Whatever it is, the show once again topped itself and delivered its best episode yet. As with last week's hour, which was essentially the first half of a two-parter, paranoia was everywhere. The episode really put you in Coulson's head, and at some point or another, every single other main character (but Skye) was someone he wasn't sure he could trust.
The episode was so full of reveals that even if you anticipated one or two of them, several more were still to come. As expected, May's role as informant on the team was fairly benign. Still, it was interesting the way the writers took the opportunity to explain the somewhat odd makeup of Coulson's team. Why so many eggheads? Because that's the way May (and Nick Fury) wanted it, to monitor his condition.
Expected by some (including me), Agent Garrett was revealed as a villain. But there was more to the story than the surprise; the characters' reactions to it was just as important. Clark Gregg as Coulson was given a tough job as an actor, playing a familiar "you just gave yourself away" scene. But his performance was powerful enough to forgive the cliche. In the same scene, Iain de Caestecker as Fitz may have been even better. The tear that rolled down his cheek as Garrett threatened him told you all you needed to know: Fitz had lost all hope.
Speaking of Garrett's big reveal, I'm by no means convinced that things are as simple as "he's the Clairvoyant." Given how thoroughly the TV series has integrated with The Winter Soldier, it seems to me that the sprawling underground computer Captain America and Black Widow discovered has to play a role. Dr. Zola as "brain in a jar" was describing exactly the sort of far-reaching data-mining that would explain the "Clairvoyant's" powers. It would also explain why the Clairvoyant has only communicated with his minions in the TV series by phone or text, never in person. On the other hand, Cap and Black Widow destroyed said computer in the movie, and it's not like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.would want to have its season-long big villain killed (for them) off screen. We'll just have to see.
Of course, to really bring the HYDRA reveal close to home and really change the show, the thing to do would be to make one of our people a double agent after all. And it seems we got that. I suppose there's still a chance to Ward has cooked up some kind of reverse super double-cross thing with Coulson, but it's not like past Whedon shows have shied away from making one of the main characters a villain. (In fact, all of his shows have done that at some point.) Either way, the writers seemed to be engaging snarky fans directly in this episode -- the ones who have whined how boring a character Ward is -- and retorted, "oh yeah?"
How cool was this episode? I've never read a comic about SHIELD or HYDRA in my life, and even I thought the final moment was pretty sweet, where the traditional closing SHIELD logo was replaced with the HYDRA symbol.
This was the series' first grade A episode. Now let's just hope that the buzz leading into it brought back some of the viewers who have drifted away.