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Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. — Deals with Our Devils

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Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. images courtesy of Disney-ABC Domestic Television

This week Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. makes its long-awaited return after a three-week hiatus and—honestly, it’s getting a bit hard to remember why we watch this show other than it’s on TV. That’s not to say that “Deal with Our Devils” was a bad episode, it wasn’t and I don’t think any of this year’s episodes have been actually bad, but now that we’re in the show’s fourth season, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has gotten to the point where you kind of just watch it to watch it. You know what this show is, you know what this show isn’t, you know what this show is probably never going to be but would like to be (i.e., important to the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe), and if you’ve gotten this far with the show, you’re most likely going to stay on this train for as long as the track will last.

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“My axe is plenty sharp. And a shotgun. Which… actually isn’t a very practical axe handle.”

“Deals with Our Devils” “deals” with the immediate aftermath of Uncle Eli’s turn towards villainy and the accompanying explosion that left three of our agents apparently dead, and… it was what it was. Not a whole lot actually happened in this episode in the sense of forward progress on the back of what’s just happened so much as it was just the second part of a cliffhanger with implications for the rest of the season, showing us what happened, rather than leading us very far into what’s going to happen. While Eli makes his escape, killing several [unnamed] S.H.I.E.L.D. agents in a more brutal manner than at least I was expecting, Coulson, Fitz, and Robbie/Ghost Rider have been converted into the same ghostly state that the evil scientist ghosts had found themselves in (before the writers wised up and got rid of them [because they sucked]). In some ways it seems like a wasted opportunity to not describe this state as the same sort of thing as astral projection à la Doctor Strange, but I guess that’s just more typical Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. as the red-headed stepchild of the MCU for you.

On the bright side — and don’t get me wrong, there was more positive than negative in “Deals with Our Devils” — the parallel storytelling involved was clever as the still-living agents tried to figure out what was going on with their missing teammates while the ghosted Coulson, Fitz, and Robbie tried to make their way back to the land of the living, presented first with the corporeal sides of the story before the incorporeal. At first it looks like Coulson, Fitz, and Robbie may have died in the explosion (as usually happens to people caught in explosions), but we then see the exact same scenes over again as the newly ghosted trio find themselves unable to interact with the world around them, and the story flows in a way that actually takes advantage of this predicament. In one scene we find Robbie’s Uncle Eli making his escape while seemingly speaking nonsense, then we’ll see that he was actually speaking to Robbie himself who Eli, through his new powers, can still see and hear. Later we see Robbie’s Charger, now being driven by Daisy in hot pursuit of Mack (who’s temporarily taken on the Ghost Rider spirit), with a heretofore unseen gash on its side followed by the same scene with Robbie, who was also in the car as a ghost, complaining as Daisy scratches up his ride, remarking that it’s only invulnerable when he’s driving it. Even later, when Aida suggests herself as being exactly the incorruptible being needed to read from the evil Darkhold in order to save Coulson, Fitz, and Robbie, we find out her inspiration was from Fitz himself, and it all comes together in a surprisingly satisfying way that effectively bridges any dissonant gap between what we saw before and what we wind up knowing about the overall episode.

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What, a black man can’t ride a motorcycle like a badass without the man thinking he’s possessed by a demon?

By episode’s end, the day seems saved (except, maybe for those slain S.H.I.E.L.D. agents who we’ll, no doubt, never again hear about), Robbie’s made a new, even worse deal to get the Ghost Rider demon out of Mack, Daisy still can’t bring herself to rejoin her former teammates, Aida may be taking an Ultron-like turn due to the Darkhold’s influence, and we now have a new matter-manipulating villain, and that’s all solid stuff for the back half of this season. It’s all fine, it’s all good, it was even kind of smart sometimes, but we’re also left with the question of what’s really going to happen in our TV world of new Inhumans television projects and possible Ghost Rider spinoffs. Faced with those prospects, our favourite agents may finally be running out of track.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. — “Deals with Our Devils” episode score

3.5


Supergirl/The Flash/Arrow/Legends of Tomorrow — Invasion!, the four-part crossover

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Images courtesy of Warner Bros. Television Distribution and Time Inc.

Speaking of long-awaited, we’ve finally gotten to the point (in our lives) that all of us fanboys (and girls!) could only ever dreamed about until recently—a four-part crossover superhero spectacular. Well, maybe make that three-part crossover. Well… actually it’s more like two-and-a-half parts. Really, you could’ve just skipped Supergirl entirely and started with The Flash if you were so inclined.

Honestly, though, even for a cold, heartless, and deliberately distant person like me, it’s hard not to get almost giddy seeing Supergirl, Team Flash, Team Arrow, and the Legends of Tomorrow all together in one week-long crossover event. AND they all gathered at the Hall of Justice! There’s usually something at least a little bit special about multi-night television crossovers, something a little different in the air even when they don’t always take full advantage of the scope of what it is they’re proposing in smashing two different worlds together (I’m looking at you New Girl and Brooklyn Nine-Nine). What makes these sorts of “two (or in this case, four) worlds collide” events so exciting is that they combine strong personalities with strong personalities, forcing the striking differences between pieces that don’t normally into a shape that has to work together, and that’s good drama. Nobody wants to see two limp-noodle characters who barely want to do anything both grudgingly and passively agreeing on a course of action that makes logical sense because they have no choice and their choice wouldn’t have changed much anyway. That’s called real life. And nobody’s going to watch a show about that.

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It’s an alien space ship! And it’s full of invaders who hate metahumans! Oh my goooooddd!

Perhaps the best thing we got to see in the “Invasion!” crossover is a strong attention to detail and the payoffs to longstanding elements of this universe that haven’t been seen in a while as these characters continued away from each other in their own stories. In one instance Barry asks Mick where Snart is and it not only makes sense that he wouldn’t yet know, it’s a fulfilling moment that further extends the payoff of Snart’s sacrifice when Barry finds out that the former villain died a hero. In another, Iris is surprised to find out that Oliver Queen, the rich playboy who’s now mayor of Star City, is also the Green Arrow. That makes sense too! Even when Stein and Jax talk to Barry about his cryptic future message, seeded several episodes ago in Legends of Tomorrow and thankfully paid off before too long, it’s a subtle reminder that we first met these two in The Flash and the two have a pre-existing connection to the fastest man alive in particular. By the crossover’s end, that message and its implications are (or at least seem to be) wrapped up, a lot of emotional ground has been covered for Team Arrow, and the changes that Barry brought forward with Flashpoint have all been brought to the surface and (hopefully) moved past, and it’s genuinely surprising that so much dramatic material was covered and crossed off the list in the midst of a big alien invasion.

And then there’s all the fighting! I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited by The Flash than I was with its part in “Invasion!” because we finally got to see, more than any fight in Legends of Tomorrow, a widescreen interpretation of what these characters can do in a big group. The Flash takes the opportunity to explore the hoary old trope of superheroes fighting each other, and it does it well (though it does necessarily water down Supergirl into mostly being a flying/heat vision robot) before Arrow shows us another classic superhero story trope, heroes trapped in their greatest hopes and dreams, followed with Legends wrapping everything up in a goofy, sloppy, but surprisingly satisfying way.

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They’re all brainwashed! And they’re coming to kill us! Oh my gooooooddd!

It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows with “Invasion!” however, and I would say that my most serious issues with the crossover are entirely with pacing. I loved the first assemblage of the team and all-out superhero battle that was The Flash, but it’s immediately followed by a much slower episode with Arrow, and we don’t even find out who the Dominators (our alien invaders) are or what they want until Legends of Tomorrow’s concluding chapter and revealing these crucial elements so late robs our adversaries of any essential threat or meaning. In fact, most of the drama of “Invasion!” comes from the pre-existing internal conflicts of these shows, and it seems like more than just a bit of a waste then to use such a big, world-shattering villain for such a personal storyline. Add to this that the show never really does find room for all of its heroes (Speedy just disappears after Arrow, most of Team Arrow only appears in Arrow, Nate and Amaya only appear in Legends, in the end Supergirl, Flash, and Firestorm still kind of make everyone else look useless), the crossover’s continued sloppiness in basic logic (How did Ray get his armour back after escaping the Dominator ship? Why was said escape so easy? Tranquilizers screw with powers? Amaya’s powers aren’t even biological! If this was such a big deal why didn’t Supergirl bring J’Onn or Mon-El… or Superman?), and how much of a ripoff it felt to us that most of the important parts happened in the shows we already watch while Supergirl and Arrow mostly went off in their own directions, and you have an event that was far from perfect.

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They’re fighting aliens! And one of them has a terrible new costume! Oh my gooooooddd!

This was an event though, bigger and more ambitious than almost any previous television crossover, and for its part it mostly worked. It had action, adventure, and heart, it found at least a little bit of time to service each of the shows’ individual ongoing storylines in ways that mostly felt organic, and it even had some thematic resonance as it wrapped up (hopefully, dear gods, hopefully it wrapped up) the guilt Barry’s felt over Flashpoint. When Barry asks Diggle whether or not he’s forgiven, Dig replies to Barry “You have to forgive yourself,” and that’s a surprisingly meaningful and profound moment to cap a campy, silly, goofy alien invasion with. Yeah it’s weird that Barry’s essentially asking Diggle if he forgives him for changing the timeline in such a way that his daughter was erased from history and replaced with a son, but that’s just the world these people live in, and it’s a good wrap up to the many implications of Flashpoint. At least it will be until the day the kid starts having gender identity issues, possibly influenced by his parents openly discussing the time one of their friends altered their universe by running at superspeeds transcending time and space, and now he’s a boy.

“Invasion!” four-part episode score

4


The Walking Dead — Sing Me a Song

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The Walking Dead images courtesy of AMC and Skybound Entertainment

Can we talk about that Westworld finale for a minute? No? You’re not here for that? Well, I’m going to talk about it for a [hot] minute anyway. Man was that good TV! Despite us all living in this far-out theorizing, fan soapboxing, post-Lost world we call the Internet, where almost every major twist and turn the show could have taken was already predicted weeks ago, and despite the fact that most of the better predictions came true, the season finale of Westworld managed to deliver a satisfying hour and a half of television, and that’s because we, the audience, cared. We cared about all of these people, the hosts and the humans, because their experiences all rung true to something we either know about humanity, whether it’s the doomed, banal romance of Dolores and Teddy or the machinations of the Delos Corporation and their attempts to take back control of the Westworld park. There’s a core human experience in Westworld — what it means to want and yearn, to feel heartbreak, and to go through profound, utter, and complete loss — and even though the show wallows in the implicitly sorrowful understanding that suffering is at the base of who we are, it was still a lot of fun to watch in each and every one of these last ten weeks of its airing. I can’t wait for season two!

And then there’s The Walking Dead.

That first paragraph [about Westworld] might not have meant much to you, it might not even have meant anything, but honestly, I think you’re living in a sad, sad world where you’re not watching Westworld but you are watching The Walking Dead. And I, by and large, still like The Walking Dead. I might even have actually really liked this week’s episode of The Walking Dead. We learned more about Negan’s compound, the Saviour’s, their inner workings, and the terrible cost of stepping out of line in Negan’s world, and for the first time, we saw a side of Negan that’s truly vulnerable. At the core of his being, Negan’s a lot softer than we’ve realized. He was genuinely impressed by Carl, he actually likes Carl, and he wants Carl to like him back, and when he accidentally upset Carl, I think he was truly sorry. Negan just wants people to like him. But he also just happens to want people to serve him as if he were their king. And he’ll burn people alive to make them that way. That’s all illuminating stuff, the kind of stuff that gives our latest villain more dimension than previous bad guys like the Governor. It’s good stuff, bordering even on great when given to us by someone like Jeffrey Dean Morgan.walking-dead-sing-a-song-carl

There’s seriously a world where I would really have liked “Sing Me a Song”, I can imagine that, I can almost see it. But it’s not this world. Because in this world, I’ve read the comics. Oh sure, that’s always been a bit of a prickly issue in the past, it’s over-prepared me for certain situations and given me insight(s) that I most likely wouldn’t have had otherwise, but as good (and bad) as The Walking Dead has been in its time with us (now seven years and counting!), there’s usually been just enough turns, bends, swerves, and deflections that I didn’t usually feel like I knew what was coming, at least not exactly. Not so exactly. Not like now.

walking-dead-sing-me-a-song-ironBut I’m willing to be the bigger man, I’ll put that aside for now and admit that if you’re not a comicbook reader, you learned a lot in this episode that seems like it’ll add much needed layers to what’s coming next, which, hopefully, will be all-out war. Obviously Eugene and Rosita are making bullets to be used later, obviously Spencer’s got plans of his own, obviously a lot of people are gunning for Negan, and obviously we’re spending time with Dwight and Sherry for a reason. And obviously we still have the Kingdom’s potential to become a real threat to the Saviours. That’s fine. That’s okay. That’s all been slow, very slowly told, but… maybe it’ll be okay.

If we had to have an episode like this (and we probably did), I’m glad that we got someone like Jeffrey Dean Morgan to give it to us, I’m just not happy that it’s following in near-lockstep with with what people like me have already read (and moved on from). I’m also not happy that it’s been preceded by almost an entire half-season of similar set up. I’m also really not happy that it was a lot better in the comics because TV Carl looks like he’s seventeen when this story was originally written for a Carl who was closer to ten or twelve years old. And finally I also wish they had played up Negan messing around in Alexandria more. The barefoot carpet moment was great, but I needed more. Maybe Negan jumping up and down on the beds (if there were any left), maybe Negan playing video games, or taking a bath, or even just playing around with the water taps a little bit more. And then just casually killing someone. Maybe Spencer. For being a sh*t.walking-dead-sing-a-song-jump

The Walking Dead “Sing Me a Song” episode score

2.5



“Invasion!” wins the week. It wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t great, but it was really, really good. But, y’know, if it was part of the list, Westworld probably won the war for best overall show.


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