Entertainment

05.14.14

How ‘Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ Finally Found Its Way

Things were looking grim for the Joss Whedon-curated ABC mega-series, but the season finale proved that these scrappy agents might be here to stay.

A few weeks ago, things were looking bleak for the team on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. The world as they knew it was crumbling around them. Their organization, S.H.I.E.L.D. (the Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division), ceased to exist overnight. Skye (Chloe Bennet) noted that the team was “not Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., just agents of nothing.” But their leader, Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), wasn’t having it. “We are not agents of nothing!” he declared. “We are Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and after everything we have been through, that has to mean something. That carries weight!”

But until last month, the biggest problem with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was that the team—and the show—carried no weight or dramatic heft at all. Expectations had been sky-high last fall for the series, Marvel’s first foray into primetime television. Boasting a pilot written and directed by Joss Whedon—master of both TV (Buffy) and Marvel (The Avengers)—the show seemed destined to seamlessly expand Marvel Studios’ bigscreen dominance to television as well.

Instead, for much of its dreary first season, S.H.I.E.L.D. was a pretender, saddled with cut-rate CGI, one-dimensional characters (and in some cases, half-dimensional actors) and most damning of all, devoid of anything even remotely resembling fun. Yet in true comic book fashion, just when it seemed that all hope was lost, in the past month the show—against all odds—finally found its way. Now, Tuesday night’s feisty, rewarding season finale has me doing something I never would have thought possible: counting the days until next season.

In hindsight, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had the deck stacked against it from the start. After all, it was a superhero series—without any actual superheroes! (The S.H.I.E.L.D. agents don’t have any superpowers.) It was squarely planted in the same universe as the Marvel films (well, except for those involving Spider-Man, X-Men and the Fantastic Four, which Marvel Studios does not control the rights to), which doomed it to the following hierarchy: The most dire threats and enemies would be obviously tackled by Iron Man, Captain America, et al teaming up in the Avengers films; the slightly less urgent foes would be dispatched by one or two Avengers in their respective, stand-alone Marvel films—and the leftovers go to the mortals on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Therefore, the stakes on any S.H.I.E.L.D. mission could only be so high, because if things got really serious, a real superhero would be dispatched to finish the job.

Yet for much of the season, S.H.I.E.L.D. producers acted like they were operating in the same league as the Marvel films: trying to deliver summer blockbuster-level action on a TV budget. The result was overly ambitious sequences that were torpedoed by Syfy CGI. The budget also forced them to rely on a monotonous series of battles aboard “The Bus,” the flying command center that ferries the team around.

S.H.I.E.L.D. wholly embraced the approach the show should have followed all along: following a scrappy group of misfits tackling the jobs that no one else (including the superheroes) wants.

And the casting—once Whedon’s strong suit—became more of an Achilles’ heel on S.H.I.E.L.D. Other than the dynamic sidekick duo of engineer Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and biochemist Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), the team lacked chemistry. Even once-dynamic Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), resurrected after dying in The Avengers and put in charge of the team, seemed ill-suited for his lead role. And Melinda May (played by Ming-Na Wen, the best-known actor besides Gregg) was all poker face. If their characters couldn’t be larger than life, then their personas should have been.

As a result, S.H.I.E.L.D. had no idea what it wanted to be, or who its characters should be. The show’s big question—how Coulson had been brought back to life—grew less compelling each week (the answer involved alien biology), while longer arcs involving bad guys like The Clairvoyant just ambled along. Producers forced a romantic pairing between Skye and Ken doll Agent Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), despite any sparks between the pair.

The producers kept claiming they were fixing the problems, but there was no evidence of anything improving. Meanwhile, The CW’s superb Arrow was giving a weekly master class in what a TV comic book series should look and feel like. Its characters pop, the action sequences are absorbing, there are real consequences, and the show never feels like it’s overreaching. In comparison, S.H.I.E.L.D. kept coming up short.

Sometimes, you have to destroy the village in order to save it. And last month, S.H.I.E.L.D. got a forced reboot dropped in its lap courtesy of April’s Captain America: The Winter Solider. The film (spoiler alert) revealed that S.H.I.E.L.D. had been almost completely infiltrated by the evil organization HYDRA, which everyone thought had been vanquished after World War II. As Winter Solider concluded, S.H.I.E.L.D. had been disbanded, and the fate of its remaining “good” agents remained unclear. A week later, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.—part of the same universe—had no choice but to pick up the pieces and hit the reset button.

The result was April 8’s “Turn, Turn, Turn,” the show’s best episode of the season to date. For the first time, there was palpable tension and stakes. S.H.I.E.L.D. was now labeled as a terrorist organization, and no one knew whom he or she could trust. Coulson’s pal John Garrett (guest star Bill Paxton) was ultimately revealed as The Clairvoyant, while Ward was revealed as another secret member of HYDRA. Subsequent episodes made clear that the producers were slowly finding their way out of the darkness, and as they adapted to their changed world, Skye, May and Coulson suddenly became characters worth caring about.

Finally, in May 6’s refreshingly low-tech episode, “Ragtag,” S.H.I.E.L.D. wholly embraced the approach the show should have followed all along: following a scrappy group of misfits tackling the jobs that no one else (including the superheroes) wants, with little oversight or funding. In other words, something akin to a modern-day X-Files, where Mulder was banished to the basement, digging into cases that no one else had interest in. Stripped from their usual comforts and amenities, the show crackled. The team gathered in a hotel, not their luxury plane, and sketched out their plans via a hand-drawn chart (not coincidentally, it was one of the most coherent moments of the season). Coulson and May—two characters that have been far too serious and buttoned up this season—let their hair down while going undercover (with Fitz and Simmons playing Cyrano remotely). May warned Fitz and Simmons to “get ready for a large file transfer” before throwing a filing cabinet out of a window, and also thrived in an old-school faceoff with a baddie over which of them could reach a phone first. It was intoxicating and thrilling and for the first time, the show felt worthy of its Marvel moniker.

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Tuesday’s season finale, “The Beginning of the End,” continued in the same rousing vein. The episode’s strongest scenes included snappy dialogue and electrifying, close-quarter combat (hello, nail gun!) between former lovers May and Ward, and former BFFs Coulson and Garrett. (Separately, there were poignant character moments between Fitz and Simmons, as they tried to free themselves from their pod in the bottom of the ocean.)

Most notable of all, the show made perfect use of visiting S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, a mainstay in the Marvel movies). Fury’s previous appearance, a pointless cameo in the show’s second episode in which he dressed down Coulson for wrecking The Bus, had been a colossal waste of Jackson’s time and talent. Not so this time, as Fury had an integral reason for being there, and added muscle, brains and plenty of sharp lines. Reducing Fury to a stock angry boss character had been one of the show’s low points, but all the cred that Fury lost in that second episode was restored—and then some.

I’m also relieved the producers wisely resisted an Anakin Skywalker-like redemption of their good guy-turned-bad, Ward. While he’s in prison and will likely return at some point, he never acted on his temptation to jump back to the good side, which means that (woohoo!) the team is finally losing its weakest link.

And while the finale laid the groundwork for next season (Skye’s father, who abandoned her as a child and was thought long dead, is still alive, and apparently monstrous, while the alien biology inside Coulson seems to have triggered some problematic behavior), it also answered one of the most nagging questions since last month’s reboot: What could Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. be like without S.H.I.E.L.D.? Turns out it won’t be an issue. As Fury, who faked his death in The Winter Soldier, prepares to spend some time off the grid, he appoints Coulson as S.H.I.E.L.D.’s new director, and instructs him to rebuild the agency “from scratch.” As Fury advises him, “Take your time, and do it right…”

For the first time all season, I have faith that the show will be able to do just that.