Like a Geek God #17 by Mark Pursell
Agents of SHIELD Mid-Season Report Card
The thing you need to know before we starting talking about Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD is this: I love Joss Whedon.
No, listen. I’m a hardcore Whedonite. I first fell in love with Joss Whedon’s storytelling vision because of his short-lived but iconic science fiction series Firefly and its concluding movie, Serenity. In quick order, I revisited Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a piece of pop culture zeitgeist that I had missed when it was happening, and in 2009, I followed Whedon’s new sci-fi show, Dollhouse, with weekly devotion. It’s hard to describe exactly what is so appealing about Whedon’s approach to storytelling, an approach that he instills in his writing staff. Is it the complex characters? The thorny moral and philosophical questions? The epic, labyrinthine mythology and worldbuilding? The snappy repartee that often recalls the verbal sparring of classic Hollywood films rather than the witless rhetorical slapfights of our Information Age? The answer, of course, is that it’s the synthesis of all these elements which draws in viewers and keeps them engaged. I was disappointed when FOX decided to cancel Dollhouse after only two short seasons, forestalling any chance that Whedon and his team had to capitalize on the various ideas the show set in motion. But then, a glimmer of exciting news: in the wake of Whedon’s success writing and directing The Avengers—which has the distinction of being hands-down the best movie in the cinematic Marvel canon, second only to the first Iron Man—he would be developing a TV series for ABC that focused on fan-favorite character Agent Coulson and his team of SHIELD operatives, i.e. mortal but highly-trained specialists working for an American shadow agency whose ostensible purpose is to protect the unprepared human race from exposure to alien and otherwise otherworldly phenomena. It’s essentially Men in Black with an NSA twist (more on that later). Whedon brought his brother Jed and Jed’s wife, Maurissa Tancharoen—both of whom wrote for Dollhouse and acted as showrunners—to take the lead on SHIELD. I admit that while I was excited for the show, I also had my doubts. One, it was going to be on ABC, and history has shown us that network TV is hardly the place for Joss Whedon and his writers to stretch their wings and accomplish great storytelling without interference (just Google the production histories of Firefly and Dollhouse over at FOX). Second, Whedon himself wasn’t going to be writing any of the episodes or acting as showrunner. Still, I was interested to see what they could accomplish.
We are now just past the halfway point of SHIELD’s first season run. Time to take stock, see where we are, and just how things are going. SPOILERS AHOY!
It wouldn’t be a Joss Whedon show without a loveable, idiosyncratic cast. The SHIELD ensemble, operating as a self-contained special unit from their airplane base, is a large part of the show’s charm. Ming Na and Brett Dalton started out a bit stolid as the team’s resident ass-kicking jarheads, but subsequent episodes have revealed more facets of their characters, particularly the mysterious Agent May (Na).
And, in a genius bit of plotting, these two warrior types—who often find themselves at odds with the tech-and-science team members as well as their enigmatic leader, Agent Coulson—bond over their bloody pasts and martial natures and form a sexual connection that the show handles with remarkable subtlety for a network. A mawkish romantic storyline would have dealt a major blow to the show’s machinery, but somebody in the writing room rightly adhered to a higher instinct.
Another engaging pair is the science team of Fitz and Simmons, played with chatterboxy verve by British actors Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge, respectively.
The dynamic between these two characters form part of the show’s comic relief. It’s a traditional Whedonesque gambit to have the show’s most hyperintelligent character(s) fill the role of the jester (see Fran Kranz’s portrayal of programmer Topher in Dollhouse), and it works to great effect here, mostly because of the actors’ presence and chemistry.
Chloe Bennet’s Skye is the everyman, an off-the-grid outsider and self-reliant hacker who becomes entangled in SHIELD’s business and eventually becomes part of the team despite her lack of training or vetting by the agency, a controversial decision that the show continues to mill for plot grist. Bennet is a doe-eyed Hollywood type in the vein of a would-be “it girl” and visually doesn’t quite fit the profile of a 99%, anti-Big Brother hacker living out of her van (in fact, all the actors are too pretty for realism, but hey, it’s ABC), but the young actress makes up for that with admirable comic timing and a believable streak of impulsive, street-smart rebelliousness.
Then of course, there’s Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson himself. This show largely came about because of Coulson’s popularity as a character and the fan outcry when he was brutally killed in The Avengers (Joss Whedon is like George R.R. Martin; he’s not afraid to kill your favorite characters to drive home the peril of a given situation), and Gregg is a force to be reckoned with as the show’s anchor and leader. He is wry, kind, and empathetic, but also frightening, with a sense of barely contained lethality lurking under his self-effacement, and his moral inflexibility regarding SHIELD (he believes in what they do and reacts angrily to Skye’s criticisms of government overreach) seems destined to take his character down emotional roads that are going to be unpleasant at best. In fact, in one of SHIELD’s most recent episodes to date, and its strongest so far in its run, Agent Coulson is metaphorically brought to his knees by this very question.
Because SHIELD is doing a 22-episode run on a major network, the writers seem to have adapted an episodic model rather than a serial model, meaning that for the most part, each episode has a “problem of the week” that is largely dealt with and resolved by the end of the episode. I personally find this kind of television boring and pointless; I’m a big story arc, serial kind of guy. Fortunately, SHIELD does have an intriguing mythology and story arc at work; they just tend to develop it periodically rather than episode to episode (though seemingly unrelated one-off plots have, as the show progresses, come back to factor into the larger picture). It’s when the show takes on its central storyline that it really shines, mostly epitomized (to return to character for a second) by the excellent performance of Ruth Negga as Raina, the “girl in the flower dress” who essentially serves as the series’ main/most visible villainess. Raina is a manipulative, shadowy figure; her big-eyed, soft-spoken nature conceals a cruel and unforgiving intelligence. Throughout the first season, she is seen working towards the development of workable, biologically-stable super solders on the orders of an unknown, unseen figure referred to only as the Clairvoyant. The Clairvoyant’s attempt to create his/her own supersoldiers, and SHIELD’s efforts to forestall him/her, are the main plot thrust of the season. Raina and the Clairvoyant are chilling, fascinating antagonists, and the show works best when our SHIELD heroes are thrown into conflict with them. There’s also a slow-burning subplot regarding the actual identity of Skye, who we learned at the season’s halfway point was discovered as the sole, infant survivor of a massacre in which multiple SHIELD agents died, ostensibly trying to protect her. Every effort was then made to reinsert the child into society (the foster system) with no trace or clue to her actual heritage or origins; ostensibly, these revelations will play out in dramatic fashion, possibly with the Clairvoyant revealing the truth (or the partial truth) to Skye in an attempt to pull her away from SHIELD and join forces with him/her.
At the heart of the show, there is a debate, embodied by Agent Coulson (the establishment) and Skye (the anti-establishment) about the nature of surveillance and the power of government force. Coulson insists repeatedly that the vast human population is unprepared to deal with the truth about alien artifacts and the highly-advanced science that comes with it, that what SHIELD does keeps people safe, out of danger. Skye argues that the concealment of life-and-world-changing information harms humanity more than it helps it, and that SHIELD’s sweeping, shadowy authority is dangerous and highly problematic (even as she becomes more and more invested in helping them against their enemies). It’s a conversation that is extremely relevant in the Information Age, in the age of Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, NSA overreach, phone tapping, and the like. The question of “what are we being protected from? And who are you to protect us from it?” has never been more in the forefront of American minds, and the show smartly capitalizes on that. Actually, I wish they would capitalize on it more—it can best be described as a “background” element—but I imagine that it’s also hard to tackle those conversation directly without becoming preachy.
SHIELD has been on a bit of a winter hiatus, but it returns with a string of new episodes this Tuesday. Is it a great show? At the moment, no. Is it a show with great potential that it sometimes realizes? Absolutely. My hope, as the writers push towards the May finale, is that the filler episodes fall by the wayside and they devote more time to the main story arc and the mythology of the show, and that they don’t shy away from storylines that ask hard questions about technology, government, surveillance, information, and the price of evolutionary advancement. In a fictional universe populated by aliens, monsters, and supermen, these are very human, very relevant concerns.
Mark Pursell (Episode 75) is a lifelong geek and lover of words. His publishing credits include Nimrod International Journal, The New Orleans Review, and The Florida Review, where he also served as poetry editor. His work can most recently be seen in the first volume of the 15 Views of Orlando anthology from Burrow Press. He currently teaches storytelling and narrative design for video games at Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida.