After an underwhelming premiere, Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has improved every week--but it's done so in steps so small, it was hard to imagine the show having the kind of dramatic turnaround that made Arrow a must-watch show after a shaky start last year.
Reviewers and casual fans alike found themselves saying--over and over--"it was better than last week's, but I don't know if that's enough to keep me watching." And when, last week, the show took a week off just a month into the new season, that downtime without S.H.I.E.L.D. gave way to a handful of columns about "the problem with S.H.I.E.L.D.," most of which were variations on the same themes. Since we've touched on the problems that the show has, and offered some simple ideas for what we would do to help, we won't discuss that here.
Especially because this week, the show stopped with the baby steps and took a big leap forward.
The latest episode, "F.Z.Z.T.," available on Amazon and other streaming services now, was the kind of improvement I frankly didn't think the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. showrunners had in them--and gave me hope that the series has turned a corner.
Probably the most important thing they did--and arguably the most important item on our list of five things that the show needed to do in order to get people engaged and excited, which we ran last night just before the episode aired--was to raise the stakes in the episode.
Now, don't get me wrong: every episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been about "the world will be in danger if we don't [insert verb here]." But since the world was never really going to end, you need something besides that to give the episode real gravity.
For instance, the prospect of Simmons dying. While most anybody watching knew that it would never happen, they had a few moments of genuine hopelessness, played pretty well by all involved, and the fact that it's a Joss Whedon-produced show gives you just enough doubt about your assumptions that a safe, mild show like S.H.I.E.L.D. would never kill one of its leads--a pretty girl lead, yet!--this early into the first season.
That they built up an emotional connection, too, with Diaz, the firefighter who died after having his heart-to-heart with Coulson, making the victim something more than just an object used to guide S.H.I.E.L.D. from place to place. That's the kind of thing you expect from shows like The X-Files or Bones, where reviewers use the word "smart," not from a persistent underachiever like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had been so far this year.
They also gave us that credits sequence, in which Coulson is none-too-subtlely threatened with losing the team. Going back once again to The X-Files, that's what they did to punish Mulder and Scully when they got too aggressive, went too far over the line or whatever: they took away the X-Files. Unfortunately, it became a crutch that was done too often and had little impact by the end of the show, but if Coulson were to lose control of his team--say, as part of the internal power struggle between Alexander Pierce and Nick Fury--that would be something that would give a short-term arc to go with the long-term uber-arc of Coulson's resurrection and create an internal conflict that's been sorely missing in the season so far.
You know--as long as they only tried it once.
The character interactions last night were mostly spot-on; Agent Ward finally found a direction for himself and, in doing so, felt like he had some semblance of a personality. The notion that the emotionally closed-off Ward is actually a Papa Bear protecting the rest of the team might seem like a stretch--but it's a welcome change to the aloofness he's displayed so far this season.
The heart of the episode were Fitz and Simmons, who up until now have primarily been the weak point in the cast--that is, the weak point in a cast that's generally accepted to be pretty weak across the board. Here, though, they were finally given something to do besides "be cute," and it transformed them from what they had been (a comic-relief nuisance) to what we had been told all along they were supposed to be (emotional core of the team). Elizabeth Henstridge, who plays Jemma Simmons, was asked to carry much of the episode and managed to carry it off--which is a sentence that, gun to my head, I would have sworn I'd never type.
Clark Gregg, too, had some of his best work here, especially in the scene with Diaz, the dying firefighter. Couple that with the expansion of the Coulson mystery into something the characters are aware of and care about, rather than just something the audience is waiting to see unfold, and you've got a strong episode for him, and one that does something the show has been bad with so far, which is building an overarching narrative in a convincing way.
That left Melinda May and Skye a bit out to dry this week, seeming a little extraneous, but the reality is, they've both had the lion's share of the best non-Coulson material in the show so far and when you've got a large cast, there's going to be some weeks when not everybody gets to shine.
Lastly, the show did a great job of incorporating The Avengers and, by extension, the broader Marvel Universe without beating it into the ground. In previous episodes, the references to The Avengers have always felt clumsy, dropped into dialogue the way 9/11 references used to pepper shows like CSI a decade ago. Somehow, even though this massive event had rocked the world and everyone was talking about it daily, it always felt artificial when forced into a TV series.
This week's episode, by actually taking on The Avengers headlong instead of trying to cleverly imply that the film happened with some offhand reference that feels forced, managed to feel like it belonged in the Marvel Universe. Couple that with the Coulson stuff, and this felt like the first episode that really did come after The Avengers in a meaningful way.
Whether this week is a sign of things to come or a one-off is obviously impossible to say right now...but a guy can hope, can't he?