“The Well” was the most anticipated episode of Agents of SHIELD since the pilot, with Star Trek: TNG actor Jonathan Frakes behind the camera, guest star Peter MacNicol, and, of course, the cross-promotion with Thor 2.
Fortunately for ABC and the series’ steadily falling ratings, “The Well” was also the SHIELD‘s best hour by a large margin. The Thor 2 insertions, while unnecessary, didn’t stick out like a sore thumb, and actually worked with the main story of Dr. Elliot Randolph’s (MacNicol) Asgardian identity. The B-story of Ward’s Tragic Past was more of a promise than the fulfillment of one, but it also led to the nice surprise of him taking up Melinda’s invitation for some sexual healing. (Please don’t let this be a fake-out.) All in all, “The Well” fired on all cylinders: character development, plot, humor, and illustrating the ways crazy people become even crazier once they discover the existence of supernatural beings.
Coulson, too, returned from the naive robot version of himself in last week’s “The Hub” to reclaim his role as every white-bread middle-aged dude’s slightly more badass version of himself. Through his wits, his famous friends (he’s such a name-dropper), and his apparent obsession with expensive pens, Coulson saved the day by performing some improvisational heart surgery.
But, of course, the episode’s MVP was Randolph, thanks largely to MacNicol’s winsome portrayal of “the Asgardian who stayed.” (The highlight of the hour for me was MacNicol’s “Eh, I guess you found me” shrug after he pushes Ward’s knife away and twists the knife blade into a coil.) I can’t recall if the explanation of the Norse gods’ existence — that they’re actually aliens that humans of earlier centuries interpreted to be gods — has been provided by any of the Marvel movies before, but it’s certainly a great one. I also loved the tweedy Randolph’s explanation for why he outed himself — he was horny and needed something to impress a French chick! — and Simmons’ reaction to his origins, i.e., she wants to perform an alien autopsy.
I’ve given up on Joss Whedon’s authorship on this show, but there was one very Whedonesque flourish in “The Well”: with great power comes great cost. I liked that Randolph’s Berserker Staff, the name of which reminds me of a different berserker staff (skip to 1:05), relates to Norse and medieval conceptions of fury as a kind of insanity. No surprise, then, that a bunch of Norwegian neo-Nazi terrorists would try to grab a hold of it and declare to the world, “WE ARE GODS.”
Ward’s bout of Asgardian roid rage, on the other hand, was less satisfying. There were some good moments — after the Ward/Skye shipping predictions, the writers threw us for a loop with Melinda’s open door. It was also fun to see Ward lose patience with his immature co-workers. He tells Skye to quit yapping, sarcastically barking, “That’s what you’re here to do. Talk and talk and talk.” He also shuts down the sniveling Fitz, who’s still dealing with not getting to be the Big Macho Man. “Is that the normal Ward or the new, angrier Ward? I can’t tell,” they joke. For likability issues, Ward probably won’t stay an Anger Monster forever. But it’s an interesting wrinkle for one of the show’s least underdeveloped characters — hopefully one they’ll deal with, rather than slide under the carpet.
In contrast to all the wonderful, carefully detailed aspects of “The Well,” then, it was the titular storyline that was the weakest. The flashbacks to Ward’s brother in a well — let’s call him Timmy — felt hackneyed, illogical, and frustratingly incomplete. How did he get into the well? Who was the bigger boy? Agents of SHIELD‘s continued overreliance on stretching out its mysteries — Coulson’s Tahitian vacation among them — has resulted in their being spread too thin. It’s time for some meat.