Disclaimer: If you somehow were interested in reading this column without realizing it would contain spoilers for both Agents Of Shield and Captain America: The Winter Soldier…then you were wrong, and kind of weirdly dumb for even thinking that.
But how much of this was really the show’s “fault”? A great deal of it, undoubtedly. But as a serialized narrative, it was lethally middled from the moment of its conception. So how much of AoS’s failure should be attributed to Nature (being inherently torn between the need to stand on its own and simultaneously serve the greater needs of the MCU), and how much to Nurture (failings in writing, casting, and general execution)?
AoS is unprecedented in certain ways. It exists primarily to prop up and promote the Marvel film franchises, so one might have expected more extensive crossovers and guest appearances from the Avengers. But so far, we have had one scene with Nick Fury, and one episode where one of Thor’s Lil’ Buddies came through town. That’s not really exploiting the enormous, colorful Marvel Universe to its fullest potential, a need which would seem to be built into the show’s DNA.
But it’s also as it should be, probably. This is a 22 episode season of a weekly drama series. It can’t be nothing but cockteases for The Winter Soldier and Age Of Ultron and Starfox: The Worst Avenger. And thus you have the major instability at heart of the show. We have to buy into these characters and be interested in their adventures in and of themselves, but we are really only supposed to care because of their proximity to the real deal Heroes and Shit That Actually Matters (the movies). Separate them too much from the big events and you have people tune out because they aren’t getting the MCU action they signed up for; tie them too closely to the Big Stuff and the same people will get antsy wondering why we’re wasting our time with the JV squad when all the cool shit is happening just to the left of frame.
So what the show needs is to carve out its own identity, independent from the movies it spun off from, so we can invest in the story we’re actually watching rather than the more interesting one it suggests is happening elsewhere. But then how is it that this week’s episode was by far the most intimately tied to a Marvel movie, and also by far the best episode to date?
Because it fixed a lot of the problems with the execution. The action was still largely confined to the plane and dark corridors, but it is rougher, bloodier and has a desperate edge that fits with the dire circumstances the team finds themselves in compared to earlier romps. And the dogfighting sequences are a bit of a change of pace and features decent effects work to boot. It’s not on the level of Winter Soldier*, but it’s a real step up and pretty good by TV standards.
But more than that it’s that things actually HAPPENED. That the major events were rolling downhill from the movies doesn’t matter much, because the team needed a shakeup in a bad, bad way. Worse than they needed better fight choreography, even; for all the improved action and wild twists, my favorite bit in the episode was Fitz responding to the threat of torture and enslavement by swearing to bring Paxton down. Except that he’s not Iron Man, so he actually just promises to play a part in taking him down. And he’s not Captain America, so he forces it out through tears.
FitzSimmons are the best characters on AoS, because they are the only team members that actually are the “normal folk”, on a show that is ostensibly premised around exploring normal folk within this very abnormal world. Skye is some sort of alien from the planet Sexytron, and it’s been all too easy to see Coulson/May/Ward as ersatz analogues for Captain America/Black Widow/Hawkeye. We’ve talked a lot on the message boards about how these folks are bland individuals, but it’s also a problem that their team dynamic is basically what you would get if you removed the really heavy hitters from the Avengers, then made the less powerful folks even weaker and less distinctive. It creates a feeling that we’re wasting time passing it with the watered-down versions, which creeps into each and every scene in the show without our really realizing it.
But as mentioned before this episode was definitely the high point of the series. The final twist turns the weak characterization of Ward on its head and allows for a shake-up of the team dynamic. But it’s about the fourth twist of the episode, which pits the team against each other before plunging them into a legitimately tense situation, where neither they nor we know who they can trust. They can’t pack this many twists into every episode, or else they would rapidly become weightless and numbing. And they can’t drastically reboot the show every time they need a goosing, no matter how much it spices things up that the team is fractured and cut off from the unlimited resources, infrastructure and reinforcements that SHIELD represented (a safety net that constantly worked to erode any sense of danger or urgency an episode threatened to build).
Now, though, things have the potential to be much more interesting going forward. Don’t get me wrong, one good episode does not make AoS a good show. 15 hours is a long time to spend building a boring, lukewarm house just so you can have fun burning it down in the 16th, and I’m neither in a hurry to revisit the earlier parts of the season myself nor to blame anyone who bailed along the way. But there is opportunity here, so as a public service I am going to offer my advice for how to keep Agents Of Shield operating at a level we might call “good” with a straight face. I do this knowing that the remainder of the season has no doubt been written if not shot already, but Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen would have to be crazy not to reopen production to implement these suggestions. For clearly I possess expertise they cannot hope to match. They are but experienced, professional, HUGO Award-winning writers and showrunners, whereas I…I have the internet.
So in helpful DO/DON’T format, here is how to save Agents Of Shield:
DO: Move FitzSimmons further to the fore. As mentioned, they’re the only completely human characters, and as such offer a perspective that is unique to this show’s setting. I’m agnostic on positioning them as a romantic pairing (because on the one hand that seems really hacky and obvious, but on the other they’re so cute together…), but give them emotional storylines to anchor and I don’t think they will let you down.
DON’T: Hire more models for new roles. I know Clark Gregg looks like a normal dad, but having everyone else on the team, down to the tech geeks, look runway-ready glamorous has not been working terribly well. Agents Blake and Garrett immediately outshone the superhumanly-symmetrical Skye and Ward from the moment they stepped on screen, because they were played by honest-to-god Actors, with immediate, distinctive personalities. I realize that the most likely additions to the team are Cobie Smulders (now that HIMYM is done) and the replacement-Ward that showed up with Paxton, neither of whom are too rough on the ol’ eyebones, but I’m just saying. The sets and costumes are already homogenizing enough, so in the future cast with an eye for diversity (be it of race, age, or rating on the Clydesdale Scale).
DO: Give the team their own ongoing antagonist. Yes, they’ve had the Clairvoyant, but it would seem that he turned out to be Paxton, who is definitely not going to stick around on a weekly basis. Even if the Clairvoyant is a mantle that gets passed around HYDRA according to convenience, it’s no longer really viable now that we’ve seen behind the curtain. Bring someone from the comics, but not a heavy hitter or anything. It can be someone who has already been used in a minor capacity in the films, like Armin Zola or Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell is arguably as big a star as Paxton, but he seems more like he’s game for just about anything, so who knows?), or someone that is unlikely to ever see the silver screen (Motherfucking MODOK!!!). Marvel’s got several thousand characters to their names; don’t be afraid to burn a few just because you might want to maybe use them in Doctor Strange 3 in 2022. Of course, “Turn, Turn, Turn” set up Ward as the perfect person to take on recurring villain duties. Which leads me to the most important Don’t…
DON’T: DO NOT PULL THE PUNCH WITH WARD’S TURN. Don’t have it turn out that he was brainwashed or coerced into killing his fellow agents. You can’t play that card again so soon after the Deathlok arc. Don’t have it turn out that Hand planned to sacrifice herself all along so that Ward could infiltrate Hydra and take it down from the inside. That’s too risky and dumb for ostensibly smart characters to think of as a viable plan, particularly when she is about the highest-ranking loyalist left in the ranks. Really don’t have it turn out that the gun was loaded with blanks and the agents had ketchup packet squibs ready as an elaborate fake out. If we can’t trust that people are dead when you show them get shot point blank, followed by a double-tap once they’re down, why should we even bother paying attention to anything you ever show us again? And don’t have it be a Life Model Decoy. Actually…
DON’T: Do anything with Life Model Decoys, ever. I mean fucking ever. They are dramatic antimatter. Once you introduce that device, you will never be able to create a smidge of tension again (and this is a show that runs on life-and-death stakes), and there is no putting the genie back in the bottle. Again, if we can’t trust that a graphically depicted point-blank firearm execution will result in death, then we can’t trust anything and nothing matters at all. It’s bad enough that Coulson was brought back to life and Fury elaborately faked his death in Winter Soldier. I know coming back from the dead is a longstanding comic book trope, but it’s probably the shittiest thing about comics and it’s, if anything, even shittier here.
DO: Keep the action choreographer from last episode. The fights were much better than they had been before, if not movie-level. The show benefits from playing a little rougher. To that end…
DON’T: Keep futzing with the icers. I know the show’s for kids (sorta) but kids don’t give a shit about the good guys shooting bad guys. They don’t care that Star Wars doesn’t stop in its tracks to establish that Leia’s always sets her blaster to stun before taking a shot at a stormtrooper. They would not have tuned out on GI Joe if the heroes occasionally hit their target. Kids can play with Nerf guns themselves, they want to watch the grown-ups use the real things.
DON’T: Force a fistfight and a shootout into every episode. I know I just made a big deal about the action, but elaborate action sequences are simply not within the means of a weekly show like this. Besides, I was talking mainly about stakes, not quotas for violence. A better idea is to…
DO: Play up the sci-fi and espionage angles of the premise. Aim for more suspense than action. The most effective part of “Turn, Turn, Turn” was the The Thing vibe that came from the crew creeping around a base under siege, never sure who was actually the enemy. There was a long infiltration scene on The Americans this week that eschewed any depiction of violence whatsoever, but was as intense as any gunfight I’ve seen this year. That sort of thing falls well within AoS’s wheelhouse and budgetary limits, but for some reason past episodes apparently felt like such sequences weren’t complete until several armed guards ran at Ward and tried punching him instead of shooting or tazing or macing him.
DON’T: Do another 22 episode season. 13 is fine, really. It works for all the best shows, and a lot of them still end up with some filler in there. 13 hours is a long time.
DO: Keep HYDRA in the driver’s seat for a while. I know that the title of the show kind of indicates that the team can’t operate independently forever, but the heroes work better as underdogs. And again, operating without that safety net raises the stakes.
So that’s my plan for saving Marvel’s Agents Of Shield. I have another, more drastic one for if no renewal is coming and you want to burn the whole thing down, but I assume that’s not going to be the case. AoS is never going to become the crown jewel of the MCU, but I think moving in these directions would give the show a decent chance at nabbing the elusive brass ring of Not Sucking. YOU’RE WELCOME, Marvel/Disney/America.
*which features the best superhero action since The Avengers, or Spiderman 2 before it – I particularly like how so many of the combatants are not shy about bringing guns to a fistfight, in sharp contrast to the unfailingly polite guards and goons on AoS.