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In ‘Beloved,’ Secret Invasion Kills Off Any Suspense

Secret Invasion episode 4 review Beloved kills off any suspense with fake out character deaths

This discussion and review contains spoilers for Secret Invasion episode 4, “Beloved,” on Disney+.

At times it feels like Secret Invasion just can’t help itself.

“Beloved” ends on a somewhat similar note to the previous episode, “Betrayed.” A member of the show’s primary cast lies in the middle of a road, seemingly dead. Towards the end of “Betrayed,” G’iah (Emilia Clarke) was shot by Gravik (Kingsley Ben-Adir). At the end of “Beloved,” Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) is stabbed through the chest by Gravik. This is, on paper, an effective way to establish stakes and to convince the audience to invest: Anyone can die.

It is such an effective narrative shortcut that Secret Invasion has already employed it three times in its first four episodes. On top of the deaths of G’iah at the end of “Betrayed” and Talos at the end of “Beloved,” the show’s premiere, “Resurrection,” built to the death of Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders). Two-thirds of the way through its six-episode run, only the second episode, “Promises,” hasn’t concluded with a cliffhanger built around the death of an established character.

To a certain extent, this demonstrates that Secret Invasion exists in the uncanny valley between franchise entertainment and prestige television. This is a production affecting the surface-level narrative conventions of a more upmarket television series. That includes casting Emilia Clarke as G’iah, an actor who will likely forever be associated with Game of Thrones. Indeed, the greatest legacy of Game of Thrones might be that it was the show to really sell the idea that anyone could die.

As ever, there are a couple of problems with the execution, a recurring sense that Secret Invasion recognizes this device as something that better shows regularly employ without actually understanding how to use it effectively. It’s like all the international espionage, charged conversations, and suspense sequences in “Betrayed.” It has the rough shape of something resembling good television. However, the execution is just a little bit off, so it feels unconvincing.

Secret Invasion episode 4 review Beloved kills off any suspense with fake out character deaths

Tellingly, none of these deaths feel emotionally compelling, shocking, or satisfying. In fact, the deaths of Maria Hill in “Resurrection” and of G’iah in “Betrayed” have opened up debates about whether Secret Invasion is “fridging” its female characters, using their deaths as emotional leverage for Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Talos rather than treating them as characters with their own agency and arcs within the larger narrative.

To be fair to Secret Invasion, the question of “fridging” is more complicated in a live-action television show (which the Marvel Cinematic Universe arguably is) than in a film or a comic book. On television shows and in long-running franchises, these departures aren’t always decided by writers in a vacuum. They can be forced by an actor’s limited availability or a desire to move on. Naturally, these departures get written in a way that affects the characters and actors who remain on the show.

It is a bigger issue that these deaths feel completely hollow and pointless. There is no emotional reality to any of them, which defeats their dramatic purpose. Sure, Fury confronted Hill’s mother (Juliet Stevenson) in “Promises,” but the character’s death has largely been treated like a plot point. In “Beloved,” it only really comes up when the Skull posing as Rhodey (Don Cheadle) uses footage of Hill’s death in an effort to blackmail Fury into stepping aside.

This is frustrating. Secret Invasion may not be able to convincingly replicate the thrills of prestige espionage shows like The Americans or The Night Manager, the latter of which co-starred Secret Invasion regular Olivia Colman, but it should be able to offer some of the excitement of an old-fashioned network thriller like 24. 24 was not high art, but it was an effective weekly television series, great at mining drama from the death of regular and recurring characters.

Secret Invasion episode 4 review Beloved kills off any suspense with fake out character deaths

24 was a pulpy action show that understood its assignment. Part of the thrill was the understanding that beloved characters could be killed off arbitrarily: Teri Bauer (Leslie Hope), Bill Buchanan (James Morrison), Edgar Stiles (Louis Lombardi), David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert), Michelle Dessler (Reiko Aylesworth), and Ryan Chappelle (Paul Schulze). These moments weren’t always hugely emotional, although some were, but they were often visceral and effective.

On paper, the deaths in Secret Invasion should work the same way. After all, G’iah is played by Emilia Clarke. Clarke is television royalty, in a very literal sense. She is a huge star. Casting her in Secret Invasion and then unceremoniously killing her off would be a daring and provocative move, like Brian De Palma’s decision to kill off the characters played by Emilio Estevez and Kristin Scott Thomas in the opening scenes of Mission: Impossible. It should get the audience to sit up and take notice.

The problem is that Secret Invasion cannot sell any of this. G’iah’s death at the end of “Betrayed” is undone before the opening credits of “Beloved,” using flashbacks to reveal that she actually upgraded herself to a Super Skrull before Gravik shot her. It’s a lazy reveal, one so predictable that it feels disingenuous to conceal it from the audience and wait until the next episode to reveal it. Just two minutes into “Beloved,” the biggest dramatic beat of “Betrayed” is walked back.

To be fair, even if “Beloved” didn’t immediately reveal G’iah’s death as a fake out, modern franchise media has done a lot to undermine the idea of death as a dramatic concept that deserves to be taken seriously. In Star Wars, Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) can survive being thrown into the reactor of the Death Star and Cobb Vanth (Timothy Olyphant) can heal up in a bacta tank. On Star Trek: Discovery, Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz) can be resurrected a season after his death.

These properties are far too precious and too cynical with their toys to allow them to be discarded. There is a solid argument to be had that the idea of the “shock death” is a hoary old cliché, but somehow the “shock death followed by a reveal that it was a fake out and really the character is fine” is somehow even more egregious and offensive. It’s one thing to use a cheap narrative trick for emotional leverage; it’s another to use that trick and backtrack to undermine any emotional fallout.

As such, none of the deaths in Secret Invasion carry any weight in the moment, because they are all Schrödinger’s Character Death. It is entirely possible – in many cases, it is likely – that these deaths will be reversed by the end of the show or even by later adventures within the shared universe. The audience watching Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) killed and revealed as a Skrull at the start of “Resurrection” knows he’ll probably be back.

There are plenty of other smaller examples of this, where Secret Invasion is too beholden to the conventions of modern franchise storytelling to convincingly sell the beats that it needs to sell. Secret Invasion keeps crediting Smulders as a “special guest star” in the end credits, which suggests that she’s likely going to return before the end of the season, possibly in a post-credits scene. Once again, the issue is less that she will, but more the sense that it is possible and even likely.

There is a similar logic at play with the reveal that recurring character Rhodey is a Skrull — and presumably has been for a while. On paper, this isn’t a bad twist. This is a story about shape-shifting infiltrators. It makes sense to build that story to a reveal that somebody is not who they claimed to be, and there is something subversive in the reveal that it is a character that the audience knows and loves. Cheadle is having a good time, hamming it up and playing his villainy to the crowd.

Secret Invasion episode 4 review Beloved kills off any suspense with fake out character deaths

However, this reveal is undercut by the fact that the audience knows that Cheadle will be playing Rhodey in Armor Wars, the upcoming feature film. As a result, there is no ending to Secret Invasion that places the real Rhodey in any genuine peril. It is inevitable that the Skrull will be exposed and that Rhodey will be restored. Under these circumstances, the show cannot generate any palpable suspense around what is an ostensibly high-stakes reveal.

To a certain extent, this numbness comes from overexposure, that modern audiences are too familiar with the business logic that guides these shared universes to see these narratives as anything more than shadow plays. Everybody with a phone and an internet connection knows the company’s larger plans, the contract terms of the major performers, the twists in the source material, and other real-world constraints on the production.

However, there’s also a sense in which the Marvel Cinematic Universe has brought this on itself. It has trained viewers to be cynical and ironic in how they approach its storytelling, and it has made fans privy to the inside baseball that plays out behind the scenes. Even Secret Invasion itself is guilty. “Beloved” begins with a dead character resurrecting after the previous week’s cliffhanger, so how could it possibly expect the audience to take this week’s dead character cliffhanger seriously?

It doesn’t help that even the nuts-and-bolts execution is incredibly slapdash. G’iah’s resurrection and escape hinges on the idea that Gravik just shot her and left her for dead in the middle of an open road. At the climax of “Beloved,” Gravik escapes from Fury when Pagon (Killian Scott) drives into the middle of a firefight on a motorbike, which none of the machine gun-carrying soldiers bother to shoot at. It borders on camp, which would be fine if Secret Invasion didn’t cloak itself in self-seriousness.

“Beloved” is another example of Secret Invasion as a show that wants the audience to take it seriously, but it ultimately can’t put the work in.

About the author

Darren Mooney
Darren Mooney is a pop culture critic at large for The Escapist. He writes the twice-weekly In the Frame column, writes and voices the In the Frame videos, provides film reviews and writes the weekly Out of Focus column. Plus, occasionally he has opinions about other things as well. Darren lives and works in Dublin, Ireland. He also writes for The Irish Independent, the country’s second largest broadsheet, and provides weekly film coverage for radio station Q102. He co-hosts the weekly 250 podcast and he has also written three published books of criticism on The X-Files, Christopher Nolan and Doctor Who. He somehow finds time to watch movies and television on top of that. Ironically, his superpowers are at their strongest when his glasses are on.