[This is a REVIEW of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Episode 17. There WILL be SPOILERS.]

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. took audiences by surprise with its Captain America: The Winter Soldier tie-in, delivering an episode which truly reinvigorated the series, as well as giving a real sense of purpose to Coulson’s rag-tag team of secret agent misfits. However, this week’s adventure is more than enough proof that a clear vision, not some super-powered fluke, is now what’s driving the heart of the series.

In this week’s episode, “Providence,” written by Brent Fletcher (Spartacus: War of the Damned), Agent Grant Ward (Brent Dalton) takes center stage in this post-HYDRA world, overtaking S.H.I.E.L.D. at every corner, while at the same time keeping his allegiances a secret from those who, unfortunately, still trust him. As Coulson (Clark Gregg) and co. erase their identities and leave the Hub, mysterious coordinates lead them to a hidden S.H.I.E.L.D. base in the Canadian wilderness. When Ward and Garrett (Bill Paxton) – the Clairvoyant – free prisoners, as well as alien artifacts, from the Fridge, and Ian Quinn (David Conrad) reclaims his Gravitonium, Skye inadvertently becomes HYDRA’s most important asset.

Make no mistake, Grant Ward is now a real, honest-to-goodness secret agent, and this week’s episode shows off all his abilities to manipulate those around him, maneuver effortlessly, and confidently through enemy territory – and, of course, shooting whomever deserves it in the face.

Whatever plans were made for this series, it’s clear that Brent Dalton, through his character, has been held back by these late-stage developments, as his transformation into the series’ most formidable villain is something that cannot simply be turned on and off. Thanks to Ward’s destruction and deceit, audiences now see how easy it is to infiltrate S.H.I.E.L.D. from within – something Captain America: The Winter Solider never really touched upon, only presented the consequences of.

S.H.I.E.L.D., at its core, is secure; however, with all the many agents which make the whole, S.H.I.E.L.D. falls victim to the earnest respect for the life of their (presumed) brethren, which allows Ward and Garrett to gain access to areas which a true security lockdown would prevent. At this point, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is no longer simply piggybacking off of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe; it’s now giving back to this wide and expansive world, allowing audiences to truly see the the smaller, everyday impact of these larger events.

For pure entertainment value alone, audiences should all hail HYDRA – except that Garrett is already self-aware of the slogan, mocking its continuous use, which leads one to ask, without answer: How did Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. becomes so good, so fast, and remain so consistent? This is, for sure, a different series, through and through, and it’s finally earned the respect of the many dedicated Marvel fans which stuck with it through all the many hours it took for the series to find itself.

Patton Oswalt as the Howling Commandos’ Eric Koenig, too, is a terrific sign that a clear vision is driving the series. Oswalt’s love of comics is well-known, and his appearances on other shows are always hilarious and memorable. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a different beast, however, and past episodes have shown that comedic lines can fall flat when paired with a weak plot.

Fortunately, Oswalt’s effervescent personality in this setting reveals that, not only was he given a clear direction on how to balance humor with story, but his execution of Koenig shows that he trusted the environment he was in enough to trust the producers – not his learned skills as comedian – to make the most of his appearance. Additionally, it allowed them to slip in the “Nick Fury is not dead” plot point to Coulson without making the entire team aware, which essentially separates Coulson from his team, again, returning him to place of control within his assembled team.

Yes, Captain America: The Winter Soldier helped turn Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D around, and last week’s episode was an enjoyable return to the world established in theaters. This episode, however, is much more than that, and such a continuation of quality, though feasible, isn’t easy to pull off without a clear direction in mind. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. now has that.

Wherever the final episodes of season 1 take us, there’s no doubt that fans will be tuning in with the same enthusiasm they had when they first tuned in to the pilot. This whole thing is an experiment and, as such, deserves all the criticisms that it received. Still, if experimentation has taught us anything, it’s that success and failure never truly reveals itself until it’s all over.
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Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. returns next Tuesday with “The Only Light in the Darkness” @9pm on ABC. You can check out a preview of next week’s episode below: