I’m beginning to think that it’s impossible for me to watch Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. with even the slightest bit of objectivity. The cumulative effect of spending the entire season pointing out problems and shortcomings has made it, I think, difficult to enjoy the show on its own merits. Strictly speaking, I should have really enjoyed what I saw in the latest episode, “End of the Beginning”. It hit a lot of the right notes, deepened the storyline in new and interesting ways, brought out fun new toys and generally acquitted itself quite well. So why am I not more excited?
Before getting into “End of the Beginning”, I just want to acknowledge that yes, I did miss a review for the March 11 episode “The Yes Men”. I’d actually been looking forward to that particular episode for a while, in that it brought a character from the films (Thor‘s Lady Sif) into the smaller-scale world of the TV show. I had been hoping that bringing in some movie characters and Asgardian effects would help further dispel the show’s inconsequential scale (which is something the show had been addressing fairly well during the second half of the season).
Instead what we got was an inconsequential trifle that was mostly notable for some messed-up sexual politics courtesy of the guest villain, Asgardian temptress (ugh) Lorelei. I have no clue why they didn’t just go with Amora the Enchantress, who has actual, bona-fide magical powers in addition to mystical feminine wiles. Regardless, Lorelei reduces the men on the team to blithering puppets and the high point of the episode is an action sequence on the Bus that switches from a sword fight between Sif and Lorelei in the interrogation room and a brutal brawl between May and Ward in the situation room.
Oh, and Skye completely deflates AC’s worries about the alien-derived serum that brought them both back to life, while it turns out that May is a mole of some kind. In fact, you could just tune in to the last five minutes to catch spying on Coulson and Skye and you’d pretty much have this episode’s only important take-away.
On to “End of the Beginning”. In keeping with my general policy of not spoiling the events of the episode until the next writeup, I’ll try to stay away from any major revelations. This may prove challenging, since the episode is pretty much wall to wall major revelations. If I didn’t know better, I would think that the showrunners are setting up a six-part season finale a la Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Bill Paxton and B.J. Britt are back as agents Garrett and Triplett, the only other folks in S.H.I.E.L.D. that we’ve been inclined to trust so far. They’re on the hunt for Deathlok and (fortunately for viewers) it only takes a moment for them to find him, or rather he busts into their safehouse to find them. After teasing the character for a month and a half, I’m happy to finally see J. August Richards having completed his transition from the well-intentioned Mike Peterson to the cold cyborg assassin Deathlok. While his look in this episode still leaves something to be desired, he’s definitely super-human looking, with dark red cybernetic armor, a glowing red eye, and a (ridiculously inaccurate) wrist-mounted rocket. I suspect that, based on a couple of subtle clues that included a shout-out to the character’s comics look, he’s still got a ways to go in his transformation.
Peterson’s metamorphosis into a killing machine has been the highlight of the show. We’ve seen every twist, turn and injury that has lead him to this point, and I really wish we’d seen more of him. Which is more than I can say for Skye. Thanks to wonderdrug GH-325 (harvested organically from only the finest mutilated alien corpses) Skye is already up and around, begging to be allowed to do something. As a reward for her being the Chosen One and having taken a couple of bullets, she finally gets upgraded to full S.H.I.E.L.D. agent status in front of the team and all of Coulson’s agent buddies – Grant, Triplett, Sitwell, Blake and Hand.
This meeting of S.H.I.E.L.D. middle-managers is a direct result of Coulson having had a brilliant idea: instead of waiting for the Clairvoyant to screw things up again, why not just go after him? It really is kind of amazing that a team of purported expert field agents took this long to realize that the best defense is a good offense. The entire pursuit plan is based on old files that S.H.I.E.L.D. just had lying around. The linchpin of the plan is Skye. (Of course she is.) The plan, however, doesn’t go fantastically, which leads to Sitwell and Hand bowing out of the final assault to take down Deathlok and the Clairvoyant. Sitwell leaves to go be in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, while Hand is really just more comfortable behind her big board at the Hub than in a field op situation.
From this point on, the twists come fast and furious, even catching me off-guard a few times. This is something that goes a long way toward mitigating the other problems I had with “End of the Beginning” (except Deathlok – Deathlok’s cool). Yes, we found out at the end of “The Yes Men” that May has not been playing straight with the team, but why? And under whose orders? And for how long?
Throughout the entire season, May has been by turns the most interesting and least consistent member of the team, her dour focus at different times evoking a deeply wounded soul, an emotionless machine, or a fierce mama bear to the team. The idea of having her as a turncoat, even if it is par for the course of her constantly changing character, conflicts with the glimpses S.H.I.E.L.D. has given us of May at her best. I’m hoping she’s a Life Model Decoy or something. The episode also seems to telegraph that Nick Fury is up to no good, and heavily implies that May’s treachery may have something to do with that.
Speaking of behaving out of character, both Coulson and Ward indulge in bad decisions and histrionics that conflict with the collected adherence to rules the two had demonstrated throughout the entire season. I can’t say exactly what it is they do so as not to spoil the second half of “The End of the Beginning”, but I will say that I find their actions a little unbelievable, even under intense pressure.
I really should have been much more pleased with this episode than I was. There were some fairly decent beats, the story held together despite some initial logical inconsistencies, and it didn’t come off as especially racist or sexist (which isn’t always the case on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.). At the end of the day, some of the characters don’t act quite like themselves, (except, obviously, Skye, who continues to be way more important than her actions would merit), but the episode gives us a full-on supervillain hunt and an answer to who or what the Clairvoyant is. What the Clairvoyant actually wants, and how the S.H.I.E.L.D. crew intends to find and stop him remains to be seen. It’s a blatant setup for the season finale, and a decent mythology episode despite some issues, so I am cautiously looking forward to what comes next. If nothing else, we’ll be seeing Bill Paxton and Patton Oswalt on the same show.