Last night Agents of SHIELD had its season one finale, setting up their new post-Captain America: The Winter Soldier status quo. The final run of episodes saw agents go bad, callbacks to stories from throughout the season, the death of the Big Bad and one team member left in unknown condition. In its final moments the episode, The Beginning of the End, set up where the show would go from here: rebuilding SHIELD at the behest of Nick Fury, who is now in hiding.
The show began on very shaky ground, and eventually got so bad I had to quit watching. I came back in the post-Winter Soldier episodes because I wanted to see what they were going to do with the destruction of the titular agency. This seemed like such an opportunity for the show to reinvent itself that I assumed what came next would be exciting, interesting and informed by the painful lessons of the first half of the season. Instead I got a show that continued to be about people having fights in hallways and empty rooms, about characters who constantly explain what happened in the last scene to each other and that felt like the kicked-to-the-curb step-sibling of the mighty Marvel Cinematic Universe.
I wanted to like the show. From the start I wanted to be into this show, to be a fan, to get a weekly dose of Marvel magic. But Agents of SHIELD never gave me what I wanted - good writing, strong characters, compelling drama - and while the final few episodes ramped up the danger and twists, none of it held my attention. These characters were still the same boring people, even Ward, who had been revealed as a Hydra agent. Instead of making him a villain the show immediately softened him, giving him a heart of gold that will clearly form the basis of his arc next season.
The season's final episodes had floated the idea that the procedure which resurrected Agent Coulson was such a bad idea that Agent Coulson himself, before his death, had said it shouldn't be used. Could he be going nuts? Degrading? Having trouble? No, and the show had Nick Fury appear in the finale to hand wave it all away, which epitomizes the show's general lack of drama. The show has explained how Coulson came back and even given him a clean bill of health, but it feels deeply uninteresting and without impact.
One of the highlights of the final episodes was Bill Paxton as Garrett, the Hydra sleeper agent who was running Ward all along. He gave it his all, throwing himself into the pulpy fun side of the character. He was let down by terrible writing when Garrett gets dosed with an experimental version of the magic juice that brought Coulson back to life; Garrett gets vague super powers (throwing stunt men around on wires, basically) and talks about being one with the universe. They were clearly going for 'evolving into a god,' a very popular Marvel Comics trope, but didn't really write that story out.
The season ended with teases for next year, including hints that Skye's parents are actual monsters, but mostly it's all back to square one. Coulson and his team still have the plane but also now have a secret base. While SHIELD Is gone the show never felt connected to anything larger, so the lack of higher-ups shouldn't change anything at all. The show killed off Patton Oswalt a couple of weeks back, but he's there at the end of the finale - a twin? A clone? A Life Model Decoy? It's a testament to how bad the show is that I simply don't care. I also don't care what has happened to Fitz (or Simmons?) who was rescued from a box at the bottom of the sea but somehow injured/changed/crippled in the process. They don't really reveal what happened to him, and I'm in no hurry to find out.
The new status quo is that SHIELD is being rebuilt in secret. There are Hydra cells across the globe that need to be taken out; this at least gives season two the focus that season one was missing. The show needs to embrace more comic book elements next year - give us Hydra uniforms! The super soldiers in their generic camo were visually boring and disappeared into scenes. Give us another Big Bad in the vein of Garrett - someone who can go broad and fun - but make him distinctive, not just White Guy Played By Character Actor.
The show also needs to get its art design act together. Every episode has scenes set in non-descript offices in the Valley, all lit flatly and barely decorated. By the end of the season I was nostalgic for that crappy episode where they were in some South American cave; at least that set looked different. I guarantee I could take screenshots of five different episodes and you wouldn't be able to tell me which episode they're from.
They also need to up the stakes. Bringing back Patton Oswalt is nice - we all like Patton - but they're undermining the concept of death so severely that none of it matters. They've killed off minor characters, like Victoria Hand, but they need a death that shakes things up or feels personal. This can even be acheived by just blowing up Coulson's car, Lola, which never plays into the show and, when it does, looks like shitty cheap VFX.
There were bright spots in the final few episodes, signs that maybe the show could yet figure itself out. New agent Antoine Triplett is a step in the right direction, as is his box of Howling Commandoes spy tricks, inherited from his grandfather (Gabe Jones, I assume). That box of tricks was one of the few times this season when the show really nailed an interesting tone similar to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Garrett's final anticlimactic fate was a great touch, very in line with the work of Joss Whedon. It fit as well.
That's what the show needs - better, wittier writing. The characters are so bland that they can be reshaped in season two by better writers. The show's budget doesn't have to hold it back from creating interesting, dramatic situations that unfold without endless exposition for dummies. The show needs to focus less on driving trucks through cardboard gates and more on character interactions and stories.
I'm not sure I'll be tuning in for the season two premiere. I'm all about Agent Carter, but Agents of SHIELD is going to have to pull off something impressive to get me back next year. An appearance by Baron von Strucker in the premiere would be both appropriate and interesting enough to get my attention. More super powered characters would help. Getting Deathlok into his traditional outfit would make a big difference. Killing the shit out of Skye would be nice, but that won't happen.
We'll always have Netflix.