Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., “Beginning of the End”
“Beginning of the End” is far from the most exciting episode of the series, but it brings Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD to a reasonably respectable conclusion. For every clumsy moment, there are at least two really solid ones, and the show makes excellent use of its guest stars. While I have some issues with what they opted not to do in this episode, I have to admit: This was just a fun hour of TV. Flawed, but engaging in a way the series’ early adventures never were.
The episode picks up right where last week’s “Ragtag” left off: Coulson, Tripp and May surrounded by Centipede soldiers, Fitz and Simmons slowly sinking to their deaths in the middle of (a very shallow part of) the ocean, Ward resolute in his loyalty to Garrett. After Coulson’s team takes out the Centipede soldiers, who have gotten mysteriously much weaker than early in the season, they’re off to the races, hunting down Garrett and trying to put a stop to him before he develops a working super-soldier serum using their own information. It’s a brisk, quick adventure that highlights both the series’ biggest remaining weakness… and how much it has fixed many of its older problems.
The weakness, first: The series has never figured out how to look good, and that continues here. It’s a high-budget show on a major American network, and yet it rarely looks as good as shows that spend half as much. It’s not that the effects are cheesy – they are, but so were Buffy‘s and Angel‘s – so much as it is that it just looks ugly. The lighting is flat, the set design is uninspired (yet another shoot-out in an abandoned semi-industrial environment…), the costumes are off… there are still serious problems here, and “Beginning of the End” highlights a lot of them as it shuffles the bland-looking cast from one nondescript environment to another.
But, finally, the charm of that cast and the drama of the episode outweighs most of those issues. “Beginning of the End” stacks the deck with excellent guest stars, from Bill Paxton’s sardonic survivor John Garrett all the way up to Samuel L. Jackson’s return as MIA superspy Nick Fury, and a showdown between Paxton, Fury, and Coulson demonstrates a level of wit and charisma that the series has been desperately lacking in its younger cast. Even those younger regulars, however, manage to wow. Fitz and Simmons in particular are given an excellent, if brief, story here that pushes their relationship to the forefront and forces both Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge to do their best work yet as they prepare to die and confront their feelings for one another.
What’s more, the episode actually manages one solid action sequence, and while it doesn’t quite top Ward’s brutal takedown of a SHIELD unit in “Turn, Turn, Turn,” it still has a visceral thrill that was often lacking. Melinda May is a character who has been talked up a lot as a no-nonsense, get-the-job-done-at-any-cost type in the past , and she finally gets to display her ruthless skill in a long-brewing confrontation with turncoat lover Ward. The fight is solid, but it’s the conclusion, which finds May nailing Ward’s foot to the ground, crushing his larynx, and then delivering a roundhouse kick to his head, that really took my breath away. A good fight scene isn’t just exciting; it tells you something about the combatants. Ward’s, mentioned above, perfectly illustrated his darker side, suggesting his true allegiance to the canny viewer before the show gave it away. May’s finally shows us what the Cavalry was once like, and why she wants to get away from it. More like that, please.
“Beginning of the End” only sporadically feels like a finale, failing as it does to answer pretty much every long-running question it’s asked over the course of its first season, and I suspect a more cable-friendly model – which puts the climax in the penultimate episode, and saves the finale for the denouement – would have served it well. But it’s a rousing adventure, with some solid set-pieces, a few good laughs, and some good old fashioned acting. As a template for an adventure show with a purpose, “Beginning of the End” feels like a solid road map for the show moving forward. As a season finale for a troubled show, it could have used a bit more work.
Quotes & Notes
I know Garrett’s death was ‘borrowed’ wholesale from Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s “Buffy vs. Dracula,” but that didn’t make it any less hilarious a way to finish up that story.
“I was told never to leave your side.”
“I love you, too.” – Deathlok and Agent Garrett. Bill Paxton was a fantastic addition to the cast, and he will be missed in season 2.
Having Garrett be inspired by mishearing a speech Nick Fury gave was hilarious, and made the final showdown far, far funnier than it had any right to be.
‘The Noisemaker’ is the show’s best device yet, costing absolutely nothing in special effects budgets and delivering big laughs both times it is deployed. I hope Tripp sticks around to replace Ward.
It seems more and more like this season was setting up a big Inhumans reveal that never came. The blood from a Kree (who created the Inhumans) that awakens latent powers within people, Raina’s talk of evolution, it all seemed to be building to something that just never happened.
Huzzah! More Patton Oswalt!
“The Beginning of the End” Rating: 3.5 / 5
Thoughts on Season 1 of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Season 1 of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was, to me, an unambiguous (if occasionally enjoyable) failure – and I say that as someone who has defended the back-half of the show more than once. The first 12 episodes are bad. The production design is bad, the pacing is bad, the characterization is bad, the lighting is bad. Nothing that happens in those episodes particularly matters, which is a problem, because none of it is terribly interesting either. It’s a throwback to light-hearted 60s children’s spy-fi, except with rampant prisoner abuse, threat of torture, and other modern issues sure to please the kiddies.
The problem is, I’m not sure the show ever figured out what it wanted to be, or how it wanted to be it. Why were the first dozen episodes – roughly “Pilot” through “Seeds” – essentially NCIS: Marvel? In retrospect, they were obviously just killing time until the Big Reveal in episode 16, “The End of the Beginning” – or, realistically, in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. But, given how important these characters and their relationships would be in the series’ concluding run, why not spend those early episodes fleshing out the characters?
They made feints towards doing so, of course, but they were halfhearted at best. We never solved the TAHITI mystery, after all, nor the mystery of Skye’s parentage or abilities. We got a back story for Melinda May, but it was a back story we were told but never shown, a cardinal sin of storytelling. Early plots, like Skye’s hacker organization, were dropped quickly and with little fanfare. The writers were just killing time, and it showed.
The show figured out many of its flaws as it went on, which is a good sign for season 2. But were its early episodes so neutered because it was hyper-dependent on the Marvel film release schedule? If so, will the second season be equally dependent on the upcoming Ant-Man and The Avengers: Age of Ultron? Or will we get a half-season of wheel-spinning again? It’s honestly hard to say for sure.
Don’t get me wrong, I am excited for season 2. “Beginning of the End” concludes by giving the series a new MO, one that should be pleasantly dramatic (put SHIELD back together) and give the series an overarching goal to work towards that’s a bit more focused than the general “Super Procedural” we got in the early episodes of this season. What’s more, the cast is growing into their roles (slowly), and with the blandest member out of the way, there should be room to for them to grow, assuming the writers learn to write away from their weaknesses. There are good ideas here, but it’s going to take a lot of polish to make ‘em shine. Only time will tell if they’re willing to put in that much work.