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It’s a good time to be a Marvel Studios property. Yesterday, the company announced its entire line-up of Phase 3 films, which includes sequels for Captain America, Thor, Guardians Of The Galaxy, and Avengers along with big-screen debuts for Doctor Strange, Black Panther, and Captain Marvel (the Carol Danvers iteration) in their own respective films. To capitalize on the tidal wave of buzz from today’s Marvel Studios event, this week’s episode of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. ends with a short scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron followed by the trailer that leaked last week, a blatant attempt to boost ratings for a show that has been losing viewers each week. Which is a shame, because it’s finally becoming the show that Marvel Studios’ fans were hoping for when it debuted.

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Before diving into the meat of this week’s episode, a few words on the Avengers: Age Of Ultron scene. The clip shows the various heroes attempting to lift Thor’s hammer, and it’s nice to see it bringing the humor that the grim trailer lacks. The ending is abrupt, but it feels like a hasty edit to lead into the rest of the trailer, and I have the feeling Ultron’s first appearance is going to be considerably more dramatic in the film. I love Thor’s face when he sees Mjolnir move a tiny bit after Steve Rogers tries to pick it up, and Black Widow’s response to the challenge is perfect. She knows a dick-measuring contest when she sees one, and she doesn’t have anything to prove here.

The tone of the scene feels more in line with the first Avengers film than the rest of the humorless trailer, but those initial trailers for The Avengers also sidelined the comedy in favor of superhero grandiosity. Things definitely look dire in Avengers: Age Of Ultron, but I remain confident that Whedon won’t let bleakness overpower the humor that has made Marvel’s films so engaging. Enough of that, though. How is tonight’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.?

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It’s solid. “A Fractured House” doesn’t quite have the tension and excitement of the last few episodes, but it continues to do strong work building characters, this time putting the spotlight on Grant Ward and introducing some welcome ambiguity to the character. For the last five episodes, it has appeared as if Ward has changed allegiances from Hydra to S.H.I.E.L.D., pledging total honesty while serving as an imprisoned informant. But is Ward really trustworthy? His older brother suggests that’s impossible.

Hydra has figured out how to weaponize The Obelisk/Diviner thanks to Skye’s father, and after the villains attack the United Nations under the guise of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, Coulson and his team find themselves public enemies once again. The man leading this anti-S.H.I.E.L.D. campaign is Senator Christian Ward, a.k.a. the evil older brother that traumatized Grant Ward by making him torture their youngest sibling Thomas. Senator Ward is the man financing General Talbot’s anti-S.H.I.E.L.D. efforts, and when the senator proposes the creation of a multinational police force to hunt down S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, Coulson takes active steps to eliminate this new threat by appeasing him.

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Coulson goes to Senator Ward’s office and tells him that Grant is in his custody, an announcement that is initially framed like it’s some kind of blackmail when it’s actually an offer. While in the senator’s office, Coulson learns a little more about Grant Ward, most importantly that he’s a compulsive liar that piles lies on top of lies in order to get what he wants. Those stories about the well? Made up. Grant didn’t need Christian’s influence to torment Thomas, and the oldest sibling had to make sure the youngest was safe from a brother who exhibited early psychopathic tendencies. I like the idea that Ward is even more evil and manipulative than we previously thought, but at the same time, we have no idea if Christian is actually being honest. Both brothers are accusing the other of being masters of deceit, and at this point we have no idea who is telling the truth.

Coulson ultimately arranges for Grant Ward to be transferred into his brother’s custody, where he’ll be put on trial as an election stunt that shows Senator Ward’s bravery by being a man willing to persecute his own brother for justice. That is, assuming Grant ever makes it into his brother’s hands. While being transferred, Grant breaks free from his handcuffs and kills the men who are tasked with his transport, revealing an animalistic side that is either itching for a fight or desperate to flee a more powerful predator. We don’t know what Grant’s intentions are in the final moments of this episode, and that ambiguity makes him a much more captivating character than before.

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Ward’s walk of shame when he’s transferred is filled with dirty looks from his former teammates, but Fitz and Simmons win first and second place for most pained reactions. Fitz’s silent stare is the worst because for the past six weeks we’ve been watching him struggle with the brain damage caused by Ward’s actions, leaving him a broken version of the genius he once was. This has robbed Simmons of her best friend, because no matter how hard she tries to help Fitz, her sheer presence keeps him from recovering. Simmons is a crutch for Fitz, and she took the undercover Hydra assignment because she understood that Fitz wasn’t getting better when she was around.

Fitz was getting over his reliance on the Simmons in his head when the real Simmons fell back into his life, undoing all the progress he had made. Simmons is fully aware of this, and Elizabeth Henstridge does some very strong work this week showing Simmons’ frustration and the internal struggle inside her. She desperately wants to be that person Fitz can rely on, but she also knows that staying away is the best thing for his mental health. She hates being put in this position, and when she tells Ward, “If I ever see you again, I’ll kill you,” all that anger finds a target and you believe every word she’s saying, even if she probably wouldn’t be able to take down Ward on her own.

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It looks like Bobbi Morse is going to be a recurring character on this show, which is great for a few reasons: it adds another badass female to the cast, provides Adrianne Palicki with a semi-regular gig, and introduces a fun, different relationship dynamic in Bobbi’s interactions with her ex-husband Lance Hunter. This week’s episode has the ex-couple working through their issues by putting them on a mission together with Agent May, giving the episode’s writers Rafe Judkins and Lauren LeFranc the opportunity to explore how the qualities that make good spies don’t make good spouses.

Hunter is always keeping his options open and leaving himself an escape route, which is great when you’re jumping into a dangerous life-or-death situation, but not so beneficial to a committed relationship. Deception is Bobbi’s forte, which makes her an exceptional undercover operative, but a lousy partner in a relationship built on trust. She also remembers every little detail; perfect for espionage, but an unfair advantage in a marriage. This theme provides a lot of the episode’s humor while fleshing out their characters, and by the end of the episode, there’s the impression that Hunter and Bobbi have actually made some progress by airing their frustrations.

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The May/Bobbi/Hunter storyline is the primary source of both comedy and action in this episode, taking them from Okinawa to Bruges as they gather intel on Hydra’s new weapon and learn of a plot to take out S.H.I.E.L.D. agents by offering them sanctuary in Belgium. The writers do misstep by having Bobbi use her old Hydra cover in order to get information from an old Hydra acquaintance, and it’s very hard to believe that Hydra wouldn’t have immediately targeted Bobbi as a traitor after her betrayal last week. Toshiro Mori tells Bobbi that he’s heard rumors of her being a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, but he falls for her charms until a message comes in from Hydra headquarters officially declaring Bobbi an enemy. Why would Hydra wait to send that message? The writers clearly time it that way to add some suspense to Bobbi’s plan, but it doesn’t make sense that Hydra would sit on the information that its head of security has been working for the other side.

In Bruges, Bobbi slips into her Mockingbird gear to beat up some bad guys with her ex-husband while May fights Marcus Scarlotti (Marvel Comics’ first Whiplash, the villain Mickey Rourke played in Iron Man 2), and it’s another fine example of how the fight choreography has improved this season. The Hunter and Bobbi sequence could do better with capturing the impact of the hand-to-hand combat (when Bobbi’s battle staves smash into a person, I want to really feel that), but May’s fight with Scarlotti does some very cool things with the bad guy’s weapon: a knife attached to a chain that he swings around like a whip.

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Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is starting to settle into a nice groove in its second season, maintaining strong forward momentum while delivering the intrigue, action, and humor fans expect from a Marvel Studios property. As the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to grow, this series is in a unique position to explore these new corners of the landscape via a cast of non-powered characters that viewers have grown to care about over time. This season has run with that idea, delving deeper into the post-Winter Soldier status quo while making the characters more sympathetic and multi-dimensional. Hopefully this week’s promise of an Avengers: Age Of Ultron clip has brought in some new viewers that will enjoy what they see tonight enough to come back next week, because judging by today’s Phase 3 announcements, the future is going to present this show with a plethora of storytelling possibilities.

Stray observations:

  • We get our first look at Bobbi Morse in her Mockingbird costume this week, and it looks pretty good. It’s functional, but still has more character than the normal S.H.I.E.L.D. uniform thanks to the colors and smaller details like the metal rivets in the straps across her chest, which are a clever way of incorporating the large buttons along the side of Bobbi’s most recent comic book costume. Bobbi also wears a Star Wars t-shirt earlier in the episode, which is both adorable and smart cross-marketing for two Disney properties.
  • Comic Book Resources’ Meagan Damore wrote a follow-up to her Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D./Inhumans piece exploring some of the recent developments of this season and how they could be building up to a Terrigen Bomb. She also has some theories about who Skye’s father is, my personal favorite of which is that he’s Maximus the Mad, brother of Black Bolt, the Inhuman king. I don’t know how this show would fit that in, but I like it!
  • This show could use some more creativity for its titles. Last week we had “A Hen In The Wolf House” and this week’s episode is “A Fractured House.” I hope the next episode is “A House” followed by “House.”
  • “Somebody bring this from home?” I really hope the “I Hate Mondays” kitten mug becomes a regular sight gag on this show. That would be fun.
  • “You know I don’t like you right?”
  • “Whoa whoa whoa. Hail Hydra, guys. Hail Hydra.”

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