And so we continue. The first seven episodes of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. were a decidedly mixed bag, the portrait of a show whose ambition far outran its early ability or genuine sense of self. There’s a general consensus that it wasn’t until the final stretch jumping off from Captain America: The Winter Soldier that the series really figured itself out, but how much was worth salvaging in the lead-up? Let’s continue our look back…
Episode 8: The Well
A lot of fans still have a chip on their shoulder about this one, owing to how it was sold: Heavily hyped as a tie-in to the just-released Thor: The Dark World (and thus the series finally getting around to being the MCU reference-fest some are still demanding), instead its movie connections turned out to be tenuous at best (Aww, man! You just missed Thor! He was totally here!) and after a jokey opening moved on to a Thor-adjacent story that could’ve been done anytime movie or not.
Me? Well, while the tie-in may have been lame I still contend that this is one of the standouts of the season. The MacGuffin (an Asgardian staff that gives you super-strength but also makes you hyper-aggressive) is cool, Peter MacNicol is great in a guest-spot as a working-class Asgardian who’d rather chill on Earth and the glimpses into Ward’s abusive childhood are good early teases at how complicated we’d eventually find out he is.
But the showpiece is seeing Ming-Na Wen finally get to cut loose as Agent May – first in a standout fight scene and later in the first character-oriented “Whoa!” stinger of the series when she invites Ward into her room. She becomes (and remains) the most consistently interesting person on the team from here on out, both for the complicated nature of her character and the formula-breaking nature of the show opting to (temporarily) pair their resident “young hot guy” character with a partner two decades his senior.
Episode 9: Repairs
For some reason people seem to really like this episode, but for me it’s an easy contender for Season’s Worst with 0-8-4. It’s not so much that it’s terrible or anything, just that it’s the definition of dreary filler, ostensibly “important” in series-canon because it’s the first time we’re told the backstory for May’s jaded introverted-badass persona (apparently she’s strung-out over having to kill a yet-unnamed cult leader who may have been a supervillain of some stripe in the recent past); but there’s no reason that information couldn’t have been fit into a better episode.
Other than that, it’s a “monster of the week” clunker, with The Agents trying to help a young woman who might be possessed, then might be telekinetic (oh yeah, this is also where we find out that psychic powers aren’t supposed to exist in the Marvel Universe yet, so there’s that) but then turns out to be being stalked/guarded by the dimensionally-displaced “ghost” of a dead factory worker. Not a bad premise for a “scary” episode, but very dull execution.
Episode 10: The Bridge
Like The Well, this was another solid installment that was derailed by misdirected hype and the four-week break that followed. It was implied that the series’ big running mystery, “What really brought Coulson back to life?,” would finally be answered (and not a moment too soon, since the drawn-out reveal was already getting irritating), but instead the actual answer got pushed off for after the break – a development that makes this one of the more often-cited “jumping off points” for fans who just didn’t want to stick it out anymore.
It wasn’t a total wash, though: Mike Peterson’s (at the time seemingly brief) return was a good development, and Raina came back with more to do than stalk around being vague. Still, it’s hard to justify all the stretching and waiting considering how things panned-out next…
Episode 11: The Magical Place
Someday, I want to find out if there was an “original plan” for how Coulson’s story was supposed to play out and, if so, how much it differs from the way it was executed here. I just can’t quite wrap my head around the showrunners heading into this series and not recognizing that, however novel it may be as a reversal of expectations, revealing Coulson’s resurrection to be fairly mundane (by Marvel standards) was going to annoy and aggravate even generous fans (like me, for example) …especially since the anticlimax of a reveal is immediately followed by “The real question is… why?” – i.e. “and now this thread starts all over again, too.
Yes, it’s not a bad episode overall on its own and yes, the subsequent Coulson revelations get progressively more interesting from this point on… but this was supposed to be the thematic turning point for this series, and it just wasn’t; no matter how many seeds it laid down. And speaking of which…
Episode 12: Seeds
As far as I’m concerned, this is the best episode of the season – maybe overall and definitely of the pre-Winter Soldier business. The setting (S.H.I.E.L.D.’s gifted-youth academy) is interesting, the main plot (troubled-teen origin story for supervillain “Blizzard”) is good, Fitz/Simmons playing detective among the school’s classroom cliques is fun and the big third act action sequence features some of the best FX the series has displayed (not saying much, but still…)
But the real show is in the B-story, wherein we not only finally get (most) of Skye’s origin: Not as another drawn-out tease, not as another succession of misdirection but as a nice clean drop: She might not be human, S.H.I.E.L.D. Agents hid her, etc. It’s a good turn, it makes nice use of Coulson’s new “rogue” attitude and the idea of Skye coming fully “around” from hacktivist to S.H.I.E.L.D.-booster is both a solid arc and the good kind of misdirection for how untrustworthy The Agency would soon be revealed to be.
Episode 13: T.R.A.C.K.S
T.R.A.C.K.S didn’t hold up as well as I thought it would on original viewing – which is weird because I was figuring that foreknowledge of what’s happening behind the scenes (in MCU timeline terms) about to spill-over into Captain America: The Winter Soldier would elevate everything from Seeds on… but no.
It turns things around in the third act, but the fractured timeline gimmick doesn’t really serve any purpose. What’s left is a pretty decent action episode elevated by the return of Mike Peterson (and the beginning of his rebirth as Deathlok) and the “Skye has been fatally shot maybe” cliffhanger.
Episode 14: T.A.H.I.T.I
The final big “mythology” episode before everything goes to hell in the aftermath of Winter Soldier, and you can already see the “we’ve finally figured this thing out” pieces clicking into place. The team are gelling as an action unit in the race to avenge/cure Skye, Bill Paxton and BJ Britt debut as Agents Garrett and Tripp and instantly feel like key building-blocks that should’ve been there all along and the only note that felt “off” on initial watching (Ward and Garrett killing those two guards at the secret hangar) makes a lot more sense now.
This is also, of course, where we get the big curveball that the serum that revived Coulson (and subsequently Skye) is apparently the blood of a dead, blue-skinned alien(?) humanoid under S.H.I.E.L.D. lock and key; a mystery that gets sidelined for the more immediate events of the season’s protracted climax but will surely play a big role going forward. Either way, the series was pretty much on fire from this point on.
Episode 15: Yes Men
Not the best episode, but the best use of a movie cameo that isn’t Nick Fury yet. Jamie Alexander makes a fun star turn (beaming in from the Thor movies to battle Lorelei, and it’s a nice sorbet before all the Captain America: Winter Soldier fallout to see The Agents roughing it up with the swords & sorcery side of their universe.
Continuity wise… it does kind of a feel like a story that could’ve stood to come earlier in the season. As is, it feels like a weird (if amusing) interruption – especially considering the heavy focus on (temporarily) mind-controlled Ward.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier turns the entire series upside down, big questions finally get answered and S.H.I.E.L.D. – both the show and the Agency – will never be the same again.