Seriously you guys, maveth. If you thought it was going away after midseason then you clearly haven’t been paying attention. Punishment is reaching out to touch everyone tonight, and while May’s deadpan is always appreciated, there’s no amount of “hard enough” killing that would have stopped the Anti-Ward.
It seems instead that with a little bit of science help from Simmons, Coulson realizes just what kind of consequences killing Ward has brought down. Simmons tells us that Anti-Ward’s powers spring from the use of tiny organisms that eat living flesh, but can also reanimate living flesh with… well…complicated consequences, not the least of which is freaking ZOMBIES! Seriously, Ward is the biological definition of a zombie virus: reanimating or eating living tissue as it sees fit. So obviously Marvel had to go and ask: what could make a zombie scarier? I’m sure they pondered for a while, and then one night while watching a rerun of Jaws 4: The Revenge, a writing assistant—let’s call her Suzan—had the eureka moment to beat all eureka moments. Suzan realized that having an unstoppable killing machine come after you is about a million times more frightening if that killing machine is doing so because it’s holding a grudge. And this zombie will have to be different because this zombie will need memories if it’s going to remember why it wants to kill someone. And just like that Suzan figures out the mathematical formula for a sentient zombie. A sentient zombie that couldn’t have existed without Coulson killing its current host and, in a lot of ways, adding more personal fuel to its revenge fire. Ward coming back to haunt you indeed, Coulson.
The bigger surprise tonight, is that while punishment for violence touches everyone a little bit (Coulson’s obvious penalty for Ward, May’s hubris in dealing with Giyera, Lincoln’s drunk driving), we spend most of the episode tagging along with Hydra. It’s a difficult task: creating sympathy for a character you spend so much time building up as a villain, but that’s exactly what Agents is aiming at when they decide to dedicate this episode to Gideon Malick’s rise to power.
Seeing the cult-like devotion Malick and his brother Nathaniel were raised with is pretty horrifying. It’s made all the worse by a brief cameo from Nazi super scientist Daniel Whitehall. From a plot perspective, Whitehall’s purpose is pretty clear. He’s going to do what he does best, offer cryptic hints that get under other characters’ skins and ultimately result in them making horrible, life shattering realizations. But what’s more interesting is that compared to the Malick family’s religious worship of Hydra, Whitehall comes off pretty much completely sane. It’s true. He presents himself as a man of science and recognizes what a waste it is to send unsuspecting victims off to die in the service of an unknown, possibly nonexistent power. And when you find yourself siding with Daniel Whitehall in an argument, it’s time to reconsider the people you’re hanging out with.
Still, as most children raised in a strict religious order probably would, Gideon and Nathaniel reject Whitehall’s advice, though not before discovering that their father used to cheat his way through the ceremony to protect himself from being sacrificed. That kind of thing could shake anyone’s faith, and if you’re a scared teenage boy facing certain death, you might be forgiven for holding on to your father’s cheat method. Obviously lying to his brother, sacrificing Nathaniel so that he could live, wasn’t Malick’s most morally righteous moment. But if you put yourself in his shoes, you can certainly sympathize with his fear, his need for self-preservation. And thanks to some admirable acting from Powers Boothe we can see how this choice still haunts him, how he wishes he could have his brother back, while at the same time knowing that if there’s anything left of Nathaniel inside Anti-Ward’s creepy tentacle head, forgiveness is probably not at the top of his priority list.
And this brings us back to maveth. Because Malick certainly gets punished with death in this episode, but not quite in the way you’d think. By using the clever red herring of last week’s vision, Agents keeps us just off balance enough to not really see Anti-Ward’s end game. Now, I’ve never been a big fan of Stephanie Malick. We don’t get to know her all that well, and beyond her family’s obsessive devotion to Hydra she doesn’t have a lot going on. Still her attraction to Anti-Ward is, from the start, creepy. It’s laid on just the slightest bit too thick to read as anything but a horrible mistake, so when she dies, after a parasite make out kiss, I can’t say it’s a completely unexpected end. What’s more interesting is that Agents leaves us with a bit of ambiguity as to why Anti-Ward really decides to kill her. Is it because the creature he’s become simply wants greater control of Malick, to take everything away so that all Malick has left is his devotion to this god? Or is it more insidious than that? Is there some part of Anti-Ward, a part that is actually still Nathaniel, that wants to punish his brother? Either, neither, or a combination of these could be true. It’s hard to understand the will of an unknowable zombie god.
Still maveth isn’t just limited to humans. Anti-Ward may just want to watch his back, because the one thing villains always underestimate when they take away the last person or thing that their minion cares about is this: if your minion has nothing to live for, how long until they decide that staying alive is a lot less important than punishing you? Maveth.
Katherine Siegel is a Chicago-based freelance writer and director and a regular contributor to Paste. You can find out more by checking out her website, or follow her on Twitter.