May 13, 2014

THE SKED Season Finale Review: “Agents of SHIELD”


AGENTS OF SHIELD was unquestionably a better show at the end of this season than it was when it arrived, but it still has plenty of work to do.  SHIELD arrived on the air with almost impossible expectations.  It was, however unfairly, inevitably going to be compared to the mega-budgeted superhero spectacles with which Marvel has taken over multiplexes all over the world, and needed to find a smaller-scale place for itself in the nooks and crannies of the Avengers narrative universe.  Additionally, it marked the return to television of Joss Whedon, not just the man behind the blockbuster Avengers movie, but prior to that the creator–really, in a lot of ways, an inventor–of the TV fantasy genre with classics like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, establishing a template we now take for granted throughout pop culture.  The concept of a Marvel show revolving around a group of (mostly) young warriors against otherworldly evil was directly in his sweet spot.

SHIELD couldn’t possibly compete with movies that spend twice as much on 2 hours of film as a TV show has for an entire 22-episode season.  And Joss Whedon, it was clear, had other giant things on his plate and little involvement with the TV show once it was launched; the series was actually run by his co-creators, Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen (who happen to be Joss Whedon’s brother and sister-in-law, although also experienced TV writer/producers in their own right).  The villain-of-the-week procedural structure was unengaging, the tone was unclear, the relationship between the TV universe and the movie one seemed arbitrary, Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), raised from his death in The Avengers to lead the squad, didn’t feel like a leading man, and the chemistry of the ensemble didn’t jell.  By spring, the series had lost half of the audience that had tuned in for the premiere.

Some of that has improved in a big way, especially over the past run of episodes.  The events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier were a great boon to the TV show.  The movie’s destruction of SHIELD as an organization gave a serialized focus to the TV show that it had never had before, and the detonation of a major plot twist–that SHIELD agent Ward (Brett Dalton) was actually a murderous villain working with Big Bad John Garrett (Bill Paxton), a trusted friend of Coulson’s–was a personal betrayal that gave some much-needed emotion to the narrative.

Tonight’s season finale, written by Jed Whedon and Tancharoen and directed by David Straiton, paid some of that off.  There was plenty of action (if on a lower scale than the big-screen kind), including a showdown between Ward and his former lover Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen) and another between Garrett and Mike Peterson (J. August Richards), whom he’d turned into the cyborg Deathlok.  Samuel L. Jackson made a substantial appearance as Nick Fury, and in a development that will presumably reverberate in the Avengers universe, he put Coulson in charge of rebuilding SHIELD.  Mike Peterson’s son, and all of HYDRA’s other hostages, were freed, and the world was saved.

The finale also pointed to shortcomings the show still needs to solve.  From the start, it’s put an enormous amount of its eggs in the basket of the character Skye–its Buffy, if you will–introduced as a brilliant computer hacker but ultimately revealed to be some kind of alien hybrid of an as-yet unrevealed type, as well as the quasi-romantic interest of Ward.  After a full season, it’s hard not to conclude that actress Chloe Bennet doesn’t seem ready to serve as the center of a series, which is one of the reasons SHIELD still feels spotty and lacking in gravity.

More generally, SHIELD (or perhaps it’s the Marvel brass) isn’t able to pull major triggers when it needs to–and if not in a season finale, then when?  Tonight was the time to cull the ensemble, and with Ward and scientists Fitz (Iain de Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge)–both highly expendable–in deadly danger at one time or another, the fact that all survived the hour (Fitz’s condition is unclear, but he’s alive) was a wasted opportunity.  (Meanwhile, B.J. Britt’s Triplett seems to have become a quasi-regular when no one was paying attention, and although he’s fine, he’s not the solution to the cast problem.)  As likable and skilled as Clark Gregg is, it wasn’t a coincidence that he was at his best tonight when Nick Fury was around and he was able to revert to sidekick mode.  It’s also about time that the series say something concrete about the alien DNA that’s floating inside both Coulson and Skye, instead of offering vague hints (Coulson ended the season drawing what might have been genetic codes, seemingly in a trance).  One Blacklist is enough.

Agents of SHIELD has been very watchable these last couple of months, and sometimes it’s nearly inspired (the gag of Garrett’s ultimate destruction in tonight’s episode may have been the best single minute of the series so far).  It’s on the right path, figuring out its very unusual place on a giant multimedia canvas.  But SHIELD needs to spend the off-season pondering some serious improvements, especially in the ensemble.  Like SHIELD itself, it needs to rebuild.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."