Thursday, April 18, 2024

Agents of SHIELD: Did Anyone See That Coming?

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Warning: Spoilers ahead for all the Agents of SHIELD, season 1, and the MCU films thus far.

When I told the internet that I was watching this show for my MCU project, many people told me how bad it was and that I should stay away, “Save yourself!” They said.

Now that I’ve watched the first season, I can say that this show isn’t all that bad. It’s nothing special, but it’s, in general, perfectly watchable. Its main issue is one that almost all “traditional” television shows have: it’s very uneven. I think that in this age when many of the shows geeks love are released on premium, paid platforms like Netflix and HBO, and/or have fewer episodes (10 – 13 episodes seems to be the new standard, as opposed to the old 22), and/or are very tightly creatively controlled by a small group of show runners, we forget that most shows used to be like this, and many still are.

In this particular show, you have a few episodes that are quite good; well written, tight. “Eye Spy” is a good episode; it has a good twist, the guest characters are compelling, the regulars are fleshed out. “Yes Men” though, is so horrible that it may get its own meta one of these days.

Then there’s the unique unevenness problem that this show has; two thirds of the way through the season it becomes a whole new, different show. And a better one at that. At least, according to our current sensibilities. Monster of the Week episodes entirely give way to a much more focused arc about Hydra, the Clairvoyant, and the challenge of rebuilding SHIELD.

Let’s start on the foundation that all good stories need to be built on: the characters. There are two who can be considered the protagonist. First there is Skye. She’s a spunky hacker who was painfully annoying in the pilot but then improves immensely as soon as she stop trying to stick it to The Man, or whatever.

I do like her, and her hacker skills are eventually put to good use, but the “secret” she has for half the season is a little anti-climactic. Though I suppose it has possibilities for the future. As long as she’s not from planet Krypton. (Seven save me, she better not be from planet Krypton.)

Then there is Coulson. Yes, the same one who “died” in The Avengers. Except he didn’t die. Except he did. And that’s his arc for the season. I would never have guessed that this character could be “leading man” material, but he does fairly well. His insistence on doing all his action scenes in a suit was rather adorable. And so is the one episode where he pines for his cellist girlfriend.

Rounding out the team is the tank, Melinda May, and the Royal Smart People/Comic Relief Fitz-Simmons.

May is a badass who can kill you bare handed, but she’s really received the least amount of development out of all the main cast. She’s brooding and tortured.  Her mom seems like a cool old lady?

Fitz-Simmons is actually two people, Jemma Simmons and Leopold Fitz. They’re British, (English and Scottish, to be precise) their knowledge of science is absurdly broad, and they are comic relief. Like Skye, they start off a little annoying, but really improve upon closer acquaintance. Simmons is a cinnamon roll and I will never hear a word against her. She may or may not be a doctor. She certainly serves that function. Fitz is alright, I guess. His unrequited love for Simmons gets tedious quite quickly, especially when replacement tank Antoine Triplett shows up and Fitz acts irrationally jealous.

But enough of all those people, there’s only one character on this show that anyone seems to want to talk about: Grant Ward.

He’s a Nazi.

Okay, it’s a little more complicated than that. (Except not really.)

About the only thing I knew about this show before watching it is that Ward has become a bit of a Personal Favourite White Boy in some sections of the fandom. The proponents of the point of view seem to think that Ward was somehow justified in his betrayal of his team and his association with Hydra. Because, um, his childhood sucked? (The “Stand with Ward” crowd’s reputation precedes it. But Kylie claims that most of their lit is too spoilery, so she won’t let me read any. So I guess I’m stuck speaking in general terms)

The thing is, I sort of see it. Not that I agree in anyway, but I’m really not surprised that the mantle of PFWB would fall upon this man. First off, Brett Dalton is an extremely attractive man. And secondly, yes, his childhood really did suck.

From what we see of it in season one, Ward grew up in a household with a very abusive older brother and parents, then spent his early adulthood being further abused by John Garrett. Like, dumped in the middle of nowhere and left to fend for himself for five years kind of abused.

But here’s the thing about Personal Favourite White Boys: their stans always have a point. They certainly do in this case. Ward’s abusive past is real and not something most people can shrug off. But there is a huge difference between explaining shitty behaviour and excusing it.

And nothing can excuse Ward’s behaviour in the last third of this season. I’m sorry, nothing. He wasn’t being Kilgraved. He didn’t have a literal gun pointed at his kid’s head. He had outs. He had many, many outs. And he didn’t take any of them. He didn’t even do anything to mitigate the damage he did. Like, if he had been a sneaky sneak and somehow saved Fitz-Simmons behind Garrett’s back or something, then maybe I would believe that he even wants to be redeemed.

But he didn’t, and he doesn’t. He’s an antagonist now, guys. Deal.

Though, as a little aside, let’s look at this development from a Doylist perspective for a moment. I was spoiled for the “Ward is Hydra” reveal, so I was looking for foreshadowing all through the first two-thirds of the season, and there was none. There is some discussion of his childhood that I supposed can be considered this, but it seemed just like standard character establishment to me. Quite good character establishment, of course. But in terms of actions that were suspicious or unexplainable without the reveal… no, there just weren’t any. In fact, it seems as though there were a few elements that were a little sloppily retconned. (His FWB relationship with May, for example.) I find this strange.

The reveal is tied very much to the plot of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which surely the writers of this show must have been aware of. Surely they knew what they wanted to do with Garrett the whole time, or introducing the character at all would have been an odd choice. And I can’t say I’ve ever been a fan of unseeded shocks. Like, they’re not really shocks so much as unexpected things that happen, you know?

Maybe there’s some subtlety of performance and/or writing that I couldn’t get with only one viewing. But forgive me for doubting that.

There are some things from the early season that they use rather well with Ward towards the end. The character establishment about his childhood is certainly one of them. And so is the torch he’s obviously carrying for Skye.

Hydra was a good choice for an antagonist, though. Secret Societies always are, especially ones whose entire schtick is “if you cut off one head, two rise in its place.”

I enjoyed the way all the disparate subplots of the season came together under the Hydra umbrella towards the end. The Centipede Soldiers, the weird eye implant thing, TAHITI… And I kind of appreciate how, in this world with all sort of weird superheroes, they still go out of their way to say “nah, psychics are bullshit.”

Raina, the lady in the flower dress who’s a very efficient Project Manager of Evil, is an effective antagonist in and of herself. She’s very spooky, but has a quality to her that suggest that there is a quite round character in there. Her use of niceness to do harm to people is terrifying. Approaching the Clairvoyant mystery through her eyes, and the eyes of Ian Quinn, two believers, was also a good choice. It helped keep the mystery going for a little while longer.

On the other hand, it maybe made the reveal of the Clairvoyant’s more mundane explanation a little anti-climactic. But that seems to be a bit of a problem for this show in general. I’m thinking especially of Garrett’s death in the final episode. It was funny, I suppose. But my reaction was more, “Huh, well then.”

I appreciated seeing the attempted Hydra takeover of SHIELD from a more “on the ground” perspective than we got in The Winter Soldier. Unfortunately, the problem I had there with Hydra’s simulations omnipresence and total secrecy is not any better here. It may be a little worse, actually, as we see that this is the case in all of SHIELD’s bases, not just the one in Washington. (Agent Hand could only find seven people she could trust, guys.)

But the main focus of the back third was not so much about the failed takeover as it is about the successful destruction of SHIELD as an agency, and the set-up of the challenges and conflict for the rest of the series. In this respect, it works very well. I’m very excited about the possibilities of what Team Bus will do without the weight of SHIELD behind them, and the burden of trying to rebuild it.

Even though this show is “just okay” I’m still quite looking forward to season two.

I gotta know about the space baby.

Images courtesy of ABC and Marvel Studios

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