Wednesday, May 7, 2014

With A Little More Characterization, Coulson And Garrett’s “Ragtag” Bands Move Toward An Inevitable Conflict!

The Good: Moments of character, Good special effects, Decent acting
The Bad: Nothing exceptional in terms of performances, Fairly dull plot
The Basics: Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. moves towards its first season finale with the “Ragtag” team trying to save the world and working to crush H.Y.D.R.A.

Moving toward its first season finale, “The Beginning Of The End,” Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. created a somewhat predictable movement episode with “Ragtag.” “Ragtag” actually does more than most penultimate episodes in that it smartly works to reveal the character developments that led to the “shocking betrayal” several episodes back. It is impossible to discuss “Ragtag” without some revelations of spy reversal aspects of earlier episodes from the first season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.. So, for those looking to go into the first season of the show blind, at this point in the season, you probably should not be reading episode reviews.

Picking up where “Nothing Personal” (reviewed here!) left off, the show is currently splintered into two groups. The main cast of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been reunited and is now working without legal authority or much in the way of equipment. The H.Y.D.R.A. team – Garrett, Ward, Deathlok, and Raina – has The Bus and is regrouping in order to make its next big move.

With the S.H.I.E.L.D. Agents regrouping, Coulson and his team are thrilled by Agent Triplett bringing old spy tech his grandparents had kicking around to aid the team. Coulson figures out that the company that has been aiding H.Y.D.R.A. is Cybertek and he plans a mission to infiltrate the company in order to be able to take the fight to H.Y.D.R.A. Meanwhile, the H.Y.D.R.A. team uses Deathlok to make a very public killing of a drug lord in Columbia, as a show of force. En route to Havana, Cuba, the H.Y.D.R.A. Agents consider their next big move now that S.H.I.E.L.D. is out of the way and Garrett begins to suffer from organ failure in relation to his own cybernetic implants.

The S.H.I.E.L.D. Agents discover that Cybertek is surprisingly easy to break into (by applying for jobs at the company), but that the company does not have digital records. In stealing information on the Deathlok program, Coulson learns that Garrett was the original Deathlok. While Ward works to save Garrett’s life and Raina reveals some of the rumors around Skye’s past to Ward, the S.H.I.E.L.D. team learns where H.Y.D.R.A. is stationed and they figure out how they might beat Garrett and Ward. But in trying to find the Bus, Fitz and Simmons are captured and kept aboard the Bus when the H.Y.D.R.A. agents go airborne again. As Garrett has Raina inject him with the synthesized version of the drug that resurrected Coulson, he uses Fitz and Simmons as a loyalty test for Ward. The episode climaxes with the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents entering a H.Y.D.R.A. facility . . . with disastrous results and Quinn approaching high-ranking military officers with an offer to sell Centipede/Deathlok supersoldiers to them!

Peppered throughout the episode are flashbacks to fifteen years prior where the younger version of Ward is broken out of juvenile detention by Garrett. The continued delving into Ward’s past, now with Garrett, is used to try to make sense out of how Ward could have been a double agent. We are treated to scenes of how Garrett conditioned Ward to survive (albeit in some pretty hospitable conditions) and how he worked to make him harder. The enhanced character sequences make sense (use Bill Paxton while you have him, is what I think the producers of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. figure!) but they ultimately fail to ground the episode. Ward was a troubled youth, fine. Through flashbacks, we’ve seen how his older brother manipulated him to become a bully. In “Ragtag,” we see how Garrett used the promising young psychopath to advance his own status within H.Y.D.R.A. and S.H.I.E.L.D. But therein lies the problem with the deeper, more layered, version of Ward: he has spent his formative years working for entirely sinister purposes, trying to kill his bully brother, and then being further raised to be a trained killer. With these new layers, there is no compelling reason why he would not promptly and easily dispose of any of the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. he encounters.

Instead, the writer of “Ragtag” goes for the safe route: Ward is conflicted now about continuing with H.Y.D.R.A. and going up against Fitz, Simmons, and Coulson’s team. This, sadly, does not make Ward a more interesting character, it just undermines any credibility he ever had as a superspy. Spies have to have some core of loyalty to an organization or country that is immutable; otherwise, they are just rogues or scoundrels who are selling their services to the highest (or most convenient) bidder. A good spy infiltrates – even for years on end – without developing genuine feelings for their target. Ward was with H.Y.D.R.A. for over a decade and for Coulson’s S.H.I.E.L.D. team for less than a year; if he was swayed so easily toward that group of people one has to wonder who he was with before that he did not connect and just how strong his convictions for H.Y.D.R.A. and Garrett were to begin with.

Sadly, “Ragtag” does not give the viewers answers to these questions. Instead, the episode fills in some of the gaps in Ward’s backstory – now that we know his true allegiance, that’s an important development – and it has an obligatory scene with Skye and May that helps set up the inevitable showdown between Skye and Ward that seems to be in the works. Coulson expresses a geeky quality in “Ragtag” that reminds the viewers of his initial characterization (like pre-Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., Iron Man franchise Coulson) and he gets the best line of the episode (when he initiates a “file transfer” by throwing a filing cabinet out a fourth story window!), but the episode is not at all a Coulson episode.

Even Fitz gets more of a significant moment in “Ragtag” than Coulson does. Fitz continues to hold out hope that Ward is not evil and the events of “Ragtag” should leave the character emotionally shattered (so it will be interesting to see what kind of role Fitz has in the finale).

Servicing two groups of characters leaves Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. as very plot-heavy show that does not afford any of the main cast the chance to give a truly knockout performance. That is not to say that the acting in “Ragtag” is bad (it’s not); all of the performers (even guest actors like Ruth Negga, David Conrad, and B.J. Britt) seem perfectly comfortable with their characters and embody them within their predictable range. No one really steps up to wow the viewers in “Ragtag.”

Ultimately, “Ragtag” is little more than average and the episode moves the characters into place and prepares the viewers for a super-powered Garrett and the potential that the first season finale will have Skye break out a power or ability that fundamentally alters the character . . . and the show. But in “Ragtag,” we’re not there yet.

For other works directed by Roxann Dawson, please visit my reviews of:
“Riddles” - Star Trek: Voyager
“Workforce, Part 2” - Star Trek: Voyager
“The Andorian Incident” - Enterprise
“Vox Sola” - Enterprise
“Dead Stop” - Enterprise
“Dawn” - Enterprise
“Bounty” - Enterprise
“Exile” - Star Trek: Enterprise
“Chosen Realm” - Enterprise
“Doctor’s Orders” - Star Trek: Enterprise
“E2” - Star Trek: Enterprise
“Awakening” - Star Trek: Enterprise
"Eye Spy" - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.

[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. - The Complete First Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the debut season here!


For other television and movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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