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Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. pivots from depression to daffiness in the early '80s

Illustration for article titled iAgents Of S.H.I.E.L.D./i pivots from depression to daffiness in the early 80s
Screenshot: ABC
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I’ve said it before, but it remains true: Much of this final season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. has felt like a victory lap, a chance for the creative team to get loose and have some fun as they coast towards the finish line. And while it hasn’t exactly resulted in the most compelling season ever, it’s been quite entertaining seeing it unfold. As with most of the installments from the first part of this season, the halfway point of the show’s time-traveling final bow looks a lot like the writers watched a few episodes of Legends Of Tomorrow and thought, “Hey, that seems fun, let’s try that.” Which is how you end up with Deke turning his new wave rock band into a wannabe bunch of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents while he and Mack wait around for the Zephyr to reappear in their time. It is very silly; it’s also a good time.

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The most noteworthy elements of “The Totally Excellent Adventures Of Mack And The D” are also the ones that ring the campiest. Sure, it’s fun to do all the whip-zooms and intentionally corny one-liners, over-the-top prep montages and abrupt pivots from slo-mo to humdrum normal speed. But paying homage to Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead style and 80s genre touchstones like Chopping Mall feels fairly dated in 2020, so while it’s hard to not smile at the fey but likable tributes to retro horror-comedy tropes, it’s also not exactly bold or original, either. It mostly elicits some knowing chuckles, a breezy and enjoyable episode that bends the series’ format in ways that are broad and occasionally too cute by half. It’s reminiscent of last season’s outer-space casino caper, silly and light—and nowhere near the show’s best work.

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What’s most surprising about how absurd the episode gets is what a tonal shift it is from the first act. Despite the humor injected by Deke’s first visit (“Oh, you accidentally threw the ball outside”), the majority of it is watching Mack’s depression consume him. After visiting his parents’ grave and checking in on his younger self, the S.H.I.E.L.D. director (what does that even mean anymore? He’s nothing but the leader of this particular team) settles into a hermetic existence of building model cars and drinking. Abandoning Deke was already an uncharacteristic turn, but the loss of his family really does seem to break something in Mack. Even when Deke lures him out, it’s not until guitarist and wannabe S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Roxy (delightfully unexpected guest star Tipper Newton) calls him out for ignoring his own family (she thinks younger Mack and his brother are adult Mack’s kids) that Mack realizes he’s literally hurting himself in more ways than one. And even then, it’s not until the killer robots attack that the big guy accepts Deke is right, the Chronicoms are still a threat, and assumes his responsibilities once more.

Illustration for article titled iAgents Of S.H.I.E.L.D./i pivots from depression to daffiness in the early 80s
Photo: Mitch Haaseth
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To be fair, just about anyone would roll their eyes at the team Deke has assembled. They may be able to do passable renditions of 1980s pop hits, but their S.H.I.E.L.D training leaves a lot to be desired. (It mostly seems to consist of doing unnecessary somersaults from one defensive position to the next.) Roxy, Olga, Cricket, and the Chang Gang don’t even have all that much heart—Ronny and Donny flee at the first sign of danger—and Cricket is mostly there so that he and his date can be classic horror-movie cannon fodder for the evil bots. Deke’s plan was his usual combination of completely ridiculous and strangely logical: By being a rock band, they could travel from town to town with vehicles full of unusual hardware and never raise suspicion. Of course, in his mind it’s just icing on the cake that he gets to claim credit for having written “Walk Like An Egyptian” and “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” the perks of time travel not unlike his tech start-up from last season. So it’s a minor miracle that by the end, Mack actually relents and welcomes them as new recruits to the agency. May isn’t the only one who finds that odd, though she still doesn’t blink at discovering that Coulson has been passing away the 20 months since her last appearance as a Max Headroom-like presence in a TV/VCR.

The most interesting part of the episode is actually the confrontation that ensues after Deke tries to show off his team to Mack by having them run his ramshackle “gauntlet.” Here, there’s actually valid character beats and insight into these two men. Mack isn’t wrong to point out that Deke is falling back into his old tricks—creating a self-serving situation that steals from others in the future and passing it off as his own, in order to bask in the reflected glow of his faux accomplishments. But Deke isn’t wrong, either: He’s trying to grow and evolve, and the mere fact that he stuck by Mack’s side—that he’s done nothing but try to bring his boss back to reality by creating a plan he thinks will make Mack proud—shows there’s a newfound loyalty and generosity chipping away at that old self-interested survival instinct. It’s one of the reasons the character has grown from one-note comic relief to…well, comic relief who’s no longer so exasperating.

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It turns out that defeating the Sibyl-bot and her minions doesn’t actually get the job done in the end. The stinger sees her Timestream crystal returned to her (she’s now also in a TV), thanks to the efforts of Nathaniel Malick, who predictably survived that ceiling collapse last week and is now working with the Chronicom Predictor. Assuming he’s also still got the powers he stole from Daisy, we might finally start seeing some superpowers again on this ostensible superhero show. That’s assuming this doesn’t just turn into Agents Of The Deke Squad, that is.

Stray observations

  • While there was even less era-appropriate window dressing than usual, save for the bar scene, it was fun seeing a classic ‘80s preppie-villain type in the opening sequence (he even had an ‘80s preppie-villain name, Chip Womack), along with the clunky robot nemeses.
  • Speaking of those delightful murder bots (and their great catchphrase, “I seem to be lost”), I know there’s going to be some references to original Battlestar Galactica in their glowing visages, but that was straight-up the most loving plundering of Chopping Mall I think I’ve ever seen.
  • According to Deke, Cricket has a respectable job selling coke: “Though I’ve never seen him drink any.”
  • At least the hot tub, string lights, and various other accouterments helped liven up the drab setting of the Lighthouse.
  • Ronny, after Deke blows up the killbot: “That was so badass!” Deke: “I know, Ronny…I know.”
  • Deke is right: Of course Mack would play sax in the band.
  • We are officially more than halfway through the season now, meaning best case scenario, we’ll have very little time to spend with FitzSimmons when Fitz finally returns. Mostly, that bums me out because that couple was the biggest emotional investment the show ever created, and they’ve just sputtered it out in the final two seasons.
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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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