This isn't a full review of the episode, mostly some thoughts about Grant Ward that are not entirely unfavorable, so if you don't like Ward or sympathy for him, this'll be a post you want to move past probably.
I have been watching Agents of SHIELD with a couple of different people at different points in the progression of it. One of my friends has been busy the past couple of months with her job, so while we blew through the first part of S1, it's been hard to get into the best part of it: the Captain America TWS tie-in arc that finished the season. I really can't imagine anyone thinking it wasn't well-done, regardless of whether or not they liked
I'm still at a point where I've only see most of S2 of AOS. The thing for me was that I binge-watched S1 of AOS and waited to watch S2 as it aired. However, the show took a much different turn than I had expected it to. I was in deep enough that I had certain very specific hopes and expectations (and no, not all of them were SkyeWard related, though some of them were) that were just repeatedly not met and stamped all over. I became frustrated with the show and the characters and with the fandom itself. It got to a point where it was an unpleasant
experience to try to watch the episode each week (which I find to be a weirder demand on time than occasional binges) and then to get online on the tumblblur and see a bunch of really Know It All, dogmatic fans say this definitely was going to happen, wasn't going to happen, shouldn't happen, was a disservice if... No one liked anything that was going on, no matter where they stood on which character or which plot point, and at the winter break of the airing shows I was following at the time, I threw up my hands and quit and pretty much never followed a show week to week ever again.
I was tempted to watch S4 of AOS alone when I started seeing gifs on tumblr because I am weak to SkyeWard content, and I was surprised given how far they had gone with Ward character assassination and literal murder (which I had picked up through fandom osmosis after no longer following the series) that they had even bothered to include it. I was intrigued and curious but didn't act on it.
Then my best friend came along and, for some reason, wanted to watch it together. I don't even remember why at this point. I think maybe she was sick and decided to watch some she hadn't seen. Anyway, my best friend had a really interesting perspective on things about the Ward issue in particular. See, for me, it wasn't that deep, and for a time I went hard into the "Ward is a N/azi, Ward is an abuser," and yet there was a certain deep discomfort I had both with full Ward-absolution and with full Ward-condemnation. Neither felt right or as if they were looking at all we were given, even up to the point that I had seen. I felt like I was in denial just to avoid the judgmental gazes of people who were sick of the Hydra-is-so-sexy crowd refusing to acknowledge that anyone who had a critique of Hydra characters might have a point besides ~kink-shaming~.
I plan to write (someday) a complete meta post about Grant Ward, my feelings on the ins, outs, good, bad, and so on of his character itself, his character arc, and what the show chose to do with him narratively. Most of what I hear within the fandom seems pretty binary. There are those who believe that Ward is just bad and should be seen only as bad and that it is as simple as that. Then, there are those who believe that somehow the show completely assassinated his character to a point that it is somehow the show/writers' fault that he went from being a good thing to a bad thing that they no longer recognized as the character they liked.
I would tend to think that I fall somewhere in the middle. Also, I've got a long way to go before I have a completely full, directly-experienced perspective on it. But I know the basics even of what I haven't seen, so, I just want to say that I think my best friend may be right in an assessment she made of the Ward situation which, when I have mentioned in the past on tumblr, gets me accused of giving the writers too much credit. Regardless of whether or not that is true, I don't really care. I wobble on how much Death of the Author stuff I want to lean into, but I do tend to view things based on what I can reasonable infer and read into the material as it is passed to us, and then I sometimes even ignore certain parts of a canon that I feel are really bad and not coherent to whatever the overall thing seems to have been best going for. I'm here to have a good time with a narrative, even if it is making me feel sad tings, so that's where I am.
My best friend's commentary on the Ward situation which I think I've mostly adopted to is, succinctly, that Ward's narrative best makes sense if you give the story a little
credit for knowing what it was doing with all the foreshadowing that led a bunch of us, back in the day, to believe that they were, inevitably, through however many twists and turns, going to redeem him
. I know that I was in that camp for a very long time, and a part of me is still disappointed that it didn't happen. S1 is full of themes about forgiveness and about how you can save a person from themselves if you get to them in time. Then, you have an episode all about how Ward was abused, incarcerated, and then given very little information and choice when he was offered an out by a man who subsequently radicalized and abused him. It seems very much like all of that build up was, subtextually, about Ward. And yet, no matter how long Ward remained on the show (until S4 which isn't REAL Ward), and no matter how close it would seem he was getting, the Good Guys (TM) would turn on him
and insistently prevent him from doing the right thing for them and to have that mean a damn thing.
And sure, they were angry. They had every right to be angry. And there's an argument to be made about forgiveness not being owed, especially when someone has done or been accessory to such terrible things as Ward had. However, it seems like it is an extremely specific blindspot in this universe. Case and point: Loki in Thor Ragnarok. And of course, I can't say this with certainty, but a part of me feels like if Loki had made it to Earth and met up with Phil in Infinity War continuity, he would've been willing to take him acting in good faith based on Thor's word. But Ward? Nah. None of the other original members of SHIELD Team Six ever really did that. Ever. No matter how cogent it would've been to give him a redemption arc.
And it is so... insistent and stuck in the mud and, at times
, unflattering to the Good Guys (TM) that it feels like either the show is written by people who have no idea what a theme is OR that it is a very, very tough but very deliberate theme. Most days, I feel like it is... probably the latter given how good
and long-game other elements of the show have been. Again, I'll try to write more about this again in the future, but I feel like it is ultimately a story about someone who could have been saved but... wasn't... because of the emotional ramifications and prejudices the people who could have "saved" him developed.
Anyway, back to the title of this post for a very short pay-off after all of that:
I have seen the last few episodes of AOS S1 over and over, but I actually had a new thought or few tonight about it.
The first one is about Garrett, who is relevant to Ward in that he is a huge part of what made him who we know as a character, and how he reacted to the SHIELD drones attacking him. For a long time, I believed that all
of that was an act, and it always struck me as a tad strange that Garrett was... acting... even when there was NO ONE directly monitoring him about being attacked. It seemed like a repeat of his initial ploy to get on the Bus. However, in watching it tonight, I finally realized that this probably isn't the case.
I realized that, at that particular point, it seems as if Garrett was sort of off the beaten path, doing something or other, and had not yet received or seen the encoded transmission that told the Hydra operatives within SHIELD to come out of the darkness and into the light. He seems a bit surprised when Skye decodes the message, and while that surprise is a show for them, it occurred to me that it does make sense that this was probably his first time actually seeing the roll call to wake up the sleeper Hydra operatives.
The reason this is important is because it kind of informs how the Hydra operatives within SHIELD got their orders and activation notices. The events of Captain America TWS take place over the span of a few days, and there is some delay of communication before all the SHIELD agents who aren't
Hydra even pick up on the fact that things have changed so drastically. It is a very from-the-top-down collapse. this means that ward only knew about the activation thing when Skye decoded the message for sure.
It means that when he killed Nash, he was a part of a manipulative bullshit plot, but that it wasn't really about
Hydra; it was about Garrett. He knew that they were getting too close to Garrett, and yet he didn't have any idea that Hydra was going to to come "out of the shadows, into the light." Instead, he just knew about Garrett's aims with the Deathlok program and Centipede. Both of those operations were covers and fronts in order to help Garrett get the resources to prolong his own life. That was the whole reason Garrett was aligned with Hydra in the first place rather than any deeply-held beliefs. He tells Coulson that he wouldn't call himself a "true believer" when Coulson figures him out int his episode, and we later learn that this is why. SHIELD was willing to sacrifice him, to not send med-evac, to maintain the rest of an operation. They expected him to accept the possibility of being sacrificed for the greater good, and he was not okay with this, and someone from within Hydra came to him and fed him align about vicious survival and self-preservation within this apparatus. And he bought that
, not the underlying fascist-y and doomsday-culty stuff, though the two go hand-in-hand no matter what Ward wants to tell himself.
Ward and Garrett have very similar interpersonal endgames in terms of what they are doing with Team Bus, though Ward's is very directed toward his feelings for Skye. They consider some members of Team Bus friends, people they care about. They have learned a kind of criminal compartmentalization that allows them to believe that it is even possible for them to care about people they are working against and hurting in such terrible ways. This is a thing real life serial killers and abusers do! So Garrett considers Coulson a friend, he likes Trip, he supports that Trip likes Jemma, he supports that Ward likes Skye. He doesn't see these this as mutually exclusive to their goals.
Ward is a little bit more deeply programmed. He resists caring about them, even though he does
, but he has sort of, I think, made Skye the "key" to it. He can be their friend, play along, protect them, but the depth of it is linked to how Skye just absolutely refuses to have that kind of callous shield put up for herself.
When Coulson figures out that Garrett is the Clairvoyant and Garret gets the upper hand, he tells Coulson and May that he hadn't planned to kill them because he considers Coulson a friend but that he has no choice since Coulson has made his allegiances clear and that May would follow him to the ends of the Earth. He tells Fitz, however, that if he chooses to join up that he will have a very high-ranking position but that if he doesn't
, he's still going to be kept alive, crippled, and in pain and work for them under the pain of torture as necessary. He sees Fitz as a unique asset that he isn't going to give up, regardless of how he has to go about it. Once it becomes clear that Ward has feelings for Skye, she kind of becomes this on two different levels.
Ward is very much Garrett's guard dog. While he does believe and acknowledge that he owes protection, loyalty, care, and friendship toward Coulson and his team to varying degrees, he believes that he owes Garrett everything
and so must put that above any of that up to and including killing them. He tells Raina this a little later. However, I think that this episode - Turn, Turn, Turn - shows a little bit more ambivalence than I had ever really seen as existing before.
So, from the time Garrett showed up on the scene and realized how much Ward liked Skye, he sees how this is useful
to him and important
to Ward. He comments to Skye about how she taught him fighting for
something, though he couches it in a thin veil of a discussion about the team overall. He tries to ingratiate himself with her like the worst future father-in-law in the world under a guise of some kind of eerie dad or uncle charm that just gets worse every time I watch it. (Worse as it creepier - it's very nuanced, creepy when you know what's going on and just cringy if you imagine not knowing.)
Skye is a very talented CS person. She is an asset. Garrett was willing to kill her because
of how good she was as an unknown variable on the wrong side, asking the wrong questions. Ward, liking her, didn't like that. Garrett needs Ward
until he reaches his endgame. However, he needs to maintain control
of Ward. He has done this for years by both abusing and breaking Ward down and building him back up and providing for him. The way Ward acts toward Skye when Garrett is around or involved
is creepier and more insistent because, I would argue, he kind of picks up on how the game is played with Garrett. He acts like a different person around Garrett, but it is not a fully free or comfortable person all the time.
He knows that Garrett is giving Skye to him
even before this is explicitly conversed after the Hydra-reveal, and he has been in a position where he believes that Garrett giveth and Garrett taketh away. He really doesn't have a way to avoid cooperation if he doesn't want Skye to end up back in a situation where Garrett wants her dead, and he also has every reason and every conditioning factor to take Garrett up on being, essentially, provided for. It's gross, yeah, but I think it's a very obvious narrative.
When Ward kills Nash, he knows that he is doing it for the purposes of making the trail to Garrett run cold. However, it is funneled through an opportunity to protect who? Skye. And we know that somehow Garrett orchestrated the words on the screen that were supposedly the words of Nash. He knew he was killing a scapegoat, even if not a fully innocent one. However, he was doing it through this filter of irrationally intense protection of Skye, the object of his affection, and feeding those lines to her in an attempt to show her how devoted he is to her. He is trying to, under Garrett's even unspoken guidance, soften Skye for the inevitable time when Ward will go back under Garrett's wing. He wants Skye to go with him, and Garrett gets on-board with this idea because Skye does have her own talents and because killing her while Ward is infatuated with her would loosen his grip on Ward, at least for a time, while keeping her around and enthralling her too gives him a weak point to exploit Ward through. Recruiting Skye into Hydra explicitly may or may not have been the endgame at first, but by the time of this episode, they had already been working on trying to sort of theatrically embrace her for these reasons.
I don't think Ward ever fully anticipated being in a position where Hydra would come into the light. Even Garrett expresses his disappointment that it happened, even though he isn't about it back down, because to him the sole purpose of being part of it was self-promotion and preservation. It had nothing to do with any hope of what happened happening during his lifetime. Ward is a lower link down the chain, and so I am sure that it was even further from his mind, which is why he is genuinely
confused that Skye directly associates him with being a Nazi,
because to him it is indirect - whether that matters or not.
Finally, the main reason I thought of making this post in the first place has to do with Ward's decision to go with Victoria Hand to deliver Garrett to the Fridge. I'm not sure if this makes sense at all, however... just bare with me a little bit. When Ward reacted to the ~Reveal~ of Garrett being the Clairvoyant, he plays it as almost numb disbelief. However, we know that this is an act, while Trip's reaction is 100% real. He was following a cue, doing what he had to do to seem like the role he had been playing.
However, when he shows up to as Hand if he can accompany them to the Fridge, tonight was the first time I ever though I read ambivalence into the portrayal. Now, I don't want to get into arguments about authorial intent - again, I care about about what I see in-universe and, if anything on a meta level, what Dalton brought to his performance. However, I guess in the past I always saw this as an extremely hard
and abrupt turn. However, Ward does not act like a person whose entire act and facade were easily thrown away or repugnant to him. He dislikes the Patriots and the baggage that goes with that, but apart from that, I would tend to think that there's less of a line between real Ward and fake Ward than Ward lets on around Garrett
because Garrett is this exalted father figure of extremely demanding masculinity that really... doesn't matter that much to Ward later on or when he is acting on what he thinks he should do under Garrett's control but not physically present with Garrett at the time or pretending to be someone he isn't.
This time, when I watched him as for permission to go make sure he got to lock Garrett up himself, I felt like there was definitely some level on which he was going with them to make sure he protected
Garrett and even got him out. However, it does not seem as if he was intent on blowing his cover or upon killing Hand and her men. He only makes a move to do that when Hand herself makes the proposition that perhaps Ward should kill Garrett instead that she has sealed her fate on that plane. I don't know what the real alternatives were, but the way the sound editing is done and the way Ward behaves during and after that moment really stood out to me in a new way this time around.
First of all, he looks at both of them and it becomes apparent that he is making a decision. Even when he gets up to stand before Garrett as if he is going to comply with Hand's suggestion, the look on Garrett's face is a knowing one. He has no doubt of Ward's loyalty and of what he is about to do. However, Ward looks very dead-eyed, and it is nothing like the quick, almost jovial compliance he manages once he has gotten into that zone when they arrive at the Fridge. He had a choice during that moment, and knowing that his back-story in S4 is that Hand recruited him to Hydra, this seems like it makes more sense in terms of a moment of juxtaposition and choice. While he may have been under Garrett's control, it was not until that moment that he had to do something to take away his own options about what that meant and how it played out. He had done nothing inexplicable, in spite of the cover story with regard to Nash having been found out. Therefore, for some reason, it kind of read to me that perhaps that scene and the little after-credits episode stinger are best-read as him having believe that up until that moment, he might have made a different
I just feel like it's obvious, natural that people who believed in and felt betrayed by Ward would remember this face:
He is looking into the camera, cruel and cold and determined.
However, I had never really considered, in spite of my sympathies for the character, the look on his face that came before it. He was sitting there, staring into nothing, barely hearing the muffled sounds of Garrett telling one of his old war stories and laughing. He looks broken, afraid, and as if he has some regrets. Of course, the above picture shows his determination to get over them, to push through them, to "survive" them, but I guess it just really hit me that this even happened for the first time: