The best villains are the ones who don't look and feel like villains. They're persuasive and sympathetic to the point that you might question whether or not you've actually been looking at the world through the wrong pair of glasses until now. For example, FX's The Americans has expertly managed to flip viewer expectations by crafting characters that feel like people rather than just good guys and bad guys. Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is not The Americans, and you won't find me buying mock turtlenecks or yelling "Hail Hydra!" anytime soon, but damn it if Bill Paxton and Brett Dalton didn't at least make the bad guys look pretty good during "Providence." And I'm only half referring to Dalton's new evil scruff (which I hope becomes a permanent fixture). You always hear actors talk about how much fun it is to play the bad guy, and I've often wondered why that is. It probably comes down to the fact that bad guys often have no moral compass. They don't worry about consequences, and therefore they're less constrained. Ward pulled out his guns and killed several more S.H.I.E.L.D. agents at the Fridge this week, and it was, for lack of a better term, awesome. And dare I say it was kind of sexy? (I do not find murder sexy in real life.)
It's not like Dalton's the first actor to ever flip the switch midway through a role, but now that we've seen the result, I'm not sure I've ever been so unhappy with the previous incarnation of a character that I've wanted his evil twin to stick around forever. When Angel lost his soul on Buffy, he was a great foil and brought out some truly interesting storylines, but did anyone really want Angelus to stay? Ward was like a different person in "Providence," which A) was the point, and B) hey, that's good acting! I've spent most of this season dumping on Dalton and/or Ward, but the stiff Agent Ward persona we spent so many hours with really was that boring. This new version of Ward—who is presumably the real Ward—is so much more fun and interesting. He throws out lines like, "I'm everyone's type," and not only does it not make you want to groan, but you're like, "Holy sh*t. Where have you been hiding?" I've been begging S.H.I.E.L.D.'s powers that be to make Ward an actual character all season, and they finally have. Now that he's here, I'm willing to do just about anything to keep him. Unfortunately, I'm not sure that's possible.
"Providence" certainly continued to add to the momentum that's been building since the show returned from its winter hiatus, but even more so than in the past two episodes. After Ward's true colors were revealed in the final moments of "Turn, Turn, Turn," many S.H.I.E.L.D., fans wondered if he was really a member of Hydra, or if he was a triple agent actually working for Coulson. I was torn, because I desperately wanted Ward to be a villain, but I'd also become very attached to his character in the span of a few episodes and didn't want to say goodbye. Last week I threw out the idea that this isn't a Hydra vs. S.H.I.E.L.D. fight for Ward, but more of a Garrett vs. Coulson fight, and I suspect that's still the case. Right now, Ward really appears to be Garrett's man through and through, which means the battle for Ward's allegiance (or soul, as the promos for the next episode would like us to believe) is going to be a personal one. Ward told Raina that Garrett saved him from himself—and the slivers of backstory revealed earlier this season are enough to support this statement, even if Ward didn't go in to detail—and Ward feels he owes Garrett everything. So it's not as if Ward necessarily believes in Hydra or its mission—he still hasn't uttered "Hail Hydra"—but more that he believes in Garrett. It's a little unclear what Garrett believes in, but I think he mostly just enjoys chaos and playing for the winning team.
If S.H.I.E.L.D.'s writers end up backtracking and making this series of events involving Ward just another con, it will ultimately tarnish these episodes and the arc the character is currently on. Plus, what good would it do? What would it prove? We already know he's a skilled liar and manipulator. The show has made two pointed references to how similar his skills are to Natasha Romanoff's—once in the pilot and again in "Providence." Do we really want or need to see this as him pulling one over on Garrett? Right now, we don't even have a reason to believe Ward would want to fool his former boss. It's true that he could've had a change of heart at some point during the first 17 episodes of the series and come clean to Coulson, but Ward as an embedded spy on Coulson's team is far more compelling, and has far more story potential, than S.H.I.E.L.D. revealing that he's more or less always been one of the good guys.
Right now the series has taken a character we thought was a stand-up gent, someone who was painted with hard lines, and turned him into a morally gray character who's blurred around the edges. I don't see him ending this season as a card-carrying member of Hydra or even a member of Garrett's team—in fact, I'd bet a nice bottle of scotch on him returning to Coulson's team—but I wouldn't be unhappy if he went out a traitor, either. It would be a bold move for S.H.I.E.L.D., and remember the whole sexy thing I mentioned earlier? But I don't think that's the story the writers want to tell. Ward spent a lot of time in close quarters with Coulson, May, Simmons, Fitz, and Skye, and Raina made a big deal about that this week. Ward fought alongside them as they all became a family, he forged real relationships with them, and it's going to be those relationships that will probably ultimately lead him back . Perhaps it's a little cliched, but the good guys are going to win this battle against Garrett. Every Marvel movie ends with the good guys winning, because that's what people want to see, so why should a Marvel TV series be any different? Is Ward a good guy beneath all his personal baggage and whatever Garrett fed him while he was Ward's superior officer? Are his feelings for Skye enough to make him wake up and smell Garrett's bullshit? It's probably going to be very tough for Ward to let go of his allegiances to the man who saved him and made him who he is today, but that doesn't mean he won't be able to do it.
Coulson faced his own challenges this week, only his battle was about accepting a world in which S.H.I.E.L.D., the one constant in his life, might no longer exist. Only four S.H.I.E.L.D. bases have been secured since Hydra made its presence known, and the team spent most of "Providence" fleeing from Colonel Glenn Talbot after S.H.I.E.L.D. was declared a terrorist organization. Coulson has spent his entire adult life as an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.—Fury recruited him right out of high school (is this new information? Did we just get a bit of Coulson's backstory?)—which is why it makes sense he's willing to believe something as far-fetched as coordinates to some middle-of-nowhere spot in Canada were a sign from Fury. Not being able to call S.H.I.E.L.D. home is going to be hard for everyone—May's a veteran agent, Skye finally felt like she'd found a home, Fitz and Simmons have spent a lot of their short lives training for this job, only to have it taken away—but Coulson's the one with the close relationship to Fury, and Coulson's the one who was brought back from the dead, which means Coulson's the one with the most to lose.
In the end it comes down to what Fitz told Simmons this week, which is that they should stick with the guy they believe in. Fitz and the rest of the team more or less believe in Coulson, who in turn believes in Fury. I'm not sure what Fury believes in at this point—and as the show confirmed, he isn't necessarily the most trustworthy guy, which is something that's come up in several Marvel movies now—but these characters are arriving at a crossroads, and everyone's going to have to make some big decisions soon. There will be personal challenges, as well as those created by the baddies Garrett and Ward released from the Fridge this week, but so far S.H.I.E.L.D. has managed to fire on all cylinders for several episodes in a row, and it doesn't appear as if it's going to slow down. I feel more optimistic about this series than I ever have before. Besides, even if Ward's heart grows three sizes and he rejoins the team, we'll always have the scruff of evil.
– Garrett is already a cyborg. SAY WHAT? I'm struggling with this reveal. When did it happen? Is it real reason he switched teams? Are you mad that this development is already here? Help me sort out my feelings, guys.
– Garrett is trying to find the miracle cure that saved Coulson and Skye, and he stole a whole bunch of the other "medicines" we saw at the Guest House. He's also charged Raina with restarting the Centipede program. Who else thinks Raina's seen the light and is about to jump ship now that she knows Garrett isn't really clairvoyant?
– May revealed that Fury was not behind the T.A.H.I.T.I. project! Who was it, then?
– I hope Patton Oswalt, a.k.a. Agent Eric Koenig a.k.a. the Lanyard King stays around for a bit. He's fun.
– As you may have noticed, as of last week I've dropped the Agent Handsome nickname for Ward now that he's dropped that boring persona. But if it turns out that he just ate some weird pot brownies and reverts back to Boring Dude, I'll rethink this decision.
– Coulson's team doesn't know Fury is alive, and it's probably for the best, because Skye was likely to slip that piece of intel to Ward unknowingly, anyway. She's already putting the team in danger by letting Ward into their secret base, but at least homegirl was smart enough to encrypt the hard drive before handing it over to Ward.
– Every time I write "Coulson's team" I want to write "Coulson's gang," which makes me think "Coulson and the Gang," which makes me wish for a deleted scene in which they all go to a karaoke bar and sing "Celebration."
– Ian Quinn, I'm sorry I called you a jerk. I love you and your hate for meatloaf and having to live in a cell that is smaller than your shoe closet. I am glad you're back and that you're probably about to unknowingly unleash Graviton because Ward and Garrett rescued your precious gravitonium from the Fridge. Also, what other goodies do you think they procured?