The Sporting Life S.H.I.E.L.D. Special:
Why Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is the one of the best shows currently on television

Last updated on June 21st, 2014 at 08:45 pm

Coulson's Commandos

ABC is a Disney company; Disney bought Marvel for $4 billion a few years ago; Marvel Comics is a vast fictional multiverse of over 5,000 characters, many of them superheroes, and some very popular with baby boomers, millenials, and everyone inbetween, including just plain folk around the real planet Earth.

Spider-Man is an icon; so is his co-creaor Stan “The Man” Lee. The Fantastic Four (co-created by Stan and the inimitable Jack Kirby) reinvented the superhero genre with the idea of a group of people — an extended family — with superpowers and the responsibility to defend the planet from (super)villains with (super)powers.

That theme of “with great power comes great responsibilty” echoed through the Marvel Silver Age a half century ago when Stan and the Bullpen at Marvel went on and developed another extended family of people with super powers — the X-Men, and Daredevil, The Hulk, The Avengers, and so many other great characters during the 1960’s, esp., Iron Man and Thor — the Norse god of thunder.

A few holdovers from the early days of Marvel / Timely Comics were World War II heroes Steve Rogers and Nicholas Fury. Army private Rogers was given a serum which transformed him into the Nazi-nemesis, superpatriot-supersoldier Captain America, while Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos also wreaked havok on enemies of the Allies in WW2.

Fast-forward to the present (or the 60’s) and Captain America has been lost at sea, frozen (Disney? not really) in suspended animation and thawed out, while Fury has risen through the ranks to become Colonel Fury and with the aid of an “Infinity Formula” remains perpetually youthful and vigorous and in the directorship of a United Nations sanctioned covert security force known as S.H.I.E.L.D. (originally the Supreme Headquarters for Intelligence and Espionage, Law Enforcement Division). That concept was modeled after U.N.C.L.E. (as in The Man From) and other popular spy agencies of the swinging 60’s.

During WW2 the Third Reich was assisted in their scheme for global conquest by a rogue clandestine secret society espionage agency known as HYDRA, led by several super villains such as the Baron and Zemo and the Red Skull, who established functionary elements such as AIM (Advanced Idea Mechanics) and AID (Advanced Ideas for Destruction) and such to facilitate their goals. After the fall of the Axis powers and the end of World War II, it was assumed that HYDRA had been conquered, defeated and dissolved, and was no longer a threat to global security.

Remember Iron Man? He is Tony Stark, whose dad Howard Stark was a genius millionaire munitions manufacturer and inventor. One of his (Howard’s) “inventions” was Captain America, in that he was a principal in formulating the super soldier serum that made him “super” during WW2. In the next generation, son Tony took up the mantle, as a brilliant weapons designer, becoming a “billionaire philanthropist playboy” at the helm of Stark Industries. An incident during a sabotaged foreign weapons exhibition led to him being forced to wear a device (now visioned as an ARC reactor) with magnetic properties to prevent shrapnel from an explosion from destroying his heart and killing him. Around that he developed the suit which makes him Iron Man, and his Stark Industries are the foundation of the technology that allows S.H.I.E.L.D. to do what it does.

Enough backstory: here’s why it matters now — the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU. It’s the great unifying force behind the great Marvel superhero movies of the past (and next) decade or so. Marvel Studios got ownership of as many of its properties as it could (excluding the X-Men, Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Daredevil, and few others) and set out on a bold quest to tell a huge, cohesive story about our world and what would happen if Nick Fury’s S.H.I.E.L.D. pulled together Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and the Hulk, with the Black Widow and Hawkeye, to battle a menace from “out there” — another realm — another dimension — another plane of existence and reality.

So, after releasing films establishing The Hulk, Iron Man (and Iron Man 2), introducing Captain America: The First Avenger, and Thor (remember him), whose demonic half-brother Loki comes to Earth and causes the events of Marvel’s The Avengers, which became the highest-grossing (over a billion and a half dollars worldwide) and most successful superhero film of all-time, written and directed by the (words fail) one and only Joss Whedon, the MCU continues on the small screen.

ABC, owned by Disney (who owns Marvel, remember), last fall brought us an early Tuesday evening fantasy (remember LOST) with sharply drawn characters in constant motion against the unknown, piecing together several interconnected conspiracies at work, at first seemingly unrelated (ala The X-Files) but gradually revealing themselves to be part of a unified overarching major phenomenon.

And, what makes Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD one of the best shows currently on television is that it weaves the story with pinpoint accuracy to dovetail into the events of the motion picture Captain America: The Winter Soldier, perfectly taking its season-long story plot throughlines with their development into the final episodes of the season.

SPOILER ALERT 
KEEP READING ONLY AFTER WATCHING CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER AND ALL 
currently available episodes of Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD

++You have been warned++

We find that the Tesseract from the 1st Captain America movie informs the action of the Avengers film as well as the forthcoming Guardians of the Galaxy film later this summer. HYDRA has been active all this time, invisibly guiding the hand of SHIELD to an ‘Uprising’ of epic proportions. The heroic measures taken by a band of loyal ‘patriots’ led by (the walking dead) Coulson and Skye with May and Fitz-Simmons may be all that stands between the forces of evil (Garrett’s HYDRA) and their (his) goal of ultimate power.

The season finale will really tell the tale, and hopefully set up Guardians of the Galaxy, season two of SHIELD in the fall, and eventually next year’s Avengers 2: The Age of Ultron. Now, the ultimate question becomes: what will Marvel’s Agent Carter, the new ABC fall series with Hayley Atwell, bring to the ta(b)le?

In part one, I described the background of Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD and how the show fits within the framework of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU. I concluded, “it weaves the story with pinpoint accuracy to dovetail into the events of the motion picture Captain America: The Winter Soldier, perfectly taking its season-long story plot throughlines with their development into the final episodes of the season.” The season finale, entitled “The Beginning of the End,” in context of the previous 21 episodes that laid its foundation, ranks among the best hours of television I’ve ever seen, and i’ve seen plenty. Please consider this entire article a huge SPOILER unless you’ve seen all 22 episodes of Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

So, when episode 16 ended, it set up the events dealing with Agent Jasper Sitwell’s going onto the boat where Captain America and Black Widow open up in The Winter Soldier on the big screen to discover the conspiracy that ultimately unravels the agency SHIELD, which has been thoroughly undermined and overrun internally by HYDRA. Picking up the pieces in episode 17 of SHIELD, our band on the run is now coming to grips with the fact that they are less a well-funded unit of a fully functioning global security/espionage/ quasi-military agency, ala Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos, and more like Mal Reynolds and the crew of Serenity in Firefly.

This brings up one more major reason why Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD is the one of the best shows currently on television — it’s a  Joss joint! Mutant Enemy is behind this show, the production company extraordinaire helmed by the inimitable Joss Whedon, and run on a daily basis by Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen, who wrote the season finale episode. As such it is informed by many of the superlative tropes and idiomatic structural devices that master storyteller Joss has employed and perfected over the years. There isn’t room in a book to elucidate all of them in this one superb season finale. Remember that a major theme is the family that is formed by folks coming together.

I frequently imagine Coulson and crew as a Scoobie gang of sorts, much like Buffy’s  crew on the iconic Joss television and subsequent graphic novel project Buffy the Vampire Slayer and other iterations of Joss’ groups in his works such as Angel, Dollhouse, Fray, X-Men, Runaways, Firefly, etc.. I could sorta see Skye as Buffy, Phil as Giles, Grant as Angel, Fitz as Xander, Gemma as Anya, May as Willow (or Joyce?), in a sense. And in the Firefly analogy, would you not see Skye as River? after that, it’s kinda sketchy … Coulson as Mal, Grant as Jayne, and after that, it kinda falters. The direct correlations are not as important as the process and group dynamics that are at the heart of a Joss joint, as well as the sequence of events that typify a Joss episode, which Jed and Melissa’s season finale captured in quintessential Joss style.

So many influences that mirror and echo what we have come to love about all things Whedon. Savor some of the elements and callbacks that would make this episode a splendid drinking game. Starting with the opening recap that gives the moral of the story: what is the essence of safety for the family is what Mike Peterson and his son Ace know: We’re a Team!

The episode opens at CyberTek recalling the Cabin in the Woods operations facility with Bradley Whitfield’s character echoed in Kyle Zeller, who we will later come to know as ‘the Dealer,’ orienting a new employee in this hellish corporation. The rookie employee is motivated by the unique ‘Incentives Program’ we later find out is shorthand for holding a worker’s family member hostage, a big part of Mike Peterson’s continued participation, as well.

Back in Cuba, under the barbershop, which was a Steranko callback, Coulson, Trip, May  (don’t call her the cavalry!), and Skye hack the HYDRA system, dispatch the baddies, and end the battle with a trademark move cued by Coulson’s “Bring the house down!” echoing Tony Stark’s Iron Man’s “House Party!” in Iron Man 3. In the 60’s comics, the entrance NIck Fury frequently would take into a SHIELD facility was through a barbershop, by sitting in the chair and being taken down into the lower levels in it. Nice touch for those who knew to look for it!

Back on ‘the Bus’ (Coulson’s nickname for the fantastic aircraft the team uses as an airborne home and command center and office and warehouse and just about everything, actually: possibly an homage to the yellow school bus Buffy’s gang used in the epic series finale of Buffy), an alien serum-infused big bad John Garrett tears off a steel door, and props it up, yelling for a nail, which he uses to make symbols on the glass; this will be important later.

In the penultimate episode, Garrett convinced Ward to get rid of Fitz-Simmons to prove he isn’t soft. Fitz still believes in Ward’s inner goodness, but not enough to expose himself and Simmons to him without a wall between them. And since that wall is part of a detachable pod, Ward dumped them into the ocean in it. Fortunately it’s a SHIELD multi-use habitat, and sank to the bottom of the ocean, which we find is 90 feet down, enough to cause the bends and other complications. Fitz is feeling negative and Simmons is feeling positive as they contemplate their (lack of a) future and eventually talk about death. Gemma is totally enraptured with the ramifications of the 1st Law of Thermodynamics, and waxes eloquently about how matter and energy are neither destroyed nor created but transmuted, and that their constituent elements were once star stuff and maybe 10 billion years from now will be part of a super nova, and everything in-beween, that they are deep underwater where life began, and they have been part of creatures who have evolved…. love that girl!

But also during the first half, Garrett gets progressively nuttier and more maniacal, and inspires Raina, who he calls “Flowers,” to ask him “What will I become?” (evolution, remember?) to which he doesn’t respond. He does respond to an irritated four-star General Jacobs, played magnificently by the masterful Glenn Morshower. Cute moment: Ian Quinn introduces John as their strategy consultant, and when Jacobs balks, he responds, “He’s part-time” like when Thor said of his brother Loki, “He’s adopted” in The Avengers. Jacobs calls Garrett out on his insanity, calling him a crazy son-of-a-bitch, so Garrett gives him “a demonstration” by snatching out the general’s vertebrae, causing a painful death. The general was irritated by the incursion of our heroes.

Just before that, Coulson had given the Nick Fury ‘One Man’ motivational speech: “a man can accomplish anything when he realizes he’s a part of something bigger; a team of people who share that conviction can change the world” and entreated his troops “Are you ready to change the world?” to which ‘the cavalry’ replies “I’m ready to kick some ass!” They implemented a plan to smash their way in. Favorite line from Triplett: “Sir, I bring the noise and the funk wherever I go.” Channeling Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Tim Burton’s  Batman (1989) by declaring “I’ve seen the future”, Garrett gives us the episode title while killing the general, by saying, “This is the beginning” which prompts Ward to say, “the beginning of what, John!?” His answer, “The End.”

So, back to Skye as Buffy and Grant as Angel? Raina tells Grant that he needs to figure out if he is a monster (ala Angelus), and what is his true nature versus what Garrett made him become. Then she reminds him that Skye’s nature is quite possibly to become a monster like her parents, so maybe they can be monsters together … awwww! Skye and May have infiltrated the CyberTek master control suite for Deathlok and the other supersoldiers. May brandishes a gun and Skye tells them all she has a bomb in a backpack, so Kyle implements the ‘Default Directive,’ which causes the soldiers threatening Phil and Antoine to go protect John. And as the first half comes to a close, Skye calls John, causing Mike and Grant to listen closely, and John tells her Fitz/Simmons are dead, which totally pisses her off. John tells Grant to go get her. Mike tells John “I was told to never leave your side” which prompts the narcissistic nutjob to quip, “I love you, too!”

Evolution as a theme is also very important in this episode on many levels. And their relationship definitely evolves a bit as Fitz raises Simmons’ “You’re my best friend in the world” with “Yeah, you’re more than that, Gemma” followed by tears, huge hugs, and smooches. Fitz plans to sacrifice himself so that Simmons can make it to the surface after they blow the window, but when it does, she hauls him along with her to the surface, where we are wondering how or if will they ever be found in time. And, right on cue, midway through, the man, Director Fury, reaches out a hand to Gemma from a hovering helicopter! Samuel L. Jackson’s Fury is integral to the final half of the program, and not just in a Stan Lee- type cameo; he has many lines, action scenes and interactions throughout.

After waking in a hyperbarick chamber on Fury’s jet, Fury tries to tell Simmons that she saved Fitz but she replied “It was the other way around.” Fury tells her they found them by tracking their SHIELD frequency beacon, and he asks if she has something that can help him find Coulson. She smiles and does. Back at CyberTek, Grant takes a bead on Skye who is quizzing Kyle “Let’s talk about Incentives.” May checks in and clocks Ward upside the head, and they battle it out for while and she makes good on her plan from the last episode to use her “Hate Fu” to take Ward down.

Phil finds John and punches him in the face without noticeable effect, and John knocks Phil across the large room up onto a balcony and behind some tanks. Looking up, he sees Fury, who gives him a big, big blaster gun (like the one he wielded against Loki in The Avengers), which he uses to take out several soldiers in four bursts which depletes the weapon. Fury pumps a dozen bullets into Garrett, also to no effect. After Garrett spouts some more rambling crap, including referencing their (Phil’s and John’s) ‘blood brother’ ties and how that allows them to do stuff, Fury says to Coulson, “You didn’t tell me he’d gone this crazy” to which Phil replies, “He’s really stepped it up a notch.” Note at this point that John, Phil and Skye have all been exposed to and influenced by the alien serum. Mike has joined the fray, and Garrett assumes he will finish off the two (former) SHIELD leaders. Meanwhile, Skye has liberated Kyle’s wife Kyla (I know, right?) and Mike’s son Ace, who she calls their “Ace in the Hole.”

There’s a nice exchange here where John misquotes Fury’s speech, saying a man can accomplish any thing once he realizes he can become something bigger, leaving out the “a part of” part, prompting Fury to exclaim that all this whole HYDRA path thing he took is ’cause he misheard his one man speech. There’s a cute moment when Skye pulls a HULK action figure for Ace out of the backpack she duct taped to Kyle, who thought it was bomb: “Oh, man!”

When John bids Mike to take them out, Skye plays her Ace, transmitting a message to Mike from his freed son, “Dad, what are we? We’re a team” inspiring him to blast John, and then stomp him like a bug. The foot stomp echoes a Buffy episode where the demonic monster of the week was insect size, and got stomped. After the Marines round up the CyberLok baddies, Phil lambasts Ward, describing his forthcoming internal tortures, and May chimes in, as well, to remind him that some of those tortures will be external. On a bank overlooking the facility, Skye and Mike part ways, with Mike promising to make amends, doing so for Ace’s sake, rather than surrendering to the current “authorities”.

Garrett rises from where he had been left for dead, and mounts the cyber enhancement chair, where he is fitted out with a full exoskelton and cyberbody parts, and smirks, “There’s a reason they say cut off the the head.” This harkens back to the classic HYDRA mantra, “Hail Hydra, Cut off a head, and two shall take its place.” Feeling reinvigorated and inspired to wreak havok again, he exclaims, ” Now, I’ll be uns….”  and before he can finish the word unstoppable, he is disintegrated by a blast from another weapon wielded by Phil, who exclaims, “Hey, guys, I found it. Told ya’ it’d be in here!”

On the bus, with the smaller jet moored on the top of it, Phil exhorts Fury, “Stupid, stupid, stupid! and cruel! and stupid!” admonishing him about employing the T.A.H.I.T.I. project to restore him, to which Fury responds that it was “a break glass in case of emergency measure.” When Phil says, “That emergency was supposed to be the fall of an Avenger.” Fury immediately replies, “Exactly! And I’m damn glad I did it!” it becomes crystal clear that Fury considers Phil to be an Avenger. He tells Phil what SHIELD was built for — protection, they talk some more. Fury hands the reigns to him, along with silver adorned cube he calls a “toolbox,” challenging him to rebuild the agency. “There’s no one else I’d trust with this,” he says.

The new Director takes the posse to coordinates found within the cube, a secret base called “The Playground,” hosted by Patton Oswalt’s Billy Koenig, “Eric passed away, sadly.” So, are the Koenigs clones, LMDs or what? LMDs are Life Model Decoys, another  SHIELD innovation from the 60’s that is an humanoid android replica of a person, usually deployed when the agent or subject is under eminent threat of assassination. Elsewhere, Raina visits one of Skye’s parents in a secure facility, and shows a picture to the obscured parent.

In a short, dialog-free epilog, in the middle of the night, Phil gets out of bed and goes to the storage area where the door with the etchings Garrett made are stored. He studies them and then starts etching alien designs into a blank wall with a knife. It makes it easy to notice the exquisite score by Bear McCreary, which climaxes with a “Thoom” sound effect ala LOST. FADE TO BLACK. roll credits… a thoroughly brilliant, intricately woven, awesome hour of television, packed with way more elements than this recap could cover, that gets better with each re-watching.

Notice the theme of TEAM runs throughout. The alien serum which had made “Blood Brothers” of Coulson and Garrett finally unites them in the language they are inscribing…where will that take us next season? And what is Raina going to do with the gravitonium?

So, to review: this show has it all…great action scenes,  a cohesive story line, multiple threads of mystery, a complicated and attractive team of heroes and complex, multi-layered opposition characters/villains, an incredible score (Bear McCreary), a mythology (and weapons and tech) that extends at least as far back as World War II, cool guest stars, exotic locations, a connection to a major motion picture story plot through line perfectly timed to the film’s release, phenomenal writing, and smart beautiful powerful kick-ass women, kickass directors (Joss Whedon, Jonathan Frakes, Roxann Dawson, Kevin Hooks), aliens and gods, murder and mayhem, romance and intrigue, briliance and insanity, heroism, courage, and whimsy. Even the best commercials and plenty of UST, (Unresolved Sexual Tension = the superfuel of drama), oh, and Lola (another Steranko innovation from the 60’s)!  Don’t yield; back SHIELD!