SPOILER ALERT! If you haven't seen Captain America: The Winter Soldier or you aren't up-to-date on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and you'd like to remain unspoiled, I suggest you bookmark this page for later and hightail it out of here until after you're caught up.
Where does Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. go now that S.H.I.E.L.D. itself no longer exists? It's a question fans have been asking themselves since the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which revealed that Hydra had infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. and had been operating in plain sight literally since the organization's inception. These developments have obviously been in the pipeline at Marvel for awhile now, and the creative team tasked with bringing Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to the small screen knew where the show was eventually headed.
Prior to the airing of "Turn, Turn, Turn"—the episode that revealed Agent John Garrett as the Clairvoyant and Agent Ward as a potential and probable double agent—executive producer Jed Whedon spoke to TV Line about the twist, and he confirmed that he and his team were ready for the film from the get-go: "We know a lot about every movie a long time before it comes out," he said. "We get to read the scripts and see early cuts, so if and when there are things that affect our world... we have a lot of time to prepare." So it's not as if S.H.I.E.L.D.'s producers were blindsided by the movie's plot twists and forced to scramble at the last second—this was always the destination. But some fans think the show has really been hurt by the delay in getting there.
After all, it's not a secret that S.H.I.E.L.D. wasn't the out-of-the-gate success Marvel and ABC were hoping for. After a huge premiere, the ratings fell and continued to fall; "Turn, Turn, Turn" notched the show's lowest numbers to date, even though it was probably the series' best episode yet. The episode was billed as a tie-in with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, so it's certainly possible that some viewers might've held off on watching the episode because they didn't want to or weren't able to see the film on opening weekend. But as we pointed out in this past weekend's FTW vs. WTF column, the 17 episodes is a long time to have to wait before a show begins telling its "real" story, especially in this case, where it's clear that Marvel makes its films a higher priority than its weekly television series. The Winter Soldier had to blow up S.H.I.E.L.D.'s titular agency before many of the show's current storylines could get off the ground, and I'm certainly guilty of whining a lot about the show's problems during what turned out to be an extended waiting period. But now that it's over, I can accept that speeding up the timeline was not within the showrunners' control. And throwing complaints at a company like Marvel isn't going to get us anywhere. Instead, we can and we should focus on what this new development means.
S.H.I.E.L.D. really found its footing once it returned from winter hiatus—not in "Turn, Turn, Turn" as some might believe. Once the series started to reveal the mystery of Coulson's resurrection, and especially once Skye was shot in "T.R.A.C.K.S.," S.H.I.E.L.D. started to feel like a different show, one that had direction and purpose. There were hints of the organization's eventual fracturing in those episodes, but they weren't good episodes because of those hints, they were good episodes because the characters felt human and the stakes were real. Dismantling S.H.I.E.L.D. was a game-changer; that action will ripple through the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But how will it affect a show that's called Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.?
Coulson has been a company man from the moment we met him, but his journey this season became increasingly personal as he grew more skeptical of the organization he dedicated his life to as he uncovered the truth about what happened to him. I think it's fair to argue that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has never truly been a show about agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.; rather, it's about men and women who technically work for the organization and sometimes benefit from its resources, but whose storylines aren't always dependent on specific S.H.I.E.L.D. assignments. The dissolution of S.H.I.E.L.D. itself will no doubt change things on the surface of the series and create plenty of new enemies to fight, but there are plenty of reasons why now is the time to really get excited about what's in store.
Going forward, S.H.I.E.L.D. will continue to follow Coulson's team, like it always has—only now they're the ragtag band of misfits they've been masquerading as since the beginning of the season while flying the S.H.I.E.L.D. banner. They finally have a reason to be off on their own—only now there's the added danger of not knowing who to trust, always wondering if an old pal is actually a Hydra foe. Throw in the fact that they only have the resources on the Bus at their disposal, and the stakes have been raised in a way that many viewers have been begging for all season. Coulson and his team are at their perceived weakest right now, being hunted by former friends, which means whatever happens in these final episodes might account for the richest stories the show will ever have the opportunity to tell. S.H.I.E.L.D. is finally the show that we were promised at the outset. It's not about the shiny gadgets or the missions to Peru; there are questions of morality and an "us vs. the world" mentality, and the show now exists in a world painted in shades of gray instead of black and white. In other words, S.H.I.E.L.D. feels like a show that's been touched by Joss Whedon.
It's true that Joss isn't as hands-on with S.H.I.E.L.D.as executive producers and showrunners Jed Whedon or Maurissa Tancharoen, but the show's transformation over the course of the season feels reminiscent of nearly every Whedon show to date. First, the writers spent some time setting up the premise of the series through mostly standalone episodes, while also introducing characters and letting viewers get comfortable with the roles those characters play in this unconventional family. Then they started to introduce more serialized plots, dropping subtle hints about where things were headed at the end of the season, and putting those characters in danger, all before flipping the switch and making viewers question what they thought they knew. There were plenty of smug Whedonites throwing out the "I told you so" last week, I'm sure of it.
And while there've been plenty times that I've found myself frustrated by S.H.I.E.L.D.'s odd pacing—in truth, I still think it's one of the show's biggest problems—in retrospect, I feel a bit better about how we've gotten to this point. S.H.I.E.L.D. basically pulled a Dollhouse on us by blowing up the world it spent so long building, and while Dollhouse obviously did it for different reasons, we can only be so angry about a movie's release date impacting the series' storytelling. There are plenty of other issues to blame the showrunners for—including poor character development and a lack of stakes for most of the season—but since the pacing didn't really have anything to do with them, we're better off just agreeing to forgive and forget so we can look forward to what's ahead.
Plus, we shouldn't discount the fact that the pay-off made the waiting and all the storylines from the first half of the season worthwhile. Logic would dictate that if The Winger Soldier had been released last November instead of Thor 2, "Turn, Turn, Turn" could've aired sooner and S.H.I.E.L.D.'s ratings probably would have been better, but the storylines might not have merged quite so easily. It's possible that Ward's betrayal wouldn't have been a surprise. And I'm not sure the dismantling of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the TV universe would have felt organic at that point. Back then, Coulson wasn't in a place where he distrusted the organization. We can complain that the series moved too slow, and there were definitely a few filler episodes that made me want to throw my television into the Pacific Ocean, but this fits quite well as an end-of-the-season climax.
Now that we've made it this far, though, where do we go from here? S.H.I.E.L.D. has yet to be renewed for a second season and the viewership haven't been great, but I don't see the show being canceled due to poor ratings, nor do I see the series defeating its larger enemies only to return to focusing on standalone episodes. With S.H.I.E.L.D. blown to bits and Hydra having infiltrated, well, everything, the possibilities for next season are endless. The way the characters will adapt to a S.H.I.E.L.D.-less existence and to Ward's supposed betrayal are what will make up the next batch of storylines. And after that, there will always be more villains to defeat. Now that the team isn't shackled by S.H.I.E.L.D. and the writers aren't handcuffed to a major theatrical event like they were this season, they can do whatever they want. The series went through a lot of growing pains to get to this point, but the worst is over.
AIRED ON 2/21/2017
Season 4 : Episode 15