The winter finale episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was a nifty screen capture of that moment when a show passes beyond something merely watchable, and actually becomes necessary to watch. I started watching Agents last year because I really liked Agent Coulson and I thought it would be a sort of the Google Labs of MCU, a place where the weird, unmarketable characters could appear and future movies could be teased. Oh yeah, and Joss Whedon, I’d be lying if I didn’t ‘fess up to that basic misconception of the show.
SPOILERS aplenty to follow.
As we now know, what Agents provided last year was a surprisingly safe and predictable procedural crime drama. Like NCIS with super-powers. Although the connection with the rest of MCU firmed up towards the end of the season, I left more than a few episodes baffled why I was sticking around. The characters were flat, the dialogue ranged from obvious to grating, and I couldn’t quite shake the sense the show was spinning its wheels. After the Captain America tie-in the course of the show righted considerably. With the advent of SHIELD’s arch-nemesis HYDRA, the show was firmly back into the canon of MCU. In addition, SHIELD again demonstrated the importance of stakes in a show like this. The idea of a vast neo-nazi conspiracy looking to wipe out SHIELD entirely has an immediate narrative force that the super-mutant (or whatever) of the week doesn’t.
The first half of the second season has followed a steady upwards trend in that regard. HYDRA remains much more powerful than the remnants of SHIELD and thoroughly ruthless. A real sense of danger pervades the early episodes. That was combined with the crucial sub-plot of this season - the discovery that Agent Skye’s father is very much alive and keen on creating a reunion between them. We learned last season that something was up with Skye, but honestly the character was so poorly drawn, it was tough to know if the writers were serious about any of this or simply trying to manufacture interest in her story line.
Now we know.
In a nutshell, “What They Become” is a rescue story. Skye is kidnapped from the Bus and brought to a reunion with her dad, Cal. We’ve already learned that Cal’s wife and Skye’s mother had a preternaturally long life. Now the pieces of the puzzle fall into place - Cal attempts to have a reconciliation with Skye (who he calls Daisy) also provides him an opportunity for revenge on the major bad guy of this season, Whitehall. This ex-Nazi and current HYDRA leader vivisected Skye’s mother to steal her longevity. None of Cal’s plans actually pans out, because Cal is - to put it mildly - unstable. Oh yeah, one more complication, all of this drama is located near and within the ruins of an ancient city containing a chamber activated by an obelisk that only select individuals may hold. Cal intends for Skye/Daisy to enter the ruin and claim her destiny: a change that will separate her from the rest of the human race. Whew!
A lot of plotting but the pay-off of all of this is increased relevance for Agents of SHIELD as a show and a story. Skye does go into the ancient chamber and gets hit by some sort of teratogenic mist, causing her to glow and the villainess Raina to grow spines all over her face. This was about the point my Twitter feed started going crazy. Okay, it was going crazy the minute Cal called his daughter, Daisy, because apparently this was the last detail that clued in the extremely comic literate on Skye’s true identity. Apparently there is a super-powered hero called Daisy Miller, AKA Quake who appears in the SHIELD comic books.
This is all detail to me. I care about good television and for me, SHIELD has discovered a way to create just that. The key, I think, is to tap into the deep Marvel catalogue, flesh out the MCU universe with the best bits, while slowly focusing in on the characters of this show with the most resonant stories: Coulson, May, Grant, Fitzsimmons, Mockingbird and now, Skye. It doesn’t so much feel like the show creators demolished their old plans as much as they rediscovered where they were heading.
I do wish that they had clued in some of this last year, but I guess they were hamstrung by the second Captain America movie. Really, even a hint that they were heading towards the Inhumans instead of the strange science experiment of the week would have made last year more interesting.
Oh well. Better late than never.
Hopes for the rest of the season: I had a brief conversation with my friend Dan about what would push SHIELD from being a good show to a great show. He thought that the introduction of the Inhumans would be something new and exciting, a nearly unprecedented example of taking care of the backstory of a future movie in some more rational and entertaining way. I agree with that but I also wonder if the show couldn't go smaller to go bigger. So much happens in a single episode, it’s a little tough to find the true emotional center. A few shows back there was an episode that spend a great deal of time following Coulson and May dancing around a stuffy party. It was a lot of fun. It would be nice to have a novelty episode or two at this point to break up the rhythm of the show. T.R.A.C.K.S. from last year, with its recursive narrative was a step in that direction but honestly I’d love to see the show try a good-old X-Files/Fringe style gimmick. Or pull something from the Buffy hand-book and focus in on a secondary character (like the Koenig(s)!) for a story.