THE ONE WHERE In the aftermath of Thor: The Dark World, a Norse berserker staff is uncovered that unleashes a powerful rage in those who hold it. The SHIELD team race to find the three bits of it – and encounter a fallen Asgardian enjoying life as a history professor in Spain.
VERDICT With a mounting sense of unease about Coulson’s personal history, a connection to the Marvel movie on the big screen at the moment, less technobabble than usual, and Agents Ward and May finally getting a bit of depth to their characters, this is a healthier episode than the last couple.
Beginning with the clean-up after Thor: The Dark World, this is the closest the series has been tied to the cinematic universe since the first episode, and enables Coulson to deliver some good gags: “It would be nice if just for once Thor and his people sent down the god of Cleaning Up After Yourself. They probably have a magic broom for this kind of thing.” What a shame we don’t get any guest stars from the movie. And I’m unsure many Hindus will appreciate Skye having a dig about Vishnu being an alien.
This is mainly Grant Ward’s episode, although we also get flashes of insight into the characters of Coulson, Simmons and May. There’s better banter between Ward and all the team right from the start (the way he teases Fitz with “you’re our little monkey!” for instance; presumably they have a more relaxed rapport now after last week’s adventure) but an unexpected connection comes at the end with May. Despite Skye desperately trying to bond with him it is the fellow soldier, a comrade who understands rage and the need to remain detached, who shares a glance, a drink, a hotel room with him in the closing act. And “The Well” of the title? It feels predictable that Ward will not be the boy in the water but the boy at the top, forced to make a choice by his aggressive brother. Clearly there is something dark in his past – but I hope it’s better than this. For somebody to be so driven to become a black ops operative you’d expect something more punishing than teenage bullying and – from episode three – a piece of birthday cake to be causing murderous flashbacks. “For obvious reasons I don’t think back to childhood, ever,” he tells Coulson, so we obviously have more to see. And May also clearly has a traumatic backstory. She gets a round of applause when she steps in to take the staff, an exhilarating moment for a character who’s usually on the sidelines. It’s hard to imagine that she needs the staff at all, though; it doesn’t give her superstrength, she just annihilates the bad guys the way she always does.
Peter MacNicol is always engaging and he brings an understated charm to the role of a “god” who chose to stay on Earth – in fact the professor-like role assumed by a renegade from an all-powerful race of aliens feels very Doctor Who to me. Less convincing are the Norse Paganists, a disappointing bunch of disposable rent-a-villains; despite their “we are gods!” shtick they’re never shown to have any kind of coherent agenda or motivation. Nevertheless, while the episode still suffers from the series’ frustrating teatime lightness – exemplified by the English-speaking Norwegian forest ranger blubbing about the fallen tree, for instance – with themes of rage, childhood anger and this supremacist group on the prowl, the story has a more ominous edge than last week’s “The Hub”.
MARVEL UNIVERSE There are the obvious tie-ins to the two Thor flicks, but note also the reference to their holding cell being constructed from “vibranium alloy” – vibranium is the fictional material most famously used to make Captain America’s shield.
NITPICK: Ancient Scandinavian poetry tends not to rhyme but even if it did, why would it rhyme in modern English?
IT’S WOSSISNAME A very famous face this week! Randolph is played by award-winning actor Peter MacNicol. Remember him from Dragonslayer? Ghostbusters II? Okay, surely as lawyer John Cage in Ally McBeal? Yeah, him. Famous.
COULSON LIVES Many more hints that Coulson’s survival is not what it seems, and he expresses his own doubts on several occasions. At first, he reminds us that he died, saying to Randolph, “You and I have a lot in common, we’ve both been stabbed in the heart.” But he is hazy and blank with no memory of being revived, just waking up a few months later. He has a memory of Tahiti in which he describes his convalescence as “too good to be true” and it’s the increasingly artificial-sounding phrase “it’s a magical place” which stuns him from his dream.
WHEDON EASTER EGG Did you spot the line at the end?
Coulson: “Did I fall asleep?”
Masseuse: “For a little while.”
That’s a recurring phrase from Dollhouse of course. Is it a clue that maybe Coulson has had his mind wiped and is some kind of doll? More likely it’s just a gag for fans of Joss Whedon’s other series.
GIVE YOU THE RUNES The Norse rune that the villains use as decoration, the one spray painted over the nature reserve board for instance, is Odal in the Elder Futhark alphabet. It’s understood to mean “an inherited state” and has been associated both with Nazi units and modern neo-Nazi groups, so it’s relevant that the “hate group” adopts it. Incidentally, by the time of the 12th century, a date mentioned in this SHIELD story, the rune was not used in the Scandinavian alphabets any more (although a version of it survived in Anglo-Saxon).
TRAVELOGUE This episode our chums visit Greenwich in London, a nature reserve in Norway and Seville in Spain.
BRANCHING OUT Apparently the tree in Norway was over 9,000 years old. Sound far-fetched? Not at all. Norway Spruce (Picea Abies) can grow for that long. Umeå University reckons a spruce nicknamed Old Tjikko can be carbon dated to 9,550 years old; even older, a stand of Quaking Aspen clones is estimated to be over 80,000 (yep, eighty thousand) years old.
CHAT-UP LINE OF THE WEEK “You’re easily the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in a thousand years…” says Professor Elliot Randolph to Simmons.