Saying S.H.I.E.L.D. is falling upwards seems like damning the show with feint praise but that’s not the intent here. In truth I don’t know know how else to describe the trajectory of the show. It’s getting better, bit, by bit, yet it’s still gripped by an indescribable blandness. First, let’s talk about what the shows has going for it
The timing of the show has improved. The opening five minutes hit the ground running. Gasp, Coulson is in trouble? Hey wait, the evil interrogator is a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent! The scene was lean. It was quick; it hooked me. It made me care about what was going to happen, and the show managed to keep that interest sustained throughout its duration, which was as much an extension of better editing as it was the script. For the first time in the show’s run, it had a sense rhythm. This carried over into the dialogue. The comedy worked for a change, mostly by delivering lines that weren’t expected, which is the criterion for an effective punchline.
On top of that, the episode continued last week’s emphasis on character development. Enter: Fitz! Yes, this time the focus is on the other half of the Siamese nerd-brain. Forced to team with what’s-his-face and plunged deep in the heart of bad guy town, Fitz proved surprisingly calm and capable, nor did he display the co-dependent flourishes we saw from Simmons. Meanwhile, S.H.I.E.L.D. continues to build towards a sure to be shocking Coulson revelation. The smart money says he’s a Life Model Decoy, but who knows, maybe the show will throw us a curve-ball.
In addition to characterization, the show is finding its footing thematically too. “Trust the system” was the phrase the day, and Coulson learned that trust is not, nor should it be absolute, making his decision to withhold information from Skye a combo of hypocrisy and double standard. Then again, that’s an apt critique of institutional systems and their (S.H.I.E.L.D.) agents. They’re rife with authoritarian dictates, exceptionalism and half-learned lessons crippled by narcissism; and Coulson is definitely crippled. He recognizes his faith in the system has created a comfortable illusion, a wonderful place called Tahiti. Even though he knows something is amiss, he still parrots the S.H.I.E.L.D. ideology in respect to his team mates. He’s keeping secrets, and secrets are being kept from him, all of which should culiminate in moments of drama dovetailing into acts of betrayal. Writers! You’re starting to get it. S.H.I.E.L.D. needs to be a spy show first and a supehero adventure second.
So what of the aforementioned blandness? It lurks in the shadows. It weighs down on the chemistry of the ensemble, suffice to say I have severe doubts about the acting chops of several cast members. What’s-his-face and Skye are just so damn generic, and I’m not sure if Ming-Na is slacking or just saddled with a dud. For the first time though, my complaints are on the back burner and my expectations were exceeded. We got an entire, watchable hour of television. Good work Marvel television. S.H.I.E.L.D. has passed the SyFy threshold. Now it’s time to take this puppy from so-so to must-see.
By David Arroyo