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Catastrophe strikes the the world (and the timeline) as Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. nears the end

Elizabeth Henstridge as Jemma Simmons on Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Elizabeth Henstridge as Jemma Simmons on Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Screenshot: ABC
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For being about a power-stealing wannabe anarchist who can see the future and is summoning aliens to destroy S.H.I.E.L.D., this final arc of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is oddly hermetic and insular. Maybe it’s a budgetary thing, but far too much of these last few episodes have taken place in anonymous gray rooms and hallways. The show wants to set up a fittingly grand conclusion for itself, but there’s just not much weight to it when we never get a sense of scope or context outside the walls of the Lighthouse or the confines of the Zephyr. After a first half to the season that provided a welcome rush of color, costuming, and even production design, the back half of the season has gotten stuck in the lackluster drab color palette and staging that so often plagued the series. A bunch of people talking in generic and underlit rooms can only take you so far when your show is literally built around dazzling superpowers and larger-than-life situations.

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And then they go and blow up the Triskelion. Credit where credit’s due.

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Honestly, though, that excellent CGI destruction of S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters really served to underscore just how unmemorable the visuals from the rest of the episode were (the last few episodes, really). Not only that, but the unexpected introduction of actual stakes outside the isolated existence of our heroes was a sharp reminder of how much heavy lifting the show has labored to get done en route to its finale. Whereas last season’s admittedly underwhelming storyline at least felt properly tailored to its shortened episode count, here the 13-episode run is rushed, an accelerated pace that hasn’t allowed sufficient time to develop and explore the nature of everything that’s happened with the timeline, the characters, and the overarching dynamics of both the plot and the series endgame. Key characters have gotten short shrift (paging Jemma Simmons) and the weight of consequences have rarely had time to register, give or take a montage of Mack drinking beer and building models.

To wit: the scenes in “Brand New Day” with Fitz and Simmons, that take place in Jemma’s mind, as Nathaniel Malick searches for the secret to Fitz’s location. These two short sequences pop in and out so quickly, the force of their conversations and the intensity of their feelings has only a second to register before we’re back to the dozen other things simultaneously unfolding. At its best, the show can juggle a bunch of different elements deftly; here, it just felt like we didn’t get a chance to sit with one of the most important relationships and plot points of the entire season. Fitz got some bad bloodwork results, I take it? Cancer? Who knows? The show is off and running to other stories before anything can really land.

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Illustration for article titled Catastrophe strikes the the world (and the timeline) as iAgents Of S.H.I.E.L.D./i nears the end
Screenshot: ABC

It’s especially disappointing because S.H.I.E.L.D. obviously knows it needs time with these characters to unpack their arcs and emotional growth before time runs out. The scenes with Mack, Daisy, and Sousa are a great example of this (and one of the high points of the episode), letting the agents shoot the shit and reminisce, while also giving them a chance to open up about their fears and insecurities regarding the impending breakup of the team foreseen by Enoch. “I don’t know who I am without you guys,” Daisy tells her former partner, and despite Mack’s reassurances that she’s gonna be just fine, that admission of vulnerability is a welcome reminder that these characters have had rich interior lives, full of conflict and anxiety, that always made them far more compelling to watch than any Inhuman abilities or shotgun-axes. And it was fun to see the Bechdel Test get a reverse-fail, as Sousa and Mack talked about nothing but Daisy, ending with a great bit about how silly the name “Quake” sounds to outside ears.

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Similarly, May and Coulson’s interactions were too brief by half, but deftly handled in how they addressed the complex nature of that relationship. Seeing Coulson, the previous expert in psychology, hand over the responsibility for getting inside Kora’s head to Melinda May was a nice way to emphasize how significantly both of them have changed this season, the latter’s discomfort with her new state of emotional openness paralleled by the former’s existential angst over his inorganic body and programmable mind. “We’re not who we used to be,” he tells her—an understatement if ever there was one—and that assessment extends to everyone on the team. These people are rapidly losing their hold on the previous dynamic that bound the team. They can keep it together long enough to try and save their timeline, but Mack is right: It feels like they’re drifting apart. It may be time to break up the band.

Illustration for article titled Catastrophe strikes the the world (and the timeline) as iAgents Of S.H.I.E.L.D./i nears the end
Screenshot: ABC
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The arrival of Chronicom hunters was obviously meant to be the big, exciting payoff to all the table-setting this episode. After escaping to space, Malick and company summon the alien vessels to their location, and rain down destruction upon every S.H.I.E.L.D. outpost on the planet. Along with the too-short fight between May and Kora that ended with a blast of the Inhuman’s powers, and Yo-Yo’s rapid mopping of the floor with the two prisoners, it was a nice moment of visual energy in an episode that suffered from a dearth of them. (I remain pretty shocked by just how infrequently this season has allowed any character to use their powers.) But frankly, I can’t imagine anyone finding that more meaningful than the tease right before the final act break, when Jemma comes back to consciousness after an elliptical conversation from the past (Fitz telling her she has to forget more than just his location), and when Deke asks if Nathaniel found Fitz, she blankly replies, “Fitz? Who’s Fitz?”

Stray observations

  • That frustratingly short fight between May and Kora was a reminder that, along with the general lack of superpowered visuals on a superhero show, this season has also been disappointingly lacking in great fight scenes. (The Area 51 episode contained maybe the only one.) Is it too much to ask for just one extended sequence of invigoratingly staged fight choreography, preferably directed by Kevin Tancharoen?
  • I’m assuming the Chronicom hunter assault spared the Lighthouse from destruction, whether because it’s been decommissioned or because Sibyl simply wants to make the mistake of gloating to her adversaries.
  • Coulson, reacting to May reciting out loud everything Sibyl is writing on the computer screen: “I can read English, so...I’m good.”
  • Mack, realizing Daisy has a thing for Sousa: “Yo-Yo owes me 20 dollars.”
  • One of the better comic touches, along with Sousa giving Daisy shit for the “Quake” nickname, was Nathaniel smugly announcing that, thanks to his taking the Zephyr to space, they were “all alone up here.” Cut to: Deke’s head popping around the corner.
  • Speaking of nicknames: Mack, I like Sousa too, but he doesn’t get to claim Captain America’s sobriquet, “the man out of time.”
  • Enver Gjokaj, again demonstrating his talent for making Sousa the perfect straight man, won’t let Daisy go to space alone, earnestly saying, “As long as you know what you’re doing.” Followed by...crickets.
  • We’ve gotta restore the timeline somehow, obviously, but I’m pleased to say I’m genuinely unsure where they’re going with all this. I just hope there’s enough time to do it 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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