Marc Alan Fishman: Agents of Angst
A caveat before I dig in: I’ve not seen this week’s episode of Agents of SHIELD (and screw typing all those periods!). That being said, I doubt the snark I’m about to wield will be undone over one episode. In fact, I bet my beard on it. But I digress.
With the ending of the limited run on Agent Carter, we’ve returned to the inhumanly angsty agents under Phil Coulson. And it didn’t take long into their mighty return for me to wind up longing for Manhattan in 1946 again. Funnier still to me is the fact that when Peggy was to replace Phil on the squawk box, I lamented even programming the DVR. SHIELD boasted new technology, a major Hydra conspiracy, ties to the modern day Marvel Movieverse™, and plenty of butt-kickery to enjoy. Peggy and pals could only promise pugilists and palookas, gender inequality, and light British tomfoolery. Oh how wrong I was!
What Agents of SHIELD brought back to the forefront when it returned to air, was the considerable yoke of backstory weighing heavily around its neck. And while serial dramas bank on intricate relationships, lofty past adventures, and plenty of narrative short hands, after the breath of fresh air Agent Carter offered up, it became plainly obvious how some of those crutches are useless to stand on with fresh legs ready to run again.
The intricate relationships between Coulson’s team – between Mack and Fitz, Coulson and Skye, May and Coulson, Skye and May, Bobbi and British Guy, Mack and Bobbi, and Simmons and Fitz – all flooded back without any real reintroduction. Because the show stopped at a mid-season finale, it was evidently pressured to return us only seconds after we’d originally left. It removed any chance for us to reacclimate to the beats of the show. It was jarring. It was slow. It was angsty as a high schooler being dumped at the prom. Without any runway to travel down, everything felt superficial – as if all the character-driven moments of the episode were just boxes left to be checked, not moments to be lived in.
While I know the past of the show enough to appreciate Agent Simmons’ new-found power-xenophobia, it simply read as the plot device it clearly is. Agent Coulson bounced between guttural barking and sappy moping. Mockingbird and her beau (whose name I still fail to recall) remain jovial… using their verbal foreplay to remind us that we truly know nothing about them outside what little we’ve been shown. Mack continues to just be a collection of ticks and tallies instead of a human being. Fitz now fully embraces his less-smart-but-still-as-smart-as-the-plot-demands device. Skye, crying through literally every scene she was in, reminds us that with great powers come great big cow eyes. And by the end of the episode – where the team sat together to have a last laugh and tribute to their fallen compatriot – the moment we should feel reconnected to the team hit me as cold and lifeless. They’re telling me how to feel. I could hear it being whispered through the end credits. Why?
Because over the course of all the episodes involving the fallen Agent Triplett, he served more as an expository device than a character. Triplett enjoyed being tied to Ward and Crazy Bill Pulman when he debuted. And shortly after a cocktease of is he actually bad or can we trust him, he was reduced to the black guy until Mack showed up. Then he become the black guy who knew a lot about the Howling Commandos. A soldier, made hero, all to serve as the unifying agent to reset the season. But his death was in vein. He was a sacrifice to the gods of smaller casts, or at very least to the only one black guy on a team initiative. His loss was there more to fluster Skye then make us care. And coming out of a Whedon-led writers room? That’s quite the sin.
The evidence that Agents of SHIELD needs to take a step back and find the wonder and joy it once had comes when we look to the contrasts between our potent proxies.
Over eight episodes, Peggy Carter came to life. More than a sweet red hat and some fine hosiery, she was built as a smart, tough, world-weary spy worthy of a position of power. We got to enjoy this through the contrast of the world built around her. And over those eight episodes, Peggy was able to prove to everyone else what she knew all along. It was fun, fitting, and fast without being frenetic.
In contrast we have Skye. Or Daisy. Whatever. Once our proxy as the savvy hacker fighting against the man, over thirty-two episodes she has forgotten that life altogether. Instead, her toughness is gifted to her via montages with Ward and May. Her smarts, written in pseudo-cyber speak when the plot demands it. And now, she’ll have some emotionally driven superpowers to round off any edges that formerly existed to her character. What was once a woman is now just a sum of plot parts. She is without joy and wonder. She strives for nothing more than the show demands of her week to week.
And it’s on her shoulders that Agents of SHIELD is failing to grab me back from the nostalgic clutches of Agent Carter. Here’s hoping a wormhole is open soon, so Peggy can knock some sense in her future fem fatale.