Thursday, March 5, 2015

TV Review: Agents of SHIELD returns!

I’ve enjoyed Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD this year.  In the first half of the season, the show made an effort to broaden its cast, introduce more and better action sequences, and scale down all the whiz-bang technology in order to make a few specific space-age gizmos really pop.  They brought in Adrianne Palicki to play Bobbi Morse (aka Mockingbird), de-emphasized Chloe Bennet’s Skye, and did something interesting—finally—with the show’s resident techno-nerds Leo Fitz and Jemma Simmons.  They did all of this while keeping the show’s best character, Ming Na’s Agent Melinda May, right in the middle of the action.  
The guys at Marvel do excellent design work.
ABC then ran an eight-part mini-season of Agent Carter over the mid-season break, and eh, I thought it was okay.  It was better than re-runs, but if it started well, the ending turned decidedly anticlimactic.  I was definitely ready for the real Agents of SHIELD to return this week.
*Warning – Mild Spoilers Below*

I liked but didn’t love the return.  Skye’s back at the center of the show, Agent May has been demoted to glorified back-up dancer for Phil Coulson, and if the Fitz/Simmons relationship is still somewhat interesting, it’s also lost a lot of steam.  Meanwhile, the show swept Hydra off the table in truly egregious fashion in order to make way for the new Inhumans storyline, but the execution was so bad that it harkened back to the worst aspects of Season One.  Three quarters of that season was wasted—unnecessarily—on setting up plotlines for Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  As a result, most of Season One felt like it was treading water, waiting for something to happen.
There's a movie coming, naturally.
I fear we’re about to get that again.  SHIELD is dividing against itself over “alien superpowers”, i.e. Inhumans, in obvious anticipation of the forthcoming Captain America: Civil War.  This is premature.  Sure, Civil War will need more superpowers, but as of this writing, we’ve barely got the third trailer for Age of Ultron.  What’s the rush?  Ultron is a major badass, and Hydra has been an interesting story element for more than a year now.  If it was up to me, I’d have preferred another half-season of Hydra and a subtle shift in character attitudes seen via secondary plotlines.  What we got instead was Hydra’s implosion, accompanied by a radical shift in attitudes based on one—admittedly awful—event.
The episode opened with the Inhuman version of Nightcrawler, immediately post-terragenesis.  We see actual Inhumans watching him as he teleports uncontrollably, and they even drop the term terragenesis in dialogue mid-scene.  Through this we learn that terragenesis is traumatic even for those who are fully prepared.  Jump-cut to Skye, who’s also just undergone terragenesis—accidentally, in her case—and we can see that she is in mid-freak-out.  She’s been quarantined by SHIELD, who are as yet unsure what’s happened to her or what its effects might be.
Hence the central story question of the season’s second half.
For those of you who are not total nerds, terragenesis is the process by which Inhumans gain their superpowers.  Inhumans are homo sapiens upon whose ancestors the alien Kree once experimented, leaving them with the latent genetic potential to become superhuman, though this requires exposure to the mysterious terragen mists.  Inhumans never know what changes the mists will trigger, though legend has it that the mists don’t actually change a person at all, they merely make that person’s outer form better reflect his/her inner nature.  Which is to say that a totally evil bastard might be transformed into a hideous beast with the power to kill at a glance.  Of course, no one wants to be transformed into a hideous beast, thus the inherent conflict of the change.  Our Inhuman Nightcrawler has gained the ability to teleport, but in the process he’s lost his eyes.  He looks hideous, and he might be blind.  As you can imagine, the experience has left him traumatized.
We knew already that Skye and her villainous counterpart Raina were Inhumans.  The season’s opening half teased this with the tagline “What will they become?”, and in fact, Raina first sought out Season One’s “clairvoyant” because she wanted to learn what would happen to her when she underwent terragenesis, so that she could (presumably) back out ahead of time if the results were likely to be god-awful.  As it happens, she was wise to be cautious.  Unfortunately, though, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has gone to great lengths to expressly rule out clairvoyance, and in any event, Raina’s curiosity has frequently outweighed her sense.  Post-terragenesis, her love of flowers has turned her into a kind of thorn-monster, presumably so that she can no longer hide her true danger from others.  It will be interesting to see if she also regains some of her outer beauty as well, so that she’s not just thorns but also beautiful to behold if difficult to safely touch.  If I were writing, that’s definitely the way I’d go with it.  It is an excellent reflection of what her character has been to date.
The problem with all of this is not Raina, it’s Skye.  We’ve known for months that “Skye” is actually Daisy Johnson, an agent of SHIELD who goes by the codename Quake in the comics.  Quake has the same powers as the X-Man Richter, who can cause earthquakes, and if she’s a fairly new, low-level character, she’s also a fine addition to the cast of SHIELD.  These guys are bit players by definition.  That’s the show’s overarching concept.  But then they play out Skye’s powers like they’re some kind of slow-reveal, and for forty-five minutes I’m wondering, “What’s the point of this?  You guys put out a press release back in December.  Everyone in America knows what’s really going on here.”
The point, unfortunately, is to give Jemma Simmons a chance to discover a newfound hatred of all things alien.  Which is totally out of character, as is the strongly-teased idea that Simmons would hurt Skye if she realized how dramatically terragenesis had changed her.  Why?  Because these two like each other, we’ve seen their shared affection grow for eighteen months, including periods of intense combat, and that sort of thing tends to produce a bond that’s much stronger than prejudice.  Ask anyone.  Moreover, Simmons has always displayed marked intellectual curiosity, especially about alien physiology, and while it may be natural for her to feel guilty about what happened to Tripp (he died in the same accident that transformed Raina and Skye), that’s not the way this comes off.  This comes off as blind, unreasoning anger, and it’s weird.  
Chloe Bennet is Skye/Daisy Johnson, aka Quake.
The angle could have worked, it just doesn’t.  Simmons and Tripp were close, but we never saw them get intimate.  If we’d seen that, maybe I could understand more of Simmons’s unreasoning anger.  Likewise, Coulson has always shown Skye blatant favoritism, even as he tasked Simmons to risk her life infiltrating Hydra.  Simmons could have been jealous, but instead, it turns out that she volunteered.  When she eventually returns, Skye is super-happy to see her back, and Simmons is super-happy to see Skye.  Finally, Skye’s former flame Ward nearly killed Simmons and her best friend Fitz, and afterwards everyone was understandably furious.  But for the good of the team, Skye eventually starts again working with Ward, and even beyond that, she works with him for her own personal purposes as well.  Simmons should have been mad as Hell about that, but she wasn’t.  Instead, she was understanding.  It was Fitz who was mad, but now he’s being reasonable.  And now—suddenly—Simmons wants to KILL all things alien.  
Everything.  EVERY alien thing EVERYWHERE.
No, that doesn’t wash.
The team starts coming apart at the seams, but this is handled well.  Skye has her first serious freak-out, we see her shaking stuff, and it comes off beautifully.  In fact, Chloe Bennet is excellent throughout the episode.  As much as some of the Skye-stuff annoys me, it’s not Ms. Bennet’s fault.  It’s the way the other characters react to her that occasionally drives me bananas.  Bennet herself is totally believable as a scared girl who thought she’d finally gotten her life under control, only to see it now slipping away.  There are layers, but she plays them off.  
Then we get Fitz, and he’s discovered Skye’s secret—frankly, it’s an open question if even Skye had realized that she had a secret—and suddenly we get the night’s best moment, as it turns out that Fitz is on Skye’s side, he knows what it’s like to have your whole life fall apart through no fault of your own.  The show ends on a strong note, but it’s a note built wholly around a heel-turn that doesn’t quite come off.  Everyone’s upset—okay, I get that—but we’re supposed to believe they’re going to start actually murdering each other, and that’s problematic in the extreme.  These guys just fought Hydra—and won!—but they can’t sit down over coffee and figure out the rest?  PTSD aside, that makes absolutely no sense, and though I could buy PTSD—would actually love to see the show go into the issues surrounding it—they’ve not shown the first symptoms, and it’s a slow build.  PTSD doesn’t strike like the measles.  It’s a process.
The good news is that it looks like a resolution is coming.  Scenes for next week’s episode get Skye’s secret out into the open—thank God—but I can’t imagine that this will lead to anything besides a rocky breakup, especially now that Hydra’s out of the way for a while.  The Inhumans are unlikely to attack, so this leaves internal strife as the most logical way forward.  Moreover, if we want Skye to eventually go with the Inhumans and learn about her powers, it follows that SHIELD has to fall apart, or else why would she go?  SHIELD is the only family Skye has ever known, and half the show has been devoted to her quest to find her family.  She won’t leave now without a damn good reason.  
For better or worse, I expect the next few episodes will establish that reason, and then we’ll get SHIELD vs. the Inhumans.  That’s not bad, necessarily, but it is quite an abrupt shift, especially considering that Hydra was this monolithically large and imposing structure less than two full episodes ago.  With Civil War still a goodly ways off, I don’t understand why we’re rushing now to establish the backbone elements of the storyline.

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