Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Returns Tonight—And It Deserves Your Attention

TV Features Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
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<i>Marvel&#8217;s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.</i> Returns Tonight&#8212;And It Deserves Your Attention

Whenever the words “superhero” or “comic books” come up in film and television discussions, “oversaturation” and “fatigue” usually follow. Marvel Television has been especially busy, with a large output this year alone (The Defenders, Inhumans, The Punisher, Runaways). But it was Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. that started it all for Marvel TV, and with transmedia mega-franchises continuing to expand at an exponential rate, the ABC series is often forgotten as the progenitor of Marvel’s live-action slate.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, which was nearing cancelation at the end of its fourth season, is about to begin Season Five and reach a landmark 100 episodes. Here’s why you should care about it.

The Admittedly Rough Beginning

OK, so the show was bad at first. There’s a moment in its second-ever episode, “0-8-4,” where the day is saved during the “climax” when an inflatable raft closes off a massive hole in The Bus (our team’s aircraft carrier HQ). I knew from there that as an MCU devotee, this show might be a chore to watch.

It felt like an American version of early Torchwood or a wanna-be Firefly, but Phil Coulson’s team and The Bus couldn’t hold a candle to Malcolm Reynolds’ crew and the Serenity. Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen) was stoic, Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) was the walking embodiment of blandness, surrogate newbie Skye (Chloe Bennet) was annoying and unbearable, and Fitz-Simmons (Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge, respectively) and their accents were incomprehensible.

It didn’t help that many of the early episodes felt like advertisements for the MCU films. You couldn’t go ten minutes without Tony Stark, Natasha Romanoff or Asgard being name-dropped—that unfortunate second episode even deployed Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury in an attempt to vitalize the show with some star power. A heavily-advertised tie-in to Thor: The Dark World was a five-minute cold open on the S.H.I.E.L.D. team cleaning up debris after the film’s final confrontation.

Despite some exceptional early episodes (the Fitz-Simmons-centric “FZZT” being a character-focused highlight), the show felt like nothing more than excessive, supplementary material to the movies.

A Bold Twist That Set the Tone

The early days of the show were marked by an overdependence on MCU film references, but the all-important Captain America: The Winter Soldier acted as a trampoline to bring Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to new heights. The fall of the S.H.I.E.L.D. organization in the films provided ample creative opportunities for the show, even though one would think the opposite would happen when the show’s namesake was shuttered.

S.H.I.E.L.D. viewers were blindsided when it was revealed that Grant Ward was a HYDRA double agent. A main character who earned the trust of not only his teammates, but also likely the viewers, was not who he appeared to be. At the time, a twist like this felt Sixth Sense level. Lesser-skilled writers would have messed this up eventually: a reset button of some sort, a hackneyed redemption arc, something had to go wrong. But the show not only stuck with this, it went further—the once-bland Ward became truly evil, an emotionally troubled and downright sadistic antagonist.

As Ward developed, so did the series. The stakes were larger, and the agents’ world became smaller. With the situation now dire for the characters, the tone was significantly less optimistic, and enshrouded in paranoia and darkness. The format became less monster-of-the-day, and more serialized. What felt like a chore suddenly became must-watch television for me. And unlike M. Night Shyamalan’s filmography, the plot twists to come still shocked and awed; there were no diminishing returns on suspense. The expanding cast of characters, storylines and other concepts that the show introduced allowed S.H.I.E.L.D. to have its own mythology branch off from the rest of the MCU, even though tie-ins occasionally came near a film’s release.

By the end of Season One, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. finally had its own identity.

Truly Well-Done Performances

Something clicked with me during Season Two: These are actually very good actors. At the beginning of the season, Ward is held captive by Coulson’s team, unbeknownst to several agents. Fitz, brain-damaged at the end of Season One as a result of Ward’s actions, accidentally stumbles upon his cell. Watching De Caestecker (who had a successful acting career in the U.K. before joining S.H.I.E.L.D.) acting out a panic attack as Fitz is absolutely heartbreaking, especially with a Hannibal Lecter-esque Ward looming in the background. De Caestecker is a highlight week after week, and he truly deserves a bigger Hollywood career after S.H.I.E.L.D. wraps up.

That’s not to forget the other cast members, all of whom can act circles around many of the performers you see in The CW’s Arrowverse. Clark Gregg is always reliable as Coulson, but the rest of the cast finally receives material worth their time, with a tragic backstory fleshing out May, Simmons proving herself on the field (leading to an excellent bottle episode in Season Three) and Skye (sorry, Daisy Johnson) discovering a quite Inhuman secret about herself. New blood in the form of… Nick Blood as Hunter and Adrianne Palicki as Bobbi “Mockingbird” Morse added some much needed energy to the show. And finally, Mack (Henry Simmons) introduced a voice of reason to the team, and at this point in the series has become the program’s emotional center.

The series has also made excellent use of guest stars: From Bill Paxton to Kyle MacLachlan to Powers Boothe, S.H.I.E.L.D. leveraged its guests’ acting chops to bring fun and interesting characters that drove the series’ improving storylines. No matter your thoughts on the show, watching MacLachlan ham it up as Cal is a joy to watch.

And while the network television budget might lead to less impressive results than the films (or even something like the famous hallway fight scene in Netflix’s Daredevil), the thrilling action we come to expect from the MCU is still present. Season Two marked a significant improvement, including complex action scenes that found May in a brutal fight with an identical lookalike, or Daisy dispatching HYDRA baddies in a John Wick-like one take. In the same episode, the agents sacrificed The Bus in a glorious CGI sequence—and with the old, familiar base obliterated, so was the show’s mediocre past.

Storytelling That’s Refined Every Year

Last season, the writers found a groove with a new format: The season was divided into three “pods,” essentially “mini seasons” with their own high-concept premises. The 22-episode season became more bearable by having distinct storylines, each more satisfying than the previous one.

The term “organic” is often derided by fans of Arrow, mocking the CW show’s attempts at pairing Oliver Queen and Felicity Smoak, but it’s a term that applies unironically to Fitz and Simmons. S.H.I.E.L.D. is a show that convinces its audience that these characters must be together, with the characters acting naturally rather than the writers giving in to Tumblr fandom discourse. Devoid of melodrama and clichéd will-they/won’t-they rhythms, the show plays with viewers’ heartstrings not by making the characters act irrationally, but by having the plot create obstacles in their relationship.

And even with its setting in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the show has continued on with its own mythology, allowing only passing or subtle references to films and other series. Instead of name dropping Stephen Strange, we see a similar sling ring portal effect as in the Doctor Strange movie, one that actually has an essential role in the episode’s plot. No cheeky references, no breaking Sam Jackson out of a glass case for emergency—just pure S.H.I.E.L.D..

The second pod “finale” episode “Self Control” (the first episode directed by co-showrunner Jed Whedon) is one of my favorite episodes of television ever. It has everything that I’ve come to love about the show: darkness, suspense, rational character choices, lack of unnecessary MCU references, the subversion of expectations, impressive and explosive action and worthy performances. A crucial Fitz-Simmons scene in the middle will have you covering your eyes in terror and despair, and one Daisy action sequence aims for movie-quality. Even the last couple of minutes kept dropping new twists that had me and my fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. fan sister screaming at the television in shock to the end credits—this was the set-up to the third “pod,” a virtual reality world that presented twisted “what if?” scenarios for the characters. In the following episodes, as some Arrowverse fans might admit, S.H.I.E.L.D. did “Flashpoint” much better than The Flash.

Watch the Damn Show

Admittedly, with four full seasons of 22 episodes each, catching up with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a daunting task—but I’m suggesting that you consider doing it anyway. Fans would probably tell outsiders to start with The Winter Soldier tie-in, but by skipping to such a late stage risks missing out on the satisfaction of the growing mythology and the evolution of both the characters and the storytelling. And at least for now, all four seasons are on Netflix for your binging pleasure—it certainly works as a palate cleanser for those left bitter by subpar superhero television shows of late.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is an anomaly: What began as a commercial for action films eventually came to justify its own existence. It’s a TV series that I really believe in—one might think that it’s primarily for MCU diehards, but watching S.H.I.E.L.D. constantly reinvent itself—and improve every season—makes it a sight to see for all.

Season Five of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. premieres tonight at 8 p.m. on ABC.



Chris Compendio is a Paste intern, Nintendo fan and MCU enthusiast. You can find his work elsewhere on “MCU Exchange”:https://mcuexchange.com/, “Screen Rant”:https://screenrant.com and on Twitter @Compenderizer.