Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Ep. 8 – “The Well”

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And now we come to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s much-ballyhooed Thor: The Dark World tie-in episode, “The Well”. I’m going to get this out of the way immediately: as far as tie-ins go, it was really, really disappointing. Yes, it opens in Greenwich after the film’s climactic battle, but otherwise it could have taken place at any time in the season. Which isn’t to say that there is no Asgardian connection, far from it. The entire episode is dedicated to tracking down a dangerous Asgardian artifact, the Staff of the Berserker. We can all imagine what that does.

This Staff is the standard weapon given to a group of Asgardian infantry sent to Earth to fight… Well, we’re not entirely sure what. Their battle done, they return home. All but one, that is, who’s grown enamored of life, pacifism, and French women, and having broken his staff, he retired to a life of anonymity among humans.

In the modern era, a Scandinavian “Norse paganist hate group” decides to use the power of the Staff to grant superpowered berserker rages in order to become gods. Thematically, there’s are some interesting points being made here. In terms of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s overarching story, we finally get something that the show has been telling us since day one: with aliens, gods, monsters, and superhumans running around, the normal human population is running scared. The Berserker Punks (the show doesn’t dignify them with a name, so let’s go with this one) are a pretty good expression of that fear. They see the world changing around them and are afraid of being left behind, so they lash out, riot, and attempt to become gods themselves.

I’m a fan of the use of the Berserker Punks because while their costuming and attitude is somewhere between that of the anarchists in The Big Lebowski and Lisbeth Salander from the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, they’re not that far removed from real life hate groups. “Odinism” and the reverence of Norse gods and warrior culture is fairly common among modern White Supremacists. This is likely due to both to a desire to emulate the Nazis, who were themselves fascinated with Norse mythology, and the appealing myth of an all-White Europe, with a heaven set aside specifically for violent, White men. While the Berserker Punks do nothing explicitly racist, a group of angry white tattooed skinheads and chiseled blondes does get the message across, at least subliminally.

It could be argued that the way the Staff itself functions also ties into how hate works. The power that it confers is partly chemical – it hyper-activates the adrenal glands – and partly psychological. Touching the staff, according to the show, “shines a light on your darkest moment”. In other words, it creates rage through fear and by exposing the worst thing the victim has ever done. Hate groups function in much the same way, by zeroing in on the fear of the other, and instructing their members that things that the should feel ashamed of are in fact laudable.

PETER MACNICOL

Of course, this is all subtext. The actual episode itself is quite good. It’s often been the case with Agents that individual episodes rely on the strength of their guest stars to bring emotion and humanity to their Problem of the Week. While character actor Peter MacNicol as Professor Elliot Randolph has quite a bit of charm and a mysterious agenda, he doesn’t do all of the heavy lifting on his own.

As a result of his exposure to the Staff, Agent Ward is given the opportunity to show a little emotion and viewers are allowed to take a peek behind the curtain and see what makes him so frustratingly controlled. Meanwhile, the path toward learning the full story of the Staff is both a world-spanning good time, with copious use of S.H.I.E.L.D. tech, and an amusing reveal about they way things in Asgard actually work. Meanwhile, the Berserker Punks rioting across Oslo helps frame the episode in a larger scale than we’ve gotten used to on the show. (The threats faced have been frustratingly small all season long). The final showdown with the group is a nice slice of wham-bam action. It also demonstrates that even Ward has his limits, and that May should probably think about seeing Bruce Banner’s therapist.

There are two final tidbits I’d be remiss not to mention, but they’re a bit spoilery, so be warned.

“The Well” features Agents‘ first intra-team hookup, and it is most definitely not the one you were expecting. While I don’t know whether I like it in the long term, in the context of the events of this episode, it makes total sense.

Additionally, in the final pre-credit scene, Coulson is seen being massaged on a Tahiti beach. He asks, “Did I fall asleep?” to which the woman giving him a massage replies, “For a little while.” Did the writing team throw us a Dollhouse reference? More importantly, is the reference a clue to the mystery of how Coulson is alive? Has he been programmed? Is he a clone? A Life Model Decoy? Something else entirely? Coulson muses that Tahiti is too good to be true, to which the woman replies, “It’s a magical place”, as he wakes up in a cold sweat.

Next week we’ll be back with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Episode 9, “Repairs”, experiencing a mid-air haunting that can only be stopped by Agent Melinda “The Cavalry” May.

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