Agents of SHIELD: 121 “Ragtag” Review
Reviewed by Phil Boothman.
So we’ve arrived in the final hours of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (until next season, that is), and it’s traditionally time for a few final revelations about the characters before the final battle in the season finale. On that point, “Ragtag” does not disappoint, and sets the stage admirably for the final confrontation between what is left of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the HYDRA agents associated with Project Centipede.
The bulk of the character revelations are reserved for the HYDRA side of things this week, as we get some backstory about the relationship between Ward and Garrett: the latter bailed the former out of a juvenile detention facility when he was a teenager, where he had been detained for burning down his family’s home. Garrett entices Ward with some spiel about joining a secret organisation he works for, that it would be the hardest thing he ever did but it would be worth it to make a difference in the world, and naturally Ward agrees and goes with Garrett.
Turns out Ward’s initiation was to be abandoned in the woods with Garrett’s dog to survive until Garrett returns: he is told that he can only use what food and shelter he finds for himself, and then Garrett buggers off for six months and leaves Ward to fend for himself. Fortunately he does this by working outside the bounds of the exercise, by raiding nearby cabins for food and supplies, managing to find himself a tent and a gun as well. So when Garrett returns, the Ward he finds is a far more competent, yet untrusting and colder man than the boy he left.
Later, Garrett reveals the truth of the situation to Ward, that he works for HYDRA and wants his new protégé to be a mole inside S.H.I.E.L.D., and gives him a final challenge: to shoot the dog who has been his only companion for the past several years (the timeline isn’t fully explained, but teenage Ward has matured into Brett Dalton so I’m assuming it’s been a while) to prove his worth to both Garrett and HYDRA. After a tough moment, Ward decides to let the dog go rather than killing it, but soon after we see the dog running away through a rifle scope and a shot taken, but the nature of this situation is left unclear: did Ward shoot the dog from a distance so he didn’t have to connect with it in the same way, or was Garrett waiting, knowing that Ward wouldn’t be able to pull the trigger?
Either way, it shows that the person Ward has become, the traitor in the midst of our team, is not entirely his fault: while his actions have been reprehensible and pretty much downright evil, his allegiance was twisted from the very beginning, and he was indoctrinated into HYDRA’s regime by a charismatic father-figure. It doesn’t excuse his actions, but it does go some way to explaining them.
Beyond the flashbacks, Team Coulson work out that the one thing that connects all the disparate elements of the threats they have faced is Cybertek, and decide to infiltrate their headquarters and use their systems to upload Skye’s Trojan horse: however, when they reach the facility, they discover that their filing system is made up of paper files and physical filing cabinets rather than computers. They also discover that the Deathlok project originated back in 1990, and the first test subject was none other than John Garrett.
Through conversations between Garrett and Ward, we discover that Garrett was hit by an IED in Sarajevo back in 1990, and realising that S.H.I.E.L.D. were not coming to pick him up, he duct-taped his intestines back inside himself (a disgusting but evocative image) and dragged himself back to civilisation, where he was provided with cybernetic implants to save his life: however, they are now failing and he has months left to live, hence his obsession with the potentially life-saving Project Centipede serum.
Through the stolen Cybertek files, Team Coulson manages to uncover the location of Garrett’s secret base in Cuba, but when they arrive their enemies have already left. Fitz and Simmons find them at an airstrip where they are loading up the Bus to leave, and wait to engage on Coulson’s orders: however, they are found by Ward, whom Fitz still believes is more innocent than he appears, possibly having been implanted with an eye-bomb, and brought to Garrett. However, Fitz is able to short-circuit Garrett’s implants with an EMP device and they flee as Garrett starts dying: he orders Ward to kill Fitz and Simmons, as Raina injects him with the completed Project Centipede serum, which now includes a synthesized version of the GH 325 drug found in the Guest House.
Fitz and Simmons manage to lock themselves in one of the additional units attached to the Bus, but Ward finds them and ejects the unit from the ship, dumping them into the ocean: this moment is paralleled with the moment Ward let his dog go free instead of shooting it, a tiny shade of his humanity showing through as he gives his former friends a chance to live instead of killing them outright. But he is still putting them in a near-inescapable situation as the unit sinks to the depths of the ocean, and his allegiance to HYDRA is never in question despite this momentary act of mercy.
As the episode draws to a close, various other bad things go down: as Skye uploads the Trojan horse virus to the systems left in Garrett’s Cuba base, the Team is suddenly surrounded by a large number of Centipede soldiers, one of whom is armed with the Asgardian Berzerker Staff; and following a rather violent reaction to the improved serum, Garrett stabilizes and claims to be able to ‘see the universe’. And thus, Garrett’s transformation from ally to formidable super-powered villain is complete, and Team Coulson is in big trouble.
Proving that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is, like so many other Joss Whedon-helmed shows, a grower rather than a shower, “Ragtag” gives us some great backstory to characters we knew, but apparently didn’t know well, and provides a solid foundation for what promises to be an epic finale. All they have to do now is not let us down at the final hurdle!