Thursday, April 30, 2015

TV Review: Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD (Episode 2.2.9)

Boy, Agents of SHIELD is one confounding show, am I right?  You know I am.  This week’s episode, “The Dirty Half-Dozen,” was probably my favorite episode to date, but man, they did it with all the elements that drove me crazy in season one.  Is that Godfather-style ironic reversal, or simple character growth, or was this just the very best that the show has ever been?  I don’t know.  Season two started so much better than almost all of season one, but then we came back from the Christmas break, and suddenly the show wasn’t an ensemble anymore, it was—again—the Agent Skye Show, with backup dancers courtesy of Phil Coulson and the crew at SHIELD.  

What’s weird is that this week they really made that formula work.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’ve enjoyed the ride.  Agent Ward is a terrific bad guy, the chemistry between Adrianne Palicki’s Bobby Morse and Nick Blood’s Lance Hunter is working, Kyle MacLachlan’s Mr. Hyde is alternately funny and terrifying, and the redesigned Deathlok looks like he actually belongs in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).  That stuff is all good.  We even managed to get a couple of—really good—episodes over the past few weeks that focused on Ming Na’s Melinda May and her tragic backstory.  

And yet… this is a show with a lot of characters and a lot of plotlines, but we only ever seem to focus on one aspect of one of them, with the other bits often relegated to the occasional character sketch.  That’s aggravating because the other bits are frequently the best, most compelling pieces that the show has to offer.

Chloe Bennet’s Skye is the show’s viewpoint character.  As the team’s newbie, we see SHIELD through her eyes.  That’s doubly true because her character is the one developing super-powers in a show that is without question about what it’s like to live in a universe where super-powered weirdness exists.  Moreover, a lot of the show’s other plotlines revolve around Skye’s struggles, even when Skye herself is not specifically at the center of the action.  For example, Elizabeth Henstridge’s Jemma Simmons and Ian DeCastecker’s Leo Fitz have the best relationship dynamic on the show, but it’s a dynamic that is informed largely by their respective reactions to Skye’s powers.  I love the relationship, I think it’s probably the best thing the show has going right now, and I specifically think DeCastecker’s Fitz has been the show’s most interesting, best-acted character over the past half-season.  However, I get annoyed at times that the issue always seems to come back to Skye and her personal problems.  It’s unnecessary, especially because Fitz has problems all on his own.

This week’s episode was great because the Fitz/Simmons dynamic was not about Skye, but also because Skye and her powers had other—also very interesting—things they needed to do.

We’ve talked about Skye and her powers before.  For one thing, I really enjoyed the way the show has brought out those powers—and made them seem terrifyingly self-destructive.  Bennet is a fine actress, but she’s a small girl with a slight frame, and she does scared/frightened/vulnerable a little more convincingly than she does “badass agent of SHIELD”.  Which is why the slow build to her powers has worked so well.  She’s been terrified of hurting herself, she’s been terrified of hurting others, and that’s left her stuck in what I’ll call Kun Lun (though it probably isn’t) when she knows damned well that she ought to be out helping her friends in the fight against Hydra.  This all came to a head last week when she spent a little father-daughter time with Mr. Hyde in Minnesota, only to get ambushed by both Hydra and SHIELD in her dad’s old office building.  That set up this week’s episode, in which our emerging heroine had to go rescue her inhuman friend/mentor, Luke Mitchell’s Lincoln, from the clutches of evil.

Awesome sequence.  The team is pinned down by Hydra agents, Skye and Brett Dalton’s Grant Ward have a little back and forth, and then Skye blasts Hydra with her newfound powers, leaving Ward to realize that the little girl who was once his student now possesses more than enough mojo to turn him into a corpse.  Ward and Simmons then go after Deathlok while Skye goes—alone—to rescue Lincoln, fighting her way through maybe a dozen Hydra agents on the way.  This leads to the best scene the show has ever had, an action sequence that’s better than anything the CW’s Arrow has ever put together, one that’s so good it rivals even the best parts of Marvel’s Daredevil.  It’s a combination tracking-shot/freeze-frame piece, half The Matrix, half Rocky, that starts over Skye’s shoulder but rotates as her perspective rotates, giving us a glimpse of what it’s like to take on a roomful of guys who come at you from all angles.  She’s ducking punches and rolling over tables, alternately shooting guys in the face or taking them down with close-quarters combat.  Especially because the shot stays close (yes, it’s a single shot), this really works.  It’s chaotic and scary precisely because we don’t know what’s next until it’s right on top of her.  The shot put me in the mind of a first-person shooter, and though I’m no gamer, I’m sure that this was intentional.

Yeah, I really, really liked that scene.  We’re almost two full seasons in, but I’m finally ready to buy Skye as an action hero.  As it turns out, you just had to sell her to me the right way.

This episode did a couple of other things well, though none were as transcendentally awesome as that one action sequence.  For one thing, we started to see the rehabilitation of Ward, which I thought I’d hate but which actually came off very well.  He’s still a cocky asshole, but he’s a cocky asshole who is fully self-aware.  Considering that he’s also an unrepentant murderer, this is a fine bit of storytelling.  Also, Jemma Simmons is in serious danger of falling to the Dark Side.  For those keeping score, she’s gone from saccharine nonentity to would be girlfriend to detached ex-friend to would be murderer of powered people and aliens to actual murderer of de facto prisoners of war—all in less than one full season of TV.  The fact that this has come off as well as it has is also very good storytelling.  Frankly, I don’t know how much longer she’s going to be in the hero column.

Tomorrow: Age of Ultron
So.  Best episode of Agents of SHIELD to date, and we have Avengers: Age of Ultron coming tomorrow.  For what it’s worth, I thought they did a very nice job setting up the movie with the last few minutes of the show.  I am a little annoyed at all of the spoilers in all of the trailers and all over the Internet, but I thought what they showed on TV last night wasn’t bad.  It was an excellent way to tie the show into the rest of the MCU, at least, and I don’t think it’s spoiling anything new to note that Loki’s scepter is still out there, and that a shitload of Ultron’s minions are coming.

Enjoy the movie, folks.  I know I will.

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