'Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.' promises big changes, but does it deliver?
One of the greatest acts of sleight of hand involved with telling any ongoing narrative, whether it's a TV show or a comic book or a movie franchise, is giving the impression that you are creating major permanent changes in the story without burning down all the things that drew the audience to the thing in the first place.
When you've got a show like "Marvel's Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.," that's not a danger because this entire season has been a struggle for the show to find its voice and build a narrative head of steam, and any adjustments they make right now can only work to the show's advantage. It helps that last week's episode and this week's are both directly tied to the events of "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," since the film definitely shook up the status quo of the Marvel Movie Universe.
Of course, you can't just shake things up for the sake of doing so, either. That's no better than simply telling the same dull story without any adjustments. For it to really work, major changes have to offer something thematically important to the story, or they have to organically tie in to what's come before. It's a balancing act, and I don't envy the creative team behind "S.H.I.E.L.D." The pressure had to be monumental to get tonight's episode right, and it feels like they've finally paid off much of what they've been doing over the last sixteen hours of the series.
Recently, someone took me to task over my decision to cover this show instead of "Arrow," which they maintain is much better. The reason I chose to do the "S.H.I.E.L.D." recaps for the site is because I'm intrigued by the narrative experiment of running a network show that is happening simultaneously with not just one but several major movie franchises. Up till now, there's been very little to link one to the other. The movies have created a great sense of continuity with a few small hiccups from film to film, but the show felt like it was happening in a bubble. Sure, they could have Nick Fury stop by to glower for a few moments, and they could have a supporting player from "Thor" drop in, but they haven't really done anything that would link the series as something that has actual ramifications to the movie world, and it felt like that was almost by design. That way, if the show failed, Marvel could just shake it off and keep moving with no real damage done.
Last week and this week, though, they tried the most ambitious version of the narrative back-and-forth so far, and in doing so, they absolutely tied these events to what's going on in the films, and it paid off in some unexpected ways. I'm not sure we needed "The Clairvoyant" as a red herring, but for the most part, this week's episode shook things up, and it looks like they're making some permanent changes to the order of things.
I liked the opening with Agent Garrett (Bill Paxton) on his own in a plane. You can't go too wrong with a Blue Oyster Cult needle drop, and it's a pretty well-staged moment as Garrett tries to outrun some S.H.I.E.L.D. drones that have been sent to shoot him out of the sky. At the same time, the Bus is suddenly being controlled by remote, and we pick up with May, Coulson, and Fitz in the middle of a Mexican stand-off.
The main point of this week's episode is that trust cannot possibly exist between the members of Coulson's team anymore, and the same is true of S.H.I.E.L.D. as a whole. These events appear to be happening simultaneously with the events of "The Winter Soldier," as we see when May tries to use her dedicated line, which she reveals was being used to keep her in contact with Director Fury. She's told that he's dead, leaving the team to sort things out themselves.
One of the canniest things about the episode is the way they used our feelings about actors to lead us in the wrong direction. Saffron Burrows has always had a very chilly presence onscreen, and the moment they suggested that Victoria Hand might be The Clairvoyant, it was easy to accept. Likewise, Bill Paxton's such a likable guy that when he finally ends up revealed as the traitor, it felt like a real betrayal. As soon as it became clear they were heading there, I hoped it wasn't true. That's exactly the feeling I'm sure they hoped the scene would inspire, and I kept hoping for one more reversal so that Paxton would end up as a good guy.
What's genuinely surprising about the episode is the choice they made about Agent Ward. There's no turning back from what we see him do here. If they try to explain it away as him being brainwashed (like he was when they went up against Lorelei) or working undercover, it's going to feel like a massive cheat. After all, undercover is one thing. He just put three bullets into Victoria Hand. That seems like about as major a betrayal as is possible, and at this point, we've got to believe that Ward is no longer a member of the team.
There were other significant beats this week. We learn that Fury never really gave Coulson the control that he believed he had, with May choosing the team behind his back. Fury ordered May to watch him in case of any signs of "physical and mental deterioration," which suggests that although they trusted him enough to put him back in the field, they were still worried. It's going to be a long time before any of the team members are able to fully trust each other, and it's not like any of these character were particularly good at trust in the first place.
I particularly liked the work that Iain De Caestecker did this week. I know people love to pile on to Fitz/Simmons as characters, but I think De Caestecker has been getting better and better as the season has progressed, and he continually shows signs of a greater strength than anyone expects from him. His reaction when the truth about HYDRA is revealed wasn't particularly macho, and it's not what you'd expect from a superhero, but that's the point. Fitz is a science nerd who has pledged himself to an organization that plays rough, and in that moment, his reaction was recognizably human.
Between the "Captain America" sequel and these two episodes, it's been interesting to see a fairly damning portrait of just how easy it would be to turn the machinery of our intelligence community against us Sure, this is the big broad comic book version of that, but there's something genuine going on under the surface of the events. One of the things that I am most fascinated by is the history of intelligence gathering in this country. The abuses inherent to the system make a strong case for both why we can't trust these agencies and why they have to exist. The idea of HYDRA existing inside SHIELD for all these years is actually credible. Everything is compartmentalized by design, and that makes it easy for secrecy to become a cancer.
There are still some big storytelling issues with the show. I would ask that they find a new way to handle tension besides "Bad guys stand around with their guns on the good guys until the good guys fight back," because there have been several of those scenes recently, and at least three of them this week alone.
There are some crumbs dropped during the episode that will lead direction to "Avengers: Age Of Ultron," including the reference to HYDRA taking control of the East African headquarters. I'm pretty sure that's the same location you see during the first of the two post-credits scenes in "Captain America: The Winter Soldier." I'm curious to see how this season wraps up, and also what this show's going to look like next year. At this point, if I were living in the world of the show, I would be terrified of S.H.I.E.L.D., and I can't imagine people are just going to shrug off these events any time soon.
I'm also curious to see what they do with Ward for the rest of the season. Brett Dalton's just been given some great material to play, and I hope he rises to the occasion. Here's a chance to make Ward more than just the dumb muscle he's been so far in the series, especially after seeing how he's managed to get through the guard of characters as closed-off as Skye and May.
And finally, hats off to whoever decided to close the episode with the HYDRA logo where the SHIELD logo normally goes. Funny and well-done.
This is a show I'd be happy to watch week to week. Let's see if this is an anomaly, or if this is a sign of things to come.
"Marvel's Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D." airs every Tuesday on ABC.