[Review] - Agents of SHIELD, Season 2 Finale, Episodes 21 And 22, "SOS"

Courtesy of Marvel Television Studios
So, earlier in the week we learned that both Agents of SHIELD and Agent Carter have received renewal orders form ABC, for a third and second season respectively. And that the proposed Mockingbird spin-off has been indefinitely postponed (ABC claims this is because they want to continue the dynamic the Bobbi and Lance characters have on their parent show, though I suspect the real reason is because the choice was between a spin-off or Carter getting a second run, and ABC's renewals tended towards favouring the familiar than taking a chance on an unknown). In terms of Carter getting a second kick at the Cold War can, I'm hugely in favour. The first season was fantastic, and felt far more in vein with the thematic expression of the films, and the stylistic expression that Daredevil also exhibited.

Agents of SHIELD remains the outlier. I suppose one could argue that it was first out of the gate, when Marvel Television still wasn't really sure what it wanted to be, and how it would be received. And that would be a valid excuse... for a time. That time has passed. This is the end of the second season, and things have still not changed. This show remains a mill stone tied around the foot of the MCU. It wants so much to be the leader of the pack, but it's more like the wheezing rhinoceros at the end of the stampede. Yes, it leads it's timeslot in the demo (or did, until it got beaten by the Flash the last two weeks), but it regularly gets beaten by an NCIS spinoff in the same slot, and that is factoring in the +same, +2 and +4 ratings. The finale placed behind an NBC sitcom. Add to that, the series is on a consistent downward trend. Every finale has had less viewers than the premiere, and the episodes in between are a steady declining slope. Viewership is now less than half what the second episode of the first season brought in. Viewership is not in nose dive, but every week fewer and fewer people watch it, either live or afterwards in some capacity. And critical reception continues to stagnant. Agent Carter had similar declining numbers, but also aired in the heart of the winter, had a shorter run, and most importantly, had a more positive critical reception.

On any other network, Agents of SHIELD would have been cancelled long ago, either at the end of last year, at mid year this year, or now. If it didn't have the Marvel brand attached, ABC would have cancelled this show long ago. Any other network would have dramatically retooled the show after year one. People would have been fired, new creative teams would have been put in place; there would have been a ground-up overhaul. And yet, as it is, everything appears to be standing pat. And I cannot figure out why. It cannot simply be because of the powers that be. Joss Whedon is out of the picture now, and besides, he made it clear that the movie division does not think highly of the TV side of things, when they think of them at all. So, is it just Disney? Because if all they are looking for is brand synergy, I can't help but think that higher rating and stronger critical reception would result in higher profits than not. So, I'm at a loss to explain how things are the way they are, and how it appears they intend to remain.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that aren't bad, just misled.

This was two hours of muddle. Or, and hour and fifteen minutes of muddle. That is nearly a Disney movie worth of I'm not entirely sure what. And it is indicative of the notion of "too much plot," which is usually a phrase I'm not a fan of. But that's what this was. Everyone had their fingers in the pie, and the net result is a mess. I'm still completely unclear as to what Skye's mom's plan was. There was chaos, and death, and everyone seemed to invade everyone else at least once, but to what end? to just kill SHIELD agents? To expose them to the mist? That they turned her into Magneto for the sake of the finale, when none of her preceding characterization suggested such a mentality, already smacks of desperation. But what was the intended outcome? I'm genuinely asking, because either I wasn't paying close enough attention, or the writers didn't give it that much thought. I noticed that she said - many times in fact - that she just wanted to protect her people. But how does invading a military aircraft carrier do that, when she could have just secreted them away to the Savage Land, or anywhere else?

It is part of the ongoing problem this series has. Last week, I mentioned the notion of moving the goal posts, and this adds to that. They lack depth perception. They look down the field, and they can't see the goal, so they just start running, and hope they'll end up at a conclusion. When they don't, they introduce a new goal post, and keep running. That is no way to structure a narrative. That is no way to do anything. Even a game of improve comes to a natural end, you just have to recognize it when it appears. The result is, the show introduces a lot of characters and concepts and potential problems, and then doesn't know what to do with them, but largely refuses to discard any of them, for fear that later on down the road, they'll think of a use for them. But they never have.

Like Ward. Ward's story came to a natural conclusion at the end of last season. Then, they brought him back unnecessarily, and crow-bared him into story-lines where he didn't make much sense, and eventually a second natural conclusion presented itself. And again, they kept bringing him back. It is wash, rinse, repeat. And now, they're setting him up as what, the anti-Coulson? The Big Bad of the series? Ward isn't Spike. Mostly because Ward isn't as interesting or charming as Spike. But also, there is no advantageous incorporation or narrative redemption in keeping him around as a constant adversary. He no longer presents a challenge to the team. In this very episode, he horrible, brutally tortures Bobbi, but she still breaks out, beats the shit out of him, and generally removes him as a credible threat. In season one, he was unexpected. In season two, he is vestigial. He played his role, and the stage direction should read "exit stage left." But that's been scratched out, and in its place has been scribbled "hang around down stage until we think you have a line."

The show also continues to be incredibly cheap. Carter and Daredevil were able to hide their lower budgets behind stylistic choices, atmosphere and less reliance on CG. Agents of SHIELD continues to act like it's a big budget film, with an micro-indie budget. When the Quinjet attacked Afterlife, I don't know what looked less convincing, the CG explosion, or the glitter smoke bomb that went off afterwards. the show is utterly devoid of any sort of visual personality. the films have a shared style, but each director brings their own flare to it. This is true too of TV shows with revolving directors. Take Game of Thrones, or Breaking Bad. Each episode looks enough like the last to not be jarring, but each director also brings their own sensibilities, so you can pick out from certain shots when MacLaren or Johnson is behind the camera. Agents of SHIELD is inactively neutral. There is nothing to define this show as itself. Daredevil has personality to share given how it was shot. Carter too. I look to the scene of Coulson jumping in slow motion to grab the crystal as it falls, and that shot all the intensity and suspension of good long sit. Now, credit where it's due, twice in the last few weeks, they've experimented with long oner scenes, as Skye 360 degree fights through a crowd of goons. But these are exceptions, not rules, and the show needs to develop more of itself than just basic blocking and alternating between wide and close shots. It's a visual medium, there needs to be visual information, and visual subtext. Use of more than basic technique would be nice.

I'm not just here to rag on the show. It does do things well. Perhaps the greatest moment in the series was Kyle McLaughlin singing Daisy, Daisy like mad man (superseding the last "greatest moment in the series" as produced by McLaughlin's performance this year). That moment was almost worth sitting through 40 episodes of this series. And, the show managed to outright surprise me, twice, within fifteen minutes. The first was chopping Phil's hand off, which coming directly on the heels on a blown tire of a shot was almost masterfully done. Everything, from the pause, to the realization, to the blow and the truncated scream was so unlike the show, I genuinely doubted what I'd just seen. This show doesn't A) make decisions like that and 2) enact it in such a way. That shot is indicative of what the series could be if they wanted to, which has consistently been true from the beginning. It could be great, if it tried. It wants to be, but it doesn't try. And when it tries, it feels like a three year old trying to say spaghetti.

The second moment that shocked me was the cliffhanger, of which I am not a fan (of cliffhangers in general, not this one in particular). Maybe it was because they were lulling me into a false sense of security by hanging that scene on such a banal subject as Fitz and Simmons, which I thought had been an issue put to rest, if not to bed (and again, resurrected because they didn't have much else where to go). But the perfectly captured look of horror on Simmons face as she was absorbed by the squishy obelisk was genuinely frightening, and heartbreaking. Not that I don't think for a moment that they'll fish her out within the first ten minutes of next season, but in those brief seconds before the season slammed shut, it was more impressive than a lot of their various plot twists have been this year. I respect and admire that they didn't linger on the moment. Maybe this show would be vastly superior if it were only five minute long episodes. Just cull everything down to barest bones, and they might have a tight product on their hands.

In many ways, I found this season more disappoint than last. The first season got to hide behind the excuse of finding it's footing and having to live up to The Winter Solider's effects. And I actually liked a lot of what they did in the first ten episodes. But this back half has been a long slog through a wading pool of crap. the show has no excuse at this point, other than ineptitude. The job that needs getting done isn't, and that needs to change. And if it's a people problem, then those people need to change. And if it's a problem in principle... well, then it looks like we've got at least one more season of this to look forward to. And I don't know if I have it in me.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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