The Pay Off

I liked Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. when it first aired. Its potential was a big reason, as was, well, bits with characters. There was little else like it on tv and hey, I’m always on board for something science fiction, especially if it’s in the Marvel-verse.

Granted, the show meandered for quite a while, but I enjoyed it all the same for what it was. Monster-of-the-week and decent characters, so hey, I was in. Then the show got good. Really good.We’re a solid eight episodes into Season 2 and these episodes show how strong the show has gotten. It’s been a long time coming but following the show has finally paid off.

So what’s SHIELD been doing right? Or, more to the point, what’s the show doing that makes it successful? The biggest difference between where the show is now and where it was a year ago is the clear presence of a proper overarching villain: Hydra. Antagonists are driving forces in serial fiction, often creating tension and giving individual episodes weight. Chuck had an evil spy agency per year, season 1 of Buffy had The Master. Now, in the latest season, the heroes in SHIELD have to try to stay one step ahead of their antagonists, lending a sense of urgency to what they do.

Developed characters are vital too. In lieu of an active antagonist, early seasons of Lost forced the disparate survivors together, creating tension where personalities clashed. We even got to know them better through extensive flashbacks, fleshing out who they were and giving context to what they did. SHIELD’s characters had hints of depth early on, but not much was done with them. On occasion they were pushed a little further, like exploring Fitz and Simmons in “F.Z.Z.T.”, but for much of the first season they pretty much were who they were. Not so in Season 2. Introducing a handful of new agents adds the variety of characters and SHIELD now mixes them up in interesting ways. For example, pairing former lovers Bobbi and Lance is comedic but can also yield strong dramatic beats, especially when accompanied by the no-nonsense May to play intermediator. Giving Fitz a bromance with fellow engineer Mac lets us have some good character moments for everyone involved. We get to learn more about each one by changing the dynamics and relationships, giving us more compelling reasons to connect to and invest in the characters.

The villains too have been amped up. The end of the most recent episode (“The Things We Bury”) saw Ward, Whitehall, and Skye’s father entering into a sort of unholy alliance. It’s remarkable that these three characters, two of whom have only been around from the start of this season, are at the point where we as the audience are aware of their own motivations and goals: Whitehall wants to further Hydra’s goals, the doctor wants to reunite with his daughter, and Ward is a wildcard who could do anything. We know that they’re willing to backstab each other and cut deals with the heroes for their own ends, so seeing them together creates not just interpersonal tension, but an interesting foe for our protagonists to face off against. At this point, the villains are as interesting as the heroes, and their interactions are diabolically layered with veiled subtext.

SHIELD too is really getting its hands dirty with the general Marvel universe at large. It’s not just paying lip service to Extremis like it did early in the first season and it’s not just reacting to Hydra’s reveal like it did after The Winter SoldierRather it’s blazing its own trail, bringing in elements of the from the comics we haven’t seen on screen. With the show looking to introduce the hidden city of Attilan anytime now, Agents of SHIELD is probably going to feature the Inhumans a solid couple years before the movie about them is slated to be released. The show’s coming into its own, not just with characters but with its array of plot and elements of the Marvel mythos.

It may not have started out as strong as it could have, let alone one of the best shows on air, but watching it has really begun to pay off. And I’m really enjoying it ‘cuz we always need more good tv.

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