29 Oct 2014

[Review] - Agents of SHIELD, Season 2 Episode 6, "A Fractured House"

Courtesy of Marvel Television Studios
Before we begin, yesterday saw a massive and very exciting announcement by Marvel concerning the future of the MCU. I will be covering this in greater detail this Friday. Taking my time might not get me a lot of page hits, but I'd rather do something right than do something quick. Rest assured however that I will be giving this announcement the attention it deserves (and it deserves).

Now, back to the matter at hand, Agents of SHIELD is in dance mode at this point, in that for every step it takes forward, it takes a step back, then does a little jig in place. This week's episode, for instance, actually forwarded what I've considered the biggest weakness of this season, in establishing Hydra as a legitimate threat. I don't necessarily agree with the how they did it, but it got it done at least. However, it did it through a fractured episode, where some elements worked well and some failed to come together, and then the writers gave me more evidence that they aren't exactly on top of putting this thing together just right.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that never used those words exactly.

What really came together in this episode was, happily, the Bobbi-Lance-May plot. Whatever weaknesses this show might have, they've finally hit on a dynamic that works for them with the bickering divorcees and May playing the child-minder. With a cast as large as SHIELD has had since the start, I've long advocated breaking the team into two, running A and B plots. they've tried it a few times, with various levels of success. Here, Coulson's A-plot worked from home, while may's B-plot worked the field, both towards the same goal. It helped to break the episode up, helped to mitigate the slog of the Ward material by having May and Bobbi to cut to, and gave the show another excuse to choreography a fight scene.

It struck me though, in those opening moments, as the UN is attacked by Hydra agents in disguise, that I don't believe in the show. A common complaint in the first season was that the show was entirely reactive to the movies, and didn't establish itself as a motivator of larger franchise action. That didn't bother me as much in season one, because it was at least reactive. There were events happening, and they spilled over. It made it seem like the show co-existed alongside the films. This season, perhaps because there is the vacuum of films for it to coordinate with, the series seems isolated and lacking in sincerity. I don't believe that anything this series does will have any effect on anything that happens outside of it. No matter Hydra's effectiveness or ineffectiveness when going up against Coulson, and no matter Coulson's attempts to reinvigorate SHIELD, it doesn't feel like it'll matter in Age of Ultron or Civil War.

I think the cause of that feeling is that the show ultimately has no identity beyond Coulson himself. It took so long last season to define itself, and this season has spent so much time establishing a new paradigm, that it doesn't feel comfortable in it's own skin. Sometimes, it doesn't feel like it has a skin. Building relationships between characters like Bobbi and Lance, or Fitz and Mac, helps to make these characters seem like they are living, but living in what?

It seems like a broken record at this point that the strongest elements of this episode were the performances of Clark Gregg and Iain De Caestecker. And the weakest was the apparently never ending Ward story. Unlike Kevin Fiege and the brain trust over the Marvel HQ, who at least seem to be listening to fan reaction and making long term decisions based both on what they want to do, and what fans are asking them to do. The folks behind Agents of SHIELD, and they come off as this in interviews, as complete isolationists. Any decent writing team would have at least taken the harsh critical reaction of the first season, and incorporated that into designing their second. It appears that they are tone deaf. Maybe they have a master plan, but that master plan seemed to be built on character and story elements that we, the viewers, have no interest in. And those that don't put words on the internet are telling the writers that they aren't interested by not watching, in increasing numbers.

I had a problem with these Silence of the Lambs-style interview sessions between Ward and Skye starting from episode one this year, and in six episodes, the writers failed to make good use of having Ward trussed up in the basement. It seemed like the dialogue every time Skye went down there was copy and pasted form one script to another. He won't lie, she doesn't trust him, Ward knows something about her father. It was empty repetition, and based on the way the episode was building, I was hoping that the show might finally make the sacrifice it needed and get rid of the character altogether, but of course they didn't. The upshot to all of this was, we got an amazing scene where Coulson shut down Ward's delusions with as blunt a verbal smack as possible. It swelled something in me, a refreshing serge of joy at the hands of the series, which are all too few and far between.

The stinger for this episode was worrying, in that it introduced yet another shady, unknown character with a connection to Couslon's condition. Since this season is split in two, a reasonable person might have assumed that each half would be it's own self contained arc. This does not appear to be the way things are progressing, because we're already half way through the fore-half of the season, with no sign of things coming to a head. The Skye's dad and Hydra plots seemed to merge last week, but both are still shrouded in mysterious half-talk that we as an audience don't have any kind of handle on them (this show wallows in being willfully obtuse). And now we've got next another element, with yet another agenda, to be shrouded in yet more mystery. And at this point, what the show needs isn't more, it's less.

No new episode next week, despite the show meant to be playing it's first ten straight through. Marvel is instead airing a one-hour special celebrating their 75th anniversary, hosted by the Winter Soldier's Emily VanCamp. Which, if you'll remember back to last year, a special about the MCU airing instead of an episode of Agents of SHIELD actually had a larger viewership than a first run episode. Which isn't an inspirational statistic.

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