Like a lot of other people, I gave up on Agents of SHIELD pretty quickly. After a promising pilot, it was clear to me I’d signed up for a procedural set in the Marvel Universe, and not much more. And since I’m not a fan of even good sci-fi procedurals (X-Files, Fringe), I knew if the show kept this up, it would soon lose my interest.
I lasted until about episode four before I threw in the towel. I didn’t quit out of frustration, it just never seemed worth the trouble to watch a full episode on my DVR every week. I got behind, then realized I didn’t care enough to try and catch up.
The cast seemed flat, the plots were annoyingly disconnected from one another. There was little relation to Marvel anything other than super obscure comic book characters and periodic Avengers inside jokes. I wrote it off, and didn’t look back.
Until last week.
I’d heard that SHIELD underwent a turnaround of sorts. Something changed about midway through the season where it “got good” according to a number of critics and viewers, and the last few episodes specifically, set after the events of Captain America: Winter Soldier, were a “must-see.”
I saw Winter Soldier, and afterward I did wonder what on Earth was going to happen to Agents of SHIELD as a result (spoilers ahead). In the film, it’s revealed that HYDRA has secretly been infiltrating SHIELD for decades, and a large percentage of the Agents and leadership were secret HYDRA operatives. In the end, Captain America, Black Widow and Nick Fury step in and save the day, but SHIELD is essentially shattered.
That got me curious enough to start the entire show over from the beginning. And I’m incredibly, exceptionally glad I did.
Yes, I had to suffer through the first few episodes again, ones that were essentially “cases of the week” and repeated the age-old TV mantra of repeating the pilot six times before moving on in order to engage viewers (something which has the opposite effect on me).
But it was different this time. Watching so many episodes so close together allowed me to connect with the cast better. I began to like what I once saw as a group of relatively forgettable protagonists. By mid-season, they started to feel a little bit like family.
There are distant echoes of Firefly in SHIELD as time goes on, even if the show is a Jed Whedon, not Joss Whedon vehicle. It’s a group of specialists on a ship, and they travel around getting into trouble, friendships are formed, romance blossoms, and slowly, over time, there really did start to be a family atmosphere. Watching 20 episodes in a week made me downright love the cast by the end.
And it wasn’t just the characters. The show slowly started to show its hand, revealing that the seemingly disconnected events of the first few episodes were part of some larger master plan, one that in part revolved around Agent Phil Coulson’s death and resurrection, and a mysterious, seemingly telepathic foe called The Clairvoyant.
By midseason, the show really starts to hum. There are still cases of the week, but it was far easier to see how they fit into the larger whole. Even tangential, unrelated episodes are made fun like when Lady Sif descends from Asgard for a week. There seemed to be more and more connection to the larger Marvel universe.
And then, Winter Soldier.
I was told that the episode following the Captain America sequel was shocking, though I really wasn’t prepared for what came next.
Spoilers for the show follow, and hopefully I’ve convinced you to give it a shot by this point. Turn back now to watch it for yourself, otherwise if you’re caught up, keep reading.
SHIELD is essentially thrown into a complete meltdown as HYDRA rises from the shadows to try and seize control of the organization, and subsequently, the world. The SHIELD team we’ve been following this whole time must come to grips with the revelation that agents they’ve worked with are Hydra.
Eventually, it’s revealed that Coulson’s longtime friend and partner, John Garrett, was not only Hydra this whole time, but also the Clairvoyant. Not psychic, but simply an agent with enough high level clearance to seem psychic. The reveal was pretty shocking, but was dwarfed by what came next.
After Hydra’s failed Coup, Garrett is captured and relegated to be transported to SHIELD’s prison, The Fridge. Agent Grant Ward of the central SHIELD team volunteers to take the man who was his old mentor to prison, and then in the closing moments of the episodes, shoots all the agents on board the transport plane. It’s revealed that he too, was HYDRA the whole time.
The whole time.
This is a character we’ve been following from episode one. We’ve seen him form friendships with science nerds Fitz and Simmons, sleep with the stoic Agent May and clearly have eyes for new recruit Skye. He’s saved everyone’s lives on more than one occasion, and went from relatively flat leading man to one of the most likable characters on the show. Until Winter Soldier, that is.
It’s hard to know if ALL the events of Agents of SHIELD were planned from the very beginning, and based around the reveal of HYDRA late in the season, but it certainly seems like it. In either case, Ward’s sudden and shocking betrayal is probably the most heartwrenching, unsettling thing I’ve seen on television all year.
I’ve watched eight different Marvel movies now in the famed “Marvel Cinematic Universe.” Three Iron Mans, two Thors, two Captain Americas and one Avengers. The twist of Ward being HYDRA outstrips any dramatic moment from any of those films by a mile, and all the episodes that followed are more nailbiting and tragic than anything that’s happened in the movies, as the team slowly learns of Ward’s double agent status, and tries to come to grips with it.
While it’s true that there are few insane blockbuster action sequences in SHIELD, and the scope of the show never comes close to that of the films, these last few episodes have reminded me that’s not important. If you can tell a powerful character-centric story, none of that matters. And in that sense, SHIELD has been a more effective storytelling vehicle than any Marvel movie has been to date. We had 23 episodes to get to know these characters, rather than just a few hours. And the final episodes of the season were far more harrowing and moving than anything seen in the admittedly excellent films.
There’s just something about getting to know a cast of characters that intensely that makes big twists and turns more effective. If I’d watched week to week, I don’t know if my attachment to the characters would have been quite as intense as it was after I’d consumed the entire season in a week. This is why binge-watched TV shows often feel like the best way to tell a story as all the emotion is compressed into a handful of marathon sessions, while episodes spaced out of the course of nine months aren’t quite as effective.
And it’s why SHIELD works better than the movies dramatically as well. While I’m perfectly entertained each time I sit down to watch a Marvel film, I haven’t connected to any of the characters as much as I have with SHIELD’s agents. Spending two hours with Thor or Captain America every few years just can’t compare to 20 hours with these SHIELD folks over the course of a single season. Yes, Captain America has a storied history and decades in the pop culture realm, while Grant Ward was invented by Joss Whedon last year, but that doesn’t mean the latter can’t be more compelling than the former with the proper script and storytelling mechanism. Ward’s betrayal, and now what may be his journey to redemption, is to me a far better character arc than Thor’s arrogance, Tony Stark’s self-destruction or Steve Rogers’s uh, well he doesn’t really have character flaws.
To me, SHIELD has been a fascinating case study on how effective television is at telling stories, even when compared to films that have a hundred times the budget, and more established characters and actors to work with. I’m very glad to see it got picked up for another season, and it may in fact be the most important, most resonant piece of the Marvel Universe when all is said and done.