Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 1 Retrospective
With Defiance having finished its second season, it’s time for me to shift gears and get ready for my next series to review: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I know, I keep starting out with things that are on their second season, but there’s not a lot of new stuff coming in the near future (Syfy’s Ascension excluded) so I’ll run with what I’ve been into. To the topic at hand, then: SHIELD (as I will refer to it for the sake of my keyboard) was a highly anticipated show last year, and when it premiered it didn’t exactly meet everyone’s expectations. Even the highly anticipated tie-in with Thor 2 was a bit of a disappointment for those who (unrealistically) expected a cameo or something. It was frustrating because, much like season 1 Defiance, there was a lot of potential going unused as the show dealt with small and seemingly irrelevant details. Things changed big time, however, after the winter break.
(If you’re reading this, I’m assuming you’re up on your Marvel Cinematic Universe, so spoilers abound.)
SHIELD had one thing going for it when it started (aside from a multi-billion dollar film franchise, that is) and that one thing was Coulson. Agent Coulson had turned out to be the ensemble dark horse of the MCU, winning fans over with wit and charm. Of course, there was the small problem of “he died in The Avengers” to deal with, which is arguably where a good chunk of the show’s problems stem from. Still, it’s a property derived from comic books, the only medium where the concept of death seems to be even less meaningful than it is in video games. Few people could say they were honestly surprised at someone coming back to life, and welcoming Coulson back to our screens was enough to silence most of the griping. It took a while for the TV writers to find Coulson’s voice again, but it wasn’t too long before he was back in shape. I’ll discuss the particulars of his revival later.
Really, it was the other characters where the show was having trouble initially. Agent Ward, clearly designed as our young white male hero, came across as being very bland and devoid of character. May seemed to be the show’s attempt at the Whedon Action Girl™, but her quiet and surly nature ended up leaving her without the kind of heart possessed by other such characters, which allowed fans something to latch on to. Fitz and Simmons were cute and endearing, and definitely helped the show out a lot early on, but initially seemed to be there primarily for exposition. Then there was Skye, whom a lot of people just outright hated for reasons that still aren’t quite clear to me. I think it derived a lot from a perceived attempt at making her hip and trendy and geeky that just failed entirely. I don’t know how true that is, but I can definitely see how people could come to that conclusion if that is indeed the case.
Fortunately, all these characters (and more!) were given the chance to evolve over the season, but it’s really not until the second half where it occurs. The first half came across as aimless and wandering, leaving viewers to wonder why Marvel would even bother making a show. I think we can chalk a huge amount of this up to Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier and its associated plot developments, as certain pieces couldn’t move into place until after the movie had been released. But even in the weeks leading up to it, characters were allowed to grow more interesting. Introducing Garrett and Trip to the mix from time to time gave opportunities to shake up the status quo, and it helped to prime major revelations about Ward.
And it’s these major revelations that helped not just Ward, but all the characters to start growing into distinct individuals. Making Ward a secret HYDRA agent actually turned out to be an almost perfect explanation for how uninvested he seemed in the beginning–it’s because his character was literally just going through the motions. Of course, there are some things that still seem questionable after finding this out (like jumping out of the plane to save Simmons, or going on a suicide mission) but they’re not inexplicable choices. In spite of what he says, Ward does appear to have something of a soft spot for some of his old teammates, and that ought to make it very interesting going forward as he wrestles with that.
The growth for the entire cast springs almost exclusively from this moment, like May being set up (indirectly by Ward) as a mole and losing Coulson’s trust. Being personally hurt by Ward also opened up a new window into her character, breaking through her shell to the human within. Skye grew beyond the quirky hacker girl, having to learn what it means to be part of SHIELD and why the things they do are important. Whether or not her backstory, which seems to be a focal point of season 2, will help in this is up in the air. Ward’s creepy stalker behavior towards her left plenty of chances for good moments. Fitz dealing with jealousy over his unrequited feelings for Simmons and his denial about the betrayal of his friend/mentor Ward were both great changes. As long as all these points continue to move forward, season 2 is looking very promising indeed.
So, now we get to the essence of SHIELD season 1. The main running plot thread of the show has been Coulson’s revival. Many fans felt this was a bad idea, as putting so much focus on this mystery of Coulson and Tahiti could never end in a satisfying manner. And I think, to a certain extent, that was true. After building it up for so long, Coulson finally gets some answers in the episode “T.A.H.I.T.I.”… and it’s really not an answer at all. Okay, we shot him up with alien juice, but why? And how did that help him come back to life? We did finally learn why in the finale (The alien serum was created in the event of a fallen Avenger, and Nick Fury considered Coulson to be as much a part of the team as any of the big heroes) but it’s hardly a satisfying answer after circling this question for 22 episodes. We were made to think there was something very special about Coulson that justified taking such extreme measures, and yet so far there’s no indication that’s the case. There’s also the fact that Coulson was the one in charge of this fallen Avenger project and he was adamantly against continuing it, which is all the more reason why it should only have been used in dire circumstances. Why would Coulson’s death qualify, then? Still hanging on that one.
The next big plot thread is the Clairvoyant and Centipede, a group apparently under his control. It started off misleading the audience into believing the Clairvoyant was a metahuman, as he appeared to be collecting and recruiting other such people. This angle of deception doesn’t really seem to lead anywhere significant, however. It feels like it was added more to disguise the eventual double agent/HYDRA connection than an earnest attempt at convincing the audience that such powers could exist. Heck, not even the characters in the show take the Clairvoyant’s alleged powers seriously. And then the whole Centipede angle is rendered almost irrelevant by the finale. I definitely get the feeling that there was a different plan in place for Centipede than what actually happened. The motives for creating it are unclear–did Garrett start it to try to prolong his own life somehow? Was it Quinn, just in it for the money? I don’t really understand why Garrett would be willing to sell his super soldiers to anyone else. In the end, this whole plot feels like a detour to kill time until Garrett’s reveal. Still, it did a good job of logically incorporating most of the episodic elements–for example, extracting Scorch’s heat resistance to deal with the exploding problem from Extremis. It just took way too long to get to the point where it became clear that these episodic plots actually had any relevance.
The last of the big three plot threads is the creation of Deathlok from Mike Peterson and the revelation that he’s not the first. One of the big themes in SHIELD, as stated from the beginning, is the question of what value an ordinary person holds in a world of superheroes, and the show deals with that in several ways. The first, obviously, is just people who continue doing their jobs to the best of their abilities, like the majority of Coulson’s team. Other people didn’t deal with this so well; some, like Mike, were desperate to gain powers and become the hero that they felt they needed to be to face life in the modern world. It’s clear throughout the pilot episode that Mike’s thinking of himself as if he’s going through a comic book superhero’s origin story. When he attacks his boss, for example, he’s clearly seeing this situation as if his boss is this J. Jonah Jameson sort of figure, the man who’s in the wrong and making the hero’s life difficult for no reason. However, even long after this point, he’s still determined to be the hero, which gets him into trouble and eventually leads to his transformation into Deathlok, where he finally learns that this world of superheroes kind of sucks. Garrett is similarly desperate for powers, but for purely selfish reasons as a way to avoid death. Everything he does is about keeping himself alive, which marks a strong contrast towards Coulson, who we see actually wishing for death. That’s what makes Coulson the hero, after all. I’d say this is, by far, the most interesting plot that was running through the season, at least until HYDRA appeared.
HYDRA’s rebellion and the disintegration of SHIELD as an organization is, ironically, what saved the show. Ward’s defection, the reveal of Garrett as both a member of HYDRA and the Clairvoyant specifically, and the loss of all that SHIELD support structure really upped the stakes and made the uprising hit home. It was clear throughout Captain America 2 that this was a very radical split, pitting friends and partners against each other and casting the shadow of doubt across everyone in the organization. SHIELD picked up the torch from the end of the film and really ran with it, showing us how even characters we’d been following along with could secretly be members of HYDRA. And in addition to knocking out their support structure, HYDRA also ends up being a real threat, giving Skye, Fitz, and Simmons close calls with death. Heck, we still don’t know what exactly happened to Fitz; it’s clear he’s suffered some sort of serious injury as a result of Ward’s actions. A good number of recurring characters (like Hand, Blake, and Koenig) were killed by HYDRA, too, so it did have real consequences beyond Fitz’s injuries. Just the sheer amount of intrigue that the HYDRA rebellion brought to the show was enough to reinvigorate both the plot and the characters, destroying the status quo and making each episode unpredictable. The fact that things still haven’t returned to that state by the end of the season speaks for itself in terms of how important it was.
So where does the show go from here? Coulson’s in charge now, and he has to pick up the pieces. Both he and Skye have been affected by this alien serum, and in very different ways. What does that mean for each of them? We’ll see what becomes of Ward, if he’s way over the line into villainy or if there’s some attempted redemption arc in store. What happened to Fitz, and will he be able to return to duty? We still haven’t learned much about Trip, who seems to be here to stay. There’s a slew of new characters on the way, too, and there’s definitely reason to worry that the show may get overwhelmed. I think that, in the end, the HYDRA “uprising” story arc saved the show because, well… it gave it a story arc. The first half was almost exclusively “monster of the week” type, episodic stories, waiting for the arc to kick into gear. And now that it’s going, I see no reason why it should stop. With no major movie tie-ins to disrupt the plot this season, it’s going to be entirely on the writers to keep things interesting. In two weeks, we’ll find out, I suppose.