[This is a review of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 1, Episode 21There will be SPOILERS.]

The penultimate episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. takes us back 15 years, revealing the origins of Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) and what all went into making him the one-man force of destruction fans are now excited to watch. A bit melodramatic, yes; but this week’s adventure is a worthy lead-in to what is certainly a must-watch finale.

In this week’s episode, “Ragtag,” written by Jeffrey Bell (The X-Files, Spartacus: War of the Damned), a young Grant Ward is offered a deal he can’t refuse: prison or freedom – both of which come with a price.  As Garrett (Bill Paxton) takes an escaped young Ward into the wilderness for “lone wolf” training, he soon realizes that his new recruit has attachment issues which can only be rectified through bloodshed. Elsewhere, Coulson (Clark Gregg) connects the dots, invades Cybertek and discovers Garrett’s mechanical secret. Meanwhile, Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) face off against Ward, who learns more of Skye’s (Chloe Bennet) origins, while Ian Quinn (David Conrad) prepares to sell the government Centipede’s new super solders (minus Deathlok).

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has a driving force behind it now; a force which takes this episode – technically a string of maintenance tales to set up the finale – and redefines what this series can do without incorporating headshots or superhero destruction. There are no real advancements here, in terms of battles and successes, yet what it accomplishes is something Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has struggled with from the beginning: story.

“Ragtag” gives this series a chance to prove its characters and dialogue are as important as the fantastical superheroics which inhabit this universe, and at no point is there a desire to step away from these intimate tales which exist in a relatively closed environment. For all intents and purposes, this episode proves that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has the ability to not only be the little sister to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, but also that, when necessary, the series can be self-sufficient, relying only on established relationships and characters to create an entertaining hour of television. If season 2 never occurs, the series can at least hang its proverbial hat on this accomplishment.

Coulson and Ward are now the series’ two main leads, at least in terms of structure. Coulson is tasked with delving in to Hydra’s allegiances, revealing how underpowered and outmatched the remains of S.H.I.E.L.D. truly are, while Ward is a man of details and specifics: Hydra, GH-325 and Skye, who apparently is the daughter of monsters. And even though there’s no doubt that Ward is evil, at least in his actions, there’s an emotional connection and earnest intrigue which surfaces when Skye’s name is mentioned. Fitz and Simmons, on the other hand, are disposable.

Early-on in the series, Fitz and Simmons were the first two characters which felt fully developed and realized, regardless of their role as comic relief, and this week’s episode continues to push them further, in the face of danger, which they confidently attempt to take on alone. Fortunately, Agents May (Ming-Na Wen) and Coulson step in as literal Fitz and Simmons impersonators, mannerisms and all, and show that the “grumpy adults” of the team are able to have just as much fun as the series’ two endearing technicians, if the story so allows it. Sure, if the roles were reversed it would have been more of a battle; however, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has had more than enough battles this season – on-screen and off – so it’s exciting to see that they feel confident in leaning on the story for an entire episode, leaving all the “leg work” for where it counts: in the finale.

What happens in the finale is truly anyone’s guess and it won’t be until its final moments that audiences will decide if it’s worth returning next season. That being said, the sheer fact that audiences can be excited about tuning into the finale is an accomplishment in and of itself. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has come a long way and Captain America: The Winter Soldier introduced a surprising twist which impacted the actual development of the show after it was already ordered to series. What’s most important is, when given the chance to change, they did, and the series is better because of it. The past is the past, and many early episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. were absolutely underwhelming. This series now, however, is something entirely different and, arguably, can be called a success.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. returns next week Tuesday with “Beginning of the End” @8pm on ABC. You can check out a preview of next week’s episode below: