The Walking Dead, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Arrow: Reviewing the Midseason Finales

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With the season over and no new episode of AMC's The Walking Dead to look forward to tomorrow night, a  lot of our regular commenters will go into hibernation. There isn't quite as much to talk about when it's just comics--and not comics, movies and TV--and during the holiday break, it's really just the print side of things that keeps on keeping on.

We rarely do reviews, but with a lot of people still lingering over the cliffhangers of last week's episodes of their favorite comics-to-television adaptations, we figured we'd take a look at the three of them together, to talk about how the showrunners (new, in the cases of both The Walking Dead and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) have fared in the first half of their new seasons, what to look forward to next and whether the midseason finales themselves lived up to the hype.

With a little luck, those commenters who usually take the last bit of December off will engage with us a bit here and on social media, letting us know whether they agree with our assessment or not.

The Walking Dead - B

the-governor-tankThis is the episode everyone expected to see last year, isn't it?

And that's meant in both the best and the worst way.

On the one hand, it certainly seems as though they're listening to the hardcore fans. A bombastic, definitive finale to the battle between The Governor's forces and Rick's survivors has shattered the peace at the prison, picked up the slow pace of Season Four and given resolution to a plot that many fans thought had gone on too long last year.

Still, it seems a little bit as though the whole first chunk of this season was just filler material. With few truly major developments for the survivors and now many of the new faces brought on at the end of last year killed between the flu, The Governor's invasion and everything in between, it seems likely we'll revert right back to the same core group of survivors--plus/minus the handful they could have picked up in the six-month "break" between seasons anyway--as Rick and company head out into the wider world.

Carol & Tyreese Walking DeadThe Tyreese/Carol storyline is the only thing really driving the narrative to come out of the first half of the season, and while The Governor's standalone episodes were dramatically satisfying, the speed with which he reverted right back to the Same Old Governor in the second one really called into question whether the first one was a narrative necessity. It almost feels as though they just said, "Well, fans are going to wonder where the heck we was, and everybody liked David Morrissey..."

Now, don't get me wrong: they've had some very strong standalone episodes this season, but in terms of the state of the show at midseason? It seems as though you could more or less paste the midseason finale over last year's season finale and in terms of the continuing storyline of the group, not lose a whole lot.

Going forward, it seems that without Glen Mazzara around, the plan is to stick somewhat closer to the comics. Whether that means last year's baffling season finale was his idea or not isn't clear, but certainly it looks from the midseason premiere previewas though we'll be seeing some pretty direct translations. Does that make the show somewhat more predictable? Perhaps, although the cast makeup is so much different at this point in the story from where it stood in the comics that it's hard to picture just how "identical" a lot of things will be.

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. - C

CLARK GREGG, J. AUGUST RICHARDSThe episode did a pretty solid job of embracing what the show does well, but it also exposed many of the show's weaknesses along the way.

S.H.I.E.L.D. has embraced the feel of a high-tech police procedural, kind of a (much-tonally-lighter) contemporary take on The X-Files, where there isn't much in the way of organizational resistance, so Scully and Mulder are expanded out to a whole team with a number of specialized fields represented. There's still the implication that there's a fairly large-scale cover-up going on by the bosses, but ultimately the fans are understood to be on board with S.H.I.E.L.D. because, whatever else they do, they also work with The Avengers and have Samuel L. Fury at the helm.

All of that played in with the finale, which was also filled with callbacks to both The Avengers and the show's pilot, which opened the season with all of Marvel's greatest expectations met by massive ratings.

J. AUGUST RICHARDSWhereas The Walking Dead has usually been a continuing drama and only occasionally breaks out with standalone episodes (last year's Andrea and Morgan episodes spring to mind, and of course this year we had The Governor), S.H.I.E.L.D. has been more or less a series made up of monster-of-the-week episodes, bridged by an overarching mythology. This one, then, was a special episode just by virtue of tying so many seemingly-disparate elements together under the aegis of Centipede and bringing back some characters seen in previous episodes.

That was all generally good stuff. The problem? As with so many other episodes so far this season, I couldn't tell you what most of the large ensemble was doing for most of the episode, and it doesn't matter because most of them are just attractive background noise, waiting around looking good until their particular skillset is needed. The cast still hasn't really found a chemistry that works for it and that's a must considering that we're supposed to understand that six lead characters are more or less equally important and that that "annoying" character you don't like has something to add, too.

The episode was very effective in its emotional manipulation, pulling on the heartstrings for Mike's son and delivering what would be a heck of a cliffhanger if it weren't so transparently without any real danger to the characters whose lives are "at risk." The seeds were planted along the way, too, from Skye and Mike talking about Ace to Coulson telling Peterson that he shouldn't be a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent if it means leaving his son behind.

All of that should have added up to an immensely satisfying episode but, as with many of this season's airings, the show just felt slightly underwhelming for a reason I still can't put my finger on. Four episodes in, I was ready to throw in the towel with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. At midseason, that's still more or less where my head is at, although I'm less passionate about it. With a little luck, the second half of this two-part "midseason event" will remind us all why we were so jazzed up after the pilot aired.

Arrow - A

Arrow Three GhostsBoth The Walking Dead and Arrow resolved their stories to some extent, giving the impression that the new year will bring a new direction for the series, whereas S.H.I.E.L.D. offers a continuation of what came before.

In the case of The Walking Dead, it's unclear just how that new direction will manifest itself; in the comics, I found the period immediately following the loss of the prison to be all over the map in terms of quality and entertainment value--but Arrow seems to have laid its premise out pretty clearly in the midseason finale.

With the League of Assassins waiting in the wings (and that's just a huge, explosive mess waiting to happen, with two of Ra's al Ghul's most wanted assassins in Starling at the moment), Arrow has taken on the superhero mask and is starting to own his "hero" persona. He's also going to be facing down Brother Blood (whom he knows about), Solomon Grundy (how could he possibly guess?) and Deathstroke (which may occur to him once Cyrus Gold rises from the apparently-dead, but right now remains a mystery).

Whether those two major groups of villains (the League of Assassins, and Deathstroke's group, including Brother Blood and Grundy) will ever collide with one another or not, that's enough to keep the team busy even if there wasn't any fallout from the midseason finale--including Roy's being dosed by Blood, Felicity's almost-relationship with Barry Allen and more.

Somehow, though, the two-part midseason finale managed to seed all of that (plus the origin of The Flash) without seeming shallow or stretched thin. The writers are pacing this show out perfectly and it's head, shoulders, quiver and hood better than it was this time last year. It's not just the most exciting comics show on TV right now, but the most fun I'm having on TV this season, full stop.