Midseason Recap: Agents of SHIELD

Hi guys, final midseason recap time. We’ve talked about the writing in Scorpion and Gotham so it’s time to turn our attention to Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD.

I have so many mixed feelings about this show. SHIELD is different from previous shows in a couple of ways. First, it’s not in its first season and second it’s a tie in to a much bigger media franchise. These things are not necessarily in the show’s favor.

Series Premise and First Season Recap 

The premise of SHIELD is pretty simple. It’s about a shadow agency, the titular SHIELD, that reacts to paranormal and metahuman situations around the globe and keeps them from hurting people. It’s like The X-Files meets Men In Black, except there’s more than aliens running around and we have Clark Gregg instead of David Duchovny (not exactly a bad trade in my book). All of this ties in to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) as expressed in movies like the Iron Man franchise and The Avengers. Except now that premise has been put through the wringer for a full season and it’s morphed into something different.

So, a brief recap of Season One. We meet our team, then discover various metahuman and extraterrestrial doohickies and keep bumping into people working to perfect a new supersoldier serum and start cranking out Captain Americas – although probably with less of the moral center. In the middle of the season Captain America: The Winter Soldier comes out and HYDRA infiltrators take over SHIELD and the whole premise takes a serious hit. (Spoilers, by the way.) The SHIELD we’ve started to get a feel for is suddenly ripped out from under us and we have to relearn all the rules of the world and the show. The season ends with Agent Phil Coulson promoted to Director of SHIELD and working to rebuild the organization.

The real problem with Season One is it lacks any kind of focus or cohesion. Several episodes were spent on tie-ins rather than progressing the show’s central plot. Which, by the way, revolves around a character named Skye and her mysterious parentage and history with SHIELD. Skye and the team are ignorant of what happened to her family and Phil decides to do what he can to help her figure that out. We start to see connections between Skye and the people running the supersoldier program… but the tie-ins wreck the pacing of her story and then the sudden HYDRA revolt totally sidelines that mystery for most of the last third of the season.

I’m not saying the HYDRA thing wasn’t good but it really feels like it’s happening at the wrong time in the series. SHIELD probably would have been a stronger TV show if it had either waited for the second season to pull a total revamping of the show’s format or if it had waited half a season and simply begun with Coulson picking up the pieces after HYDRA wrecked most of SHIELD. Status quo must be established before it can be changed up and the show failed to do that before it’s big Season One shake-up. That doesn’t mean the show wasn’t entertaining, it just wasn’t as good as it could have been.

Otherwise the show did a good job with characterization and no single episode was particularly boring. A lot of interesting storylines were set up – although some things that I’d hoped to see, like an episode inside the supervillain prison center or more events inside SHIELD Academy, are obviously not coming to pass now.

All things considered the first season of SHIELD started good and drifted toward high end mediocrity. I approached the second season with trepidation. In fact, I didn’t start watching it until several episodes into the season. I’ve definitely had the most trouble convincing myself I wanted to watch it on a weekly basis out of the shows I’m following this season. That said, there is some good stuff in it. Let’s take a look.

Favorite Character (Honorable Mention) – Phil Coulson 

The answer will probably always be Phil. It’s a combination of many factors, I think, and the excellent performance of Clark Gregg is definitely one of them. I’d like to say there’s great writing behind his character but the fact is Phil is just written as solid, likeable, fatherly and sensible. He’s hard not to like and something about Gregg’s charisma makes it work all the better. But in terms of the show’s writing… Phil isn’t actually written that well. He’s not written badly at all but there’s nothing outstanding there either. So, while I love the character and the way he’s presented, I’m removing him from the running for favorite character because he wins… but more because of the actor and personal preference than actual writing.

Favorite Character – Leo Fitz 

He’s kind of geeky and adorkable which I can sympathize with. But the growth of his character since the rift between him and Jemma Simmons formed combined with his slow recovery from near suffocation makes for some really interesting moments. The most interesting aspect is the way a person who has only really needed one friend has to adapt when his primary relationship is radically and probably irrevocably altered.

While the arc itself is not particularly groundbreaking, each interaction with each character along the way is so well written and so believable that it plays like a dream. Major kudos for handling this whole thing so well.

Least Favorite Character – Daniel Whitehall 

Whedon is great at doing good characters so it’s impossible to pick one that I hate. But there is a character which I don’t like as much as the others and that’s Whitehall. He’s a lackluster villain, feeling much like a generic Dr. Insano kind of a mad scientist. While perpetrating wholesale organ transplants in order to gain renewed youth and vigor certainly establishes him as both vicious and cold we never really get an appreciation for what drives him or what sets him apart from all the other characters matching his archetype, or even his mentor Red Skull.

Whitehall suffers from a distinct lack of development and, particularly with Skye’s father and Grant Ward running around, the series has a lot of better villains casting a shadow over him. That’s a particular weakness given that he’s probably meant as the primary villain of the first half of Season Two. More time should have been spent developing him or, given his current status in the show, less time should have been wasted on him. It’s not a strong dislike but it’s enough that he rates as my least favorite character this season.

Favorite Character Dynamic – Grant/Skye 

The transformation of these two from tentative romance to bitter betrayal and creepy stalker/stalkee relationship is… engaging. It’s not really fun but it does ramp up the suspense and keep you coming back for more. Grant is a very, very warped individual and it’s unclear what caused him to latch on to Skye like he did, or what he might do should he ever find the approval he wants from her.

Skye is a confused person who doesn’t really understand who she is or what she’s capable of, but she’s not going to be manipulated by Grant and it will take more than his attempts to express affection for her to draw her from the side of the angels. The battle of wills between them is tense and hopefully will lead to even better storytelling down the road.

Least Favorite Character Dynamic – Billy and Sam Koening 

Okay, so I’ve played around with the look-alikes with weird relationships a bit in my stories but this one… it just feels a little out of place and weird in this show. Again, not a big gripe, but Whedon does so well with his characters and their interactions that it’s hard not to like them. These two just feel out of place in the larger cast which puts them near the bottom. Hopefully they’ll be more than just quirky background but in the mean time I guess I’ll settle for being mildly exasperated whenever they steal screen time from people I’m more interested in.

Least Favorite Episode – The Things We Bury (S02E08) 

While I like Grant Ward when he’s keeping the pressure on Skye, forcing her to grapple with her own feelings and the realities of the life she’s chosen, on his own he’s kind of a weak character. I’m not sure if it’s because his psychotic fixation makes him predictable or just because he’s not a nice person but he gets old fast. This episode mostly features him and I managed to deduce the outcome, point by point, almost from the beginning and that didn’t sit well with me. I’m inclined to credit that to poor writing, since I think all of this could have been done in a way that made it interesting and effective while still conveying the same events, but I’m not a TV writer and I’m not in a position to judge. It wasn’t a horrible episode but it wasn’t very interesting either.

Favorite Episode – The Writing on the Wall (S02E07) 

This episode was good. The culmination of the TAHITI arc, Coulson regaining sanity and the flashbacks to his efforts to understand fellow TAHITI patients all makes for great character stuff. The episode moves tightly, has good suspense and the reveal shot at the end, when Coulson and the other TAHITI patient who have been searching look down and finally see what they’ve been looking for… that’s a great moment. Yes, the Winter Finale had a powerful climax as well but Coulson’s character resolution for this half of the season resonated more.

Other Stuff 

I’m still on the fence about this show. The incorporation of the inhumans to the MCU before their actual movie is a nice touch and feels much more organic than most of the forced tie-ins from the first season. The reveal that Skye is actually an established DC character (albeit a minor one) is great and, while Bobbi Morse did this first, it’s satisfying to know one of the people who we’ve come all this way with is an established Marvel player.

This will most likely make the character Skye in the Marvel comic SHIELD, which features many of the same characters as the show, substantially different from her MCU counterpart, but we can live with that.

My two biggest problems with the show are as follows. First, the heavy studio hand visible in the first season which resulted in wonky story pacing and poor placement of a major plot twist really hampered the progress of the show. But it seems to be recovering from that.

Second, the beautiful people habit. I mentioned how much I liked Scorpion avoiding that and, to an extent, Gotham has as well. Not as much, but many of the people in Gotham are socialites and others with public images to think of so it’s at least kind of realistic. SHIELD is full of spies and professional hard cases, people who should blend in or be a little on the rough edge of things. But the cast almost universally looks like they’re ready to step onto a photo shoot most of the time. They’re overstylized and it’s a little grating. Only Clark Gregg manages to avoid looking like he’s been spit polished before he stepped onto the set and I suspect that’s more due to his natural charisma than a conscious decision on the part of makeup.

On the other hand, the actors are very good. Clark Gregg I’ve already said I like. Brett Dalton is eerily good at the placid psychotic Grant Ward. But Kyle MacLachlan takes the cake as Skye’s deranged father, teetering wildly between an injured and hurting man and a homicidal wreck bent on vengeance. His jump from one to the other is always believable and, oddly enough, more pitiable than chilling, making his character all the harder to get a handle on. Good work, sir. Good work.

I’m still divided on this show, but my biggest gripe with it was the clear fingerprints of studio interference in the first season. Over time those signs have diminished. Hopefully we won’t have cause to see them again – not that studio direction is bad. But when it stands out too much it can kill a series. Perhaps, if we’re lucky, the good ship SHIELD will not suffer such a fate.

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