Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. went from the show everyone couldn’t wait to love, to one of the most disappointing endeavours in the history of television. Indeed, instant reaction to the show was so dire that Screen Rant published an article about how the series could be improved within days of the airing of the premiere episode. Of course, no one’s saying that the show is, or was, perfect, but one thing’s for sure, the fallout from Captain America: The Winter Soldier is surely going to change what it means to be an Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. from here on out. Obviously, major spoilers are below.
In The Winter Soldier we learn that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been infiltrated to the highest levels by HYDRA, the Nazis’ advanced scientific research division led by the Red Skull. The disembodied consciousness of Arnim Zola, downloaded on to several 1970s reel-to-reel hard drives in a secret facility, tells Captain America that post World War II HYDRA sneaked into S.H.I.E.L.D. via programs like Operation: Paperclip. While not every S.H.I.E.L.D. agent is HYDRA, the infestation is extensive enough to warrant the disbandment of the organization at the end of the film.
That brings us to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which between last week’s “End of the Beginning” and this week’s “Turn, Turn, Turn” takes place firmly in the midst of the action going on in The Winter Soldier; even the tag in “End of the Beginning” was lifted right from the car chase attempt on Nick Fury’s life early in the film. Likely, “Turn,Turn, Turn” will see how Coulson’s team deals with the dark turn in S.H.I.E.L.D. as Alexander Pierce maneuvers Operation: Insight to annihilate every global threat with the Helicarriers of Death, not to mention Captain America’s interrupting message to all S.H.I.E.L.D. agents that they’re sleeping with the enemy.
From here on out in seems like Coulson and Co. become renegades. The description of the following episode, “Providence,” says “Col. Glenn Talbot (Adrian Pasdar) pursues Coulson’s team as they begin to uncover S.H.I.E.L.D.’s darkest secrets,” which strongly implies that Phil, Skye, May, Ward, and Fitz-Simmons are now living a fugitive life after this week’s episode. For added interest, Talbot is Air Force, not S.H.I.E.L.D., so are outside agencies bringing in S.H.I.E.L.D. personnel in order to evaluate whether or not they’re hailing HYDRA when everyone’s back is turned?
All this adds an interesting new layer of paranoia and mistrust to a series that’s been terribly earnest thus far. If Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has always felt out of place amongst the oeuvre of Joss Whedon’s other series, it could be because it’s been about the establishment, and as a recent piece on The Dissolve pointed out, Whedon’s work has rarely been from the perspective of the establishment. From the beginning, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a story about how the outcasts save the day while the institutions, be they the Watcher’s council or the government’s monster-fighting Initiative, were either too infirm or too corrupt to make the difference necessary to be the hero. Angel’s Wolfram & Hart, the central planets of Firefly and the Rossum Corporation of Dollhouse are all examples of Whedon’s bias against institutions, and his doubt they can be any good even when that’s what they say they’re trying to do.
But if Whedon doesn’t believe in organizations and corporations, he does believe in people, and that they can break out of established roles and do the right thing even in the face of tremendous cost. Think about the wallflower Willow who becomes the world’s most powerful witch by the conclusion of Buffy, or how Malcolm Reynolds, a man whose faith and principles are destroyed by war prior to the events of Firefly finds something to fight for in Serenity. It will be interesting to see how people like Coulson, May, and Ward who’ve dedicated themselves and their lives to this idea of S.H.I.E.L.D., deal with the new information that the hallowed halls of their once great institution were filled with, as Henry Jones Sr. once put it, the slime of humanity.
What will S.H.I.E.L.D. look like over the next several episodes, and on into a still hypothetical second season? Will the series follow Coulson et al as they fight to unravel the evil done in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s name, will they become the foundation of a new, purer S.H.I.E.L.D., or will they go into business for themselves as a freelance A-Team that deals with super-human matters? Heck, maybe they can relaunch the show in season two as Coulson sets up a company that deals with reconstruction in the wake of giant superhero battles.
Newsarama makes some interesting suggestions leaping off the ending montage of The Winter Soldier where we see Maria Hill applying for a job at Stark Industries and extrapolating the idea that Coulson’s team could become Stark-sponsored with Hill as their coordinator between them and the never-to-be-seen-on-TV Tony Stark. As luck would have it, Hill’s portrayer Cobie Smulders is now out of a job herself, so there maybe some meat to that idea. On the other hand, this is where we encounter what may be the biggest long-term problem with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and that is it needs to stand on its own apart from whatever’s going on in the movies.
Of course, the events of “End of the Beginning” and how they bounced off The Winter Soldier created what may have been the best outing of the series so far. Many commentators have noted an improvement in the show as it’s tried to tie up its mythology, and been able to capitalize on characters and ideas introduced from the films and the comics they’re based on. That’s all great, but what is the show to do without the narrative and marketing boon of movie tie-ins? The next Marvel movie is Guardians of the Galaxy, which comes out in August and given it’s concept is unlikely to have an effect on anything Earth-bound. That means that if Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. gets a season two, there’ll be no movie to tie it in with till May 2015’s release of The Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Without the movies, that leaves Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. with two things to engage audiences, any element of comic lore they want introduce and the characters that stand as the show’s main cast. Coulson got more interesting when he learned how he was resurrected and that the man he trusted most, Nick Fury, seemed to do it over his objections. Fury probably had Coulson saved from the embrace of death since he’s one of the few people in S.H.I.E.L.D. the director can implicitly trust, but was it worth the trauma? As for the future, Coulson’s been a company man, literally the face of S.H.I.E.L.D. since his first appearance in Iron Man, what does a company man do when their is no company anymore? There may be some nice analogies to the real world that can be draw been there.
As for the rest of the team, May was supposedly the reluctant recruit, but how reluctant could she have been if she’s been keeping tabs on Coulson through a dedicated line to… someone. It feels like we still know nothing about Ward, although there’s been another oblique references to his family. I thought that when they mentioned Ward’s family in the pilot there might have been something bigger going on there, like maybe Ward was from a family of supervillains (Runaways reference?) or something. As for Fitz and Simmons, how will they cope outside S.H.I.E.L.D. and its resources, Simmons in particular was left in a dilly of pickle at the end of the last episode. As for Skye, we know she’s a person of mystery, a so-called 0-8-4, there’s still a lot of unanswered questions there, but I suppose they take a back seat all the HYDRA antics.
Despite the improvements and the potential, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. still has a lot of prove. Can they make fans care about the characters? Can it be more than marketing for Marvel movies, and can it fly on its own without having to make those connections? Right now, it’s all about “Uprising!” and how Coulson and the gang will react to the idea that S.H.I.E.L.D.’s bad and they’re basically out of a job. And that’s the really exciting thing! For once we don’t know where this show is going and we actually care. For too long S.H.I.E.L.D.’s felt too much like timeslot rival NCIS but with, you know, superheroes. In other words, like a run of the mill procedural. But you can never close NCIS, or build a storyline where it turns out it’s been filled with Nazis for 70 years. It took us seven months to get here, but it feels like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. may be hitting its stride. Here’s hoping.