Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. — The Good Samaritan
We’ve now hit the quarter mark of the fourth season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and perhaps that’s appropriate with the themes explored in “The Good Samaritan” and the overarching plotlines we’ve seen so far with its latest character, the Ghost Rider. After all, so many of our agents live their lives a quarter-mile at a time. Ride or die. Or whatever, I don’t think any of that has anything to do with anything, but the point is we’ve now hit the point in the season where the game has become clear (or at least translucent) and all of the new heroes and villains of the year, all of those stories told and all of the new developments at S.H.I.E.L.D., that whole slog — it finally got to the point, and that is that the scientist ghosts, bad as they seemed, were all victims of the real big bad… wait for it… Ghost Rider’s uncle…!
Now normally when there’s a twist in a story, the range of reactions lie somewhere between surprise and a total lack thereof (with varying levels of disgust sometimes adding another dimension) but in this case, what I probably felt most when I saw that Uncle Eli move ahead with his master (?) plan was indifference. Granted, part of that indifference stems from my general disengagement with this show’s supernatural elements, and maybe that’s on me, but even if the scientist ghosts of yesterday had managed to hold me in rapt attention, I just don’t feel like the storytelling so far this year has naturally led to any sort of twist. Between the non-linear storytelling with the ghosts, the many other things going on with the agents, Daisy, the Watchdogs, and S.H.I.E.L.D., and a lack of any real clarity with Uncle Eli in the first place, finding out he’s really the bad guy landed with neither a thud nor… whatever the opposite of a thud is. A bang? Do things land with a bang? Regardless, at the end of the day, we now have our new villain, and with his ability to literally create something out of nothing, he may be a very powerful one at that, even if the extent of these powers so far has been the mass creation of inanimate carbon rods. More importantly, the ghosts are all dead, and maybe that means we’re moving on from them forever, and that can’t be a bad thing. I for one feel much better about where this show is going now that we have an identifiable, tangible bad guy.
Reading those last two paragraphs, you might think I’m pretty down on “The Good Samaritan”, but I was actually relatively pleased with the episode when taken in as a whole, and most of that is because of how well Ghost Rider’s origin was told. Caught up in whatever Uncle Eli had going on with the rest of the scientists at Roxxon (in a delicious shoutout to Agent Carter [though I half thought they were referring to Hammer Industries when Fitz hinted at what evil corporation was involved]), Robbie and Gabe Reyes were nearly killed by mercenaries hired to kill Eli resulting in a car crash that left Gabe crippled and Robbie dead, but when Robbie made a deal with the devil, he was resurrected as the spirit of vengeance. That much was already relatively clear from previous episodes, but seeing these events in a well-realized action scene gave them much more meaning, and the look of total remorse on [Ghost Rider actor] Gabriel Luna’s face as he realized he may have just gotten his younger brother killed was really convincing. It’s kind of too bad that these types of truly affecting moments have proven to be a rarity on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but that does mean that when they do come, they can hit pretty hard.
There was also some fairly boilerplate stuff between Director Mace and former Director Coulson, and I don’t see how that could’ve done much for anyone other than establishing Mace isn’t great but also isn’t bad in a fight and Ghost Rider may be one of the strongest superhumans S.H.I.E.L.D. has faced yet, but by the end of the episode, we had a new direction, the ghosts were gone, and a cliffhanger left us wondering how Coulson, Fitz, and Ghost Rider could possibly have survived the explosion that gave Uncle Eli his powers. Easily probably, but precisely how remains to be seen.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is back on November 29.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. “Lockup” episode score
The Flash — Monster
In “Monster”, the latest episode of The Flash, the team contends with giant, building-sized monsters as they welcome their new Doctor Wells (from Earth-19) to the fold and Caitlin seeks help with her Killer-Frost condition from the most unlikely source of all: her even frostier mother.
I gotta tell you right now, I had a lot of trouble getting through this episode of The Flash (at least to the extent one can have trouble with things like lying on the couch or passively watching a TV show). I can agree with where The Flash is going in mixing things up with NuWells (or “H.R.”), fleshing out and setting up Draco as a more reasonable character, and more firmly establishing the strained relationship between Caitlin and her mother alluded to last season when Earth-1 Caitlin met her Earth-2, Killer-Frost counterpart, those are all threads worth setting, establishing, and following through on, and they’re all things that change the show in their own way, but “Monster” struck me as a particularly samey episode, and after setting up a new big bad, making some new rogues, and even exploring a universe-shattering event that changed and reset some core elements, it’s a bad thing that this show never really changes.
With H.R. NuWells, we have the chance to establish an entirely different dynamic with the Flash team, possibly letting Cisco and Caitlin take charge a bit more since this Wells has almost no scientific acumen and is, instead, more of a useless artist type looking for inspiration for his new novel, a development that made me laugh once I thought about it for a bit. Unfortunately, the word “dynamic” applies much more as a noun than a verb with “Monster” because everything in the episode follows the established paths that have been so finely established in The Flash. Caitlin’s Killer Frost inquiries with her mother revealed a small betrayal and a quick resolution and Draco Malfoy’s attitude reflected his feelings of helplessness when it comes to dealing with metahuman threats. Shrug. Notably absent this episode are the West children, Iris and Wally (well, they’re there but they didn’t do much), and if there’s one thing “Monster” gets right, it’s not shoehorning everyone into a story that really doesn’t involve them. After two preceding episodes with a pretty full cast, it was good to focus back in on the original Flash team (or what now passes for it).
Everything that happens in “Monster is important, maybe even interesting in some ways, but there’s nothing surprising about the events leading up to these points, and the show’s starting to feel like it’s incapable of doing anything more than it has in the past. It seems there are few surprises left and precious little energy in a season that already seems to have used up all of the potential intrigue of its new villains, new powers, new speedsters, multiple Earths, and Flashpoint.
The Flash is back on November 15.
The Flash “The New Rogues” episode score
Legends of Tomorrow — Abominations
I came into this week’s episode of Legends of Tomorrow after writing more than a season’s worth of episode-by-episode analyses of the show, with what I thought was a pretty good handle on what the show is and isn’t capable of, and even, via weekly previews, a pretty good idea of what the episode was going to be about. Civil War zombies. In one way, I watched exactly what I expected of the episode — a damn mess — but what I actually saw in “Abominations” was something totally unexpected: an ambitious episode of Legends of Tomorrow. And a really weird one too.
For whatever reason, zombies are a weirdly good fit for the Civil War era (maybe it’s the poor, unhygienic living conditions of the camps), so it really wasn’t all that surprising to see zombies running around in Confederate uniforms (though the mechanics of zombification coming from some future plague leave enough to the imagination that I kind of hope we get to that adventure some day), nor was the idea of Nate “Time Detective of Steel” Heywood and Sara going out to convene with the Union Army very surprising given that they’re probably the two fittest, lightest-haired, and whitest members of the team, but the directness with which the writers decided to tackle the racism of the era was really jarring. Jax’s initially cavalier attitude to the whole situation was also in keeping with Legends’ style (see last season’s “Night of the Hawk”), but it was finely tempered against his knowledge and acceptance that he, as a black man, is going to have a tough time in almost any era the team travels to, and that combined with the brutal honesty on display with the subjugated black slaves, whipped at their white masters’ leisure, and kept in chains in backroom stables made for an unusually meaningful episode. I for one never expected to see a Legends of Tomorrow where one of the main characters has a discussion about slaves having their balls cut off.
It’s just too bad about the whole zombie thing then, a plot point that led into our other two stories, one with Nate and Sara assisting Ulysses S. Grant against the zombie Confederates, and the other a close-quarters horror movie of sorts with the infected Heatwave stalking the human flesh of Ray and Stein aboard the Waverider, because as well done and in the upper echelon of Legends of Tomorrow adventures as they may be, they’re a bad fit in an episode of Legends that’s actually about something. Really bad actually because it winds up juxtaposing a serious and continuing issue against an utterly ridiculous and completely fictional monster movie cliché. Now I could talk for at least a few more paragraphs about the usual problems I have with Legends of Tomorrow and how they’re still on full display in “Abominations” (Why does Firestorm keep unmerging while still on the battlefield? Why do they fight the zombies hand to hand when so many of them fire energy blasts? Is it really not a big deal that Ray came up with a cure for the zombie virus? Why don’t the Legends travel to a time before the time pirate spread the virus rather than after?), but I won’t because all of that feels like it’s missing the point. The real abominations in “Abominations” are real, non-fictional, a part of our history, and still a part of our present, and eradicating them won’t be nearly as simple as formulating a chemical cure or gathering them all into one place and blowing them up. And if only this show knew what it was really doing, “Abominations” might have been a great episode instead of only a good one.
Legends of Tomorrow “Abominations” episode score
The Walking Dead —The Cell
Did they seriously name this episode “The Cell”? They can’t do that, they named last week’s episode “The Well”! And I don’t think we ever even found out what that well was!
Anyway, last week, after the cataclysmic, senses-shattering debut episode of The Walking Dead season 7 that saw two of our main, long-term cast members killed, we had a comparatively restful episode in establishing the Kingdom, King Ezekiel, his tiger, and their relationship with Negan’s Saviours. This week, in “The Cell”, we follow up on what’s happened with Daryl, who was taken captive by Negan after killing Glenn and Abraham, and even though he spends a lot of the episode by himself, lying on the floor in the dark, the episode was far from restful.
You could call “The Cell” the Secret of My Success episode of The Walking Dead as we learn more about the extent of Negan’s world and how much further his operations go than simple intimidation and into full-on bullying. In shows like The Walking Dead where the differences between then and now form the premise of the show, it’s important for us to know that Rick was a sheriff and family man, it’s important that we know that Glenn was a pizza delibery boy, that Carol was a homemaker, and Daryl an unemployed neerdowell. Those are sources of employment and positions in life, but, more importantly, they’re how the characters self identify and they let us know how they see the world, and no matter how far we’ve come from the way things were, you can still see at least a shred of who these people were in everything they do now. Seeing what Negan puts Daryl and, really, everyone in his camp through in “The Cell”, it’s obvious that whatever occupation Negan had before, he was always a monster and the zombie apocalypse was just what he was waiting for to really express himself.
For an episode about what happened to Daryl, we actually spend quite a bit of time with Dwight and Sherry, they of the betraying-Daryl-and-stealing-his stuff storyline from season six. Even though I should’ve seen it coming, I was surprised last year when it turned out that Dwight had hooked up with Negan and the Saviours, and though I should’ve seen it again this year, I was surprised when it turned out that Dwight and Sherry had actually been part of Negan’s group before we first met them when Daryl ran into them. It’s through Dwight that we learn what it’s like to work with Negan and how his people are nearly as much prisoners of his megalomaniacal reign as those against him. Negan likes his power, but he really likes screwing with people, whether it’s torturing Daryl with horrible pop music or taking Dwight’s wife and flaunting it in his face. By this point, regardless of how close Dwight has come to being in Negan’s inner circle, he knows everything he’s given up to be there, and with how much time we spend with him in “The Cell”, there’s almost no way that Dwight isn’t going to prove to be part of Negan’s eventual undoing.
I’d, of course, be remiss if I didn’t mention the tonally jarring opening sequence of the episode that framed Dwight’s life in Negan’s compound almost in a sort of sitcom light, complete with a direct reference to Who’s the Boss. It’s obviously a significant changeup for how the average episode of The Walking Dead opens, and it’s clear it’s meant as a brutal juxtaposition to the horrific circumstances, but what really made the sequence work for me was the triple head turn, because it was in that one moment that I could feel that the writers were really screwing with all of us.
As much as we may have learned about Negan and Dwight in “The Cell”, I wasn’t totally onboard with the episode until one crucially important moment, and that’s when Daryl, in his cell, flipped the polaroid over and Roy Orbison started playing. It wasn’t seeing Daryl cry that got to me so much as the whole situation felt like a moment for all of us to slow down and really think about how much we’re going to miss Glenn (and maybe Abraham). That really sold the episode for me if only because it broadened the range of emotions on display.
The Walking Dead “The Well” episode score
A solid week all around and a tie for Legends of Tomorrow and The Walking Dead, but if we have to give it to one show above the others, this week’s prize goes to Legends of Tomorrow just because it tried something different.