How Captain America Made Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. a Better Show

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Courtesy of Disney/ABC.

As you’ve probably heard, ABC just announced that it has renewed Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for a second season. Five weeks ago, I might have greeted this news with indifference. Although I enjoyed the pilot with a few minor reservations, the episodes that came after it left me feeling underwhelmed at best. Still, I kept tuning in faithfully on Tuesday nights, clinging to the hope that the show could eventually live up to its vast potential.

And then Captain America: The Winter Soldier came out in theaters and turned the Marvel universe upside down. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was forced to deal with the fallout and in doing so, became a show worth watching.

This is the part where I need to warn you that the remainder of this article will discuss plot developments and major twists in detail from both the S.H.I.E.L.D. TV series to date and Captain America: Winter Soldier. If you haven’t caught up with the show or seen the film, you might want to stop reading this and come back later, after you’ve done both. This has been your official spoiler warning.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled post.

Back in September, we here at GeekMom, like many Marvel fans, had high hopes for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the first TV series based in the same universe as The Avengers. The fact that Joss Whedon was producing the show solidified its spot in our must-watch list for fall, not to mention the central role of Clark Gregg’s resurrected Agent Coulson. I mean, how can you not love Coulson? GeekMom even ran a series of articles on the history of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the comics and profiled each of the show’s characters in the run, all the way up to the premiere. Then it premiered, and though the pilot showed some promise, it left us wanting more. Much more.

For weeks after the series premiere, I continued to tune in, less and less enthusiastically. There was the lazy writing, the handwavium that passed for technology, and plot holes big enough to fly the Bus through. But the most egregious offense, in my opinion, was that the show never managed to make me care much about any of the characters, with the standout exception of Ming-Na Wen’s Melinda May and, of course, Coulson himself.

The rest of the characters seemed like bland, thinly drawn cardboard cutouts. Skye (Chloe Bennet), who was our entry point into the world of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the pilot, turned out to be nothing more than a cipher with the seemingly omnipotent ability to crack any computer system the plot might require. The loyalty everyone on the team (even May, in her own way) instantly felt toward Skye, even after it appeared as though she’d betrayed them all to the Rising Tide (anyone remember them?), felt forced. As much as the show really wanted us to care about her relationship with chiseled tough guy Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), the spark between them never quite grew into a flame. I was so indifferent, I didn’t bat an eye when he started sleeping with May on the side.

Courtesy of Disney/ABC.

Earlier in the season, if I’d compiled a list of things that could fix what ailed Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I probably wouldn’t have included “get rid of S.H.I.E.L.D.” But it turns out, that was exactly the right thing to do.

After the big revelation in Captain America that the organization was infested with Hydra operatives working against it from the inside, the show was forced to deal with the consequences. In episode 17 (“Turn, Turn, Turn”), everything changed—maybe not for the better from the characters’ perspectives, but surely from ours.

Suddenly, they had a clearly defined purpose and a deadly adversary, two things sorely missing up until this point. How many times could Coulson’s team willfully ignore protocol and still be allowed to operate without straining our credibility? Now that they’ve gone rogue, protocol is a thing of the past. And all of those lapses in the security of a supposedly top-notch secret organization begin to make some sense. We can blame it all on Hydra, working to undermine S.H.I.E.L.D.’s command structure from within. Though I doubt the writers intended it to work out like this, it all seems kind of brilliant now.

Best of all, Ward has a new role to play beyond just the team’s dull muscle. Bringing in John Garrett from the comics and hiring Bill Paxton to play him were good ideas to begin with, but making him Hydra was the first bold choice the show has made. It wouldn’t be the last. Taking Ward over to the dark side along with him revitalized that character and shed new light on his interest in Skye. Has he been playing her and the rest of the team all along? Is there real affection there or does he have an agenda of his own? Now, these are intriguing questions. We also got to see some actual evidence of Skye’s worth to the team in the way she handled that discovery in the Providence base and her smart moves from that point on.

The way each of the rest of the characters have dealt with Ward’s betrayal has allowed us to get to know them better. As Fitz searched for another explanation and stubbornly held onto the notion that Ward wasn’t as bad as he seemed, we learned more about what makes him tick. The way Simmons gently nudged him to accept the truth also showed us her true colors. We didn’t just hear them say how they felt about each other; we saw it in their actions. May’s role in the T.A.H.I.T.I. project is now out in the open, and her loyalty to Coulson is no longer in question. The way they teased her as the mole leading up to “Turn, Turn, Turn” was a clever bit of misdirection.

Courtesy of Disney/ABC.

This new, heightened state of pressure has conversely brought a lighter tone to the writing. We’re getting bits like last week’s incoming file, May and Coulson cosplaying as Fitz and Simmons, and May actually cracking jokes: “Watch out, Hydra. Here we come.” There was even a meta-acknowledgement of the problems with Skye as a character with the revelation that her legal name is literally Mary Sue.

It’s good to see the writers no longer taking things so seriously and employing the kind of trademark quips that have made Whedon’s work a joy to watch, even as he was ripping out your heart. For so long, the tone of the show as been uneven, but it feels like the writers have finally realized that they’re making a show with comic-book origins set in the world of international super-spies. There’s fun hardwired into the concept, but we hadn’t seen much of it until now.

We’ll see if that trend continues in this week’s season finale. Since it was made before the pick-up was announced, I expect a resolution to the events of the last few episodes, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they reset the table for the next season. Which, by the way, I’m really glad we’re going to get. That’s something I might not have said in the middle of this season. But if they manage to keep up the trajectory they’re on, I predict we’re in for a wild ride and I’ll be firmly on board.

The Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season finale, “Beginning of the End,” airs tomorrow night on ABC at 8 p.m. ET/PT.

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3 thoughts on “How Captain America Made Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. a Better Show

  1. The counter way of looking at it is that they show had to wait until Captain America got put out before it could do the Whedon twist that happens 1/4->1/2 of the way through the season. If Marvel had switched CA and Thor it would have improved the show quite a bit.

  2. Fantastic summary of the first season – I agree completely. SHIELD is the only show I watch live now, thanks to Winter Soldier.

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