A review of the “Marvel's Agents of SHIELD” finale coming up just as soon as I bring the noise and the funk wherever I go…
My counterpart on the movie side Drew McWeeny has been covering “SHIELD” for us all season, but he is hopefully sleeping in a hotel somewhere in Cannes and is taking the finale off. Because Drew's been on the case, I've been able to hang back and only write about the show on occasion, whether during its draggy early part of the season or when the events of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” upended the status quo.
In that piece from late October, I dinged the show for, among other things, having bland characters and a complete lack of urgency. Well, it's remarkable how dealing with the latter problem can fix the former one. Once SHIELD was disbanded and Ward was revealed as a Hydra mole, the series finally had real stakes, and the new set-up helped put many of the characters into focus.
Coulson being obsessed with the nature of his resurrection wasn't a compelling character arc because it was about the mystery rather than about the man(*). But Coulson having to cope with the end of the agency he'd given his whole life to – literally, at one point – was much more fertile territory. Similarly, Ward functioned significantly better as a conflicted villain than a square-jawed hero, and these later episodes made Skye seem as tough and resourceful as the show kept telling us she was in the early part of the season.
(*) I wonder if, in hindsight, Whedon and Tancharoen might have been better going with one of the more obvious fan guesses by revealing that this Coulson was a Life Model Decoy copied from the real thing. To an extent, it'd be revisiting territory they covered on “Dollhouse,” but the machine who thinks he's a man became a classic comic book and sci-fi trope because it usually provides writers and actors so much poignant emotional material to play with. Maybe we'll find out that one or more of the Agent Koenigs are LMDs, as opposed to twin brothers. (Either way, I'm glad to have Patton Oswalt sticking around.)
Not all of the character material worked. Fitz's insistence that Ward was good because he was their friend, much like his earlier pouting about Skye having been spying on them for her hacker friends, came across like he was a naive child rather than a pure-hearted adult. But even he got some excellent moments towards the end, like trying to kill Garrett with the EMP and sacrificing himself for his unrequited love Simmons. And putting Trip into Ward's old slot on the team was an enormous upgrade, because B.J. Britt has more natural screen presence than Brett Dalton and could make an impression even without having a lot of material to work with. I'm hoping he sticks around as part of whatever the new version of SHIELD turns out to be.
The finale continued the post-“Winter Soldier” creative surge. It's a bit disconcerting that the two most satisfying moments involved guest stars – Nick Fury appearing out of nowhere to rescue Simmons and Fitz (set up with Fitz's earlier reference to the distress signal he thought no one would be checking), and Deathlok realizing his son was okay and using the opportunity to shoot a few rockets at Garrett – given that the show's quality in the early days tended to wax and wane depending on how good the guest characters were. But at the same time, they were excellent moments that built on a lot of what the show had been doing for a while, and the regulars also had some time to shine.
In particular, I'm impressed with how far Skye has come, given that she and Ward were the obvious weak links at the beginning. I know a lot of people assumed that the finale would feature her discovering whatever powers she has, but I'm glad that's on hold til next season – not because I like having mysteries prolonged (again, see Coulson's endless quest to learn about Tahiti), but because none of the mystery material works if the character material doesn't work first. The writers and Chloe Bennett made Skye into a useful enough character that I was just happy to see her standing up to Ward, figuring out the right message to send to Mike, etc.
I'll miss Bill Paxton, who seemed to grasp the balance of superhuman absurdity and genuine emotional stakes better than anyone else, but it's probably for the best that he not overstay his welcome. That Garrett was allowed to move around the base long enough to get a Deathlok upgrade, right before Coulson blew him away with one of the artifacts they found near the start of the season, was the show sacrificing plot logic for the sake of a vintage Joss Whedon-style joke, but it was a good joke, and the sort that Clark Gregg excels at performing.
Making the scale of the show bigger helped, while at the same time making other things simpler did as well. We spent less time finding out about SHIELD installations and more on the characters, and the old-school Howling Commandoes tech turned out to be much more entertaining than the shiny and expensive gadgets the team could use when they still had backing. And the idea of Coulson having to rebuild SHIELD from scratch, while dealing with the many Hydra pockets that remain, is an actual direction for the show, rather than the aimless Freak of the Week structure it began with.
There are still things to be sorted out, like whether the writers try to rehabilitate Ward despite the very high body count he racked up – Whedon shows have turned villains into heroes before when the character is beloved enough, but it's fair to say that Ward is no Spike – how Fitz's underwater ordeal has affected his mind (and his personality), and what the alien DNA is doing to Coulson. And even though these last few episodes built on things that were established much earlier in the season, the show can't afford to come back in the fall running in quicksand again. One of the many things that made “Buffy” great (and “The X-Files,” for that matter) was that the Monster of the Week episodes were often just as compelling as the more serialized material, if not more. Jed and Maurissa need to either find a way to make the standalones more exciting, or they need to go heavily-serialized from the get-go, whether a season-long arc or several shorter ones. (“Dollhouse,” which Joss was more hands-on for, only really clicked when it abandoned any pretense of telling episodic adventures.)
I went from watching “Agents of SHIELD” out of built-in Marvel/Whedon fandom, to watching it out of sheer professional curiosity, to actually liking it for the most part by the end. Most new shows take time to figure out, even ones where the almighty Joss in on the set and in the writers room every day. And this one has figured out a lot about itself, even if there's substantial room for improvement in season 2. The show this was for the last handful of episodes is one I'd enjoy watching again in the fall, assuming the creative team doesn't decide wrongly that the boring early parts were necessary to make the exciting later parts work.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org