Thursday, May 01, 2014
With "Nothing Personal," the twentieth episode of ABC's Marvel's Agents of SHIELD, we're only just beginning to get a sense of what this series is about, really. With two episodes left in the season, it'll probably be next year (if the show is renewed) before we truly understand what the series's status quo is -- on the "non-mythology" episodes, will they still be flying around on the plane, investigating metahuman incidents, or something else? -- but "Nothing Personal" is the first time the cast knows all (or at least most of) the major secrets and are finally on equal footing both with each other and with the viewing audience.
SHIELD's showrunners, we find in retrospect, played a dangerous long-game with this show's first season. In "Nothing Personal," when hacker Skye revisits the diner where she met Mike Peterson (now Deathlok) in the first episode and also comes face-to-face with Peterson again, it becomes super-clear the extent to which the seeds for this season-ending storyline were planted right from the beginning. SHIELD has only recently "gotten good," where earlier episodes were somewhat hokey; we understand now that some of that hokey-ness was intentional such to intensify the reveal of team tough-guy Grant Ward as an enemy HYDRA agent. The showrunners risked some viewers might give up before that seventeenth episode reveal -- and in fact, given falling ratings, it would seem many viewers did (episode 19 showed a small up-tick in viewership, but it remains to be seen if this continues). The twist here is reminiscent of one Marvel pulled in their Thunderbolts comic, but that reveal was at the end of the first issue, not seventeen-plus weeks in.
My own early difficulty with Agents of SHIELD's largely involved determining what kind of show it actually was. On one side was Avengers et al's Agent Coulson, in charge and cool under pressure, Ward, and pilot and also tough-as-nails Melinda May, all of whom represented what one might expect from a Marvel spy show -- a cast worthy, say, of Mission Impossible film. On the other side were the quirky, smart-but-awfully-bumbling Skye and scientists Fitz and Simmons, who were cutesy not in a cool way (like Black Widow teasing Captain America about finding a date) but in a kind of awkward, that-joke-really-wasn't-funny kind of way.
The show most often seemed to buckle when these two sides butted up against one another, as in the rumblings of a romantic plotline between Ward and Skye, which felt forced since, taken logically, Ward likely wouldn't be attracted to Skye, someone with no military or black ops background like himself. I cheered when Ward and May got together, if only because it heralded an end to the Ward/Skye romantic possibilities. In trying to link the two sides like this with Ward and Skye, the show pushed and pulled in too many directions -- it was a pretty good action show and a somewhat trite soap opera, and in trying to be both it didn't quite succeed at either (whereas Arrow, understating the soap opera a little more, finds a better balance between the two).
The reveal of Ward as a HYDRA agent effectively ends this fragmentation, in a couple of ways. First, it puts the final kibosh on the Ward/Skye relationship, so that silliness ceases to drag down the show. Second, it tips the scales for the show back toward the quirky characters. Coulson can do quirky; it would make sense for actor BJ Britt to stick around as Agent Antoine Triplett to fill the "specialist" role in the team vacated by Ward, and Britt has a more laid back personage than Brett Dalton's often-imposing Ward, such to allow Triplett also to bridge the gap between the team's action and quirky sides. In taking out Ward, SHIELD is no longer a show about Ward with the other characters as support, but rather becomes more of an ensemble (or, at least, defines itself better with Chloe Bennet's Skye as the lead). SHIELD emerges as a show about a band of misfit, hard-luck heroes, and the tone of the show achieves some consistency, instead of it being a show about Ward, May, and Coulson with some other people cracking jokes in the background.
(I recognize Triplett is an existing Marvel character, and possibly those in the know can already predict where his story is going. I don't know, myself, and I don't want to know. Whereas I can telegraph most of what's going to happen next on Arrow due to my familiarity with DC Comics, I equally enjoy my ignorance as regards SHIELD such to be surprised at what turns the characters might take. No spoilers for upcoming storylines in the comments, please.)
Ward's turn to the dark side, while surprising, did come off a bit sudden, and "Nothing Personal" was perhaps the first time I was convinced the character wasn't otherwise being mind-controlled. Though Ward's attraction to Skye still befuddles, the clearing of the air between the characters frees Dalton to give a more multi-layered performance of Ward. When Ward continues to profess his love for Skye in "Nothing Personal" despite his betrayal and holding her captive, the audience finally understands that Ward truly is insane, and Dalton can finally embody that. Wisely, the writers make it clear Skye doesn't now reciprocate his feelings, and both characters are better for it; Skye, less awkward without her schoolgirl crush, and Ward, considerably more interesting when presented, as Skye says, as a "serial killer." (Though I don't doubt that Ward's assertion that Skye will come to understand his role as a double-agent will some day come to pass as Skye gets more heavily involved in SHIELD's machinations.)
It's likely hard to realistically portray reactions to Ward's reveal; when Ward shot Agent Victoria Hand in episode 17, "Turn, Turn, Turn," my reaction was "Holy crap," but the same would sound silly coming from Coulson. The writers strike just the right balance here in keeping most the team subdued except actor Iain De Caestecker's Fitz, who both refuses to believe Ward's betrayal and then starts throwing things; what could have been melodramatic was instead spot-on. The writers go subtler in "Nothing Personal" with Fitz's mooning over Simmons; as opposed to his overt whining about why Simmons won't give him the time of day in episode 18, "The Only Light in the Darkness," here the writers let De Caestecker portray his feelings with looks and movement, not monologue; this character, too, ultimately gets to display a larger range with Ward's departure.
Ultimately, then, "Nothing Personal"'s final scene of the new team sitting poolside at a cheap motel is telling. They are not "gearing up" or "planning strategy," as Ward and May were wont to do on the team's high-tech jet; instead, they're joking around, commiserating, and eating junk food by the pool, even Coulson (May, appropriately, still lurks in the shadows). It's here we get that glimpse of what the show is about; not the expertly-maneuvered spy games that we might have expected from an Agents of SHIELD show, but rather a show about a group of weird heroes banded together against the world. That's an OK premise, and likely quite watchable, though it's dizzying the time it took to get to this point.
SHIELD still has some details to shake out. They can't possibly find reasons for Ward to reappear each episode, so either his storyline has to come to a conclusive end or he has to be relegated to recurring guest star status, like Nicholas Lea's Krycek on X-Files, plus whether the team will have a base and whether Triplett will stick around or be replaced with someone else. But, "Nothing Personal" suggests a show finally finding its footing, if hopefully not too late for its own good.
(Header image courtesy Marvel.com)