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In our last recap, I talked about my mounting frustration with "Marvel's Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.", and part of my problem was the fact that it feels like they've been stuck in neutral so far. While they've certainly spent time setting up various story threads, it's all felt fairly low-stakes so far, and even the episodes I've enjoyed haven't really felt like they were compelling me to watch.
This week, the last new episode of 2013, seems to be the moment where everything they've done so far comes together, and by the end of the episode, they've essentially promised to answer the show's big questions in the very near future. Based on a quick scan of Twitter, many fans finally felt vindicated by tonight's episode, and it certainly felt like a major turning point for the series. Is it too little too late, or is this what they've been building towards the entire time?
When started working on reviewing this show this year, it was with the second week it aired, and I stated at that point that it felt like there were three big ongoing storylines for the year. In order, they were: (1) Who or what created the Centipede? (2) How did Agent Coulson really return from the dead? (3) Is Skye who she claims to be?
The third question ended up being answered to some degree several weeks ago, but that answer only led her to another series questions, so we should modify it somewhat. I think it still serves to drive the series forward, but it's actually more "What is Skye's real background?", and we certainly got some of that this week. We also got big pieces of both of those other questions, too, and it felt like this episode served to push everything forward. We're about halfway through the year, so it makes sense that they would give us a big chunk of mythology all at once to keep viewers on the hook and to reward them for whatever time they've spent on it so far.
Let's look at how they addressed each of the threads this week.
WHO OR WHAT CREATED THE CENTIPEDE?
Both Edison Po and Raina have appeared on the series before. Po (Cullen Douglas) is obviously a major part of the organization behind Centipede, and he has direct connections to the mysterious figure "The Clairvoyant." The episode opens with Centipede-powered super soldiers breaking Po out of Leavenworth so he can meet with Raina (Ruth Negga) and prepare for whatever the next step in their program is going to be. The break-out is what lures S.H.I.E.L.D. into coming after them, which seems to be exactly what they had in mind. After first, I thought the entire episode was about luring Mike Peterson (J. August Richards) out of hiding so they could get hold of him, and that is indeed the way things seem to be heading for most of the episode, but it turns out their agenda is very different indeed.
What I found most interesting about their relationship was the way it became clear that whoever "The Clairvoyant" is, they are not known to every member of the organization. It sounds like very few people aside from Po have any contact with him or her, and that it is important that things work like that.
HOW DID AGENT COULSON RETURN FROM THE DEAD?
We've seen already how nervous anyone who knows those answers gets when the question comes up, and the way the episode ends, it appears that the people behind Centipede know that there's something going on with Coulson that they need to understand. Bringing this storyline together with the main Centipede arc is interesting, and the preview shown at the end of this week promises that they'll be answering the questions quite clearly in the next few episodes. What power could there be for them in knowing how Coulson was saved? Is there some piece of that puzzle that can make the Centipede soldiers impossible to kill? As Skye pointed out, they're already super-strong, they have a military tactical genius on their side, and they have someone on their side who can see the future. Add immortality to that and you've got a force that can make a real difference on a global scale.
What impressed me this week is that even as they spent a lot of time and energy addressing the big overall arcs of the series, they also went out of their way to shine a light on a few key character moments. Rather than being an easy gag at the end of an episode, what happened between Ward and May several weeks ago seems to be ongoing, and it's starting to make a real difference for the characters. Ward seems to want more, while May is determined to keep everything locked down and quiet. My favorite beat between them this week was when May started to read Ward the riot acting for treating her like a girl in combat. His response to her, complete with "get over yourself," was pitch-perfect. So much of May is an act, an attitude she wears like armor, and watching someone punch a hole in that picture she presents is pretty satisfying.
I thought the action was handled fairly well, but there wasn't much of it overall this week. Instead, this was more about the chess game that's going on where S.H.I.E.L.D. seems to perpetually be several moves behind. If the entire point of this episode was to keep us hooked for the next three weeks while the show is off the air, it did the trick. It's starting to feel like the second half of this season could have a different energy, and I pray that as they finish this episode and kick into what looks like a much larger story on the other side of answering these initial questions, this episode represents the kind of forward progress they will continue to make.
Also, does anyone else think Coulson's a full-blown romantic? The way he talked about the Cellist this week was really sweet, and overall, his conversation with Ward suggests that he's been a bit of a ladies man over the years. "Solve a lot of puzzles in your day?" It's sad to think that Coulson had to let the Cellist go, and as they talk, it's clear that Ward is thinking about his own future and all the things he hopes he doesn't miss out on in life. Solid character work, and it built out of a fairly organic moment.
The passing reference to the "Heroes Of New York action figures" was nice, and it just helps sell a wee bit more of the reality of the Marvel Universe. The way they handle the super-powers that Peterson and the other Centipede soldiers all have is nice, because it suggests there is a toll to using them. You don't just become flawless and perfect. There is a price to using any of these powers, and the biggest one is what they build the week's best scene around, when Peterson confesses to Coulson that the reason he hasn't been to see his son is because he's afraid to face what he did at Union Station. He doesn't want to see fear in his son's eyes, and he's terrified that's all that will be there. I thought it was the single most human moment in the series so far.
It was a solid way to wrap up 2013. Now let's see if 2014 can represent more moving forward, or if we're going to end with more filler. Either way, see you back here on January 7th for more from "Marvel's Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D."
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