AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 4 is everything it’s been building up to.
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season four – what worked, what didn’t?
Another installment in what appears to be a bi-annual subcategory of this column. It’s where I take a look at a whole season of a television show and put in my two cents on what worked, what didn’t and where it could/should/possibly go. Last time I did this was with the end of the first season of Gotham. Seeing as how it has been almost two years I either needed to recover from that or I’ve had better targets for my snark/analysis (hint it’s the latter). As usual I will end the whole thing with a picture of Tanya Tate and Ella Darling.
Need I say it: SPOILERS FOR AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. SEASON 4! DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN SEASON 4 AND DON’T WANT SHIT SPOILED FOR YOU! FROM THIS POINT ON IT’S YOUR FAULT!
ALSO BRUCE WILLIS WAS A GHOST THE WHOLE TIME!!!
Anyway on to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. which will be, from this point on, AoS because I don’t feel like typing the full title every time.
It was good!
More like damn good! Hell, I’ll upgrade to freggin GREAT!
AoS has had a rough going; record setting opening ratings followed by a harsh nosedive. You could hear the trolls cackle gleefully as the viewership plunged; “Marvel finally fails, YES!” But what came after, for those who stuck with the show, was a slow and relentlessly steady climb upwards in quality. This is the way for just about any successful show, “the life cycle” if you will; the core idea is solid but it takes a while, at best a half season or even sometimes a full one, for a show to find its legs. This is because something that is made up of so many moving parts (both real and metaphorical) has to gel and a TV show has SO many moving parts. From emerging idea to execution to evolution a TV show is a living organism of sorts. All living organisms need to grow. Writers start writing for the actors, tone gets adjusted, actors get more experienced being their characters. Some things work, some things don’t, unexpected things add or subtract to the show. Once a show finds its legs and works out the kinks that’s when the real storytelling kicks in.
AoS follows this arc dutifully; finding its legs after the events of the Captain America – The Winter Soldier crossover, season one transitioned from a rote (if well produced) monster of the week procedural to good guys on the run. Season two was working the Inhumans into the MCU and having Skye become Daisy ‘Quake” Johnson. Season three first started experimenting with format. The season was broken into loose story arcs; Jemma on the alien planet and her rescue and the Inhuman hunter Lash as one arc . With that bleeding into the Hive arc; him coming to Earth and his control of the Inhumans and Hydra along with world threatening plans. Along the way characters got depth, relationships were forged, the dynamic of the S.H.I.E.L.D. team was set, and the world was expanded.
This is the lifecycle of a solid show. So much that usually the best material comes in the second half of season three and into season four, five and a good chunk of six. AoS is right along the curve because season four is where the really impressive work has been done. Having the time to get there is one factor but AoS has another contributor to its success in a way you might not expect; Its comic book roots.
WHAT WORKED – Pretty much everything. This makes for an unbalanced analysis but since the majority of the Gotham piece was what didn’t work I figure this evens out.
Ghost Rider – Do I really need to explain to the readers of a comic fan site why having Ghost Rider in AoS is ten different types of awesome? Especially since ol Flame-head actually ended fuckers like Ghost Rider does?
The trade paperback – For years now comic companies have structured their stories around (roughly) six to eight issue story arcs. A definite beginning, middle and end. Not necessarily an end to everything, just an end to a particular storyline; Batman discovers, hunts down, puts an end to a scheme the Penguin has hatched, Wolverine: Agent of Hydra, Archer and Armstrong find a circus of intelligent soviet bears, etc. This format was designed to 1 – make it easier for new readers to jump on without having to deal with too much backstory and 2 – so the story will fit into a trade paperback, get shelf space where comics hadn’t been in a long time (they used to be called bookstores, I think), and get a second round of sales/ deepen inventory from a format that runs on a month to month model. I didn’t read Dark Knight Returns or Watchmen when they came out in floppys. I read the collected “Graphic Novel” version years after. Probably much in the same way you did. AoS made a smart move in season three, loosely structuring their season around two/ two and a half story arcs with plot points established in a previous arc informing the following arc. For example when Coulson unleashes Lash on Hive’s inhuman stronghold after that thread had laid dormant for half a season.
Season four refined and improved that format breaking the season into three distinct arcs: Ghost Rider, LMD, and Agents of Hydra. The results were a tight, lean, focused season where the momentum never faltered. Tied together by the evil Macguffin book “The Darkholm” (edging out Catcher in the Rye) each arc ran about eight episodes which left little time for filler or distraction from the main story. No real stand alone eps to fill a week because there is only fifteen or sixteen hours worth of main story (No names but hello, The Flash). So things stayed focused and each arc was able to build to a satisfying conclusion without falter.
Another advantage to breaking the season into chunks was tonal shifts. Ghost Rider arc was a supernatural action-fest. LMD played more like a paranoid high tech thriller, and Agents of Hydra was a massive, fun “What if…” twist on the established world with strong (and timely) doses of political commentary. The season bookends Ghost Rider (already established thank you) and closes off the Aida/Darkholm plot thread. The separate arcs and tones show how versatile the core concept of AoS is because each arc worked in their own way and emphasized a different strength in characters and storytelling.
Character arcs – Every character gets to grow and develop in season four. Daisy finds closure, Coulson accepts his place as S.H.I.E.L.D. leader and tactician, Mac gets dimension and a backstory that will inform his future, and agent May is still a bad-ass. All LMD Mays were bad-asses too.
Coulson and Talbot – Gregg and Pasdar have fantastic chemistry. The frienemies together never fails to be mad entertaining. I hope the coma inducing head wound Talbot got doesn’t take him off the board. He’s too much fun to kill off.
Fitz/Simmons – These two characters have come the furthest; starting as a dorky joke/ tech babble exposition tool to fully realized characters whose coming together/breaking apart has become the beating heart of the series.The first part of the season had the time to establish Fitz and Simmons’ romantic relationship. Both were stronger and better because of their love for each other. It was a smart move on the writer’s part to give the couple time to be together. Too often a show keeps coming up with tricks to keep the couple we’re all shipping for apart. Or their pairing is all too brief. It’s a cheat to ratchet up tension. Having the couple together and settled at the beginning of the season serves to make their problems at the end more effective. Having them settled and planning on living together before shit goes south makes the evil Fitz and his actions in the framework, especially towards Gemma, much more severe. The Aida/Fitz/Simmons love triangle that started in LMD was subtle, starting with Fitz’s stammering attraction to Aida, but built up resulting in real Aida/Ophelia’s motivations at the end of the season. Which brings us to…
Iain De Caestecker, Elizabeth Henstridge, and Mallory Jansen – A lot of heavy lifting this season; big character arcs, a lot of emotional baggage, and in Iain’s case an evil twin persona. The Fitz/Simmons pair have sold the scary, heartbreaking, and occasionally bizarre turns in their relationship with great skill, empathy and connection. You believe every emotional beat they’ve hit regardless of being in a computer simulated universe, android love triangle, or spirit of vengeance motivating the plot.
Jansen has had the hardest work. As Aida she had to connect with the audience without displaying emotion. That’s hard enough but to tease out a romantic connection with Fitz during the course of the LMD arc while being unemotional was undoubtedly harder. Madam Hydra gave Jansen more tools to work with and she delivered with a chilly reptilian charisma. Madam Hydra brought out and manipulated the best/worst of Framework Fitz. Her last incarnation as a real girl has to lurch wildly through a host of emotions in a very short time. Jansen pulls the task off exceptionally. Infusing the main villain of the second half of the season with empathy and heart; ultimately we saw her as a real character regardless of her android origins. Her revenge fueled kill spree at the end didn’t even diminish her that much.
Redemption Arc – Redemption arcs suck. Usually when a show gets popular the bad guy finds some sort of redemption arc around season three or four. First excuse would be that the writers want to show nuance, not everything is black and white. But not really. Usually it’s because the actor doesn’t want to be typecast as the bad guy. That eventually leads to being killed by Keanu Reeves in a summer action flick or a painful career playing bad guys and nothing but. Usually they suck because the motivations are not in sync to the character, everything feels forced and there needs to be a willful invalidation of what the character is/was. This is true many times in comics also when villains turn good for awhile. AoS figured out a way to pull off a redemption arc without invalidating all the character work done on Agent Ward in previous seasons. The Agents of Hydra arc brings Ward back as a digital turncoat… but as a turncoat against Hydra. In other words a good guy. Part of the fun of this arc were the reactions by Daisy and Gemma to Ward’s mere presence. The arc also deftly built off of what the viewer knows of Ward and dangled the possibility of treachery in front of us. It is arguable that the redemption doesn’t count due to it not really being Ward but an algorithm. I disagree Ward was still his character with similar motivations (love of Daisy/Skye) it was the circumstance (Hydra taking over the world with the anti-Inhuman agenda) that brought about a different Ward. As put so eloquently in The Onion’s AV club review “Heroes are made not born”
The same could be said for the darkside Anti-redemption flip of Fitz’s character; we got the evil twin plot contrivance but actually working and making sense in context. Tying back to Ward’s redemption arc Fitz, once freed from the Framework and the toxic influence of his father, comes to the realization “I’m just like Ward!” These flips, depths and exploding of tropes actually show just how in control the show’s talent (both writers and actors) are.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK – Very little. In fact what I’ve brought up could be petty or forced but I had to bang on something.
The Russian – Considering the shading everyone else gets The Russian falls short in character. He’s not a moustache twirling evil (mostly) but his philosophy spouting seems forced. Plus his wrong conclusion about Coulson being the sinister influence behind all Inhumans and every other super powered being stops just short of being a cruel joke on the character. As timely as having a Russian giving orders to American politicians in a secret conspiracy is… the Russian/Superior hasn’t quite worked. Part of it maybe the actor Zach McGowan is just too damn good looking to be believable. On the plus side his head is still out there making trouble and new LMDs. Maybe this is a gateway to MODOK in the future.
Mac and YoYo – Henry Simmons and Natalia Cordova-Buckley have great chemistry so their romantic pairing makes sense. It just seemed they zig zagged around the storyboard till they hit the sheets. There didn’t seem to be a moment of ultimate connection to get them over the hump (so to speak). The last ep did a lot to establish the couple moving forward though.
Not enough Ghost Rider – Narratively there is the perfect amount. I just freggin dig Ghost Rider!
Final Opinion – Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. have hit their stride; writing, acting, the action, direction, production (which, to be fair, has always been stellar). The biggest problem moving forward is how do you top this season? Official word is that there is a season five so co-creators Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon have a lot to live up to. The possible introduction of S.W.O.R.D. (I mean, who else could it be) at the very end of the season and Coulson’s mystery deal with Ghost Rider is a great start. I can’t wait to find out.
Things tangentially related to the main column but I couldn’t fit in organically…
For those keeping score I gave up on Gotham after season two. There was minimal improvement and it kept breaking my heart. I don’t usually openly yell at TV shows like I did with Gotham.
John Hannah deserves special mention as Holden Radcliffe; conflicted, funny, desperate, duplicitous but never dull. Another character that’ll be missed.
When do we get a for sale replica of Mac’s Shotgun Axe?
There are very few exceptions to the life cycle of a TV show. One of the few I can think of is Rick and Morty which jumped from great to fucking brilliant pretty quick.
Thank GOD it wasn’t the Nic Cage Ghost Rider. I thought the passing of the mantle was perfectly executed. Another example of this season having their cake and eating it too.
Speaking of passing the mantle what an awesome way to get the flaming chain from the Inhuman JT James to Ghost Rider.
I liked Mace and the character really came into his own in the Hydra storyline. R.I.P.
Madam Hydra was tonally perfect for the show but would it have killed production to have Jansen in a green latex catsuit and thigh high boots just ONCE!
I wonder what Framework Bobbi and Lance were up to?
Clark Gregg was obviously enjoying the crap outta his Hydra soap theory.
The political jabs were just so perfect in the Hydra arc. Fitz after having Daisy beaten “… Nevertheless she persisted” (which also happens to be this week’s Supergirl episode title – Editor). Inhumans being used for fear mongering, Hydra’s fake news and alternative facts, and the return of Bakshi as Hydra’s main propaganda man.
It was great to have Trip back too. Especially when he was asking if he had hooked up with any of the Shield girls. B.J. Britt always brought a lot of charm to the proceedings.
I half expected Evil Fitz from the framework to use the person making machine and we would have to contend with a genuine Evil Twin plot node. Thankfully that didn’t happen.
I have a great idea for an Agents of Atlas story arc (yes, please – the Editor, again). Have your people call my people.
First S.H.I.E.L.D. Now S.W.O.R.D. Can A.R.M.O.R. be far behind?