A review of tonight's season finale of “Marvel's Agents of SHIELD” coming up just as soon as I'm an excellent Shanghai rummy partner…
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how “SHIELD” is always going to have to serve at the whims of the Marvel movies, sometimes for good (“Winter Soldier” giving the show an actual focus), sometimes not (so much time in the spring being devoted to setting up an “Age of Ultron” plot twist that the movie couldn't even acknowledge came from the show). That's clearly not going to change. But there are other areas where “SHIELD” still has room for improvement within the very weird corporate parameters the show has to operate under, and both halves of “SOS” illustrated both where things could be easily fixed and how good the show can be when the fixes happen, even intermittently.
Because in addition to being caught between the demands of the larger Marvel empire and the needs of this specific show, “Agents of SHIELD” also frequently finds itself caught between wanting the characters to be smart, cold, and tough spies, and wanting Coulson's team to be a warm and squishy surrogate family like so many other TV workplace set-ups (both in and outside the Whedon-verse). “SHIELD” tends to function at its best when it lets everyone be the former, and stumbles most often when it tries to be the latter.
Case in point: the best material in either hour by a country mile involved Bobbi as Ward and Agent 33's prisoner. Those scenes are a wonderful showcase for both actress and character(*), in the way that she keeps winning despite being completely at her captor's mercy. She fights back both physically and verbally, and she completely subverts the damsel in distress cliche when she finds a way to save her man's life while she's the one who's bound and gagged. Best of all, though, is the scene where she refuses to apologize in any way for betraying 33 to Hydra. Her explanation for why she did what she did, and how that's the kind of tough “the lives of the many outweigh the life of one” call that a spy (or Mr. Spock) routinely has to make felt incredibly refreshing on a show where too often both the heroes and villains make decisions entirely based on who's most recently hurt their feelings. Spies aren't robots, and obviously there will be moments where their emotions override their professional judgment – those moments can, in fact, be the source of the strongest character moments in stories about spies – but with Coulson's team, those moments tend to be the norm, and moments like Bobbi's remorseless defense of her actions the unfortunate exception.
(*) Earlier today, ABC made it official that the rumored Bobbi/Hunter spin-off wouldn't be going forward, mainly because everyone involved recognized how valuable those two characters and actors have been for the show. Paul Lee left open the possibility that they might revisit it down the road, but right now “SHIELD” benefits too much from having them as part of the team to let them go off on their own, even if it means the premiere will have to quickly wave away Bobbi's epiphany about not being able to do this anymore.
The two-parter (the first half written by Jeffrey Bell, the second by Jed Whedon & Maurissa Tancharoen) goes back and forth with how it uses Coulson in this manner. As the head not only of the team, but of whatever is left of SHIELD as an organization (more on that in a bit), he needs to be the smartest and most ruthless guy out there. And he sometimes is. But then he also does dumb things a lot of the time because Skye is his surrogate daughter. There's a moment in the finale's first hour where Coulson tells Weaver he's protective of Skye because of her usefulness to this mission, but then there are several occasions where he gives the Doctor the chance to run amok and use his strength potion to trash the base and potentially kill people entirely because Cal is Skye's father and Coulson wouldn't do that to her. It's weirdly schizophrenic, and the guy talking to Weaver seems a more compelling and plausible lead for the show than the guy who knows what Cal is up to and lets him do it anyway because it would make Skye feel bad. There's a way to do both things – to show Coulson as so talented that he's always five steps ahead of Cal, Jiaying and any other opponent, which gives him the wiggle room to make calls based on personal biases – but there's a much higher degree of difficulty to that, and Coulson only sometimes comes across as quite that brilliant. He, and Skye, and everybody else are as smart or as dumb as the story requires them to be, which is frustrating on both a plot and a character level, even as it makes it easier for someone like Jiaying (who herself never came across like enough of a mastermind to pull so much over on our heroes) to play everybody for suckers for so long.
All that being said, the finale had a lot of satisfying action beats, whether May (the character the show has had the least compunction about allowing to be cold-blooded) setting up Ward to inadvertently kill 33, or another single take(**) Skye action sequence, or Mack getting to play axe-wielding John McClane (or, as he dubs himself in one nice moment, “the guy who kills Gordon”). Henry Simmons has also been a good addition to the show, but especially once the creative team acknowledged that a guy built like a superhero probably would be more interesting as a fighter than as the team mechanic. (There's a version of the peaceful giant that can be interesting – on a comic level, it's what “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” tried at first with Sgt. Terry – but early Mack wasn't quite anything.) Gordon teleporting around the cargo hold got a little hard to follow at the end so that his death wasn't as impactful as it could have been, but the scene quickly made up for it by having Mack chop off Coulson's hand to save the rest of his body from turning to stone like Gonzales, Tripp and others.
(**) Unlike the similar Skye fight scene in “The Dirty Half-Dozen” – which our Donna Dickens discussed with that episode's director – I'm assuming this wasn't actually done in a single take, given all the digital effects needed to keep putting the Ginger Ninja in Skye's path, and that the slow-motion was there to mask the edits, but it still looked very cool.
Though the scope of the SHIELD/Inhumans “war” was as small as I assumed it would be, at least bringing in the Ginger Ninja gave it the illusion of scale, not to mention a character who, though she barely spoke, was instantly more exciting than drippy Lincoln.
And, of course, everything at both Coulson's base and on the Iliad were boosted enormously by the presence of Kyle MacLachlan as the Doctor. This is now two seasons in a row where the show gave its best character arc to a guest star (last year, it was Deathlok), and while that's not ideal in terms of servicing the ongoing cast properly, you also can't say that “SHIELD” didn't take advantage of the resource it had at is disposal in MacLachlan. Using TAHITI to wipe his memory is arguably too light a sentence for a guy who killed a lot of people (his actions in “One of Us” alone probably merit life in prison), but it did lend extra gravity in hindsight to his farewell conversation with Skye at the base.
Coulson's plan to make Skye the founding member of a SHIELD team of superhumans gives the series yet another new direction, albeit one that could risk marginalizing the non-powered characters. Then again, who knows what Simmons will be able to do whenever she emerges from that weird Kree super weapon, or what kind of cool bionic hand Coulson will wind up sporting? (My hope is that it's the Satan Claw.) I would say it's putting a lot of responsibility on Chloe Bennet, but she was already the center of almost everything that happened in season 2, and she was good at a lot of it. And her weaker moments involved emotional conflicts (Inhumans vs. SHIELD, biological family vs. surrogate family) that won't be in play at all going forward.
There was a time back in the fall where it felt like “SHIELD” had finally come into focus, but it was much more uneven after the hiatus. It may simply be that it's a show that has too many moving parts – both within the series itself and in terms of the number of different bosses with conflicting agendas it has to report to – to ever fully cohere like it seems that it can at times. But when I watch Bobbi resist Ward's mind games, or Skye getting to toss aside her angst and be an action hero, it gives me enough patience to ride through the dumber and/or more brand-focused parts of the show.
It's not there yet. It may never be there. But there's enough good that I'll keep watching.
Some other thoughts:
* The season didn't do a great job of establishing the scale of Coulson's rebuilt version of SHIELD. At times it seemed like SHIELD was just 20-odd people working out of that underground base, with such scant resources that it was a huge deal for them to be able to steal a quinjet out from under Glenn Talbot. And then at others, the group (whether on its own or combining its resources with Real SHIELD's) was so big that a bunch of quinjets could arrive from around the world to respond to the Iliad's distress signal. (Speaking of which, I'm a bit surprised they didn't sink the Iliad by the end of the finale, which would have felt like how “Battlestar Galactica” dealt with the existence of the Pegasus after a while.)
* I spent most of the year holding my breath for the moment I feared was inevitable, where the team would have to let Ward rejoin them and act like he didn't kill all those people. Instead, the creative team was smart enough to keep him a villain, and putting him in charge of the remnants of Hydra pretty much renders the heel turn permanent.
* As I noted a week or two back, I wish the show hadn't completely dropped Fitz's communication problems, which gave Iain De Castecker so much to play in the first half of the year. Now, he's so verbally dextrous he can finish Hunter's sentences for him, and also drop a “science, bee-yotch!” on Gordon when his anti-teleportation gizmo works. Though if the plan is to simply turn him into a Scottish Jesse Pinkman, I could maybe deal with that.
What did everybody else think?