Marvel's Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode 18 review: Providence
Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is finally moving in the right direction. Here's James' review of Providence...
This review contains spoilers.
Here's the thing I want to know about Agents Of SHIELD: if they were capable of writing a good episode, why didn't they start seventeen episodes ago?
Still, in the wake of the events of last episode/Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Agents Of SHIELD has finally got a mission statement you can actually define: they're rebuilding SHIELD to combat Hydra. This is a hugely encouraging development, because while "protecting the world from weird stuff" might be a laudable goal, it's so general (and overused) as to be wholly uninspiring. This new structure is one I can get behind, because it's something we haven't really seen before: FBI, CIA and other acronym organisations can't really be dismantled, but fictional ones? That's another matter entirely.
The retooling of the show means it's taking the opportunity to throw some new characters at the wall. Adrian Pasdar's Glenn Talbot is a welcome (though fleeting) addition. Not only does the character add that too-often-absent Marvel Universe flavour (he's a sometime Hulk antagonist), he's also cast in an interesting role: someone who, as a member of the armed forces, feels vindicated by SHIELD's failure. Patton Oswalt's Eric Koenig is similarly enjoyable on-screen. In a way, he's what Agent Coulson used to be in the movies: the deadpan, personable guy in charge of exposition. His scenes are instantly brilliant ("Lanyards for others on a case-by-case basis.") and the scenes of him welcoming the agents to Providence is first time the show's landed anywhere near the tone of the MCU movies.
Even the old characters get a few moments to shine. The Fitz/Simmons dynamic has been complicated by Triplett's addition to the team, and it's giving both actors a chance to explore new dimensions for their characters. Simmons has become more confident and assertive, while Fitz is getting jealous and protective. It's a shame their personalities couldn't have diverged much earlier on, but better late than never.
Similarly, it's fun to see Ward slightly break out of his usual constraints, but for my liking he hasn't gone far enough. When Garrett says how hilarious he finds Ward's company man cover identity, he inadvertently highlights just how similar Ward's "real" persona is to that. His actions might be evil in spirit, but they're performed with the same cardboard demeanour he's always had. Come on, man, ham it up! You're supposed to be evil!
One thing that doesn't quite work in this episode is everyone's concern over Coulson's mental state. The problem is that when he thinks Nick Fury might be alive, we know he's right, so it's hard to empathise with those who think he's crazy. That'd be fine if it paid off anywhere, but it doesn't: they all follow him into the wilderness, even when he admits that he's screwed them out of any alternatives. The "We're not agents of nothing!" speech is a good moment for the character, but that conversation would've had more resonance if anyone else's faith in SHIELD as a going concern had been convincingly shaken.
I'm also less than pleased to see the return of Quinn, a villain so dull that I was more than happy to see him packed off to the Fridge. And while I was never even remotely convinced that The Clairvoyant had precognitive abilities, it's hard not to relate to Reina's disappointment over his identity. Paxton makes a charismatic and engaging villain, but that doesn't make him a particularly good pay-off to a season-long mystery.
But still, the bulk of the episode was good. We got visually interesting locations, some intriguing new characters, good moments for old characters and a new mission statement that makes the series stand out a bit. There are still some rough edges, but they're much easier to forgive when things are moving this rapidly in the right direction. Unfortunately, they may have left it a bit late to break out the interesting stuff. It's hard not to be reminded of Dollhouse, the last show Joss Whedon's name was attached to, which manage to bust out its best material just in time for cancellation. And for the first time since the show began, an end-of-series cancellation might feel like a missed opportunity, rather than a merciful release.
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