I wanted four things from the Agents of SHIELD finale.
1. Don’t redeem Ward.
2. Trip established firmly as new main character.
3. Resolve Fitz’ moop.
4. What the heck, dream big: Raina in lead as new big bad.
What I got was an episode that had no idea what kind of tone it was going for, and firmly established Agents of SHIELD Season One as just a big set up for the show that it should have been from the first episode.
We open at a Cybertek cubicle farm where a new employee is being shown around the operation, which turns out to be the allegorical control center for a bunch of allegorical drones: Ian Quinn’s super soldiers. The new guy was wooed by their “incentives program” which is code for “we kidnap and threaten your loved ones.” This should be obvious, since it’s entirely Hydra and Cybertek’s MO for Deathlok so why shouldn’t it continue, but the show dances around it all episode as characters who have no reason to sugar- or sarcasm-coat the reality to whoever they are talking to still use the euphemism. It’s kept a mystery just to make things sound cooler, which could be the motto of SHIELD season one.
Last week’s cliffhanger of the SHIELD team being cornered by a whole group of super soldiers is immediately defused as the good guys kick all the bad guy’s butts and Skye gets her flash drive into a Hydra computer so she can hack their planet. Man, these super soldiers who can be defeated by a severely outnumbered force of regular people using spy gadgets from half a century ago sure are terrifying.
Look, you know how much I like May kicking ass. I like it a lot. But even I have to cry bullshit when she just snatches an Asgardian berserker staff out of the hands of an already chemically enhanced super soldier like she was yanking paper towel from the bathroom dispenser. But the crowning bit of bullshit with the staff was when, after destroying the building’s foundations in order to bury the Hydra base and the soldiers alike, May throws the staff into the collapsing building for no reason.
That’s not fair, there’s totally a reason: it’s the beginning of the episode and the staff had to be written out of the plot as soon as possible and by any lazy means necessary, so as not to make later events too easy for the protagonists. Once they get back on their tiny plane, they realize they can track the Bus, but that Fitz and Simmons aren’t reporting in. “Catching Garrett is our only shot at finding them,” says Coulson. “Except for how Skye can access everything about Hydra’s operations now, maybe she can at least take a look there,” says no one.
Fitz and Simmons, despite the fact that they are in a box full of air, are trapped under the sea,
because of reasons. No, really, Fitz says something about interchangeability in SHIELD cargo boxes (which he can’t fix even though he’s SHIELD’s foremost expert on technology) that translates to “the writers wanted us stuck at the bottom of the ocean.” I’ll take technobabble as plot device from Star Trek and Star Trek only, SHIELD. You’re the ones who wanted to be about the little people of the Marvel Universe, the ones who don’t break the laws of physics on a regular basis. You cannot use “well it’s science” as as an excuse for lazy writing this often. You know how this could have worked? If you’d shown Fitz and Simmons reacting to an increase of pressure before their box was jettisoned, realizing with horror that Ward, wanting them to be unsaveable, was before their very eyes switching the box to submarine settings before jettisoning it. That’s using a science excuse as a genuine element of the show, and not a bandaid you can use to create throwaway lines that excuse any plot device you want.
Coulson goes over the plan with his team. It’s a bad idea to go over the episode’s plot before it happens, though, so he does this in a sentence so thick with faux military jargon that it would be played for laughs in pretty much any other context. This is unfortunate, because it makes an attempt to improve tension in the episode — and to give the audience several “aha!” moments when they realize his statements are humorously literal — look like bad writing instead of a moment of badassery.
Ok, ok. Let me try to turn the snark down as we turn to our Hydra guys. Garrett takes the news that four regular joes, one almost entirely untrained, took out an entire squad of his supers soldiers, fairly well. Quinn is peeved that they lost their miracle drug by pouring into this increasingly manic jerk. Happily, Garrett uses his new super strength to tear the door off the Bus’ science bay and start etching the weird symbols from “Eye Spy” into it. Ward’s henchman senses are also tingling at the signs that his boss might be two rare components short of a death ray, if you know what I mean. He asks Garrett if Hydra is still a means to an end for him: he’s gotten what he wanted, his health back. Garrett starts an episode-long trend of cheerfully obtuse evil ranting that will probably all be relevant later in an underwhelming payoff.
Ward decides to talk to Raina about his worries instead. She has absolutely no comment, and goes to chat with Garrett over the gravitonium. Garrett butters her up in exactly the way her motivations have revealed her to be susceptible to. That is, he implies that, in addition to expanding his physical limits, the GH-325 has given him superhuman senses and mental capacity. He knows she’s interested in the movement of humanity towards the superhuman, and invites her to ask him the question she wanted to ask back before she found out he didn’t have supernatural clairvoyance: “What will I become.”
Meanwhile, under the sea,
Fitz and Simmons talk about death until they have an epiphany about how to rescue themselves.
BACK TO THE MAIN PLOT: Just as Ian Quinn begins touring some generals from last week’s stinger around, Coulson and Trip begin the team’s assault on his factory compound. They take control of some big armored humvee and blast a hole in the Wall so that May and Skye can get inside for their half of the mission. Quinn’s attempt to reassure the generals about the gunshots and explosions they’re hearing are not helped by the arrival of Garrett, Ward, and Deathlok. Garrett fails to impress with his obtuse villain chats, but then “you’re slaves who will serve our future” isn’t exactly “please remain calm, everything is normal.” But I think they all get the super soldier idea when tears a general’s rib out of his chest with one hand.
When we come back from commercial, Ward has locked all the remaining generals away to keep them from escaping, and is trying to prevent Quinn and Raina from leaving with the gravitonium because they’ve had quite enough of Garrett’s crazy. In the intervening time for all these characters to get to the bus and unload cargo, the SHIELD team has just been joyriding in the humvee, I guess.
It is a pretty cool humvee.
Raina might be leaving, but she sure doesn’t seem that POed with Garrett? She agrees with him, and thinks he’s become something bigger than himself. She tells Ward that he still has a chance with Skye. He might not be a monster, he might just be what Garrett made him, she says, and she believes that Skye has a darkness in her from her monster parents, and that eventually Ward and Skye might be able to be monsters together.
Through the hole that Trip and Coulson blasted, May and Skye reach the drone operator cubicle farm. Man, it is so convenient for our heroes that the factory and the remote drone operators are in the same facility even though there’s no established reason for them to be! Skye holds up a backpack bomb (it’s fake), but the head tech guy just switches the soldiers to their contingency plan: protect John Garrett. This is entirely to plan, because now Coulson and Trip can just follow those guys to their real target. Well, just Coulson, who is going in alone. Without Trip. Once again, Coulson going alone into terrible danger when Trip could easily have also been there is lamely excused, this time by Coulson telling Trip that he wants him to use the humvee to destroy the rest of the compound.
Speaking of, Ward informs Garrett that Raina and Quinn left in a huff, to very little reaction. The young henchman wants orders, but Garrett tells him he’s already done everything he can do. Garrett gets a call from Skye, who pretends that their plan isn’t working, tempting him to send Ward out to go “get” her.
A final interlude under the sea:
Fitz and Simmons have figured a way out, but it’s likely just for one of them, and Fitz insists that it be Simmons. She refuses, telling him that he’s her best friend in the world, and he confesses his love for her, begging her to let him show her his feelings, since he didn’t ever have the courage to tell her. She hugs him, kissing his face but not his lips, and I appreciate that SHIELD didn’t go straight for the “male-audience-stand-in character’s confession of love is enough to turn lady love interest from friend to lover instantly” trope. If there is one thing that Agents of SHIELD has done entirely consistently, it’s presenting interpersonal drama in such a way that doesn’t perpetuate myths about attraction or glorify unhealthy relationships. Well, except for “Yes Men.”
Fitz punches the button that’ll blow the hatch, and Simmons gamely drags him to the surface with her, where they are picked up by special guest star Samuel L. Jackson. Simmons has to sit in a decompression chamber for a while, as Fitz, barely alive and possibly with brain damage from oxygen deprivation, is looked after by a team of emergency medics that Nick Fury has gotten from… the same place he got this helicopter, despite being presumed dead. It is unexplained. Fury ex machina.
“You saved him,” Fury says. “It was the other way around,” she answers. Goddamit Jemma, excessive modesty is one of the ways the accomplishments of women scientists are erased from history. Fury found them by the weak SHIELD frequency signal that Fitz half-heartedly rigged at the beginning of the episode. He’s looking for Coulson, since he’s “involved in a dispute I might want to weigh in on.” By weigh in on he turns out to mean bring a gun to, fortunately, Simmons can tell him exactly where Coulson is. Another episode where Fitz’s emotions and actions are their own subplot, while Simmons character development gets no attention. I’m trying to figure out the last time she was involved in a subplot that wasn’t about Fitz, and I think it might be “The Hub.” In “T.R.A.C.K.S.” she was literally placed in a box, though she did get to have a cute scene with Stan Lee.
Ward shows up to “get” Skye. Skye tells him that some folks were just born evil. Well we might both be, Ward says, based on hearsay from this really shifty lady I know. Skye says she was talking about Garrett: Ward is just weak for giving in to him.
Ward agrees: she woke a weakness in him by making him want something for himself. Right, she made you. Then, much like Frollo, he points a gun at her head and gets right to the rape threats: “Maybe I’ll just take what I want; wake up something inside of you.” Guys, he’s not referring to a bullet waking up her latent superpowers here. He already knows that doesn’t work from when Quinn did it. Thankfully, there’s little time to dwell on this before May starts to kick his ass. With a circle saw. I like this fight, but I could have done with out everybody making ever so slightly misogynistic sex references. Eventually May nail-guns his foot to the floor and KOs him.
Coulson reaches Garrett, and realizes that he’s got superpowers just as Fury reaches him. Fury hands him the big gun that Coulson used to delay Loki in The Avengers and it’s kind of amusing how much higher quality it looks even simply as a prop. However, like the berserker staff, it fizzles out of “charge” or whatever as soon as Coulson takes out the last of unnamed henchmen around Garrett, so that a callback to a cool moment can be made without the writers having to expend any energy to figure out what effect it might have on the plot they have planned. And apparently that was the only remotely advanced sci-fi gun that Fury had, because he just shoots Garrett with a regular old pistol, which does next to nothing. FOCUS THE BOSS DOWN, GUYS, IGNORE THE ADDS. Who is LEADING this raid?
Garrett gets the only well written and delivered line in this entire fight: “When was the last time anybody saw a tag team wrestling match with four dead guys,” referring to the fact that he, Mike Petersen, Coulson, and Fury are all presumed dead. Everybody stands around not fighting as Garrett babbles obtusely and Coulson and Fury quip woodenly about how Garrett misinterpreted one of Fury’s maxims. Seriously, not even Samuel L. Jackson could save this scene for me. Calm quipping is only funny when juxtaposed with immediate danger, and since neither Garrett nor Deathlok were advancing on them, the tone of the whole scene suffers as everyone just stands there so we can swing between ominous and impenetrable proclamations from Garrett and sarcasm from Coulson and Fury.
Meanwhile, Skye finds the “incentive program,” also very conveniently located onsite even though there’s no logistical reason for it to be, and locates Mike Peterson’s son Ace. With Ace’s input, she figures out a message that only he and his dad would know, and transmits it to Mike to prove that Ace is safe. Deathlok hits Garrett with his Achilles Heel: a big enough gun, and Garrett is down but not out. “You need me to translate the words of creation!” he pleads with Coulson. “Nah,” says Coulson, “I’m gonna let this guy kill you in cold blood. You know, that thing we were all real shocked and worried about when Ward did it, though not as shocked and disturbed as we were when it turned out that he’d betrayed us.” Deathlok stomps him to death with his robot leg.
Reminder to SHIELD characters: it is kind of problematic that Ward murdered a quadriplegic prisoner who needed machine assistance simply to talk, but the point at which he became utterly unredeemable to most of the characters is when you realized that he’d betrayed you and SHIELD.
We reach the denouement, when a bunch of folks show up to help the SHIELD team clean up this mess. Are they SHIELD folks? Police? Army guys? It is neither explained nor commented on. Garrett’s body gets carted away in a metal box. Coulson confronts a captive Ward, promising to ride him hard for what he did to Fitz. Mike Peterson, freed of Hydra control, decides that he’s still too ashamed to go make sure his son has a parent in his life and so leaves to go be a tragic vigilante atoning for his mind control sins. Predictably, Garrett is not dead, kills the men carting him away, and drags himself up on to the limb-replacement machine to replace his entire body from the neck down with robot parts. Or robot armor? It’s honestly unclear, since you’d think an automatic limb replacement machine would get a little confused when presented with a whole body.
He stands up, says a villain line, and then explodes because Coulson calmly shot him with the laser from “0-8-4.” Then the agent walks off with a quip about how he found the laser, everybody. Cut to: Coulson loudly yelling purposefully-dumb dialogue at Nick Fury, to represent the end of their discussion about Phil’s resurrection, as if the whole conversation was just a joke and not a confrontation that’s been brewing for half a season that the audience might have been interested in seeing. “Look, I know that I tortured you until you begged to die, replaced your memory of that torture with a lie, and enlisted all of your closest friends to help perpetuate that lie,” says Fury, “but I did it because I care.” He ignored a man’s express wishes about his bodily autonomy because he needed to have Coulson around to work for SHIELD. Maybe I’ve just spent too much time in a law office drafting medical powers of attorney and advanced directives, but that is some very serious transgressive stuff and the show’s attempt to get Fury off the hook for it by talking about how important it is for SHIELD that men like Coulson exist is not working on me. What about women like Maria Hill or Victoria Hand? Let this be the part where I point out that Hand, who managed to anticipate the Hydra uprising early enough to oversee one of only three major SHIELD bases that successfully resisted and the only competition Coulson had for “highest ranking SHIELD agent,” is the only recurring character on the show to have been presumed dead without getting at least one resurrection.
Anyway, Fury hands Phil a science box that’ll let him take control of the directorship of SHIELD so that he can rebuild it. Fury himself is going to be disappearing for a while, but nobody asks him why. Retirement? He’s considered too much a part of SHIELD to be accepted as definitely not Hydra? He’s going on a secret mission?
Coulson takes the team (him, May, Skye, and Trip) to some coordinates he found in the box, to arrive at another secret base, where they are met by Simmons, who has no news on the Does Fitz Have Brain Damage front. Then they are met by Patton Oswalt. Though he is identical in every way to his previous character, right down to many of his lines, he explains that he’s Billy Koenig, not Eric Koenig, who “passed away, sadly.” Once this calm explanation is offered, nobody seems to think that this is weird or unlikely, because it’s time for the episode to end.
Just after Raina visits a mysterious blood covered guy (implied: he is Skye’s father), and Coulson wakes up in the middle of the night to scrawl alien symbols all over a wall in the Playground.
And so we’ve reached the end of season 1 of Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, where it turns out that 72% of the season was biding time until The Winter Soldier came out, and that other 28% was getting the plot to a point where the show should have started in the first place: Coulson picking up the pieces of SHIELD in the aftermath of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. I’ll be tabling a discussion of SHIELD‘s first season overall until next week, because it deserves a better post than one that can be written in the fifteen hours after the airing of the last episode.
And honestly, there’s already enough problems with just this episode. The avoidance of any confirmed consequences for any of the core characters, use of the “it’s science, stupid” excuse, plot elements introduced to make things cooler and then haphazardly written out so that they don’t ruin the tension, a group of super soldiers who were never actually powerful enough to harm any of the main characters, wooden dialogue, wild tonal shifts even within single scenes. Look, SHIELD. Either you’re showing us the down-to-earth side of the Marvel universe, or you can raise tension with monologueing villains. Either you can make fun of improbable resurrections for twist endings (Garrett), or you can have improbable resurrections for twist endings (Koenig). Either you can have an audience invested in a character learning things that shake their foundation of self, or you can resolve that tension by making a humorous cut to the end of an argument. You cannot do all of these things and remain a drama. There’s Burn Notice. And there’s Archer. There’s Arrow. And there’s The Venture Bros.
I’ll see you guys next week for a sum up of the first season of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first foray into cross-media continuity, what worked and what didn’t work.