The nice thing about immediate TV recaps? Immediacy, mostly: Real-time reactions for the readers, encouragement to watch carefully and pay attention for the writer. The down side? Near-complete lack of hindsight, at least as individual episodes are concerned – sometimes what feels like a big deal or a meaningful event in the instant aftermath reveals itself to be the opposite later, and the same can be true of things we disliked the first time.
I’ve spent the last year recapping, in detail, each weekly episode of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. With that season now concluded, (and a new one on the way) I figured it’s time to reclaim some of that overlooked hindsight and (briefly) look back at the entire first season: What I was right about, where I went wrong and what it all meant.
Episode 1: Pilot
As first episodes go, this one did its job. Granted, a lot of what might have been tedious exposition had already been handled by The Avengers, but in terms of “new for the show” information the new characters, the basic team dynamics and the setup are handled pretty efficiently. The main story (Mike Peterson, unwitting augmented-superhuman) is compelling on its own, though it does help highlight just how pointlessly long it took for the Project Centipede storyline to play out.
The main problem? Way too much time spent setting up the “Rising Tide” fake-out re: Skye. The idea of a shadowy Marvel version of a cyber-libertarian “hacktivist” collective to oppose S.H.I.E.L.D as more-or-less The NSA is interesting and politically loaded, but there’s too much focus given here (and in the next few episodes) for the way it ultimately pays off.
Episode 2: 0-8-4
One enlightening thing about taking the long view of the now-concluded season? The layout feels a lot more deliberate in total than it did in pieces. With rare exception, almost every episode has at least one new plot element or character beat that adds up to the kitchen-sink chaos of the post-Winter Soldier episodes. Unfortunately, “necessary to the meta-plot” doesn’t always translate to “good,” and 0-8-4 is an early example of a bad episode. Not much happens, the big mystery (an “alien” artifact in an ancient Incan\ temple is actually an old HYDRA weapon) is a bit of a letdown and the guerrilla enemies are a snooze.
There’s just not much reason for this one to “be,” apart from a Nick Fury cameo, continuing to tease about Skye/Rising Tide and explaining what “0-8-4” means; though it was a nice early lesson for Marvel fans to modify expectations when it came to fan service – I’m honestly a little embarrassed that the Inca temple had me hoping that Jack Kirby’s Eternals might’ve been a plot point.
Episode 3: The Asset
At the time, it felt like this was going to end up as one of the important episodes just based in being (part of) a super-villain origin for Marvel C-lister Graviton. Instead, Graviton wound up being (sort of) present for the season finale but not really playing a role; while evil businessman Ian Quinn (who seemed here like a one-off gag: “What if Steve Jobs was Goldfinger?”) turns out to be it’s big contribution to series canon – though he makes so little impact here that when he showed back up later I had to remind myself who he was.
Still, this is a fun one. I especially like Skye’s “field work” opposite Quinn for the way it plays around with the edgy (for ABC, at least) moral/political dimensions of Skye’s tinfoil-hat fraying at the edges as she’s confronted with how much her supposed techno-anarchism lines up with Quinn’s regulation-dodging greed.
Episode 4: Eye Spy
Another good one. The elements of ’60s-style “mod” spy aesthetic (the red-masked bankers, the guys in the vault) are a fun change of, the remote-control eyeball-implants are an ingenious plot device and it’s good to see Agent Ward actually display some of those super-spy skills they kept telling us he possessed. I’m still a little disappointed that Agent Amador didn’t become a recurring character, since her presence and backstory with Coulson were both interesting and played well.
Episode 5: The Girl in the Flower Dress
Considering how important Raina became in later episodes, it’s a little surprising how muted an impact she makes in her debut. It’s still a solid episode, mixing lots of much-needed worldbuilding about how the presence of superhumans on Earth is both managed by S.H.I.E.L.D. and integrated into the broader “normal” world with a good standalone story about CENTIPEDE tricking a well-meaning super into becoming the would-be villain “Scorch” for dubious reasons.
The B-story, in which we (finally) learn that Rising Tide was just an invention of Skye’s to seek help in cracking S.H.I.E.L.D. open to look for info on her redacted childhood, is a good payoff to that whole through-line but feels like it’s coming too late – now we have to do the “earning trust” arc again – but I’ll still give them points for making Skye’s screw-up a genuine disaster instead of a minor “oops.”
Episode 6: F.Z.Z.T.
This is a weird one, in retrospect; starting out so-so with the show and the characters in full-on X-Files-wannabe mode investigating mysterious self-electrocutions with a sort of uncomfortable “topical” twist: the victims are volunteer firefighters who’ve contracted an “electrical virus” from a Chitauri helmet scavenged as a souvenir when they assisted at The Battle of New York – an obvious echo of mystery health problems that plagued 9-11 first-responders. There’s a good dramatic beat for Clark Gregg, but otherwise it’s kind of a wash.
However, when the plot rolls over to its main focus (Agent Simmons contracts the virus and now has mere hours to cure herself) it gets a lot stronger. Good “serious” scenes from everyone, and a final “rescue” beat for Ward that still works even if we now know differently about his overall intentions.
Episode 7: The Hub
And here’s another episode that really only exists to introduce a new location (the titular “Hub,”) a new character (Saffron Burrows as the sadly soon-to-be underutilized Victoria Hand) and to give Ward and Fitz an obligatory “bonding” episode so that Fitz’s later structurally-necessary role as the lone Agent who won’t accept the truth about Ward has some kind of background. Yeah, it’s cute to see the usual team structure upended, but very little comes of it.
What’s strange is, it feels like it was supposed to be an important episode. Hand is a major character from the comics, but the role she ends up playing on the series could’ve been filled by any made up beaurocrat. Sure, the fact that she seems like a long-term player makes her ultimate fate a nicely-executed bit of misdirection, but it still feels like a miss in the interim. Nothing really comes of the duo-swapping between “Skyward” and Fitz/Simmons, which is supposed to be the center of the story this time, save for Fitz’s aforementioned fondness for Ward… and even that never actually comes up again until the post-Winter Soldier turnaround.
The Agency gets more nuanced, Skye’s backstory starts unfolding and Coulson finally starts getting his answers … but how does it hold up now?