Breaking up – as you may have heard – is hard to do. That’s part of the idea driving the latest episode of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. In “A Fractured House,” Coulson’s team finds itself under siege, but despite a high red-shirt body count, the real casualties this week come in the form of their last remaining shred of connection to traitor Agent Ward.
In the latest volley of the traditional “spy vs. spy” setup, Hydra has assumed the guise of a band of S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives in order to kill a few United Nations delegates (like you do). The rogue trooper’s disintegration bombs set a time clock on the action, and split the ever-expanding cast of series regulars apart on a hunt to save S.H.I.E.L.D.’s reputation — and maybe a few lives in the process.
On the light and spin-kicky side of the coin, newly revealed Agent Bobbi Morse (aka Mockingbird, aka “Isn’t it nice we finally have an Avenger on this show?”), her ex-husband Agent Hunter and perpetually “IDGAF” Agent May set off for Japan to track the bomb’s origins. The story spins along for most of the episode like you’d expect: Bobbi’s status as a double agent is compromised, Hunter is transparently jealous of her honey-potting tactics, and May doesn’t like Hunter under any circumstances. But eventually, all three team up to take down an army of nameless thugs with one shot.
Meanwhile, there are fireworks to spare back at the base, where Coulson is finally forced to do something beyond keep Agent Ward under lock and key. In the wake of Hydra’s faux-S.H.I.E.L.D. attack, Ward’s brother and U.S. Senator Christian is leading the charge to have our heroes hunted down for their enemies’ crimes. As Senator Ward, Tim DeKay exudes a Kennedy-esque nature as he clashes with Coulson over what should be done with his brother.
Down in Ward’s ultra-secret cage, the bearded heartbreaker pleadswith Skye to never trust his high-ranking brother, who supposedly tortured him with perverse glee. To the episode’s credit, the viewer is never quite sure which Ward brother to trust, as each makes heartfelt cases as to why he’s the good son. But for Skye and the rest of the S.H.I.E.L.D. team, the answer is clear: Their friend Ward isn’t coming back and was likely never there to begin with. So despite his promises of providing clues to the mystery of Skye’s father, they prepare to ship him off to government hands to save their hides.
This being Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., nothing is ever quite that easy. Hydra’s tentacles dig deeper into the world than anyone can assume, and the safe house Coulson had set up for his few remaining international Agents was compromised quickly. None of the field agents we care about bite the bullet, of course. But the turn of events heaps on the doubts we feel about Ward’s position.
All in all, the action surrounding so many cast members is getting hard to hold in one show (we all liked it when Agent Trip was introduced last year; maybe give him a story?). But even as things threaten to break apart narratively, S.H.I.E.L.D. finds a way to hold our interest on two fronts. First, there’s Ward’s nailbiter escape from custody. The tense scene not only leaves the questions surrounding his brother afloat for future stories. It also puts another welcome player on the board as you know Ward won’t stay out of the fray with Hydra for long.
But more importantly, the occasionally interminable FitzSimmons story moves closer to a new state in the episode. After being rebuffed for her kid-gloves treatment of her former partner, Jemma shows more depth than she’s been allowed in the past few weeks of hidden Hydra shenanigans. On the one hand, she can cooly threaten Ward’s life with a Coulson-esque flash of confidence. On the other, she admits defeatedly to Mack that she knows her presence hurts Fitz’s chances of recovery. Which side will win out for the Agents? Will they remain uber-confident and unbreakable, or will they crumble under the weight of their own drama? So far this season that’s the fun.
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