How 'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' came back from the dead

[Opinion] How do you revive a flatlining show? With some good, hard jolts. But did "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" give "Agents" the cure it really needs?

Don't read this post if you still haven't seen "Captain America: The Winter Soldier." Not just because of the spoilers it's going to be full of, but because you are wasting critical minutes that you could be spending running off to see "Captain America: The Winter Soldier." From the loving characterization and thoughtful script to the visual design and the sound editing, it's the kind of movie that gets you excited about superheroes again, even if you were already pretty into them.

"Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." still doesn't seem to love superheroes. But it's upped its supervillain game for sure. The destruction and renewal of "Winter Soldier" brought new life to Marvel's spinoff show as well, transforming "Agents" in unexpected ways. Now the excitement's back as we head into the final episode of Season 1. Again, don't read on until you've seen the latest episodes, because after this point it's spoilers all the way down.

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Marvel

After seeing the SHIELD agency dissolved and all its secret files revealed to the world in "Winter Soldier," my first reaction was, "So that's a mercy killing for 'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,' then."

Coulson's shadow team would be public knowledge. And just as SHIELD's function was to keep secrets from the regular world, so had the show been built on the slow revealing of those secrets to the characters and the viewer. What could possibly be left of it now? Why spend all that time on the mysteries of Coulson's resurrection and Skye's past if the answers were all now posted on 4chan? If The Clairvoyant could run rings around Coulson's team just because he'd read SHIELD's files, how pathetically outclassed would they be once every villain in the world -- and every bored high schooler -- had read the files too?

Esteemed CNET colleague Eric Franklin had a different reaction, saying he thought it could revitalize the show. People had been saying "Agents" could only be saved with major changes, he reminded me. These would be major changes.

Put that way, it did sound promising. I pictured Skye signing on the next morning and her jaw dropping as all the information she'd agitated for as a member of the Rising Tide suddenly became available to her, including the secrets of her own past. Like a hacker in a candy store. There'd be the worldwide scramble as every bad guy and every "sweaty cosplayer" learned the locations of every gifted person on SHIELD's Index -- and the rapid visual changes in society as every manufacturer in the world learned how to make flying cars and massive suborbital gunships. And, of course, we'd see the various Avengers reacting to the news that Coulson was alive, while the team was forced to hide from both sides of the law.

So...one of those things happened. The team is on the run because SHIELD was disbanded. (The show seems to believe only some of SHIELD's files were released -- even one handwavey line of explanation would be nice.) The changes didn't stop there, though; the showrunners went farther and carried out the movie's "Hydra secretly operating within SHIELD" plot by revealing a trusted member of Coulson's team to be a Hydra plant. And a bad guy, or at least, a guy willing to do some very bad things.

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Good Ward was nice! He was fun! He was our friend! ABC/Video screenshot by Kelsey Adams/CNET

Good-guy Grant Ward was actually one of my favorite characters, before. No, it's true. Definitely a minority opinion. It seems one viewer's "understated charm and wry humor" is another's "big block of wood." People had been calling for him to be killed off or revamped, and the writers went with it. (Oh, they say they were planning it all along, but it smells like retcon to me. Why wouldn't they have told the actor?)

Ward turning out to be a traitor all along does embody the hidden-Hydra crisis of the movie perfectly, though. Ward's key character trait was protectiveness -- even his name means "shield." But now he's the threat inside their defenses.

I'd originally thought (hoped!) Ward could be under some kind of mental whammy, like Hawkeye in "The Avengers," based on the crazy-person soundtrack playing during his closeup at the end of the episode where he breaks cover. But in the most recent episode, "Ragtag," it's made clear that he's the result of relentless psychological conditioning by his mentor, Agent John Garrett. (Aka Bill Paxton. Good to see you! GAME OVER, MAN, GAME OVER!)

What's cool about how they handled it is it's been surprisingly unclear what's going on with Ward and how far he's willing to go. He kept saying "just following orders," "nothing personal," but it wasn't enough to explain him.

Now when he interacts with Garrett, you can see some of the same traits Ward seemed to have before -- loyalty and compassion for his team -- just badly misdirected. It seems for the first part of the show he was in deep cover as a version of his real self, the person he could have been. But the show isn't messing around here: he's not that guy. Ward will commit murder on command, lots of it, possibly even of people he's fond of. Even Skye doesn't seem to be a guaranteed exception, although...you know she will be. (Yes, Skye's still special. Just playing a more passive role at the moment.)

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Bad Ward grows stubble. The nature of evil is skritchy. ABC/Video screenshot by Kelsey Adams/CNET

While these changes definitely got the show moving again, however, it was further in the generic action-adventure direction. Much of the mood and plot of the first half of the series got T-boned aside by Garrett, with his pragmatic military schtick. Coulson's possible semi-humanity, Skye's possible 0-8-4 powers, the danger of a clairvoyant villain, and Raina's posing, drawling mysticism all became old news.

There's always been something awkward about how "Agents" fits into the superhero genre. It makes sense the organization would view everything unusual as a threat, but there's a negativity that goes beyond that. The characters keep saying "psychic powers" don't exist, "Scorch" is derided for wanting a special name, and almost anyone with powers is a villain or a victim or both, like poor deluded Mike Peterson. There's been nothing on the show that gave me that visceral "That's so COOL!" feeling that Falcon and the Winter Soldier himself did.

The show tries to keep up the traditional sense of wonder by having Skye be a bit of a superhero groupie, but her excitement about that doesn't show up often and seems out of place when it does. Coulson says something vague about heroic behavior in the first episode and describes Lady Sif's solo fight in "Thor" as "badass," but that's all we get aside from his happy geeking out over Triplett's collection of vintage SHIELD equipment. So I was willing to believe the show was shrugging off its more unusual elements the same way it ditched the Rising Tide.

However, in "Ragtag" it all started to come back together. Or so Coulson claims, and can you argue with him when he's gone to the trouble of literally diagramming the plot on a whiteboard?

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I'm just surprised he didn't draw it on a lampshade. ABC/Video screenshot by Kelsey Adams/CNET

Garrett's motivation for masterminding everything, to get Hydra to bankroll his efforts to create Centipede serum powerful enough to save his own life, at least makes sense. And Raina is back in the picture, manipulating events to further her own "interest in transformation" -- injecting the dying Garrett with the last of the enhanced alien blood, and bringing Skye back into the story as more than a damsel in distress. (Even then, her special nature is presented negatively: Skye's parents became "monsters," or Skye may herself.)

So we're going into the finale with a lot on the show's plate -- or sticking to the wall. The nation's in shambles, full of roaming "gifted" villains armed with alien gadgets, and sub-villain Ian Quinn's playing with gravitonium again, pursuing the Hydra strategy of getting people to trade freedom for order, and maybe planning to kidnap the top US military brass. There still may be consequences from those uploaded files -- all that scary alien knowledge injected into the world in one go, like the serum into Garrett. SHIELD can't help much anymore and the Avengers don't seem to be around.

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It's been a pretty rough ride since the pilot... ABC/Video screenshot by Kelsey Adams/CNET

There's a lot of just mowing-the-lawn type work that needs to be done to even get near the final drama: Coulson, May, and Trip fighting their way out of the nest of supersoldiers, someone rescuing Fitz and Simmons from their watery coffin, everyone ending up in the same part of the world.

After that we're booked for several confrontations: Coulson and Garrett, May and Ward, Skye and Ward, probably Ward and Garrett. And maybe Coulson and Fury -- who revived Coulson with measures he already knew Coulson found horrific. Speaking of which, there might be a last-minute revelation about Coulson, since this alien blood is supposed to cause everything from catatonia to psychosis to "hypergraphia" (compulsive writing is a really weird choice, but that's what it sounded like!) They've been hitting the "stop just following orders" and "forgiveness" themes hard all season for several characters, so I imagine May's revenge isn't going to work out quite like she has in mind.

Mike Peterson, aka Deathlok, might do something interesting instead of just being tedious and hard to kill. Ward seems likely to be redeemed, but dead or alive? We should get a solid idea of Raina's end game and what the deal is with Skye being an 0-8-4. And of course the climax of the series, what we're told it's all been building up to, is seeing what kind of crazy megapowerful supervillain Garrett's become.

That's a lot to take care of in less than an hour and I doubt it'll all work, but I'm excited to watch and find out. And that makes a nice change.

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Change can be good! We love change! ABC/Video screenshot by Kelsey Adams/CNET

So they tried to jolt "Agents" back to life and mostly succeeded. They did a lot of what people wanted: raised the stakes, sped up the action, did more character development, and are probably bringing in more superpowers. Is that enough? Now that the show's been renewed for Season 2, what do they still need to do to make it really good?

We've seen suggestions from Jim Steranko and Stan Lee. I still say the most important thing is to switch out most of whoever's been writing their dialogue. I've accepted that it's not a true "Whedon show," but too many of the lines read like blah placeholders. What do you want to see? What do you think is going to happen? Will Skye and Ward ever get together? Just kidding, I don't care about that at all. But did Ward actually mean to kill Fitz and Simmons or did he know Fitz had a tracker? Does Garrett seem like he's turning into a specific character from the comics? What's your favorite Mayism (since she's clearly the new Chuck Norris)? Do you, like esteemed CNET colleague Eric Franklin, suspect another member of the team of being Hydra?? That one blew my mind when he told me, but now it's all I can see. Come. Sit. Talk.

 

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