3. The rise – again – of Hydra
Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), one of the original members of Director Phil Coulson’s team, has had quite the wild ride for a character arc. After being outted as a Hydra plant at the end of the first season, he spent the entirety of season 2 attempting to build a new identity for himself away from the auspices of either S.H.I.E.L.D. or Hydra, and has now, in the third season, finally found a direction and purpose for his wayward life – the assassination of Coulson and the eradication of his core group of agents. Why? It’s a long – and convoluted – story, but it revolves around that oldest and most primal of human motivations: revenge.
The result has been the concerted effort of not only rebuilding Hydra, which had been toppled last year due to the twin efforts of the Avengers (taking down Baron Wolfgang von Strucker at the beginning of Age of Ultron) and Director Coulson’s S.H.I.E.L.D. (taking down all the other leaders), but at re-establishing it as the mirror image of S.H.I.E.L.D., with Ward bestowing on himself the title of director. In his efforts to remake the terrorist organization in his own image, Ward goes after Werner von Strucker, the good baron’s son, in the hopes of raiding the von Strucker family’s legendary, endless vaults, at the least, and of training Werner as an agent at long last, at the most.
The move fails to succeed on either count, but it does successfully get the attention of the only other remaining Hydra power player: Gideon Malick (Powers Boothe), who was first seen as a World Security Council member in The Avengers and who is now revealed to be one of President Ellis’s top advisors. With access to the von Strucker riches and a hand in nearly every important government agency – including the Advanced Threat Containment Unit, which was created at his recommendation – it is Malick who is the real guiding hand behind Hydra’s continued existence.
This is especially true when Coulson and Ward finally have their long-awaited faceoff in the mid-season finale, with Coulson coming out the victor – and crossing the moral line of single-handedly (literally) killing his former teammate. This leaves Malick as the sole standing head of Hydra… for now, at least.
4. Hydra’s real purpose
What makes Malick such a threatening force to be reckoned with goes well beyond his influence with the government and goes to his high standing within Hydra itself – he is one of the few individuals on the face of the Earth who is aware of the organization’s true origins.
Rather than being an offshoot of Nazi Germany’s SS, as was detailed in Captain America: The First Avenger, Hydra places its beginning several thousand years before that, presumably to some time shortly after the Kree finished their inaugural human experiments. One Inhuman emerged from Terrigenesis with such incredibly strong powers, he appears able to manipulate others’ perceptions as well as matter itself (making him like The Avengers: Age of Ultron’s Scarlet Witch, but to the nth degree). He can also inhabit dead individuals’ bodies as some type of animating force, which is precisely what he ends up doing to the defeated Ward. With such abilities, the rest of humanity immediately feared that he would dominate the entire planet, so they did the only logical thing: they banished him to another planet, using a Monolith of unknown origin that doubles as a portal.
A group of individuals (whether Inhuman or “normal,” we do not know), however, saw benefit in having the chaos that is apparently inherent in mankind be tampered down by an iron fist, and they conspired to return the most powerful Inhuman Earth has ever seen. They started an ancient society that would take volunteers and send them through the portal, though none has ever successfully returned; history would mistakenly record these rituals as blood sacrifices and assign them to paganistic origins. Over the millennia, this society would change its name and its emblem, but its true purpose never wavered, and its insignia would bear remarkably consistent visual elements, until it reached its modern identity during Adolf Hitler’s reign: Hydra, the multi-tentacled entity with the death skull as its singular head.
Where the organization goes now, with the long-banished Inhuman back on Earth and, apparently, ready to claim Hydra as his own personal army, is unknown. But given that both Brock Rumlow, a.k.a. Crossbones (Frank Grillo), and Baron Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) are both scheduled for an appearance in Captain America: Civil War, it would seem that Hydra is still standing strong in one form or another come next summer.
In the meantime, however, it’s worth pointing out that this switch in Hydra’s intent and purpose replaces, in one single stroke, the Captain America films as the central-most pillar of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., fundamentally changing the skeletal structure of Marvel’s meta-franchise and easily being the biggest revelation that the show has managed to unleash on Marvel movie fans across its 54 episodes to date.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. returns Tuesday, March 8th, 2016 at 9pm on ABC.