Wednesday, May 13, 2015

TV Recap: AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D - Season 2 Episode 21-22: "S.O.S."


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Guys... I've got feelings. So many feelings.

AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D apparently did well enough in its second season to earn a third, but I feel like the news of just how good the show has gotten (within the realm of a medium-camp network sci-fi/action series, at least) has been a phenomenon centered mainly around TV writers and Marvel die-hards than general tube-junkies. My hope is that, now that Season 2 has concluded, the binge-watch set will discover it - and not just because the reveal of... the stuff I'm still electing to keep for after the jump has made it mandatory viewing (or, at least, mandatory wiki-ing) for Marvel Cinematic Universe completists.

No, I'd rather people "discover" that AGENTS got really good in Season 2 because it's now a damn solid bit of television; with memorable characters and a twisty "anything goes yet somehow adheres to an internal logic" ongoing story that in some ways makes better use of being in The Marvel Cinematic Universe than the more prestigious movies do - where AGE OF ULTRON occasionally seemed to be quietly resentful of its brief detours for people/places set to pay off in future movies, S.H.I.E.L.D seems to relish the prospect of pit stops involving aliens, Asgardians, HYDRA, mad scientists etc. Season 2 was full of moments where the series (as personified by Clark Gregg's Director Coulson) seemed barely able to contain shouting <b>"Look at all this STUFF we get to play with!!!"</b>

And yet, it also managed (with a few exceptions) to be a more serious, dramatic series than anything with so much built-in silliness really had any right to be; ironically excelling in many key areas where folks have (rightly) found the movie side of the Marvel experiment lacking: AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D runs on complex character dynamics, features an embarassment of riches in terms of diversity and strong female characters in particular and has the television-specific luxury of being able to chill out and let a character-arc breathe across multiple episodes. Yes, fine, DAREDEVIL (and Vincent D'onofrio's Kingpin in particular) was "the story" of Marvel on TV this year, but AGENTS turning itself into something vital deserves to be part of that discussion as well.

Anyway, onto "S.O.S." and SPOILERS...

Among Season 2's many impressive features has been the way it's handled huge changes to characters and relationships (by my count the "status quo" was upended at least 3-5 times over 22 episodes) mainly by stating "this is what's going on now" and relying on the actors to sell it. AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D is an FX-heavy production, but when it came to "shit just got real" moments it was all about delivery. Nowhere was that more apparent than the way it hid its cards on who/what would actually be the big existential threat of the finale - largely by relying on audiences to assume "No they wouldn't" in regards to Jaiying, aka "Skye's Mom."

For as long as we knew she existed, Jaiying was presented as Season 2's martyr-in-chief: Her (non)-existence as a tangible person finally made Skye's "little girl lost" persona stick, helped us understand Cal/Mr. Hyde as well as could be expected, and our main source for regarding first-half fake-out villain Daniel Whitehall as evil incarnate was the knowledge that he'd butchered her alive to attain immortality. If Skye (aka "Daisy") is AGENTS' " chosen one/redeemer figure, then Jaiying has effectively been its Virgin Mary.

So to have her turn out to not only be the season's surprise Big Bad but in many ways the reigning Big Bad of the series' "lore" so far (in as much as she ordered Cal to become Mr. Hyde, making her the leader of the "Two Monsters" whom Skye's faked-orphan backstory was designed to protect her from) and have it both make since and feel right over the course of only three episodes (this being a two-parter) is good writing and good acting, no magic trick - though the reveal that she's not "immortal" but actually has to drain life from others (it used to be done through elective self-sacrifice by Inhuman elders, now she's more-or-less a vampire) feels like it maybe could've been tipped a bit earlier.

It also serves to make her (and to a lesser extent Cal) two of the darkest villains Marvel has concocted of late: here's two decent, damn near saint-like people (the protector/nurturer of an entire culture and a Doctors Without Borders volunteer for crissakes!) who have something unimaginably evil done to them entirely unjustly. Near-miraculously, he manages to bring her back from the brink... but the damage is done, the experience has broken her mind/soul permanently and she's evil now - strongarming him into becoming evil, too. And there's no fixing her, no coming back, no switch to flip back to "good" because some scars don't heal. No justice, no cosmic balancing-out, no way out but for Cal having been . That's fucking DARK.

The rest of the show? Pretty good, too.

The Inhumans are getting introduced here, 4-5 years in advance of their self-titled movie, because Marvel needs them to replace The X-Men and that's a lot of audience-familiarity time to make up. <i>"S.O.S."</i> is, clearly, meant to serve as a test-run for how that's going to work: It's straight-up, no-bullshit an X-Men story without the X-Men; with a small community of Mutants Inhumans (fully-revealed, Jaiying's sanctuary-dwellers are more like the Morlocks than anything else) are tricked/pushed into declaring war on humans by a pathologically-paranoid leader, resulting in a showdown between the powered-people and human authority-figures while a "good" Mutant Inhuman with a personal connection to the leader (Skye) tries to stop the fighting.

Does it work? Hell yeah. Everything involving the raid on The Icarus was awesome (good fight scenes, good action, good tension, nice mix of powers and characters) in the exact same way that the best X-Men versions of the same scenario are. It's a bummer that Wolverine etc won't even scrap with The Avengers, and I think it's pretty lame that Marvel is poised to send the comic-book X-Men packing just to fuck with Fox, sure. But if the question is "can Marvel Studios tell good 'superheroes-as-metaphor-for-racial/cultural-discord' stories using The Inhumans?" then the answer is yes - especially since, if this stuff works within AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D's modest means, it'll likely look gangbusters up onscreen.

For a minute there I wasn't fully sold on the turnaround with Cal, and I still sort-of wish his full "Mr. Hyde" form was a little more Hulk and a little less Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer. But Season 2 MVP Kyle MacLachlan is just so goddamn fun in the part he sold it anyway and (intentional or not) the low-tech "strong monster guy" staging had pleasing echoes of the old HULK show (holy shit, why haven't they found an excuse for Lou Ferrigno to be on this show yet!?) I'm not sure that Coulson being able to talk him down into switching sides for Skye's sake makes a lot of sense, but MacLachlan's big hyperemotive constant-breakdown overracting sold it - oldschool Universal Monsters "wailing/gnashing bad guy" stuff. Shit, he's good enough that his "happy" ending even feels earned... I let out an audible "Aw, geez..." when he dropped the "magical place" line, revealing what had to be done to "free" him. Ouch.

Another "one take" fight scene for Skye? Okay, cool. Bennett is more convincing using guns or her whooshy earthquake powers than the hand-to-hand stuff, but it's fun and keeps us rooting for the character. The big final confrontation between Skye, Jaiying and Cal forced her to act against two of the most capable performers on the show (playing characters who're allowed to be much more broadly-interpreted) and she held her own admirably. In a way, "coming out" as Inhuman has made Skye more relatable - Bennett (and the writers, to be fair) never quite found the comfortable spot between "unsure neophyte" and "scary-efficient computer genius;" but having been reborn as a Marvel Speciality "superhero as metaphor for young-person in life-transition?" NOW she makes a lot more sense.

As ever, going back to a Ward subplot is where the episode suffered. There's too much going on with too high of stakes for Bobbi/Hunter vs Ward/Agent 33 to be worth pulling our focus, and it's painfully obvious that this is only happening to set up the MOCKINGBIRD spin-off that's no longer going forward. Granted, the meat of it was solid (great double turnaround on the torture stuff, clever subversion of the "girl tied to a chair" routine, LOVED May's nasty-as-hell gotcha to 33) and it's not like the Marvel movies don't frequently overcome distracting detours into setups for other things, but it felt somewhat pointless and having him elect himself leader of "HYDRA, but as a street gang" is not going to be enough to fix Ward's not-in-any-way-interesting problem.

And hey, how about finally letting Mack do some action stuff? Him, Coulson and Fitz's fight with Gordon was a great action beat in a finale that had many.

And then there's Coulson's story...

The other thing <i>"S.O.S"</i> crystallizes about why Season 2 worked is the way the series finally settled in to having it's cake and eating it regarding how it "works" in its own universe. The season had a lot of mysteries, but really only one question: Is Coulson, now Director of S.H.I.E.L.D 2.0 by Nick Fury's hand, actually a good leader? Even before Gonzales and "real S.H.I.E.L.D" turned up, this was the question because of the Alien Writing situation.

The logical/rational answer, of course, is NO he absolutely isn't. He's overly emotional, he plays favorites and follows personal biases/hangups, he's inquisitive about "cool" or nostalgiac things to the point of recklessness and he wants to run a paramilitary/spy organization like a family camping trip. He's the last person who should be the guiding hand of a TV procedural drama, wherein problems are invariably solved through logic and rationality. But other procedural dramas aren't set in the Marvel Universe, and Coulson's eccentricities generally make perfect sense if you're living in a comic-book. Which everyone on this show basically is. Coulson's repeating-arc throughout Season 2 has been about his Fanboy Logic ("Super-powers are awesome!" "We need to chase down this alien stuff!" "Let's upgrade Deathlok!" "Maybe we can flip this villain to work for us!"), framed as pure and noble, coming up against "real" logic... and coming out on top. Pandering? Little bit, but it works.

As such, it makes "Marvel sense" for him to come out of all this minus an arm (no, I don't think they'll have him commission one from Iron Man) but otherwise still in charge of both S.H.I.E.L.D and a new initiative to draft a "covert" version of The Avengers from the world's population of powered-people (one imagines that this is where a lot of Season 3's story is going to come from, in tandem with Jaiying's counterfeit Terrigen material being dispersed into the ocean.) Curious to see who/what they pull from the canon to fill those slots - I imagine "newly-activated Inhuman" will be the shortform origin for some, but I don't think we'll hear from The Inhumans-plural again until things get closer to the movie. Big question, of course, becomes is THIS part of where CIVIL WAR will come from?

As for that final stinger? Eh... what can be said other than, "we'll see?" This makes two seasons in a row where they've seemingly taken unique pleasure in building up Fitz/Simmons shippers only to kick them in the gut at the last second. I doubt getting absorbed by the big stone whatsit has "killed" Simmons, and while I'm sure it's going to be the popular fan-theory... NO, I'd say there's a zero-percent chance that it's going to spit her back out as Captain Marvel. More likely? If The Inhumans were afraid of that thing, I could see her emerging with the ability (directly or indirectly) to hurt Inhumans specifically (maybe by neutralizing their powers?), maybe dredging back up her anti-superhuman leanings from earlier in the season? That would be an interesting wrinkle.

Overall, a great end to a good Season. Here's to hoping they can maintain this momentum heading into Season 3.


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