Tonight, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. showed signs of life: a dark room, bars, a shadowy prisoner, a conversation of innuendo and sticky words like “clairvoyant,” puzzles pieces that don’t fit, but give the audience something to work with. Something they can roll around in the brains, useful verbiage for the next mystery.
This stinger, this 30 second bit is the direction the creative staff needs to pursue: S.H.I.E.L.D. needs to be a spy show. So far, it has resisted the call and suffered. I’m not looking to give a history lesson here, but for those of you who don’t sleep with a copy of The Official Handbook of The Marvel Universe under your pillow, the adventures of Nick Fury and company is about spies! Granted, these are spies operating in a universe of thunder gods and killer robots. In a world like this, flying cars and Life Model Decoys make sense. They fit in with the universe.
Seriously, in the middle of World War Two the United States government creates a super-soldier serum, dresses Steve Rogers up in the American flag and tells him “Hey! You! Go punch Hitler in face.” All while fighting a shadow war with the Red Skull and his green-clad henchmen. Wide eyed silver age hijinks are to be expected from Agent Colson and his team.
But in order to appease superhero nerds with name dropping and homages the show neglects its spy roots. Why hasn’t it felt like there were any conspiracies? Why does everything appear to happen in the light of day? Spies hate the day! They’re more likely to be seen! It goes against the spy code–don’t get caught! The spy game is a stealth game. It requires finesse and wits. Spies operate in a world of half-truth, quarter-truths, white lies, exaggerations, and flat out whoppers. Everyone is a pawn. Many people die, and they die unfairly.
The life of a spy is fraught with moral dilemmas. For the first time since episode one, we get a taste of that. Are hackers liberating information? Are they citizen journalists, the last check on governmental and corporate power or are they arrogant bulls in the china shop, wrecking the lives of those around them, supposedly in the name of civil liberties?
We don’t need the show runners to spoon feed the answers, but we do need them to impose a tonal shift. The show is failing as a carefree, happy go lucky bunch of government agents waiting for the next alien invasion. No, the show needs to be a conspiracy thriller. I’m not saying cross out all the super-shenanigans. The centipede storyline has promise. It takes a little bit of existing continuity (various super power formulas) and wraps it in a dark organization with nefarious purposes, but there needs to be a balance. The show needs to pull more from Game of Thrones and Alias for intrigue and and less from the bright shiny world of Steve Rogers because S.H.I.E.L.D, like these other shows, operates in a world where no one can afford to play Captain America. Playing fair gets you killed. You have to lie to survive. Without these stakes spies simply aren’t interesting. Hopefully, episode 5 marks a turning point for the show.
By David Arroyo