The End of the Beginning of the End: A Review and Reflection on the First Season of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Posted: May 14, 2014 in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Editorial, Reviews, TV
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If you want to read my review of Episode 22, the season finale, click here.

With the end of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. tonight, the fact that the show has been renewed for a second season may come as a surprise to those who gave up on the show early on. There are some very good reasons for this renewal, so for those of you that stopped watching, and anyone else who is interested, I’m going to address some of the issues the show suffered from in the beginning, and how they have been dealt with in the interim. There will be spoilers ahead – click through if you’d like to read more.

<<Spoiler Alert: This article will be addressing events and issues that cover several episodes throughout the whole of Season One of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Read on if you dare.>>

The season suffered from a very uneven beginning third (where it lost most of its viewership), started to show an uptick in quality right at the mid-season finale, and experienced another uptick with Episode 116, “End of the Beginning.” Ending on an up-note means that the series effectively has been on a constant upward track for five months now, and most of the complaints viewers had early on have been answered:

Complaint #1: Skye is a Mary Sue

How true this is – Mary Sue Poots, to be exact, something we found out in episode 119, “The Only Light in the Darkness.” Skye was presented as the POV character early on, and was often force-fed down viewers’ throats as the character we were supposed to empathize with. This was a mistake – most viewers of the show started as fans of the movies, and thus had a pre-built empathy for Coulson. While Tancharoen and Whedon kept pushing Skye storylines, she got pushed more and more to the sidelines as the season progressed, and characters like Coulson and May fell into natural leadership roles. One of the closing scenes from tonight’s season finale indicates that she’ll figure highly in the new season, but this was inevitable given that we had already found out that she was an 0-8-4 of alien origin. I was a bit of a Skye-hater to begin with, but have come around to almost-kinda-sorta like her. Don’t tell anyone.

Complaint #2: No one is ever in real danger

Boy did this ever change! While a lot of the early missions were cakewalks, the internal dissension, destruction, and eventual rebuilding of the team raised the stakes considerably. Fans of Jed’s brother Joss won’t ever forget Wash – and while we don’t want bad things to happen to characters we love, we know it can and does. Now, with Ward turning out to be a HYDRA double-agent from the beginning, May spying on Coulson and hiding information from him, Fitz’s future well-being still up in the air (Simmons saying, “He’s alive” does not encourage me), and Skye looking like she’s going to be wishing she really was an orphan very soon, the team has had to reevaluate itself on every level, and it hasn’t emerged unscathed. Ward and Fitz are the most obvious losses (although don’t write either of them off just yet), but they’ve all been changed by what they’ve been through. Counter-espionage and anti-terrorism activities should be dangerous, and the writers seemed to get this right around the mid-season finale.

Complaint #3: S.H.I.E.L.D. is pretty stupid

There were several occasions throughout the season when the obvious was simply not obvious enough for various S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. Ward’s eagerness to transport Garrett didn’t set off any alarm bells with Agent Hand; Agent Koenig failed to ask Ward directly if he was a member of HYDRA; S.H.I.E.L.D. sent in male agents to deal with an Asgardian who could only ensorcell – you guessed it – men; the list goes on and on. It would be easy to blame this blatant stupidity on the fact that HYDRA was thoroughly integrated on every level of S.H.I.E.L.D. – especially the top leadership – but that would be a cheap and easy way out. Another possibility is that S.H.I.E.L.D., as an agency, was simply too large, its bureaucratic apparatus weighing it down and leading to poor communications and decision making. My personal take on this is that it was actually sloppy writing – too much reliance on deus ex machina effects to steer the narrative in the direction the writers wanted, and too much hope on their parts that the viewers would be dumb enough not to notice. On a positive note, these lapses in intelligent decision making have decreased considerably since the dissolution of S.H.I.E.L.D. meaning that, even if the real reason is the one I’ve suggested, the writers can still make the combination HYDRA/bureaucracy claim if they want.

Complaint #4: The show can’t decide what it wants to be

Early episodes moved back and forth between wanting to be a spy show, a super-hero show, a buddy-cop show, and other genres. However, the second half of the season, and especially the “Uprising” arc, have shown that the show is best played as a slightly camp, slightly tongue-in-cheek show, where ordinary people need to find ways to deal with extraordinary situations on a weekly basis. It can slip into spy mode, super-hero mode, even X-Files mode, just so long as the characters never take themselves too seriously. The season finale was particularly successful at walking this line, and bodes well going into the new season.

Complaint #5: The pacing is muddled, and nothing makes sense – who is Centipede, anyway?

This issue was largely a product of being an integrated part of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe), but being a subservient part. The big HYDRA reveal was being saved for the cinematic release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, so Tancharoen and Whedon largely had their hands tied. The early tie-in, with the last Thor movie, consisted primarily of name dropping and a clean-up detail at Oxford University. Once Cap 2 hit theaters, however, they were able to bring all of the big guns on-board. The fact that even the earliest episodes tie in with the HYDRA story-line, show that they had this planned from the beginning; it was with respect for the box office bottom-line that they had to hold their cards close to the chest. Peterson, the out-of-control super-powered single father is there right at the end of the season finale; the exploding eyes introduced in “Eye Spy” are a key Centipede/HYDRA tool; Ward’s interest in Skye, and attempt to disarm May (easily the most dangerous agent on the team) by starting a relationship with her, speak to his HYDRA roots; Garrett’s opportune appearances and readiness to help storm T.A.H.I.T.I.; Raina’s research on the super-serum; all of it ties together and makes much more sense when seen in light of the total season story-arc. In fact, there were very few one-off episodes that didn’t have some relation directly to the overarching story (perhaps “FZZT” and one or two others). As far as network television series go, Agents has turned out to be one of the more complex and cohesive – but it took a dedication to sticking through some rather mediocre outings early in the season to get to this point.

There are other complaints people have had about the show from time to time (Ward is too wooden, the humor falls flat, etc.), but these are the top five I’ve heard the most. If you have any more, feel free to add them in the comments section below, and we can discuss whether or not the writers have dealt with them yet, and how they might if they haven’t.

Steve’s Grade: Episodes 1-9: C+/B-; Episodes 10-15: B/B+; Episodes 16-22: A-/A
The season got progressively better, a wiser choice than getting progressively worse. Fans who stuck through the slow beginning were rewarded – in typical Whedon fashion, although this is Jed and his partner Maurissa Tancharoen, not brother Joss. The good news for those that left the fold early: PVR, repeats, and on-demand are all options that will allow you to catch up and enjoy this series before Season Two begins in the fall.

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