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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is doing everything right in its final season premiere

Illustration for article titled iAgents Of S.H.I.E.L.D./i is doing everything right in its final season premiere
Photo: Mitch Haaseth (ABC)
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Funny, fast-paced, and full of action—Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is back, and it’s coming out swinging. After one of the weirder renewal strategies in recent memory (ABC renewed the series for a seventh and final season before the sixth had even aired, and this after almost canceling it following both of the previous seasons), the series is back to tell one last story, and it’s everything that makes S.H.I.E.L.D. fun. The character beats are earned but not overly hammered home, the action is sharp and kinetic, and there’s a good joke every few lines. Did we mention the time travel? Oh yeah, there’s time travel, and we’re in the 1930s. Welcome to the Tough Brunos Of S.H.I.E.L.D. 

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“The New Deal” burns through a lot of plot in a short amount of time, but it never feels rushed. Quite the opposite: For doing as much as it does, the pacing here gives our protagonists ample time to breathe, without letting up on the sense of momentum that builds from the second we watch the Chronicoms kill some cops, steal their faces, and launch into an ambitious plan to destroy S.H.I.E.L.D. before it even has a chance to get rolling. (Longtime S.H.I.E.L.D. director Kevin Tancharoen is to be commended, especially since the episode lacks much in the way of the action sequences that are his usual forte.) At first, they think the Chronicoms are targeting FDR, because he’ll eventually establish the SSR, which in turn becomes S.H.I.E.L.D. But no, we’re after a much more unexpected target: The Chronicoms are after Freddy, a.k.a. the father of Gideon Malick, future Hydra bigwig. To prevent the undoing of S.H.I.E.L.D., the team has to protect the progenitor of one of its most bitter enemies.

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Thematically, you couldn’t ask for a more appropriate way to close out this series. The idea that our heroes can only save S.H.I.E.L.D. by saving Hydra embodies the mentality that you don’t get to pick and choose who you rescue, and also nicely implies the eternal duality between the two sides of action to reshape the world. If there’s always a force ready to try and stop injustice, there will be an opposing force trying to bend the planet to its will. A Cheney for every Thunberg, if you will. For six seasons, we’ve watched as our protagonists have demonstrated a willingness to sacrifice everything in the name of doing the right thing, and so it feels fitting that their final act would be doing the right thing to help the wrong people just as much as the right ones. When it comes to an alien force threatening humanity itself, there’s no animosity with former villains. There’s just people, and the ancient synthetic semirobotic beings who want us gone.

Illustration for article titled iAgents Of S.H.I.E.L.D./i is doing everything right in its final season premiere
Photo: Mitch Haaseth (ABC)

It’s actually pretty impressive how little hand-holding takes place to bring the audience up to speed when the episode begins. Rather than pausing so someone can recap the events that ended season six, we just jump right into it: It’s 1931 New York City, the Chronicoms are there to try and destroy S.H.I.E.L.D. before it ever begins, and we’ve got an LMD Coulson to ensure none of us have to be without Clark Gregg on our screens. (Okay, so maybe there’s a whole justification about how they need Coulson’s mind to get ahead of the Chronicoms’ plan, but we all know the real reason is that no one wants to do this without Gregg.) There’s a lot to unpack here, but the show just breezes through it, trusting that anyone watching Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. season seven either knows what’s come before or can roll with the weirdness. It’s all to the benefit of this wonderfully balanced installment.

Let’s start with LMD Coulson. While it’s great to once more have a wise-cracking Coulson on hand—especially after the dour Sarge storyline from last season—it will be interesting seeing how they try and incorporate pathos into the character. Already, we’ve got both he and Daisy ruminating on the old “If it’s Coulson’s memories and feelings in there, isn’t it kind of like the real thing?” question, and when he and Mack talk about revisiting the Decoy’s existence after this mission is over, it’s basically a flashing neon sign that they’ll be hitting the soul-vs.-shell theme hard for the character. But for now, it’s just great fun having a loose version of Coulson again. Ignoring the fact that Gregg looks great in period attire (they all do, curse this good-looking lot), his upgraded body means we still get strong fight sequences with Coulson, and the comedy, well, we’ll let the guy speak for himself. (“It’ll be a whole New Deal….dad jokes. It’s a glitch. I’m sorry.”

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Illustration for article titled iAgents Of S.H.I.E.L.D./i is doing everything right in its final season premiere
Photo: Mitch Haaseth (ABC)

The others are mostly in let’s-get-it-done mode, though we do pause to get a few deeper character beats. Yo-Yo’s vulnerable cry of relief at realizing her body was breaking down the Shrike material was moving, more so than the somewhat clunky moment inserted to have her resist getting new arms just because she didn’t want to forget what caused her to get her metal ones in the first place. (No one’s forgetting that, Yo-Yo.) And while Daisy, Mack, and Deke are relatively grounded (yes, there’s hints of the emotions the first two are processing to deal with LMD Coulson’s presence, and Daisy apologizes to him for doing something the real Coulson never would have allowed), the real question mark is Simmons. Yes, they bend over backwards explaining why she and Fitz need to stay separated, but it’s also getting a bit ridiculous the lengths to which the series goes to gin up drama by keeping them apart. We don’t know how long FitzSimmons spent with Enoch before going their respective ways prior to Jemma picking everyone up in the fancy new version of the Zephyr, but I don’t relish the thought of another season of the two of them being kept apart for cheap emotional button-pushing. So getting to where Jemma is at, Fitz-wise, would be a good thing to touch on sooner rather than later.

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The plot is full of opportunities for the show to play great character pairings off and litter numerous references to seasons past into the mix. Daisy and Deke remain an excellent source of comedy, especially her curt “Yes, yes, I’m very proud” when he looks at her expectantly after hotwiring the truck. (Though special mention also goes to Jemma saying, “You stole a truck!” to Deke, followed by his defensive, “Why me? There’s two of us!”) The show again delivers some real body horror this year, as the Chronicoms’ method for stealing the identity of humans involves blasting people’s faces into a smooth husk. And best of all, the time-travel, period-piece nature of the narrative means that one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s traditionally biggest weaknesses—a dull visual palette—gets dealt with in the strongest possible manner. This episode was firing on all cylinders; how fantastic if we get a final season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. as good as anything that’s come before.

Stray observations

  • So many good lines this episode. Deke, after being accused of getting too drunk: “That’s not true! I got pleasantly drunk. It was hilarious.
  • Kudos to credited writer George Kitson on the sneaky symbolic double meaning of the very first line of the season, spoken by a bootlegging cop waiting for their contact to arrive: “Could be any time.”
  • Also, nice reworking of the title card into an old-timey overlaid cursive font.
  • Let’s not forget dependable scene-stealer Enoch! “You had one job, Enoch.”
  • Love to see some fake Mounties. “Did you find some bodies without faces?” “Yeah.” “Happens all the time in Canada.”
  • Not enough Quake using her powers during that fight, frankly.
  • Of course Coulson would be an FDR fanboy.
  • Welcome, everyone, to the seventh and final season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. reviews! I want to thank Liz Shannon Miller for stepping in for awhile last season, but it feels good to be back. Can’t wait to travel through time with all of you for the next few months. (We all have our fingers crossed for an appearance by Agent Carter, right?)
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Alex McLevy is a writer and editor at The A.V. Club, and would kindly appreciate additional videos of robots failing to accomplish basic tasks.

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