Way back in March, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s midseason premiere gave us a brief flash forward scene, in which a cross necklace and the arm of someone wearing a S.H.I.E.L.D. jacket are seen floating inside of an outer space-bound Quinjet, moments before it explodes. This sequence is revisited in the episode, "Spacetime," when Daisy sees this exact scene in a vision of the future. Since then, ABC has treated us to a revolving door of “Who. Will. Die??” promos, and it’s a little disappointing that they’ve cornered AoS into such a cheap and blatant ratings grab. The narrative and emotional impact of killing off a main character partly comes from what should be the death’s inherently surprising nature. Telegraphing the end game so far in advance predictably takes away from this. Even if we don’t know who exactly is going to die, we know that someone is- and that’s just enough information to make us more concerned with figuring out who bites the dust, rather than focusing on the overall story at hand.
The finale itself is actually the last two episodes of the season aired consecutively. And, while the writers manage to avoid solely focusing on who dies (like the promos might have led us to believe), the “follow the necklace” clues they drop throughout the episode, in an attempt to misdirect viewers, are so easy to see through, it's almost comical. Regardless of who’s holding the necklace, we know there are certain characters that are off limits, and we know that there are certain characters who aren’t. The actual death is sad of course, but I wouldn't necessarily call it moving, and the impact it has on the show is limited, at best. Unless you're Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, (and really both of these shows have recently been reluctant to give major characters the axe) it's hard to pull off a truly game-changing main character death when the unjustified, but very real, consequence of scorned viewers abandoning ship, looms. The key to giving us a compelling death is to make it as surprising as possible, within reason, and make sure it has a significant impact on future narratives. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. threw its element of surprise way out the window when it told us weeks in advance that someone would die in the season finale. How this death impacts the show going forward, however, remains to be seen.
This episode is fairly jam packed with action, featuring a couple of fight scenes that almost make it feel like a mini-Marvel movie. The Daisy-Ward fight alone is worth the price of admission, and is probably the show’s best hand-to-hand confrontation yet. By now though, we expect S.H.I.E.L.D. to deliver on the action. Its track record is less reliable when it comes to the performance of its main cast. Unfortunately, there isn’t anything in the season finale that necessarily bucks this trend. Chloe Bennet is just okay throughout Daisy’s emotional rollercoaster of an episode, following her liberation from Hive’s control last week. There are a few scenes, however, that are riddled with horrifyingly clichéd portrayals of self-loathing and doubt, none more than the classic, “Mack tries to hug Daisy, Daisy tries to pull away, Mack continues to try and hug her until she finally acquiesces, collapsing into him, a giant weeping mess.” Suffice it to say, I think it’s fair to peg some of these moments on the script, rather than Bennet’s performance, and I will admit, she does a good job with what she’s given. Conversely, Brett Dalton manages to take his portrayal of Hive to a whole new level, demonstrating a hard to find range while he impersonates several different people, as Hive jumps from memory to memory.
Despite the finale’s flaws, this was a very strong season for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., building on the consistent progress it’s made since its uneven first season. The overarching 'Secret Warriors' arc was well realized, highlighted by some amazing choreography and special effects, hitting a level of quality that's rare for a network series. Like most shows with an ensemble cast, AoS still has a hard time blending its characters together into cohesive storylines- the Hunter, May, Ward plot being one of the few exceptions this season. Instead, AoS spent most of season three jumping from individual narrative to individual narrative; although to be fair, most of these individual stories were quite good. Character development continued to lag behind for anyone outside of the season one core, with Bobbi and Hunter even getting completely written out of the show shortly after the midseason break. However, the reinvention of Grant Ward as Hive, and the FitzSimmons arc from the first half of the season helped to neutralize the lack of interesting storylines given to supporting characters. In fact, the Jemma-centric "4,722 Hours" is arguably one of the best, if not the best, episode Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has ever put out, and in general, there weren’t a whole lot of actual missteps this season, save for the Bobbi and Hunter farewell ep, “Parting Shot.”
The future of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. gets a little murky after ABC announced last week that its timeslot will change from 9 to 10 PM next season. The list of shows that have survived, what's colloquially known as ABC's "death slot," is short. As I mentioned last week, there's been a change to Marvel Entertainment's corporate structure, creating a divide between the film and television sides of Marvel Studios. It's likely that ABC sees this shake up as damaging to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s already dwindling synergy with Marvel's more profitable and successful film properties. That, combined with S.H.I.E.L.D.'s higher than average budget and tendency to hemorrhage viewers season over season, means pulling the plug might be the most financially prudent move available. It also doesn't help that ABC ultimately passed on the Bobbi-Hunter spin-off, Marvel's Most Wanted, and cancelled the critically well-received, albeit ratings starved, Agent Carter, potentially signaling the network's shift away from Marvel properties.
In my review of season two of Daredevil, I talked about how the future of television lies in streaming services, which for Marvel means redirecting its resources towards its Netflix-based Defenders shows (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, etc). While Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was, at one time, a tent-pole for Marvel's expansion into TV, Netflix provides an avenue for Marvel to explore its rich history of intellectual property in a more creative way, free of the ratings and ad revenue restraints that drive cable and network series. It’s possible that over the course of the last couple of seasons, S.H.I.E.L.D. became too serialized, relying on storylines spanning multiple weeks and months, potentially alienating new viewers from jumping into a show with way more backstory than they could easily catch up on. Ironically, if this is the case, AoS actually started out with a much more episodic format for most of its first season, where the storylines were more contained to single episodes, as the gang faced off against a new foe each week. This is certainly a tried and true formula for maintaining viewers, both hardcore and casual (ask any long running police procedural), but it only works when the episodic storylines are actually good and the characters are appealing, which for most of season one, they weren’t.
If this truly is the beginning of the end for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., it’s certainly been a good ride. In the past three years, we’ve seen the successful adaptation of the Kree-Inhumans story arc, as well as the show’s versatility in reworking its entire concept around Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s Hydra reveal, and reinventing Skye into Daisy Johnson and Ward into multiple different antagonistic roles. Regardless of all the twists and turns, S.H.I.E.L.D. has ultimately managed to stay true to its roots, telling the story of a sometimes flawed organization that always tries to aid in the greater good and make the right call, even when it’s the hard call. If anything, though, I think what Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. should be most proud of is how it managed to craft an identify for itself, allowing it to step out of the shadow of its Avenger big brothers, and exist as a property on its own merits.
Garrett Yoshitomi is a contributor for A Play on Nerds. He covers Marvel films and television, and enjoys fantasy baseball, Big Brother live feeds, and Anna Kendrick. You can find his tweets @garrettweets