The first season of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. dragged on some less-than-compelling character stories, but it was somewhat redeemed by a twisted, satisfying finish. Last night's episode did pretty much the same thing, but just in one hour.
The latest chapter, titled "The Things We Bury," opened with the unearthing of Season 2 MacGuffin the Diviner in the final days of World War II. Villainous Hydra honcho Daniel Whitehall systematically exposes POWs to the alien artifact in hopes of understanding it. While most of his victims crumble to death at the item's touch, one woman is mysteriously immune (longtime Joss Whedon fans will note Dollhouse vet Dichen Lachman in the harrowing role). But before Whitehall can unlock why the woman's life is spared, news breaks that the Red Skull is dead.
Meanwhile, in the present, the ageless Whitehall pumps the bipolar crackpot that is Skye's father on the Diviner's origins. A perpetually sweaty (and super-fun) Kyle MacLachlan explains that the aliens who sent the item to Earth mean to end the human race, but certain chosen survivors can use it to unlock "a special place." Comic fans will doubtlessly salivate at the possibilities this plotline holds for future Marvel film hero debuts, but whether or not the Inhumans are in the offing, the conspiracy behind the Diviner needs to work as drama on its own.
And for Director Coulson and company, this story drags. Most of the episode sees the crew plug along at their new status quo. Still outsiders, the S.H.I.E.L.D. team is making incremental progress at both uncovering where the secret city Coulson and Skye can foretell (thanks to alien blood) AND tracking escaped double agent Grant Ward. Neither plotline seems like its ready to move too far forward.
Coulson's hunt for the city provides the mission-centric spine of the story, but mostly he, Skye, Mac and Fitz's trip to Hawaii is an excuse for lots of tech jargon and wheel spinning. "We've got to plant a watch on this guy to make an EMP go off to find the city's location. Why? Because the climax won't happen for another 42 minutes, that's why!"
Back at the plane, a shakedown of Whitehall's captured second-in-command is similarly slow. Despite some typically entertaining sparks between the former husband-and-wife team of Mockingbird and Hunter, the whole thread mostly serves to catch the S.H.I.E.L.D. team up with the "shocking revelation" that Whitehall is in fact an ageless Hydra scientist. Even some flashback exposition with "awaiting her own series" guest star Agent Peggy Carter can't hide the fact that we're one step ahead of our heroes in the knowledge department, and that makes for a few dead beats.
A much more compelling unpacking of flashbacks comes as Ward finally strikes back at his senator brother Christian. The elder Ward supposedly forced Grant to push their youngest sibling down a well in a fit of psychotic bullying. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had been somewhat weakly playing this thread as a "Who can you trust?" issue in previous weeks, and Agent Ward's status as a lying scumbag makes us doubt everything about him. But his older brother soon caves and admits the crime was not all in Grant's head. It was a real result of their shared familial abuse.
When the brothers walk off arm in arm, the viewer knows the other shoe is going to drop, but the late-episode revelation that Ward killed his brother AND their parents shortly thereafter should put a final "No" to the question of whether there's any redemption to be found there.
And luckily for the episode, that was just the first twist to be dug up. As we watch Whitehall's backstory unfold, new details start to make ripples. Incarcerated for years by Carter's pre-S.H.I.E.L.D. agency, the villain did in fact grow old. Only the timely intervention of '80s Hydra sleepers broke the senior citizen of evil out, and to keep things going quickly they also reunite him with the ageless woman who could touch the Diviner at will. Whitehall's experiments begin again, only this time the torture of his prisoner yields him his new youth with each pound of flesh he extracts from her.
By the time we watch Coulson confront Skye's father in a "We all need to be in Hawaii for some reason" confluence of events, it seems like the episode will have nothing to offer us but a tiny step toward the season's big plan. But when it's revealed that Whitehall's ageless victim was actually Skye's mother and the love of her father's life, a new human wrinkle is added to the story. What's the off-kilter father figure's plan for the man who killed his wife? How is that plan complicated by Ward's arrival on Whitehall's doorstep? And how exactly did dad's beef with S.H.I.E.L.D. start if Whitehall was the killer all along?
Those questions leave the viewers wanting more at the end of an episode that mostly made them want it to end. Let's hope there's equal payoff when they dig the city up next.