Wednesday, May 17, 2017

World's End

The Framework story arc of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. may have been the single best stretch of episodes in the show's history, but it didn't quite stick the (superhero) landing.

I worried last week that the writers had left themselves far too much plot to wrap up in the one episode they had left, and indeed they did. While we did get an ending on almost every point, we didn't necessarily get "closure" -- the pace was too rushed for that. Consequences of several major moments weren't really explored (Fitz watching "Simmons" die in front of him, Mack readjusting to the real world, Robbie having to leave his brother again). And many of the scenes in the episode "started late" without any establishing camera shots or dialogue -- very clearly, an episode that had come in several minutes too long had been reduced to its required running time by chopping off the start of multiple scenes.

Nothing seemed more rushed to me than the sudden, artificial ticking clock that kicked off inside the Framework. Aida's decision to shut down the Framework made sense enough for her character, but was clearly a contrivance to add jeopardy to Yo-Yo's rescue of Mack. Adding an element of danger wasn't a bad notion in and of itself, but it set things up in a way that in the end, there wasn't even really a rescue. Mack's daughter Hope just disappeared on her own, leaving Mack no reason to stay in the Framework anyway. Yo-Yo or no, it seems like Mack story would have resolved the same way, with him ready to leave the Framework of his own volition.

There was a clear effort to unite the season under one big Darkhold umbrella and call back elements of all three season four story arcs. But to me, the older elements felt like they didn't belong. The return of Robbie and the Ghost Rider was an almost literal deus ex machina, a god descending (well... devil rising) from nowhere to take care of the big problem for everyone. There was an intriguing tease that the temporary swap of the Ghost Rider from Robbie to Coulson meant something important, but by choosing to play it for future suspense instead of exploring it now, we didn't really get any emotional weight out of it.

The LMD elements felt even more tacked on. In an episode that already had too many things, we got still one more thing in an LMD Daisy shooting Talbot. The government being after the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (hey, that's the name of the show!) was already a thing, so this felt like a throwaway moment to remind us that LMDs were a thing this season. We didn't even actually get a sudden death to be shocked by, as they rather inexplicably declared Talbot to be in a coma despite taking a bullet square in the forehead.

For all the extra elements wedged into the episode, one element felt conspicuously left out -- no one else used Aida and Fitz's machine to transfer from the Framework to the real world. I guess the writers truly never had plans for this; they did destroy the machine in a previous episode with no indication of another one coming, and the basis of their story conclusion (having the Ghost Rider taking personal offense to Aida's existence) probably means the Rider would have wanted to kill anyone else in a constructed human body too. Still, it just seems like such a missed opportunity to do something of huge significance to the show: bring back Ward or Triplet, explore whether Radcliffe could ever do anything to earn trust again, or force Mack to reconcile being a father with a long-term commitment he'd made to S.H.I.E.L.D. and his friends there.

While I may have pointed out a lot of negatives above, though, the episode wasn't without its good moments too. If they weren't going to keep Radcliffe alive somehow, they certainly gave him the most poignant end possible: alone and at last reflective and wistful, denied even the chance to finish his final words. (Great camera shots in that sequence too.) Coulson and May agreed to make up for the loss of that all-important bottle by backing up a bit and finding another bottle to open together when the time was right.

On the more horrific side, we saw Fitz's raw emotion as he watched Aida torture Simmons to death right in front of him. (The impact of that for Fitz felt real, even with the reveal that that Simmons was an LMD.) There were also, as always, plenty of great one-liners, particularly from Coulson: sorry he missed the Ghost Rider/Quake team-up, blase about how the extraordinary is quite ordinary in his world (he has a robot hand, he wakes up in space), and playful about the differences between May and Robot May.

Still, I wish for a finale that had been worthy of what came before it. This was a B- finish to a top notch story arc. Top-notch season, actually, because I'd have to say that even though the opening Ghost Rider episodes weren't my favorite, season four overall was probably the best year of the show to date.

Even though the show was on the bubble in the ratings, we are going to get another year of it. So I guess we'll be back in the fall. Until then...

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