Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Identity and Change

Last night's jam-packed Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode carried the momentum of this season's final story arc in fine fashion. The benched characters from last week were brought into the mix, and everybody was put through the wringer.

Despite the darkness of the overall story, the episode found many moments of goofy fun, mostly thanks to casting Coulson as a doe-eyed S.H.I.E.L.D. fanboy. From geeking out over the Patriot to sharing his soap conspiracy, every scene with him made me smile. Coulson is often quite witty in the "real world," but this is another gear to his humor, and Clark Gregg seems to be having a blast playing it.

He's not the only one playing against type in this arc. Brett Dalton finally gets to play Ward as the good guy, as he's only done for the first half of season one. Iain De Caestecker has the other side of that coin, playing Fitz as enthralled villain. Even the less dramatic character shifts, such as Ming-Na Wen's more arch take on May, show subtle and interesting differences.

In those last two characters in particular, Fitz and May, the writers are setting up for great material when everyone eventually gets out of the Framework. Because presumably, they aren't just going to trade their new memories for their old ones; they'll remember everything they did, and "I was brainwashed" will provide only the slightest emotional cover.

Fitz (and Simmons) are going to have to reckon with the fact that he actually murdered someone in cold blood -- and not a mere simulacrum, but an actual human consciousness living in the Framework. May ought to be more conflicted that ever. So much of her identity is built around doing "what has to be done," and while she got validation of that in seeing a reality where her failure to act in Bahrain led to the rise of HYDRA, she also has gone on to commit evil acts in the name of "doing her job." How she'll ever be able to reconcile that should be fuel for a deep character arc.

I'm also impressed at how the episode slid some social commentary in the mix. Mack's story was full of scenes about the abuse of police power and the need to keep your head down and not make trouble as a person of color of America. It was hard not to see the (not-so?)-coded solidarity with Black Lives Matter. Yes, the fascism dial was turned up all the way in this fictitious world, but it wouldn't take many changes to his scenes for them to play believably in the real world -- ours, not his.

Plus, you got callbacks to Patton Oswalt's Agent Koenig and Mack's favorite cheesy movie, and a full-throated "I'm not your puppet anymore" speech from Aida that was everything you'd long expected it would be.

I was thinking this felt like a B+ episode, if only because I didn't quite love it as much as last week's. But thinking and writing through it, I've talked myself up a notch -- I'd call this another A- effort from the series.

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