This review contains spoilers.
I’ve been watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. from the very beginning, but this is the first season I’ve written about it critically and the process has been somewhat enlightening on a personal level. I’ve never been particularly fond of the show, and have more or less tolerated it out of a misguided sense of obligation to keep tabs on this corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (even as I realize there’s no possibility of any sort of meaningful crossover with the films). But only now that I’m forced to come up with something to say about it every single week do I realize how deeply I just plain do not care about any of it.
Last week I wrestled with the fact that the show itself never had any intentions of being anything more than comfort food, and this week, I’m realizing that I don’t care about any of its characters. At all.
But what’s the episode about? Well, this week is meant to be something of a character study, focussing on three characters in particular: Phil Coulson, Lincoln Campbell, and Gideon Malick. Now that the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. know that Grant Ward (or his body, at least) has returned from Maveth noticeably less dead than they left him, Coulson has the team focussed on uncovering whatever it is that HYDRA is cooking up so they can have a better plan of action when finally confronting them. Coulson himself, though, is shaken by the return of Ward, and it forces him to reexamine his actions, particularly the way he murdered the traitor in cold blood. Meanwhile Daisy and Lincoln are sent off to track down one of the Inhumans who was kicked out of Afterlife when he went on a mad rampage, raging about some ancient Inhuman who would return to destroy them. Hoping that this Inhuman exile, James, might know a little bit about the monster of Maveth, Daisy and Lincoln track him to his beat up trailer in the middle of a South Dakotan desert to squeeze information from him. During the confrontation, however, James brings up demons from Lincoln’s past, forcing him and Daisy to confront these issues face-to-face.
As for Gideon Malick, he’s scared out of his wits after witnessing his own death in a vision courtesy of Charles Hinton. Through a series of flashbacks we come to learn that Malick’s family had long participated in the cultish worship of Hive, but when it came to the ritual sacrifice of sending someone through the portal to Maveth, Gideon’s father regularly cheated death by using sleight of hand trickery to avoid drawing the short straw (or the white rock, as it were). Disgusted by their father’s actions, Gideon and his brother agreed to dispose of the the rigged stone, but when the time came, Gideon let fear win out and kept the stone, allowing him to spare his own life while his brother was chosen to be sacrificed to Hive on Maveth.
And you know, all of this is solid, interesting character work, but when it comes right down to it, I could not care less about any of it. On paper, all of this works – Coulson wrestling with the fact that he crossed a line that he shouldn’t have, Lincoln having to confront his anger issues and reveal a shameful moment from his past with Daisy, and Malick having his own treachery and survivor’s guilt become a specter of death over his head are all interesting bits of character development. The problem is that they exist in a vacuum. These are not major revelations paying off a long arc of character development, instead they’re made up largely out of whole cloth to make this episode have the appearance of a major payoff, when it’s actually just paying off a setup that never existed. It’s dishonest storytelling, retroactively trying to force direction onto a season that has been directionless.
That’s ultimately my problem with this show, and it’s a problem that I’ve only been able to really look in the eye this season. There’s no direction to any of this. There’s no plan, there are no thematic or character arcs woven into the story in any meaningful way, instead each episode is an island, and the characters just become props for whatever the story of the week is rather than actual people who have motivations and arcs that extend beyond a single hour of television. That’s why it’s so damn hard for me to care about any of them. Any of these characters could die at any moment, and I wouldn’t bat an eye because after three seasons, I still don’t know who any of them are as people. Yeah, I know the archetypes they’re playing, I know their roles on the team, but they are not real people. They’re facades, designed to give the illusion of depth when inside they are just empty shells.
Because Coulson has not been wrestling with the fact that he crossed the line. The show has been waffling on just how villainous he’s gotten post-Maveth, but it’s not something Coulson or any of the other characters have really addressed before now. Similarly this whole thing about Lincoln getting drunk and nearly killing his ex has no bearing on any aspect of his character’s journey prior to this point. Same goes for Malick and his survivor’s guilt. These revelations of his past have no weight because they’re not clarifying his motivations, but instead introducing entirely new ones.
And who knows if any of this will even matter next week? In just the few episodes that have been released this half season, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has brought up some major, major thematic topics, only to immediately toss them aside the following week. For those of you who are big fans of this show, I’m sure it’s frustrating to read these reviews week after week from someone who should probably just quit watching the show, but, to be fair, it’s frustrating for me too. I don’t want to be so down on this show. I want to like it. I want it to succeed, but it just seems to have no interest in investing any effort into actually being good.