I’ve been talking for several weeks now about how the villains in this season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are really knocking it out of the park. From the fully formed Absorbing Man to a convincing big bad in Daniel Whitehall, the show’s had a wealth of bad guys that was almost completely absent last year. They’re overshadowing our heroes, by this point, as most of Phil Coulson’s crew are merely reacting to whatever horrible machinations the HYDRA et al side of the equation are up to.
Case in point: for this week’s episode, “The Things We Bury,” Coulson’s mission (wherein Skye and Tripp are tasked with planting seemingly mundane items into the hands of some government officials in Hawaii, merely as a stepping stone to track down the unknown alien-but-totally-a-Kree city) is a tertiary development. In fact, it’s kept almost entirely off-screen, probably to keep down on the costs of an on-location shoot. But man, Tripp trying to figure out Coulson’s directions regarding hard-to-pronounce Hawaiian streets sure sounds like an early Season One episode.
Instead we spend a considerable chunk of time learning about the origins of the HYDRA head, Daniel Whitehall. A flashback scene featuring a cameo by Agent Peggy Carter connects the dots from what we saw in this season’s first episode: Whitehall was previously a high-ranking officer working under the Red Skull in the 1940s, then known as Werner Reinhardt.
We then get a beautifully shot time-lapse scene of Reinhardt in his prison cell: his book shelf changes its contents, Werner plays through countless chess simulations, and a single plant sprouts and grows on his desk, as the viewer might wonder how a sadist from HYDRA managed better accommodations than most first-year university students.
By 1989, he’s released thanks to some pull from HYDRA sleeper agents within S.H.I.E.L.D. His first business is to find a woman he wanted to experiment on in the ‘40s: a woman who, mysteriously, hasn’t aged a day in 45 years. We then get a horrifying montage of her vivisected on a surgeon’s table, with more gruesome simulated gore than I’ve ever seen from Ramsay Bolton over on Game of Thrones.
The end game for all this, besides cementing Reinhardt’s reputation as a stone cold supervillain, is whatever genetic goop he managed to extract from the immortal woman, which reversed his own age, leaving him reborn as Daniel Whitehall…
Probably not ‘The Doctor’ you were thinking of
…at least that would be end of it, if not for this week’s biggest long-game revelation: the woman that Whitehall was the Mad Doctor’s wife. You know, Skye’s father?
Even as the two are working together, in some kind of quest to find the alien city for which The Diviner is a deadly key, The Doctor and Whitehall are headed for a crash course, the consequences of which can only be bad news.
Coulson and his team are in an Australian base to get more information about the alien city, when they’re ambushed by HYDRA soldiers, wounding Tripp in sadly his most important role this season. The Doctor shows up, pretending to be…well, a normal doctor, and he and Coulson have a chat about his daughter.
Kyle MacLachlan’s performance here is incredible, and the moment when he reveals that he holds Tripp’s life literally in his hands (no, seriously – he’s holding one of Tripp’s critical arteries from bursting open like a busted water main) drives home that he’s both brilliant and totally unstable.
Holy shit, Ward
The Doctor might be the most impressive part of “The Things We Bury,” at least as far as the elements connected to the main plot. But the standout scenes, by far, are between the brothers Ward. Grant finally gets his hands on Christian, and they engage in a stimulating therapy session in the woods.
Tim DeKay’s performance opposite Brett Dalton steals the show, as the two argue with each other about the past and their motivations. We still don’t really know who’s the worse liar, and which brother inflicted more pain and suffering on the other. By the end Christian confesses that he forced Ward to throw their younger brother Thomas down the well, and explodes with the trauma of whatever abuse their mother put them through. It tugs at the heartstrings, even for two monsters like the Wards, and it left me exhausted.
At the end of the episode, Grant finally meets with Whitehall and The Doctor. There we learn that Grant has re-enacted that time he burned his family down – only with Christian and their parents inside as well, complete with a tape of his confession. If only the public knew the level of duress from which it was extracted.
At the end, we find out that Coulson’s mission has succeeded: they have a lead on the location of the alien city, Tripp is recovering, and Fitz, in the field for the first time since his brain injury, completes his task and seems to be progressing on the slow, long road to something that resembles a recovery.
“The Things We Bury is dark,” even more so than last week’s harrowing investigation into the alien carvings. But Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is moving at a brisk pace, and I can’t help but be more interested in how the show’s crew will factor into The Avengers: Age of Ultron than most of the actual Avengers.
– HYDRA Agent Bakshi isn’t nearly as fun to watch when he’s a prisoner, though I can’t help but wonder if there’s more to his reasons for staying loyal to Whitehall.
– Hunter and Morse get angry at each other, and then bang inside a truck. It’s not like they have anything better to do this week.
– There are a few one-off lines that tease the fan discussions around whether Simmons or Morse were brainwashed by HYDRA and are actually sleeper double-agents. Personally, I’m suspicious of the far-too-normal Mack.
– Skye touches Fitz’s shoulder in a brief moment of tenderness and encouragement to Fitz, which might be a call-back to fake-Simmons doing the same thing. It’s probably nothing more than a nod to the audience, but remains reassuring in the face of all the murder and torture this week.
– Speaking of Skye, it’s cool to see her in the role of information war room senior producer, flanked by her new team of nameless extras to parse out all her technobabble – although the more responsibilities she takes on with the team, the less interesting her character gets unless either Ward or her father show up.