This is the story of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the TV show that remembered it is a comic book.
The first season finale “The Beginning of the End” was a boppy little adventure filled with near-future technologies, alien powers, and small heartfelt admissions of love and justice. In many ways it hearkened back to the very first “Pilot” episode of the show, and it left us with the same sunny mission statement: there is a brave new world emerging all around us and it needs to be protected from those who would seek to plunder it.
Although the “Pilot” episode understandably did not share the season finale’s Exploding Bill Paxton. I shall not fault either episode for this.
“The Beginning of the End” isn’t quite the event that the episodes leading up to it have been, but it achieves a quirky sort of catharsis for our characters and re-instills a sense of fun to the proceedings without ignoring the dark events that have lead up to this point. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been weaving this quirkiness back in slowly over the course of the last few episodes. Koenig’s lanyard obsession, Skye’s Lola-powered extraction, May and Coulson’s infiltration of Cybertek…these are all fun scenes that remind us how goofy the Marvel universe can be, even in the midst of serious events. That levity has been building up within the ongoing plot right alongside the betrayals, the setbacks, and the defeats that the agents have suffered over the course of this first season. The fun and games are more than just variation on the way to defeating Garrett and his Hydra/Centipede cell, though. Its increasing prevalence means putting that it’s becoming time for the team to put this darkness behind them and move forward into a brighter future.
“The Beginning of the End” manages this so succinctly that I’m tempted to refer to it as a second pilot episode. The cohesiveness that the final scenes achieve provide a purpose to the characters and the show that I’ve been waiting all season to see. The events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier certainly put Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on the right course, but as exciting as those episodes were the show was still limited to reacting against what the Marvel movie universe established. “The Beginning of the End” takes the next step, making Coulson and his team central in a way that makes them proactive in addition to reactive, and finally puts their adventures on a level footing with the events of subsequent Marvel movies. In a corporate sense, this episode and the ensuing season may end up being the most important story-telling element to Marvel’s “Phase 2,” chronicling a world that’s bursting open with robots and aliens and miracles and in need of a protective and regulatory force to balance that.
Most importantly, the progression wrought by Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s season finale also provides important growth to the core cast (i.e. not Tripp as of yet). Simmons must now discover a purpose to her presence separate from the momentum that her friendship with Fitz provided. In one season Skye went from rebel hacker to a default top level S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and is now in a position where her actions have real consequences, negative and positive. And May has found a protective purpose beyond anger and beyond orders. By keeping her team safe she makes their greater mission achievable.
And Coulson—well, Director Coulson to us now—is himself again. This entire season has been about Coulson attempting to rediscover himself after the events of The Avengers. Granted new life and his own team but still bereft of answers, Coulson has swung through bouts of confusion, anger, righteous fury, and more. Then the collapse of S.H.I.E.L.D. itself took away what little stability he had left and the wry, capable First Name Agent, Last Name Coulson that we knew from the Marvel movies seemed far away from the Coulson we had now.
This was, of course, the best thing that could have happened to him. The collapse of S.H.I.E.L.D. left behind a clarity of purpose. Coulson and his team are doing what they do because it’s what they feel is right, not because they’ve been ordered to do so. This is the Coulson who stood up to Loki. So when the season closes with Nick Fury entrusting Coulson with the rebuilding of S.H.I.E.L.D., it feels destined. Coulson is a hero. An Avenger. Loki’s spear pierced Coulson’s heart in more than just the physical sense. This is why Fury moved heaven and earth to restore it and why Hydra had to rise and S.H.I.E.L.D. had to fall. The world is about to enter an age full of heroes and monsters and people like Coulson are essential to guiding us safely through it.
Because when you come down to it, Coulson isn’t just an agent or a fighter or a hero; he’s a builder. His nurturing, uniting presence was crucial in making the Avengers look beyond themselves. And now? Now he has a S.H.I.E.L.D. to forge.
Moments of A.W.E.S.O.M.E.:
I skipped a recap of the episode in favor of an essay, but there are a multitude of great moments in “The Beginning of the End” that deserve praise.
Fitz and Simmons: I am on record as a disliker of Fitz so his sacrifice in this episode felt like a wish being granted. I still don’t quite accept his and Simmons’ relationship as presented and I’m convinced there’s something more to it than just a long, long standing crush on the part of Fitz. Simmons calls him her very best friend, but doesn’t it seem like they attempted a romantic relationship in the past and found it…unsuitable? There’s a tension between them that suggests to me that Simmons is attracted to Fitz but knows from experience that he’s not the best person for her. In that context, Fitz carrying a torch for her feels natural to me. She’s the only one who can match and exceed him in terms of scientific intelligence and introspection, so he probably considers her as the only person worthy of pursuing romantically. And we know from his behavior regarding Ward that once Fitz believes in you then he believes in you hard.
Of course, that kind of focus is more than enough to unnerve anyone and it’s very likely that Simmons doesn’t want to be in a relationship where she would have to keep meeting such expectations just to keep her partner happy. In my head, they tried out a relationship in college, Simmons got uncomfortable and broke it off, and circumstances just kind of kept them together as co-workers.
Anyway, that’s what I want to believe, because it makes Fitz’s willingness to die to give Simmons a shot at living more affecting. It makes the fault in his character result in a backwards nobility, which is so tragically sweet.
I also kind of personally identify with the problem-solving that he busied himself with before Simmons woke up. We have X amount of resources and they combine in Y amount of ways and judging from that we are 90 feet underwater… I’d be trying to do the same thing if I was in his position. (How many of us tried to calculate whether we could swim to the surface in time? I judged between 35 and 45 seconds for myself, which is just about when I would run out of air. Simmons doing that while dragging Fitz is much harder, but not impossible. She’s quite a swimmer!)
Secret agent Nick Fury being there to rescue them was perfect, I thought. Of course he would be the only one still monitoring S.H.I.E.L.D. frequencies….
May and Ward’s fight: That was one carnal smackdown. Swinging buzzsaws at each other, busting through drywall, revealing that Ward was “never on top,” and then finishing it all off by nail-gunning Ward’s foot to the floor and kicking him until he was out cold. Minus any redemptive moment, this was what we were all waiting to see for Ward and wow was it brutal.
May’s fun with the Berserker Staff was a nice touch, as well. She’s so…economical with her anger.
Tripp’s noisemaker: Hilarious newsreel patter was big in the 1940s, I guess. Even during stealth missions. Bonus points for introducing the gag, then using it again to distract Garrett during a key moment.
What does Ward want?: He doesn’t even know. I found that particularly damning and satisfyingly so considering all the pain he has caused. When no one has use of Ward, what use does he have of himself?
Nick Fury, ladies and gentlemen: Fury’s guest-spot was everything I had hoped it would be. From Coulson finding him after being punched into a corner, to Fury giving him the Destroyer gun, to their confrontation on The Bus, the episode got a lot of mileage out of using Fury’s character to put a button on the Marvel Cinematic Universe that we’ve come to know from the first phase of movies.
“Stupid stupid stupid! And cruel! And very stupid!” That’s really all I needed to hear from Coulson, and Fury admitting to how much faith he has in Coulson is all I really needed to hear from Fury. It’s the acknowledgment that’s important. That Fury then brings that full circle by tasking Coulson with rebuilding S.H.I.E.L.D. in Coulson’s own image makes it even better. Twists that you don’t see coming but which make sense within the context of the characters are my favorites ones of all. And so much story is going to spin out of this one! Lovely.
Deathlok rides again: Peterson getting his freedom from Garrett and Hydra but feeling he’d since gone too far to reclaim his life with his son made sense within the larger context of the final third of this season. His role in this brave new world has been decided for him and now he just has to make the best of it. I look forward to seeing him pop up again next season. (Hopefully in a better costume.)
Garrett asplode: Man, Kree blood and Extremis can REALLY amp you up! Garrett takes multiple bullets, a rocket to the face, a salvo from the Destroyer gun, and is still up for getting Deathlok’d at the end of the episode! I was so, so happy with how they played his final grandstanding moment. Garrett was fun but I wasn’t looking forward to a maniacal Garrett 2.0 and I feel like Coulson was basically speaking for the audience when he disintegrated Garrett mid-sentence. Time to move on. BRRRZAAP!
This moment, and so many others I’ve outlined above, are really what put me in the sense that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has finally figured out how to translate the excitement of Marvel comic books onto television. I felt this way when it first debuted, eager to see it build its characters and universe into something more substantial, but I would be lying if I said that any of it turned out the way that I had hoped it would.
Were I not assigned to cover the show, it’s very likely that I would have stopped watching it at some point last fall and judging by the ratings, other professional review outlets, and the sentiments of the nerdy community I float around in, that isn’t an uncommon reaction to this season. The show pulled itself together after Winter Soldier, but it still felt like this only mattered to those of us who had devoted our time to it in hopes of eventual improvement. Post-Hydra Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is better than pre-Hydra Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but it’s still not as good as its television contemporaries.
And yet, if the show hadn’t pulled itself together post-Hydra, then I wouldn’t feel confident saying that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will, eventually, be quality television. While all television shows run at their own speeds, it’s fairly typical for shows to only really find their groove after an initial exploratory season. And even the rare show that bursts out of the gate fully formed (Sherlock, True Detective, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, so many others…) still improve over time.
Still, if you asked me right now if you should go back and catch up on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I’d say no. But…I’d add…check out season two. This first season? It was a bit of a prequel. A workshop. And just like any good workshop, the first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a frustrating and painful experience that, if you’re dedicated, provides a more rewarding product at the end.
“The Beginning of the End” was a small taste of that reward. Here’s hoping it can sustain that momentum into season two and beyond!
- “So who do we talk to about getting a haircut?”
- Deathlok: “I was told to never leave your side, sir.” Garrett: “I love you, too.”
- Seriously, May coming at us with a fucking buzzsaw is the scariest thing. Then she ups the trauma with a nail gun. Hardcore.
- Garrett tells the military men who visit Cybertek that they are “slaves that will serve OUR future.” while the African-American cyborg he keeps enslaved through technology stands right beside him. As if Garrett didn’t already deserve a rocket to the face….
- The Koenig fake-out was brilliant. I love that he gave the exact same greeting as his twin brother.
- Some theories to keep us busy over the summer: Skye’s dad is alive and…drippy. I have no idea how this folds into the Raina/evolution/Kree/monster-inside-you clues they’ve been dropping. Or what, if any, Marvel character Skye’s dad could turn out to be.
- But he’s probably Speedball.
- Madripoor got mentioned in an earlier episode. I wonder if Skye’s dad is there?
- So, the Kree blood makes regular humans see the Matrix or something and that makes them crazy. Coulson initially doesn’t because he got his brain rewired but as we see in the post-credits scene, that universal knowledge that Garrett was babbling about and carving into plane doors is beginning to emerge in Coulson now, as well. Skye doesn’t seem to have access to this knowledge, so how does that fold into the mystery of her origins? Does the knowledge only emerge when Kree and human biology combine?
- It’s also of note that the same “schematics” that Coulson and Garrett carve can be seen on chalkboards in “The Hub,” so the knowledge that these schematics are important goes beyond just S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra. Garrett was eyeballing the gravitonium in relation to the schematics, as well, lending weight to the idea that these schematics involve manipulation of the intrinsic forces of the universe.
- You know what else is supposed to do that? The Infinity Stones. And there are hints that Guardians of the Galaxy will establish that the Kree race is under Thanos’ subjugation. (More info on that here.) Could Coulson and Garrett actually be foreshadowing Star-Lord being given Kree blood in the movie? At this point that seems like the only way this information would become known to Thanos.
Finally, thank you for following the Tor.com Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. recaps over the course of this season! Although my slow mental unraveling was increasingly on display as the series progressed I hope the articles nevertheless provided an entertaining supplement to the show.
I am unavoidably attracted to Marvel comics and its onscreen universe, but Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was often extremely frustrating. It’s annoying to realize that you dislike something that you love, especially since those two feelings aren’t as mutually exclusive as they might seem, but nothing is ever perfect, and I’m of the opinion that being honest about that serves our dedication to these shows far better than blind devotion or blind hatred. We can be sad when something we love lets us down as long as we’re happy when something we love turns around and exceeds our expectations. (Looking at you, Agent SquatThrust. The character, I mean. Not the commentor, heh!)
We’ll be back for season 2, I’m sure. The show is only going to get crazier now that there are Agent Carters and Ages of Ultrons a’coming.
Until then, hail Pie-dra.