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Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Season 3, Episode 14 - "Watchdogs"

Daniel Rasmus

The last two episodes showcase a series that's coming into its own, rather than just a placeholder in the MCU.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Airtime: Tuesdays, 8pm
Cast: Clark Gregg, Ming-Na Wen, Brett Dalton, Chloe Bennet, Iain De Caestecker, Elizabeth Henstridge, Henry Simmons, Luke Mitchell
Subtitle: Season 3, Episode 14 - "Watchdogs"
Network: ABC
Air date: 2016-03-29

Joss Whedon walked by the Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. writer's room at Mutant Enemy and said "edge". Behind him were posters of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly. He followed that up with: "and its all about the characters".

I don’t know if that meeting happened, but some meeting happened. The last two episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. have dug their teeth deep into the material, pulled back the skin from the neck of the characters, and exposed raw nerves while blood gushes from the wounds. Whedon and team know a thing or two about sharp teeth. I can even imagine a little bit of snarling back at network executives trying to keep Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. sanitized for a broadcast audience.

The filters, however, are failing. The dirt's getting in. The characters aren't just being explored, they seem to be exploring themselves. Coulson's jaw is tight. Daisy has moved way past Agent ingenue, not following orders and dealing with the consequences. May once held the stoic banner of the calvary after her forced killing of a child. A couple of weeks ago, she welcomed Coulson to the calvary. Now everyone left in the inner circle is in the calvary, even Lincoln, who’s controlled anger was unleashed by Coulson (real enough, even though it was unleashed on a hologram).

Although ABC has renewed Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for a fourth season, this wasn't a renewal granted by destiny. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. isn't a major hit show looking to go out before the demise of its quality or the aging of its actors. This was a show born as the bastard offspring of big screen and small, an afterthought on the long road that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s never been clear if Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was just a vehicle to launch Inhuman films, or the post-nuclear shadow left on a wall in the wake of the Loki, the Chitauri, the Winter Soldier, and the revelations of Hydra’s infiltration.

Maybe the meeting wasn't with Joss, but with franchise executives laying down a gauntlet that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. really is the connective tissue between Iron Man, Thor, The Avengers and Captain America. With Captain American: Civil War's imminent release, perhaps they made it clear it was time to resurrect the collagen and re-imbibe the sinew, time to sew the tendons back onto the muscle. Perhaps the Disney brass pumped extra oxygen into the writer's room, introduced some irritant to ratchet up the agitation.

Or perhaps, it was a little of both. The "civil war" between Whedon and Disney smoldered following The Avengers: Age of Ultron, yet this creation -- Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. -- remained the creative purview of Mutant Enemy, with Team Whedon's zombie closer a reminder every week that this is the company that created the show that can still gather hundreds of fans at the end of Comic-Con International in San Diego to sing-a-long to "Once More with Feeling".

Into this fray, our contemporary world pours into the wounds opened by Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., from the registration of "aliens", to cures for biological imperatives that aren't seen as diseases by many of those who carry the particular genes. As we see violence and destruction by Syrian and Iraq-based ISIL infiltrate Europe, and watch fear mongering, the sewing of civil distrust, bigotry, and misogyny along the campaign trail to the US Presidency, the social commentary is undeniable. The metaphors fueled by real events in the comic books have been co-opted to serve the contemporary situation. The constant and inexorable fear of the other that motivated the sons of Jewish immigrants to invent comic book characters in the first place -- using print and ink and language to rise above in order to carve out a still uneasy equality -- permeates the latest episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D..

In many ways, the "big bad" that is Hive and Hydra fade in importance, acting merely as handholds upon which to navigate a plot. It is the personal demons, past regrets, and how those regrets drive the choice between compassion or disconnection, and how intimate relationships, not the sweep of history, really shape perceptions, and ultimately actions.

If a rally were held, Spartacus style, in support of Inhumans who were being hunted and branded, I’d hope that I’d stand up with a sign, or shout "I am Inhuman". I hope that in this year of very real politics, in which the real world is in the balance, that empathy will lead many of us to shout, "I'm black", "I'm gay", "I'm a woman and I have the right to autonomy over my body", or "I'm an observant Muslim who loves America". Our fiction reflects us. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has now pushed past cliché, and it’s finding a core bigger than its origins. The last two episodes, regardless of their creative motivations, have thrust this once-apparent afterthought into a relevancy of its own. Sure, it may well portend Captain America: Civil War, but for now Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has found a gravity well of its own to orbit, one that I hope the writers, the producers, and the studios continue to feed.

Disney and Marvel have chosen to orchestrate a number of properties and to their credit, they’ve let shows continue that might have been canceled in the past, because of their association with Marvel. With streaming, the ability to jump back and forth across these properties in real time makes all of the content, regardless of its previous viewership, grist for future binge-watching. Yet, all of the properties are creative acts in their own right, and it's great to watch a show untangle itself from its own origin story and find a way to offer not just entertainment, and not just social commentary, but an emotional connection, an hour of engagement that transcends the medium. I may be overreaching, but I think Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. may be on the cusp of actually becoming art.


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