solid ground at last to be pinning the show on. And though the last minute promise that Daisy and Lincoln must "Assemble the Secret Warriors" to take on this threat feels a little hollow (we barely know these characters on screen or on the page), there's hope that by the end of this season, it might be Paradise Found for "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D."