25 Nov 2014

[Review] - Agents of SHIELD, Season 2 Episode 8, "The Things We Bury"

Courtesy of Marvel Television Productions
I think that Agents of SHIELD might have turns a corner. I think they might have ironed out their issues and, whether accidentally or through sheer will and and glorious purpose, created a television show worth not only watching, but worth anticipating. At nearly the half way mark of the second season, I found myself riveted by the show. I clung to the screen as the events played out, and found myself wanting more. I am looking forward to the next episode, something that has happened only once in the 30 episodes produced so far.

Between the last episode and this, the show has stumbled on to a plot worth investigating, and have come at it not with plodding uncertainty or padded waste, but with a surge of revelatory gusto that has given new life to a dwindled and discarded series. Yes, ultimately, the show isn't saying anything of any lasting or profound effect, but at least it's fun to watch for once. That's one of two conditions I just gave Constantine  for being worthwhile, the other being meaning. Neither of these series have that yet. And I can't honestly say that one is better than the other. This one at least benefits from the occasional cameo from Hayley Atwell.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that requires experimentation.

I think the series has finally hooked into what probably should have been it's intention from the start. Rather than try to establish itself within the larger MCU, a task which it has largely failed at due to its own inability to dictate action outside of the confines of it's timeslot, it should have been seeking to establish a continuity within it's own little corner of the MCU. A continuity that can co-exist with the films, but neither of which impunes the other. This was given cold contrast in this episode, and this season, with the Peggy Carter and SSR materials. Yes, last year this would have been impossible given that the Agent Carter series was only a pipe dream at that point. But having the series rely on one another has created a stricter, more coherent co-existence between the television universe than any cameo by Samuel L. Jackson was able to create between the series and films last year.

This episode was just a lot of fun, and holds to my notion that episodes that feature Coulson in the field are inherently better than those where he mopes around the office for the full 42 minutes. As much as I love watching May kick people in their various bodily locations, having Coulson in the field and having her running the show from the office worked pretty well. The writers are really adhering to the two-team structure, and that is working out so wonderfully for them. Not only is it given the characters a hell of a lot more room to expose themselves, while also building up dynamics between the team members, but it is also moving the plot along by dividing and conquering.

As with the last episode, rather than dragging on mysteries that don't have the staying power, this episode chose to dispense with a fair chunk of Skye's background, which is intertwined with our apparently ageless Hydra leader. Back in his rambunctious Nazi days, Whitehall was running experiments using the Diviner, trying to figure out what it did, and what use it could be to the Red Skull (odd, isn't it, that in Captain America no one called the Hydra leader Red Skull, and here no one calls him Schmidt). Included among these test subjects was Dollhouse's Dichen Lachman, who exhibited a positive reaction to the device, only for Whitehall to be taken captive by the SSR as seen in the premiere episode. Fast forward the the eighties, after Whitehall has been kept in a secret SHIELD facility, and his discovery that she hasn't aged a day.

In one swift stroke, we dispense with Whitehall's origin and agelessness (that involved a lot of invasive and nondescript surgery) and Skye's origin, determining once and for all that she is not an alien, just alien-ish. Alien-adjacent. Lives down stairs from alien's cousin. It also sets up her father's motivation for bringing the Diviner to Hydra - he's working his rage issues into a solid lather, knowing full well that Whitehall is the direct cause of his family's destruction, be it through his wife's murder or allowing SHIELD to abscond with Skye (whom he is adamant "that is not her name," thus setting up a lingering thread of mystery to-be-resolved). And it was a decisively effective stroke that arranged these reveals. A tidy bow, as it were. I cannot believe that this has been the plan since day one, but I take comfort in the fact that one of the writers recognized early enough on that these various stories could dove tail so neatly into one another. This show doesn't do complex well, so simplicity and contrived coincidence for once work in their favour.

The unequivocal highlight of this episode was Kyle MacLachlan. His lines had the potential to degenerate into slippery hamminess, and MacLachlan has been guilty of that this season, but he managed to avoid it here. The liens he was given were wonderfully overblown, but had an emotional core, and MacLachlan found that core and played to it. He was also having a hell of a lot of fun, reading lines that remind me of some of the better villains with a bubbly comedic quality. His under-the-surface anger matched with constant exasperation and genuine enthusiasm for the hunt for the ancient city (built by "blue angels" who came to destroy us all) made him a hoot to watch. Reed Diamond doesn't seem to be having as much fun, or they aren't letting him have enough fun, as the meniacle Nazi commander, but Skye's dad is turning into an unexpected boon.

The weak link, unfortunately, was once again Ward. Not because Ward returned to his former boring self. He remains interesting in his evilness. And an episode focusing on his torturing his brother, attempting to find the rotten pit from what sprung his vile nature would have been fascinating. But sandwiched between these two stronger and more interconnected stories (Bobbi spent the episode getting into the head of Whitehall's number 2), it just didn't have the elbow room to develop as completely as it needed to, and paled in comparison to the flashbacks in terms of emotional weight. The conclusion too, the off-screen offing of his former life, left to be explained by a news cast (a lazy device, that) rolls off the episode like water off a duck, when it should have clung to the viewer's mind like a limpet. But that we've moved to the point where there were too many interesting stories being told in this episode, that one wasn't interesting enough, then that is a massive improvement from the way things used to be.

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