The mysterious artefact that sets the episode in motion…
The Well is the most competently written and well made episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. so far. Until this episode, the show has grappled with an inconsistent tone and lazy writing. Whilst The Well is far from perfect television, it does demonstrate a strong sense of identity and boasts an intriguing plot. Like recent episodes of the show, the episode is tied directly to the events of the film Thor: The Dark World that (as of this writing) is still playing in theatres. This connection to the larger Marvel franchise adds a certain level of gravity to the events unfolding, yet is vague enough to not confuse viewers who are not as familiar with the Marvel movie franchises. This link to the larger fictional universe, coupled with the greatly improved writing, permits this episode to really feel like a legitimate companion piece to Marvel’s recent cinematic efforts.
Set right after the events of the second Thor film, Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and his S.H.I.E.L.D. team are in Britain; investigating the alien attack that recently took place there. Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) explains to her teammates (and to the audience by extension) that the gods of ancient mythology were in fact alien beings from other universes and that “magic” is in fact extremely sophisticated science that humans do not understand. This crucial concept is at the heart of the Marvel film universe (of which Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a spin-off). Immediately as the episode begins, the viewer is reminded of the connection between this show and its cinematic cousins, lending a sense of grandiosity and importance to the episode’s events. The narrative properly commences in the second scene. Two Norwegian extremists discover an alien artefact in a forest and use the artefact’s bizarre powers to muster an army. Soon Agent Ward (Brett Dalton) is affected by the artefact and must track the extremists across Europe before he’s driven mad by visions of his past. The team’s only hope of stopping the extremists and curing Ward lies in a professor of Norse mythology (Peter MacNicol) who has more than a few secrets of his own.
The episode is certainly not without fault. The ending is extremely abrupt and easy; everything endangering the team is quickly defeated and forgotten about within a few short scenes. The episode’s writers seem to have little to no understanding of how large Europe is (the characters travel from England to Spain to Norway to Ireland in barely any time at all). Members of contemporary Pagan religious may be somewhat offended by how this episode defines their belief system and confuses it with Odinism. Most disappointing but not unexpected is the fact that the ideology of the episode’s villains is never explained. The antagonists this week are a Norwegian “hate group”: nothing more is said of who they are and what their intentions are likely to be. One can make a logical assumption that the intent of the writers was to call to mind the 2011 Norwegian terrorist attacks committed by far-right extremist Anders Behring Breivik. This is some extremely dark and mature subject matter for a superhero TV show to touch on and such courage should be commended. The best science fiction television is frequently a means by which writers are able to deliver commentary about heavy world issues in an entertaining manner. However, the fact that this dark connection is only hinted at and not directly confronted makes one wonder why the writers chose to even address this topic in the first place.
However, aside from these issues, The Well is a surprisingly strong entry. Guest star Peter MacNicol delivers an amusing performance as the slimy Professor Randolph. The character is a fun distraction from the episode’s bleak subject matter and the ultimate twist reveal about him is unexpected and fascinating. Much more personality is given to the character of Ward, who has mostly been relegated to the position of “macho tough guy” until this point. The episode’s title is a reference to a tragic occasion in Ward’s past that comes back to haunt him. The events of the episode serve to examine and humanise the character. The writing is so much more competent than it was two episodes ago (when this same character introspection was attempted with Simmons and failed miserably). The episode is also much more successful in its character dialogue. Whereas most episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. exhibit the characters speaking to each other in a series of one-liners and witty retorts, most of the writing in this most recent episode feels very natural. Despite the ending being somewhat hurried, the final few scenes of the episode are very intriguing as they set up some very interesting character conflict to come. The “post-credits” stinger that closes out the episode is also very intriguing to long time fans of the show (yet another indication that Coulson may not be who he thinks he is). This was a really strong and really fun episode of a show that has had little of either so far. If every episode was as strong as this one, the reputation of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. would be very different.
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