Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Deals With Our Devils

After several weeks off (but only days since my last review), Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. returned last night with a new episode.

I'm not saying that Star Trek has the monopoly on "characters have been turned into 'ghosts' and everyone else thinks they're dead" story line. Still, The Next Generation did do that exact story, and did it very well. So I think another series is taking on a challenge in trying the same thing. S.H.I.E.L.D., being a far more serialized show with many irons in the fire, had other boxes to check, and this may have crowded out some of the deeper issues Star Trek was able to get at in their take.

For example, the notion that Coulson, Fitz, and Robbie might actually be dead never completely seemed to gel. Daisy didn't believe it from the jump. Even when things started to look grim (and dim) in the alternate dimension, Coulson and Fitz never really grappled with the possibility that they might not make it back. (Emotionally, I mean. The physical struggle with the vortex of darkness didn't really count.)

I guess, putting it another way, the couple of scenes that really did examine the emotions of the situation were fantastic, and I really wish there had been more of them. May's private breakdown (one actually shared, unknowingly, with Coulson) was a great moment about regret and putting off things until it's too late. And Fitz's meltdown at realizing that Simmons would have to hear about his "death" was strong; even with his life in peril, he was thinking more of her.

But speaking of Simmons, her subplot felt to me like an excess element that crowded out time where more of those deeper A story moments could have been found. I'm sure Marvel fans are geeking out over who was hatching from that terragenesis cocoon (if it was made explicit enough), or are geeking out over who it might be (if it was left vague). Either way, it seemed like a distraction in the midst of a life and death situation, and could easily have been introduced in a later episode. After all, between Eli and Ghost Rider and now Aida and her Darkhold knowledge, there are already plenty of ongoing plot balls being juggled without adding another.

The Ghost Rider material didn't quite work for me either. Having the Rider jump into Mack was a neat idea, but the payoff wasn't as exciting. So Robbie doubles down on a pact he's already made? So what? And if the Rider was capable of rescuing Robbie from the alternate dimension all along, why did it leave him in the first place? Wondering about these questions was more time I wish had been spent really grappling with the life-or-death premise at the core of the story.

But while I felt the subplots misfired a bit, I think the overall approach to the script was very strong. Alternating acts, first showing us scenes without the "ghostly" characters, and then revisiting things with them, was a great choice. The higher, meta layer of repetition was effective too -- first, you weren't sure exactly what happened to Coulson, Fitz, and Robbie, and then got to see; second, you got to speculate what those three were doing in the next batch of scenes you were watching, knowing that they'd be there. (If I'm comparing to the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, this was a more sophisticated storytelling technique that really did bring something new to the party.)

I'd peg the episode at a B+ overall. If I found it at all disappointing, it was really just because I recognized potential for something truly exceptional that didn't quite get there. It was nevertheless a very solid hour of the show.

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