The cliffhanger from last week's "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." made it seem like a reckoning was in the offing for the so-called "Winter Finale." And while the story-wrapping hour that was "Maveth" -Â a Hebrew word for death that one supposes could double for the cosmic villain at its heart -Â definitely brought moments of finality, the action mostly felt like a stopping point than a heart-stopping finish.
The episode starts with stark contrasts. On the mysterious planet that supposedly houses the god of Hydra, Ward, Fitz and a team of redshirts from the evil espionage organization march in silence. That's a total, numbing silence - a lack of the show's typical tension-pushing music accelerating the eerie void of the blue-drenched cosmic marble. Fitz makes an early play to fight back against his captors, but his former big brother figure seems more than ready to stomp out any dissent. Meanwhile back on earth, Bobbi and Hunter make their own silent descent onto S.H.I.E.L.D.'s floating HQ. But soon, the show's typical mission-minded methods take back over. Acting director Mack helps the renegade pair launch a plan to break into Hydra's secret mountain base and both rescue their friends (and a bunch of captive Inhumans) and close off their foe's access to the other world forever.
Of the two plots, it's the planetside drama that keeps the viewer on the edge of their seats. Whether it's Phil Coulson waking up from a dream of his dead lover Roz to morph into his ultimate fanboy hero mode or Simmons' lover Will playing ally to Fitz with just the right amount of hidden menace, the story thrums with a deadly vibe that screams "finale."
The spy infiltration story is no slough either, if it is a little by-the-book for the series. From Simmons' releasing of Andrew Garner/Lash to the nervous but excited banter of Daisy's burgeoning team of Inhuman agents, the threads of the season synch back up in a satisfying manner. Perhaps best of all is Mack's elevation to the head of our erstwhile band of heroes. The character has long been in need of a true solo arc for a while, and the head heavy with the crown is a great fit in the hands of actor Henry Simmons.
Of course, if the story were as simple as one side beating back an invisible monster and the other saving the day, the episode would only be 20 minutes long. Complications turn the story toward philosophy on the world as Will and Fitz's sandstorm-bound escape plan separates them from Ward who's soon in the hands of Coulson -Â a man desperate to kill him but wary of his ability to find Fitz without his help. Ward's long search for a daddy figure goes from subtext to straight up text as he embraces the idea that the god of Hydra will bring him not death but rebirth.
Dilemmas over life and death stalk earth's crew as well when Jemma's choice to unleash Andrew leads to the offscreen death of over a dozen Inhumans (more than a little anticlimactic, but TV budgets are TV budgets, we suppose). More drastic is the debate over whether to nuke the portal before (we hope) Fitz comes back through in order to stop a cosmic death god from coming with him. Again, it's Mack who steals the scene and makes the hard call. He'll stay to ensure what comes back is worth its life or give the order to get buried with it in a hail of bombs. Completing their "We're the rebels of S.H.I.E.L.D." journey, Daisy insists staying with her partner (though if push came to shove, who do you think the show runners consider more expendable?)
The endgame comes swiftly with the requisite number of twists. Will is not Will anymore, but the death god wearing his body who apparently killed the planet's entire former civilization for their lack of vision. As the portal opens, everything goes to shit as Fitz can't stop the beast while Coulson and Ward finally go toe-to-toe over the latter's path of death and destruction. In an admirably unreal bit of special effects, Fitz sets the beat ablaze just in time to give him and Coulson a way out -Â but not before Phil kills Ward.
The extraction seems to go off without a hitch. Fitz and Coulson reunite with their S.H.I.E.L.D. compatriots, Jemma is crushed by the lack of Will but falls into Fitz's arms, and Daisy and Lincoln spark up a bit of romance all their own. That this all plays out with the series most dramatic buildup of strings yet would make it feel like a somewhat bittersweet, mostly happy ending. But this wouldn't be a mid-season finale without a few lingering doubts.
What exactly happened to Garner is a thread that will come back to bite the Inhuman community soon enough, but the "shocking" image we're left with is that of a dark-eyed Ward (or something living in his body) back on earth and meeting up with Gideon Malick. The move was a virtual certainty from sometime around the moment we knew the beast could take over the bodies of others. And in that sense, even though one of the original cast members technically died this week, this episode feels less like an ending to the story and more like a decent pause in a saga that is still very much ongoing. It's appropriate for a mid-winter cliffhanger, and considering this season of the show has been it's most consistent ever, there's no reason to think the fans who have stuck with it won't return in March when this misfit corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe comes back.