Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. S2E21 & 22 Season Finale Review: S.O.S.
The 2 part season finale has arrived, and it hits a lot of highly anticipated points while still keeping some surprises, even for those of us who had some spoilers. Our endings range from bittersweet to just plain bitter, and everything in between… but the setup for next season! Well, let’s read on for a super-sized review.
There are basically two storylines running through the finale here: one is Ward and Agent 33/Kara’s capture and subsequent torture of Bobbi, and the other is the Inhuman/SHIELD conflict that’s been fully ignited. We’ll start with the former, and work our way up to the latter.
So, as we see tonight, any last clinging hope for a redemption arc for Ward is completely erased by the end of this. Not only are the torture scenes with Bobbi just brutal for TV and difficult to watch (which I guess means they’re well done), but the crazy trap he sets up for Hunter and the quick and dirty way he tried to take care of May proved he’s completely without honor–and then, if any doubt existed, he seizes control of the remnants of HYDRA in the last few moments of the episode. He’s an absolutely twisted hypocrite throughout, claiming there’s no excuse for Bobbi giving up 33 to save two dozen other agents, while just a few episodes ago expecting some degree of forgiveness or understanding out of his sob stories for what he did to Fitz and Simmons last season. She points that out, and also points out that Ward’s behavior towards Kara is every bit as manipulative and despicable as Bakshi’s mind control, or more personally, what Garrett did to him. “Wild Card” Ward is no more, sure–but only because he’s far more dangerous, and much more plainly evil.
Unfortunately, what that means for Kara is that she doesn’t really get much of a character arc over the season. We first see her when she’s captured, has a handful of appearances while brainwashed, and as soon as she’s breaking free, she falls under Ward’s machinations. Throughout her every appearance, she’s dependent on someone else’s will to act. I was looking forward to some potential future development for her, but it seems it was thrown out in favor of motivating Ward. In another show, I’d say this was an example of “Women in Refrigerators,” but luckily for SHIELD, there are enough strong female characters present on the show already that it’s forgivable to have one be pushed around like this.
Bobbi is strong throughout the ordeal, and not just in the sense of resisting torture. Her ideals are strong, in a very Spock-ish “Needs of the Many” sort of way. And sacrificing herself, literally taking the bullet for Hunter, ought to prove that she really does care strongly for him; the question becomes why she can’t allow herself to get close to him, which is the kind of thing that still remains to be explored. There’s got to be more to it than keeping him out of danger.
As an aside, you can kind of see the loose setup for the proposed Mockingbird spinoff here. She discusses leaving SHIELD at the end of the episode, and Hunter would likely follow her anywhere–but it’s moot anyway, as the spinoff plans were set aside and they’re both confirmed for season 3. There’s also the matter of Kara impersonating May so often. I’d have expected after the first time they’d set up some kind of trust password that could confirm whether it’s the real May or not. They didn’t, but May was still savvy enough to trick Kara into looking like her to set her up for a trap. It allowed May to cleverly get rid of 33, but still put the entire responsibility for her death on Ward. Great writing, as it both keeps the main characters’ hands clean of killing such an unlucky and tormented character, while giving Ward something else to latch on to. Plus it was nice to see they sent some red shirts along with May and Hunter. They didn’t even all die!
Which brings us to the other big plot, the conflict between SHIELD and the Inhumans under Jaiying. Things that haven’t made much sense start to come together: what her plan is, who all is involved. Characterizations crystallized and became clear. Seeds for the future have been planted, quite successfully.
As far as the Inhumans in general and Jaiying specifically are concerned, I wasn’t certain until this episode began if she had pulled this off on her own, or if others were involved. It became obvious quickly that the higher level Inhumans like Gordon were in on it, which was a little disappointing to me. His character has been… not exactly kind, but possessed a level of experience and perhaps even wisdom that I would expect might make him resistant to such cynical plans. He was the only one to treat Raina as a person. I don’t think his actions in this episode are out of character, as he does seem to share Jaiying’s disapproval of ordinary humans, but it was sad to see him falling to the bad guys’ side. He was cool, and I’ll miss him next season. Lincoln, on the other hand, did come around and helped Skye and the others to keep the peace. He also stepped in to ensure that lives were saved on both sides by taking out the duplicating lady non-lethally himself. Let’s just hope he can get through to them about Jaiying’s lies.
Jaiying herself is finally explained with the last revelations about her backstory. Cal put her back together, but he put her back together wrong somehow, and she was driven mad by the experiences of being held hostage and dismembered. Since then, she’s become as much of an extremist as anyone in HYDRA ever was (with numerous visual parallels between the Inhuman siege on the carrier and the flashbacks to HYDRA’s a few episodes ago)–only the lives of Inhumans matter, to the extent that even Cal was rendered irrelevant until he could demonstrate exceptional abilities. Her immortality power was fueled by stealing the lifeforce of others, which is one of those powers that kinda leaves you with very few options when you want to use them for good. It was revealed that the village that was slaughtered was all sacrifices to help her heal after being sewn back together, explaining that particular bit. Since then, she’s been manipulating the Inhuman encampment at Afterlife, as one of the sole surviving elders, and apparently for long enough that Gordon will listen to her unconditionally. The thing that proves she’s absolutely lost her way is when she tries to use her powers on Skye, forcing Cal to go against this woman that he’d sacrificed so much of his life for. While it makes her into an adequately tragic villain, I can’t help but feel it would have served the story better to reveal that a little sooner. Maybe last week? It wouldn’t have hurt to give her other two empowered henchmen, duplicating lady and “apparently strong” guy some characterization in advance, too.
Raina’s death is a pretty significant point, as she’s been with the show since the very beginning. I’m glad that her death is ultimately one born of redemption, at the very least, although I’d have preferred it if she stuck around. Her powers would’ve been problematic, however, and getting rid of her was an easy way to solve that. Unlike Kara, Raina gets a great conclusion to her character arc. For someone who’s envied Skye her entire life, and that envy only growing throughout most of this season, to have her ultimately accepting not only who she is, but her role in the story. She goes into the confrontation with Jaiying knowing exactly what will happen, and sacrifices for the benefit of others for the first time in her life. That this sacrifice is most directly for Skye is what solidifies her character development and marks the end of her arc.
Cal’s redemption is a more surprising one. He’s been a likable psychopath from the moment he first stepped on screen. He’s got a giddy enthusiasm to every action, tempered with a seething rage that can lash out at any moment. We figured out his identity as Hyde fairly quickly, and from that moment his inevitable transformation was highly anticipated. With so much hype behind it, it was almost assured to be a letdown; I think we all knew that Hulk-esque CGI was not possible on a TV budget, but even I was hoping for a more radical change in appearance than what we saw. He basically just got a little white in his hair and long dirty fingernails. More thick veins, like the ones that appear on his neck (after he loses power, actually), a heavier brow, thicker hair on his hands (and possibly face), and absolutely some kind of muscle suit or something to actually make him look more Hulk-like. Kyle MacLachlan’s performance clearly takes cues from the “Gorilla” part of the serum, so focusing on those aspects in his makeup would’ve served him well. This is the second time that a character whose transformation is fully shown for the first time during the season finale has been a serious letdown (after Deathlok’s first “Paintball Armor” suit last season). That is not the kind of pattern we need repeating itself. I wonder if they pulled back this time, after overdoing it on Deathlok before. They fixed Deathlok’s look for his appearances this season–we won’t get that second chance with Cal.
As far as his characterization goes, for a man whose entire life has been obsession over family for 25 years, forcing him to forget all that seems harsh, especially after the sympathy he’d built up. Forcing his realizations about what a monster Jaiying had become led him to a kind of Frankenstein moment, but unfortunately Jaiying is not as benevolent as the actual monster of that story. But compared to his other potential fates, it’s hard to argue with it. I did enjoy the TAHITI “Magical Place” nod in his dialog at the animal hospital. His fate here seems more important to Skye, as it means giving up both the crazy parent and the loving parent, even if they turned out to be opposite of initial impressions.
You might notice looking over this that I’ve spoken almost exclusively about the guest stars and not the main cast–it’s not that they didn’t have much to do; they did. Fitz and Simmons finally deciding to step up their relationship. May and Skye coming to blows, if only for a moment. Coulson’s near-sacrifice and the loss of his hand. Mack going into full-on hardcore guerrilla warfare mode on the ship. Hunter’s renewed dedication to Bobbi. Simmons getting sucked into the rock thing… but the consequences were so much higher for the recurring characters we’ve followed all season. With Whitehall, Bakshi, Gonzalez, Raina, Jaiying, Gordon, and Kara all dead, that means that almost the entire supporting cast is wiped clean. Cal is effectively dead as well, but the door’s open for small returns for him in the future still. That leaves us with Lincoln and Deathlok, who both have good reason to return in the future, what with Skye’s powered team (most likely some MCU iteration of Secret Warriors) in the works. Whatever we end up seeing next season, It’s going to have to be completely different than what’s happened so far as a result. But we’ll explore that a little later, in the full season 2 retrospective.
As a finale, it’s very strong, and as episodes, they’re great, too. It’s a fun watch and everything you could ask for (well, except for the Hyde transformation). It’s a pretty stark contrast from Defiance‘s uneven second season, if you’ve stuck around with me that long. I’m quite pleased that it’s been renewed and I can’t wait for season 3 in the fall!