Back in January, I made a fairly dour mid-season denouncement of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on my personal blog (you can guess by the title, Agents of Meh, that I wasn’t enamored). In it, I declared that, with the Coulson reveal done, that the season-to-date amounted to a lot of sound, a little Fury, and ultimately signified not a whole hell of a lot (other than establishing that Coulson was the only interesting character on the show).
Well a funny thing happened after that episode, Skye got herself shanked and Bill Paxton showed up as old-school operative John Garrett to help save her. We got a look at how this team worked together to save their own, and how they were willing to step outside of the S.H.I.E.L.D. confines to do so. Also, with the addition of outside influences, we started to see where the stress points were in the core group (one of the most obvious, that had one of the best payoffs, was Fitz’s undeclared love for Jemma). Characters started to grow beyond their proscribed tics.
Then Captain America: The Winter Soldier hit and (this is a spoiler for anyone who has been under a rock for the past month or so) all Hydra let loose. Those outlier thoughts of Coulson’s? Suddenly they were necessary survival tactics; but at least he had his team…right?
(Spoilers ahead for anyone who hasn’t seen the post-Winter Solider episodes. They’re on Hulu now, so you should do yourself a favor and check them out…I’ll wait.)
Then Whedon did what he does best, take a carefully established universe and turn it on its head. Ward betrayed the team, Garrett turned out to be the Clairvoyant, May seemingly betrayed Coulson…hell, even Fitz got in on the action with his seething jealousy of Trip.
The characters became much more interesting once all the stable parts of their world were stripped away. My favorites actually ended up being those I had originally found most annoying. May started showing more than just one emotion and her struggle to let people see something other than neutrality or anger was, at times, captivating. Fitz blanched in the face of the tsunami of change, unable to accept it even when the evidence is staring him in the face (literally). What started out as an annoying character flaw became a tragic coping mechanism; to the point where Fitz is so afraid of any change that it takes death to finally shake him into confessing his love.
And then there’s Grant Ward, Mr. Perfect Double-Agent. His betrayal was a beautifully shocking moment and made all of the annoying hospital-sheet crispness of his character in the first half of the season worth watching. Especially as you could see him struggle again and again with wanting to be that guy – despite the fact that he knew it was just a facade. I like that the show-runners took the time to flashback and establish the deep roots of his character so that his conflict in the last few episodes wasn’t just “Ward likes Skye. Ward is confused.”
Speaking of Skye…I like her more; but I’m still not convinced she’s central-focus worthy. Sure, we get a glimpse at her gore-soaked parent at the end of the finale; but will that be enough? She’s just so damn earnest (though I’m sure there will be a stripping away of that as well once Whedon gets his claws into her next season).
In addition to the character development, I was excited about how the final half of the season made the unified TV/Movie Marvel-verse really shine. The S.H.I.E.L.D. eps after Winter Soldier complete that movie’s story without having to use any of the characters from the movie. New plot elements are introduced (say hello to your new Director!), foundations are established for the new series (you can bet Trip’s granddad is part of Agent Carter), and new Marvel lore is established (Vigilante Deathlok? Life Model Decoys? Yes, please!). And all of it was done without making the audience wait another two years for the next Captain America sequel to roll around. By the time we catch back up with Cap, it’ll be a very different universe from where we last left him.
By the finale, it finally felt like a Whedon show. From the ultimate takedown of Garrett/Deathlok 1.0 (“Found it!”) to Fury and Coulson bantering in the middle of a gunfight (“Is this whole thing because you misunderstood my ‘One Man’ speech?”) that patent dark humor I was missing all season was in effect. Things started happening for the team (and their villains) in ways that meant something. If you dropped out mid-season, you owe it yourself to go back and catch up. That “holding pattern” feeling is gone. This finally feels like a show that’s hit its stride. Hopefully it will able to keep up the pace when it comes back in the Fall.
On a dad note, that mid-season Coulson brain-surgery scene was what convinced me that I should wait a bit before having my son watch it. I figure, if it’s disturbing enough to keep me awake, it’s probably going to be even more intense for him. However, the way things came together, I might have to relax the restrictions a bit – after all, he’s my compatriot for all of the Marvel movies, I can’t have him fall behind!