Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Farewell, Agents of SHIELD

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After seven seasons, one hundred and thirty-six episodes, and more genre shifts than I can poke a stick at, Agents of SHIELD is finally over.

It’s hard to capture and explain the essence of a show that has changed so much over the years, especially when it’s one that you’ve grown up with yourself. When I first sat down in 2013, all I could think of was how excited I was that not only were we getting a show set in the MCU, we were getting Coulson back! But with every passing season, my appreciation for the show deepened. The more I learnt about storytelling, the more I saw how this little forgotten corner of the MCU was growing into something special.

Much like the MCU films, AoS went through certain phases in its storytelling. Chloe Bennet once referred to the first three seasons as “the first book of SHIELD,” and it’s not hard to see why. The series’ initial drawing point was that it was a show set in the MCU about normal people in a world of superheroes. Bringing in Coulson was the first of many great choices by the writers – it gave the audience a familiar face to draw them in, and kept the show grounded in the everyday…at least for a while.

Here’s the thing about AoS. The movie tie-ins are a blessing, but they’re also a curse. The first season feels the most like an MCU film out of any other, from the upbeat tone, frequent namedrops of the Avengers, gadgets such as Coulson’s Destroyer gun, and appearances from Maria Hill, Lady Sif, Jasper Sitwell, and Nick Fury. Despite this, the first season is easily the show’s weakest, because the films forced the writers to tread water for half the season until The Winter Soldier came out.

While the upcoming Disney+ shows appear to have been produced with a lot of back-and-forth with the production of the Phase 4 films, AoS always felt like it was written around the edges of the MCU, never getting to truly use the larger properties like Iron Man and Captain America. The showrunners have stated on numerous occasions they’d been forbidden by Marvel from using certain characters and organisations such as MODOK and SWORD. And let’s not forget that Marvel essentially blew up the premise of the show with The Winter Soldier.

Yet for all of the negatives, being set in the MCU gave AoS the opportunity to tell some incredible stories. When the show intersects with TWS, the story truly kicks into gear, taking the SHIELD vs HYDRA conflict and bringing it to the ground level. Don’t get me wrong, I adore TWS, but it’s through the lens of Captain America, a superhero fighting to save the world in a big CGI sequence. AoS isn’t about that – it’s about the everyday workers of SHIELD and how their lives are torn apart as everything they know crumbles around them. This hits especially hard for Coulson, who has literally given his life for the organization.

Another key factor in this is Ward. TWS doesn’t really explore the impact of the HYDRA reveal on people’s relationships. Sure, the STRIKE crew is HYDRA, but we barely know them. Then there’s Bucky, but he’s been brainwashed, so there’s no betrayal. There’s no horrified realization that your friends, family and/or loved ones are part of an evil Nazi death cult. There’s no paranoia of who’s SHIELD and who’s HYDRA, who’s your friend and who’s the enemy.

Ward gives us all of this. He’s not just a faceless goon to take out, he’s a team member: a friend, a brother, a love interest. Coulson, Daisy, May, Fitz, and Simmons have spent the season building relationships with Ward, and now he’s their enemy. This betrayal permeates every interaction between these characters – anger, hurt, heartbreak. Ward being HYDRA turns the group from a faceless army of Nazis into a real, human enemy. HYDRA only shows up on a few, brief occasions after TWS, but in AoS they are a continual, powerful threat, with every new season bringing a different, yet deadly new variation of them.

TWS crossover is when AoS went from a consistently enjoyable show to a consistently good one. Out with monster of the week, in with the serialized storytelling. It destroyed the initial premise of the show, but also gave it the tools to rebuild it into something spectacular. This was when the series found its voice, and the format it would use for following seasons.

While none of the subsequent MCU films impacted AoS the way TWS did, they didn’t need to. By the end of season one, the characters and their relationships had been fleshed out to the point where they were what carried the show, not the connections to the MCU. While a show being able to carry itself on the merits of its own story is basic storytelling, the show’s initial draw was it’s MCU connections. Yet the writers were able to break away from this initial premise and build a story that could stand on its own amongst the largest shared universe in cinema – and I cannot overstate how impressed I am by that.

This is why I’m ultimately not bothered by the decreasing impact of the MCU films on the show as the seasons progressed. When seasons two and three were airing, I was frustrated at how after such a fantastic crossover with TWS, Age of Ultron, and Civil War weren’t being incorporated into the story the same way. In hindsight though, I’m glad they weren’t. If the second and third seasons had to tread water until their crossovers the way the first did, sure we might have gotten a handful of great episodes, but in all likelihood, there’d be far more mediocre ones. Age of Ultron didn’t premiere until there were only three episodes left of season two – would nineteen episodes of setup really be worth a three-episode crossover? Say the last three episodes of season two had been set in Sokovia during the conflict with Ultron and the Avengers themselves had shown up. Sure, that’s great for Coulson, but what about Daisy? Her journey of self-discovery is the heart of season two. Where does that all go?

I have no doubt that if the writers had truly set their minds to centering the show around its MCU tie-ins, they could have given us an amazing story. It’s not like they don’t know how to make the events of the films affect the characters on a deep, personal level. At the end of the day though, the characters need to come first, the tie-ins second. TWS crossover reshuffled the board from monster-of-the-week to character-driven, serialized storytelling. It gave the show the momentum it needed to stand on its own, and they didn’t need to change that.

There’s a consensus amongst the showrunners and cast members that breaking away from the MCU is what allowed the show to really come into its own, and I wholeheartedly support that sentiment. When season three kicks off, the series has wholeheartedly embraced its mythology and found its place in the MCU. Daisy is a perfect example of this – in ‘Laws of Nature’ she’s fully transformed from Skye into Daisy Johnson/Quake. Her comic book accurate gauntlets and haircut, as well as her ownership of her Inhuman identity, is an apt metaphor for the show’s own transformation. While Civil War gets a small mention, the show has evolved far beyond needing to be carried by its tie-ins. In fact, it’s here where the show downright stops caring about how it fits into the wider MCU. Think about it – if it’s the same world, how have the Avengers not reacted to the Inhuman Outbreak?

Seasons one and two tiptoe around the edges of the MCU because the events are so secretive it can be reasonably assumed that they’ve gone unnoticed by the Avengers. The show makes ripples, but not waves that would disturb the balance of the MCU if it truly was one connected universe. Season three is when the writers start to branch out, building their story without constraints. By season four, this is even more apparent. Again, think about it – if the show and the films were truly connected, Tony or Steve would have reached out to Quake, especially when she starts publicly working with SHIELD.

Season four is interesting because it’s when the second phase of AoS kicks off. Tonally, the show becomes darker, akin to Daredevil and Jessica Jones, and more willing to deal with mature themes. The tie-ins change as well. Season four ties in with Civil War and Doctor Strange, but from a more thematic approach. The political element of Civil War is mirrored in season four – how the public feels about Inhumans, how the government feels, how they’re regulated, etc.

It’s the same ground level approach that the writers took with TWS, but the focus is less on how the plot affects the characters and more about exploring the themes established by the films on an everyday level. The televised debate between Mace and Nadeer over Inhumans, Burrows managing the PR aspect of SHIELD, and Daisy’s senate hearing were all ways the series used elements of Civil War. It’s still a tie-in, but it’s done in a way that allows the show to explore its own mythology and build its own story independent of the films. This is particularly apparent during the Framework arc, which uses HYDRA and Inhumans to deliver some very appropriate political commentary.

The other big change for AoS ‘Phase 2’ is the pod structure. Previous seasons were split up by the winter break, but season four and five were divided into ‘pods’ of episodes for a tighter narrative structure. Season four has three – Ghost Rider (episodes 1-8), LMD (9-15), and Agents of Hydra (16-22). Each has its own distinct story and villain, which prevents the show suffering from the pacing issues of having one ‘big bad’ all season (looking at you, The Flash).

The Ghost Rider pod demonstrates just how well this structure can work. It’s essentially an eight-episode season that builds its own story while laying the groundwork for the other fifteen episodes. It takes the magic of Doctor Strange to a grounded, character-driven level with Ghost Rider, fleshing out his personality and backstory through his interactions with Daisy while helping her grow emotionally as well.

If the crossover with TWS is when the show becomes consistently good, then the Ghost Rider pod is when the show becomes consistently great. The series becomes ‘dark and gritty’ in the best way possible, with mature themes and brutal action never taking away from the well-developed characters and relationships that made the show work in the first place.

Season five continues this trend, with the writers once again changing up the premise of the show, with Coulson and his team in space for the first ten episodes. Technically this is a tie-in with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 and Thor: Ragnarok, but again, it’s a thematic tie only. While the films and the show both take place in space, AoS builds its own story with its own stakes involving the characters the audience had come to know and love. The second half of the season only serves to drive this home. Thanos and Infinity War come second to what could have been the show’s final season, with the writers putting every loose thread and forgotten character together into an emotional, epic conclusion, with Quake vs Graviton and Coulson finally dying.

Finally, there’s what I refer to as ‘Phase 3’ of AoS, seasons six and seven. As I said before, the more the show diverged from the movies, the better it got. Phase 1 focused on overt crossovers, Phase 2 on thematic crossovers, and Phase 3…well, it straight up ignores the movies. The showrunners have been tight-lipped on exactly how this all works, and while I’m upset we didn’t get to see the show explore the five years between Infinity War and Endgame, it would be logistically impossible. Not to mention, finally cutting all ties with the film continuity allowed the show to evolve once more and finish on a high note.

The final two seasons took the show further than ever before, while never losing sight of what it’s heart is. The new planets and space adventures of season six never diminished the importance of the relationships between the characters; on the contrary, they brought out how important they were – the bond between Fitz and Simmons is what gave the space plot urgency and emotional weight.

Then there’s season seven, which did a more consistent job at handling time travel than Endgame, while still leaving plenty of time for character growth. May’s empathic abilities, Yo-Yo’s struggles with her powers, Mack’s grief at his parents’ deaths, and Deke becoming director of the alternate timeline SHIELD being just a few aspects of a final season that stood apart from the MCU but was still a brilliant story in its own right.

So, thank you, Agents of SHIELD. Thank you for seven incredible seasons of adventures. For giving Phil Coulson a second chance. For introducing us to Melinda May, Daisy Johnson, Leo Fitz, Jemma Simmons, Grant Ward, Lance Hunter, Bobbi Morse, Alphonso ‘Mack’ Mackenzie, Lincoln Campbell, Holden Radcliffe, Elena ‘Yo-Yo’ Rodriguez, Deke Shaw, and so many more wonderful characters.

To the showrunners, the cast and the crew, thank you for all of your hard work. For persevering through story restructures, executive meddling, and not getting the recognition you deserve.

Farewell, Agents of SHIELD. Thank you, for everything.

Images courtesy of ABC Studios, Marvel Television, Mutant Enemy Productions

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