Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 3 Finale Review

God bless their little hearts. The team behind Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. gave it the old college try, but ultimately, the Season 3 finale never reached the heights we know the show can be capable of reaching. The stakes rang hollow—especially as Chekhov's necklace traded hands more times than a bong at a frat house—while Hive remained a drippy villain with a rather poorly articulated goal all the way to the end. More importantly, the team death that's been teased for weeks wasn't—with apologies to Luke Mitchell and the work he's done to bring Lincoln to life over the last season and a half—all that monumental or emotional despite the effort that went into trying to make it so and the attempt to make us believe in Lincoln and Daisy's love story. 
In fact, many attempts were made this season to add layers to Lincoln in order to make him more than just a very pretty face, and Mitchell did the best with the material he was given, but unfortunately, the character never reached a level in which he felt integral to the future of the show, especially when you compare him to say, Mack. A tragic backstory didn't make Lincoln much more interesting in the present, and despite what Chloe Bennet's ugly crying face would have you believe, his relationship with Daisy usually just felt like an afterthought, like it was tacked on at the last minute to give Lincoln a reason to be around. Which makes sense, because that's exactly what it was. In another scenario that would have been fine, I suppose, but if the intention was to use their relationship as an emotional centerpiece in the finale, it needed to feel real and it needed to be strong. Unfortunately for everyone involved, it didn't and it wasn't. 
This wasn't the first time this season that a pivotal moment has hinged on a pairing that was half-baked, though. Coulson's drive for revenge after Rosalind's murder was shoddily supported, and was ultimately what allowed the entire Hive arc to come to fruition in the second half of the season. It's what Coulson meant when he said Lincoln was paying for everyone's mistakes, not just the ones Daisy had made. Despite Daisy and Lincoln having considerable more time to build a believable bond than Coulson and Rosalind, though, their relationship remained superficial at best because other storylines often took priority. 
On the one hand, there's nothing inherently wrong with personal relationships coming second to plot on a show like S.H.I.E.L.D., especially when said plots involve an Inhuman who wants to create a world of Inhumans that are his primitive soldiers and his argument is that he's somehow bettering human lives in the process. But on the other hand, if that is the arc that is taking priority, there needs to be a more established relationship that gets dealt the crushing blow when someone inevitably becomes a heroic sacrifice. When the time came for Lincoln to sacrifice himself to save his girl and the world (because he believed it was his true purpose), and for Daisy to completely break down as a result, the scene never reached the levels of emotionality that it should have, and maybe could have, with better development.
This is hardly the fault of Mitchell and Bennet, who again did their best to sell the heartbreak of the end of the relationship. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a very plot-driven show, and that doesn't really allow for deep dives into any of its characters' psyches or emotional relationships. It's why largely character-focused episodes like "4,722 Hours" stand out so much when they do occasionally happen. We so rarely get to experience that kind of look into any one character, but the existence of those episodes prove that the show does have the ability to build out these people in meaningful ways while also moving the plot forward. Now, I don't think anyone wanted to sit through an hour focused solely on Lincoln, and I don't know that anyone is really dying for more time to be spent on Daisy, a lead character who eats away screentime from everyone else even when stories should be focused on other people (way to just breeze past May's probable grief over Andrew's death, show! No, I'm sure it didn't mean anything!). But these things maybe would have helped to make the loss of Lincoln feel a bit more devastating.
But then again, maybe not.
With the exception of Fitz and Simmons—though I'd be willing to at least entertain the idea of Bobbi and Hunter as also competing here based on the emotional farewell they received earlier this season—the series hasn't been able to mine the depths of relationships, especially those that are romantic, in truly meaningful ways. And to be honest, the FitzSimmons dynamic hasn't been firing on all cylinders on the emotional front since the two finally decided to stop dillydallying and enter a real adult relationship. At this stage, it's probably too early to call it a problem; it's most likely a symptom of the series switching its focus to Hive and trying to tie together several threads before setting off for next season. But it's definitely something to keep an eye on in Season 4, because Fitz and Simmons are the show's emotional backbone. If they fail to provide that support because of lackluster storylines like the Hive arc, it'll be a damn shame.
And speaking of Hive, Lincoln was only one of the finale's casualties. No one really cares that Hive was defeated because that was always in the cards. What's more interesting about this development was the way it affected the man behind the wannabe Neo getup. With Hive's death, it looks like this is the true final curtain call for Brett Dalton, an actor who's worn many hats for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. since its premiere, and an actor who managed to turn Agent Handsome, a walking cardboard cutout of a stock TV character, into Grant Ward, a sometimes thrilling villain and the series' best character for at least parts of Seasons 1 and 2. I have to give the writers credit for finding ways to keep Dalton employed as his character's arcs came to their natural conclusions, and I have to give Dalton props for bringing to life these many different characters, and iterations of characters, since the pilot way back when. But it was also time—beyond time—for the series to let him go and move on. 
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. took the road less traveled when the writers chose not to take Ward on a path of redemption after Season 1, and although I struggled with the decision to double down on his Hydra devotion when the story needed him to travel to the desolate planet earlier this season, the decision not to redeem him, despite my own love for the character, was not just admirable, it was also the right one. And so when Ward died in the midseason finale, itself a development that led to conflicting feelings of guilt in Coulson, it felt like the series had reached a possible turning point and was going to start fresh. I truly thought we'd see a series without Dalton. And then the entire Hive arc happened, which retroactively just supports the argument that when Ward died, Dalton should have exited, too. But as with Mitchell and Bennet, it wasn't Dalton's fault that his character's storyline didn't connect; instead it was that Hive suffered from an ill-defined master plan and a storyline that relied heavily on him mind-controlling people, which is one of the laziest tropes in storytelling. I had high hopes for Dalton with this new role, but it never panned out. 
Which brings me to the surprising time jump at the end of the finale. Time jumps are a tricky thing to pull off, and it takes skill to know when and how they should be deployed in order to achieve maximum storytelling effectiveness (see Battlestar Galactica's "Lay Down Your Burdens" for possibly the greatest time jump in TV history). Obviously, we won't be able to fully judge this jump forward until next season, when we'll be able to tell if the show just wanted to make a clean break and head in a different direction or if this is leading to something else, but the few minutes of set up for Season 4 that we did see didn't do much to excite or even instill confidence. Daisy is now on the run as Quake six months after Lincoln's untimely death, and she kept her promise to look out for Charles's daughter, but we still don't really know what to expect from anyone next season.
This wouldn't be the first time a character has shirked their duties and taken off after personal hardship to heal their broken heart/lick their wounds—even Buffy had "Anne"—but here, just based on the short preview after the jump, this could either end up being a good thing, or it could be a major step backward. There is an argument that the series needed to dial back in scale and refocus on the humans within the Inhumans—the series is always at its best when it's focused on finding the humanity of it all—and now that there are four fewer series regulars to service, it will be easier to do this. But there is also an argument that Daisy on the run by herself, with Coulson and Mack on her tail—and apparently reporting to a director who is not Coulson (are they even still part of S.H.I.E.L.D.?)—only adds to one of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s other ongoing issues, which is that Daisy is not nearly as interesting as the show thinks she is. 
When Season 3 premiered, she was happy and content, she'd appeared to have (groan) found her purpose—or what she perceived to be her purpose. Rehashing her abandonment issues this season felt like we were watching her regress, and now even on the outside she more closely resembles Skye the Hacker than Daisy the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. Pardon me, but I don't give a damn about the character's personal battles anymore, and I'd much rather move forward to tell a new story. With the news this week that ABC is pushing the show back to the 10pm hour next season, the series is really going to need to step up its game and find its footing again—it needs to be the series it was during the first half of Season 3—because Tuesdays at 10pm is known for being a notorious garbage fire in the ratings. And I wouldn't be surprised if Season 4 is the end of the road for Coulson, Daisy, Fitz, Simmons, Mack, and May.

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