Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. Recap: ‘Absolution’ & ‘Ascension’

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – 'Ascension'

It’s over! We have, at long last, reached the end of the third season of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and boy was it, er– something. Look, I’ve made no effort to hide my disdain for this show, and the fact that I think this half-season is the among worst the series has been – a low point for the series surpassed only by the truly dreadful first season – so I’m not going to waste time going over all of that again in this preface. Instead, let’s just jump in and get to the meat of this two-hour beast of a finale.

Things start out with a bang as the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are hot on the heels of Hive and his merry band of monsters who, as you’ll recall from last week, are attempting to steal a missile that can be used to disburse Hive’s terrible Terrigen cocktail into the upper atmosphere. Hive and his goons have managed to infiltrate the silo where the missile is being held and are scanning the skies for incoming Quinjets, but S.H.I.E.L.D.’s attack doesn’t come from the sky. Instead, May manages to slip a Quinjet under Hive’s radar by slipping it underwater. As May, along with Mack, Elena, and Lincoln are making their way into the missile base, Coulson, Fitz, and General Talbot attempt to gain access to the kill codes to shut down the missile launch.

This whole operation, which take up about a quarter of the finale’s two-hour run time, is some of the most fun I’ve had with this show, maybe ever. The tone of it is something along the lines of ‘Marvel’s Mission: Impossible’ (it even has a version of the obligatory Mission: Impossible face-swapping), and it’s much more compelling than the show’s normal status quo as ‘Marvel’s NCIS.’ It’s fast, it’s fun, it’s light on its feet, and if the show was like this every week, I’d probably be way, way more into it. It’s proof positive that the way to make this show work is not by making it ‘darker’ and ‘edgier’ like ABC’s claiming the next season will be, but instead to actually deliver on the original promise of the show: a weekly spy series that has all the fun and energy of the big Marvel movies.

The problem, though, is like every other aspect of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the work they do establishing a compelling tone right at the beginning of the episode is quickly thrown out as they change gears and go off in a completely different direction. For example, after the team enters the kill codes to deactivate the missile, Hive is alerted to their presence and comes after them, but the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. have set a trap. When he gets too close, they subject him to jury rigged version of the memory machine used on Coulson way back in Season One, forcing all of the memories of the people he has consumed to come flooding to the surface, downing out his own will and power of thought. That’s a clever idea, and a potentially smart way to explore concepts of identity or maybe even introduce a means by which Hive is defeated by the very people he already killed, but instead they waste it. It’s just a plot contrivance that weakens Hive long enough to shove him in one of the gel containment pods so that we can play out another version of the tired villain-is-captured-by-the-heroes-but-ends-up-exactly-where-he-wants-to-be trope. Yawn. A Terrigen bomb goes off at S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ, the Inhuman zombies free Hive from his prison, and the whole memory thing is never brought up again. Instead, Hive attempts to steal the Zephyr One, and Daisy, who appears to be going to confront Hive, pleads with the monster, begging him to take her back into his thrall.

There’s an attempt at an addiction metaphor here, but as is always the case with this silly show (sing along if you know the words!) the metaphor falls flat because the show hasn’t bothered to put in the work to properly set it up. I mean, sure, a couple episodes ago they brought up the idea that Hive’s influence alters your brain chemistry like a drug, and by Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. standards that’s an almost unprecedented amount of foreshadowing, but the problem is, on a character level, there’s nothing about this that plays. Addiction is never something that Daisy has struggled with, so choosing that character to ‘fall off the wagon’ doesn’t have any weight to it. For these kinds of metaphors to work in any sort of meaningful way, they have to be baked in with the characters’ arcs and personalities. Tony Stark standing-in for the idea of sacrificing individual liberty for a sense of collective security works because that character’s whole journey has been about having to deal with the fallout of his own actions. It makes sense for him to want to surrender his power because he no longer trusts himself with it. There’s never been that kind of consistency with Daisy (or any of the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. characters for that matter), so when she’s cast in the role of the metaphorical relapsing addict, it feels like playing dress-up.

But either way, Hive can’t take Daisy back even if he wanted to because whatever Lash did to purge the parasites from her system has made her permanently immune to Hive’s influence. Instead, Hive takes her prisoner, and makes off with the Zephyr One, rocketing up into the atmosphere to activate his doomsday device. Meanwhile, the other agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (along with Dr. Holden Radcliffe, who’s playing for the good guys now) fight their way through the hoards of zombies now infesting S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ until they make their way to Coulson’s office where they summon a Quinjet and blast off in pursuit of the baddies. Once they reach Zephyr One, Coulson confronts Hive while the other agents go after Daisy. As for the bomb, the plan is to load it onto the Quinjet where it can be remotely piloted into the vacuum of space and explode without risking exposure to anyone on Earth. Unfortunately, Hive is one step ahead of them and arrives on the Quinjet right as Daisy is securing the warhead.

Daisy knows from her vision that someone will die on this Quinjet, and since she’s feeling vaguely suicidal, she decides it might as well be her, and attempts to lock herself and Hive in the Quinjet along with the bomb. Lincoln, however, has other plans. He boards the Quinjet, shorts out its manual controls and tosses Daisy overboard before the ship blasts off in its ascent towards outer space. As Lincoln and Hive enter orbit, trapped in a tin can with a literal time bomb, they share a moment of quiet reflection. In the past, I’ve accused this show of sometimes feeling like a bad cover band version of Joss Whedon, and while that’s a decidedly nasty criticism, it’s the best way I can describe this moment. This exchange between Lincoln and Hive is deeply, deeply reminiscent of the final exchange between the Vision and Ultron in Avengers: Age of Ultron, only with none of the meaning or pathos that conversation contained. Here, at the end, they try to give Hive some dimension, some sympathetic poignancy to his evil plan, but as always (second verse, same as the first!) it falls flat because the show hasn’t bothered to put in the work to properly set it up. You can’t have your villain be an unfeeling avatar of evil right up to the last episode of the season then suddenly expect us to be sympathetic to his plight in its final moments.

That is why I think I’m done with this show, because despite any of the show’s other successes or failings, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s only constant is a complete misunderstanding of how long form storytelling works. None of these characters work, because they aren’t allowed to have arcs, instead just changing from episode to episode to fit the needs of each individual plot. On a larger scale the stories themselves fail to include any kind of meaningful set ups and payoffs that might make it worth watching all 22 hours of the season. It’s a sloppy, incoherent, improvisational mess, and even fun moments like the first half-hour of this finale can’t overcome that underlying brokenness. And now that we’re three full seasons into this show, it’s abundantly clear that this is never going to change. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is what it is, and what it is kinda stinks.

Below you can find some additional thoughts on the finale as well as a look forward at what’s in store for Season Four.

Hive Revealed

After teasing it out for half a season, we finally got our first good look at Hive in all his tentacle’d glory. It’s a neat reveal, and even on a TV budget, the effects hold up pretty well. It’s kind of a bummer that after this one sequence Hive morphs back into his Grant Ward-shaped default state, but I also understand that having a full CG creature walking around for a half hour just isn’t practical and even if they tried the effect wouldn’t have looked as good. Coulson’s trick with the hologram is also fun, but if I’m going to make a geeky nitpick, it’s disappointing that he credits the trick to former agent Blake rather than Loki. He’s not wrong – Blake did pull that gag back in ‘Watchdogs’ – but in the Marvel universe, Loki pretty much owns the make-your-enemy-run-through-an-illusory-version-of-yourself-trick.

What’s Next For The Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.?

After the main story of the finale ends there’s a (weirdly abrupt) flash forward to six months in the future where we get a look at the new status quo for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s fourth season, and there are a few interesting things to note. The most obvious change is that Daisy is now on the run. Her goals are unclear, but it seems that she’s still following a desire to help people, but she’s doing so outside of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s oversight, leaving Coulson and company to follow a trail of seismic activity. The other interesting point here is that Coulson is no longer director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Again, no indication of who is the new director, but assuming it’s someone we already know, the most likely candidates would have to be Talbot or May.

Who Is AIDA?

Finally, the parting gesture of this season is a rather fascinating tease at a new character. Holden Radcliffe, still apparently working with (though not for) S.H.I.E.L.D., is working on a version of some old S.H.I.E.L.D. technology. The technology in question is revealed on his computer monitor as ‘L.M.D.’ For those of you acquainted with the larger Marvel universe, you’ll of course recognize those as the initials for ‘life model decoys.’ For the uninitiated, life model decoys are essentially android copies of a person that serve a number of uses (Nick Fury has dozens of these things lying around to protect himself from assassination attempts), and they often cause all sorts of problems. Here, though, I think it’s going to serve a different function, and the key for what they’re doing here lies in a couple things. First off, the L.M.D. being ‘birthed’ is named AIDA. In the comics, A.I.D.A. is a computer program that exists in the alternate universe home of the Squadron Supreme (don’t ask), but I don’t think that has any bearing on what’s going on here. Instead, let’s look at the funny book history of Holden Radcliffe. Dr. Radcliffe, in the comics, is connected with an artificial intelligence called A.D.A.M. (Autonomously Decisive Automated Mechanism) that is eventually uploaded into an android body where he goes about life thinking he’s a regular teenager. So, yeah, I’m pretty confident at this point that AIDA is a gender-swapped version of Machine Teen (yes, really).

Between the AIDA tease and the glimpse at S.H.I.E.L.D.’s new dynamic, there’s a lot of compelling stuff crammed into the last few minutes of the episode, but I’m not sure I’m even gonna bother showing up next season to see it. ‘Fool me once…’  and all that, and I’ve allowed Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to fool me for three seasons now. Maybe, suddenly, after nearly 70 hours of television this show will actually find a way to be good, but I somehow doubt it. For now, though, this show has proven that it has no interest in being anything more than disposable junk food, and I’d rather spend my time on something more worthwhile.

David Daut

David Daut

Though his taste has been described as ‘broken’, David maintains that the Fast & Furious series is the greatest cultural achievement of the modern era.