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Saturday, 12 December 2015

Agents of SHIELD S3 (First Half)

Agents of SHIELD
Series 3 (First Half)

Okay, so, Agents of SHIELD will never be at the top of my list of favourite television shows. It's not even at the top of my list of favourite television shows that air on a Tuesday, since that's also when The Flash airs. But I do enjoy it: Sometimes more, sometimes less, nobody will ever be able to claim that it doesn't have dramatic spikes and troughs in quality in each series, but I always get at least something out of each episode. I like the characters, it has great acting talent, and the writing is generally at least passable, and sometimes fairly strong.

I was especially excited for this series, since we were purportedly getting a slightly revamped SHIELD and a Skye (sorry, Daisy) led team, and while one of those things really only came to pass late on in this half of the series, so far I don't feel like I've been let down.

In the third series, SHIELD, committed to tracking down and training new Inhumans, clashes against the ATCU, a rival spy organisation with a more draconian approach to dealing with inhumans. As the two organisations are forced to work together to deal with Lash, an Inhuman spree killer who is tracking down and murdering other Inhumans, Ward attempts to rebuild Hydra in his own image, and finds himself coming up against both SHIELD and the remnants of old Hydra in the process. Meanwhile, on a distant alien world, Simmons struggles to survive, and quickly learns that she is not alone - there are two other beings on the planet, a human astronaut named Will, and a terrifying, powerful entity that desolated the planet once before.

Also, Bobbi and Hunter do things.

So, this series has indicated a definite shift in structure - while the first series was strongly episodic, and the second series blended serialised storytelling with episodic stories, the third series is almost entirely serialised. It works, to be honest: Serialised storytelling can be difficult to do well, but the writing staff for Agents of SHIELD seems to be better at serialised stories than they are at episodic ones.

Part of why this works so well is that there are plenty of plot threads to work with, meaning that it's rare for one to be lingered on long enough for anyone to become bored by it. There's the ATCU-SHIELD plotline, the Hydra plotline, the Lash plotline, and at various points in the series, a Hunter-wants-to-kill-Ward plotline and a Fitz-wants-to-find-Simmons plotline. The one time an episode does focus on a single storyline to the exclusion of all else, it's during an episode chronicling Simmons' time on the alien world of Maveth, and while it's a bit of a slow build, it's actually a pretty astounding episode, combining a character study with grim, creeping horror.

Some of the plotlines work better than others. The whole ATCU-SHIELD plotline is one of the strongest, sold largely on Constance Zimmer's excellent acting as Rosalind Price and the fun, engaging to watch interactions between Rosalind and Coulson; the Hunter hunting down Ward storyline, meanwhile, is undeniably the weakest, and its end was a small but delightful mercy.

I too like to have my psychiatry sessions in a vast, concrete, brutalist room.

The plotlines all come together towards the end of the series, when the ATCU is revealed to be infiltrated by Hydra, and Hydra's ultimate goal is revealed to be bringing back the godlike Inhuman on Maveth to Earth. It's an excellent set of midseason finale episodes, combining tension and drama with just enough comedy and a lot of pay-offs on ongoing plotlines.

Not a perfect set of midseason finale episodes, I should note: Rosalind is killed off in a fairly unpleasant, archetypal women-in-refrigerators moment. Her death doesn't really serve the plot at all, instead just robbing us of an interesting character who provides a great counterpoint to the SHIELD cast for the sake of giving Coulson angst and a reason to go after Ward. Which is great, but he already had reason to do that: Ward is a treacherous Neo-Nazi who has murdered numerous people and tried to kill even more, Coulson has plenty of reason to want him dead already.

But the episodes do set us up well for the latter half of the series: Daisy has her Secret Warriors, Ward is dead (finally, finally) and his corpse possessed by the godlike Inhuman, and Lash is free. When the series returns, it will have a lot going on, but it will probably have to add at least one more interesting plot thread if it wants to keep up the slick, concise serialised storytelling it's had so far this series.

Coulson is like a happy labrador.

All in all, this is probably the best series of Agents of SHIELD yet. It has its flaws, and they're particularly pronounced and noticeable this time around, but the writers and cast seem to have found their niche, and if they can keep up the momentum and level of quality in the first half of the series into the second half, then this will be a very strong series. 

Incidentally, why on earth did they put 'Are you Inhuman?' on their promotional banner? Are they trying to go for a Divergent thing here? It's not working.

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