Let’s get one thing out of the way before diving into a critique of this week’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: if ever someone deserved to be on a Marvel Cinematic Universe TV show, even in a bit part, it’s Patton Oswalt.
It’s total fan-service, sure, but I’m glad he’s made it to the party. From the beginning, S.H.I.E.L.D. has lacked the spark and wit of the feature films. Still, the welcome levity he brings is coming in at a very strange time in the series. Things just got really heavy in the last episode, and the hits just keep coming in this week’s installment, “Providence”. (Some big spoilers ahead, for those who haven’t yet seen Captain America: The Winter Soldier, not to mention last week’s episode.)
Last week, S.H.I.E.L.D. as an organization, has been torn to pieces by the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The organization had been overrun by Hydra sleeper agents for years, including Coulson’s buddy Garret (played by Bill Paxton) who was revealed to have been acting as the Clairvoyant all season long. May copped to having been spying on Coulson on Nick Fury’s behalf the whole time. Fury, incidentally, manipulated Coulson into basically creating a team of babysitters to oversee his recovery from the Tahiti project. Oh, and stalwart, boring Agent Grant Ward has been Garret’s evil protege the whole time. Ward quickly cemented his bad guy bona fides by murdering an impressive number of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, including the actually-not-in-any-way-evil Victoria Hand.
Last week was pretty eventful, in other words. And took watching S.H.I.E.L.D. from being a chore to being something of a pleasure.
At the outset of this week’s episode, things are bad for the team and for the organization at large. Fury is, as far as anyone outside of Captain America, Black Widow and Maria Hill are concerned, is dead. S.H.I.E.L.D. has been branded a terrorist organization and is about to receive a visit from a military peacekeeping force that could just as easily bomb everyone into oblivion as arrest them. The team is flying a patched-together bus, running low on fuel, and nearly bereft of friends or resources.
Now this is a show I want to watch. As much as it was fun to gape at all the whiz-bang toys that the team deployed (almost as infuriating as it was to watch them use their unlimited budget to visit cartoon versions of other countries), their access to unlimited money and information made everything just a little too easy. It’s always fun to root for the underdog. Rooting for big government? Not so much. While the show got the “group of disparate, yet oddly complimentary people with issues” part of the Whedon formula right, they weren’t quite scrappy outsiders surviving against the odds, which is the other crucial element of a good Mutant Enemy show, or any serialized action-drama, really.
To avoid most spoilers, I’ll leave the second half of “Providence”, but I must give praise to a number of things in this episode that kept me glued to my seat. For starters, the tension is incredibly thick. Whereas for most of the season, the story felt like it lacked consequence, the team’s every moment is now desperate and fraught with danger. The lack of resources or backup lends something as pedestrian as getting from one place to another (usually accomplished with a quick aerial shot of the Bus and a scene wipe) a welcome dose of suspense. More than that, though, the team’s bond of trust has been broken – Coulson doesn’t trust May, May believes Coulson might be under Hydra influence, and the rest of the team is divided on whether or not he’s still fit to lead.
Clark Gregg turns in his best performance yet, across the entire franchise including the films. Throughout the series, we’ve seen his veneer of jovial unflappability begin to slip, most notably after he discovered the secret of his resurrection, but we’ve never seen him have a crisis of faith. In “Providence”, Coulson is a man desperate to hang onto the last shreds of his purpose as everything he’d known crumbles around him. His unshakable, unreasonable belief that the presumed-dead Nick Fury is somehow communicating with him adds a level of poignancy to the team’s plight.
Adding to the chaos is the fact that not only is the team completely unaware of Ward’s betrayal (though he didn’t so much turn to the Dark Side as return to it), but that Skye’s burgeoning feelings for him lead her to call him up and basically give the Clairvoyant their exact whereabouts. Which, obviously, will not end well. While viewers commenting on the show’s Facebook page aren’t entirely happy with Ward outing himself as a gleefully amoral Hydra agent, I am nothing but thrilled. As a character, Grant Ward never made much sense to me. He was hyper-competent, but otherwise so milquetoast it hurt. Early on I described him as not knowing whether he wanted to be Captain America or Wolverine. With the gloves off, it turns out he’s also driven, brutal, and just a tiny bit sadistic. In a single moment last week, the show managed to turn its most boring character into its most engaging.
Finally, it seems that the Clairvoyant/Garrett is gearing up for his endgame, bringing back the lovely and dangerous Reina (Ruth Negga) and slimeball Ian Quinn (David Conrad), as well as some nasty new toys, courtesy of Coulson’s diligence throughout the season. I hope that these callbacks end up having some kind of significance beyond proving to viewers that the showrunners have known what they were up to all along. Even if they don’t, at least Paxton is having a grand old time chewing the scenery as the flippantly evil mastermind behind S.H.I.E.L.D.’s troubles.
If we’re getting callbacks to prior episodes, by the way, I’d really like to see Akela Amador, Mike Peterson/Deathlok, Reina, and new team member – and Gemma Simmons’ crush object – Antoine Triplett in a room together. This just to set the record for most people of color on screen at once on a Joss-Whedon-produced television show. No other reason, really.
I can’t say for certain if Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a great show. I probably won’t be able to make that call until the season has wrapped up. For a long time, though, it seemed unworthy of its pedigree. These days, it’s definitely at least a good show, and one that I look forward to seeing unfold.