People like to root for the underdog. Our heroes are the rebellion raging against the empire. A small band of heroes taking on an army. It’s hard to tell a compelling story about the guys with all the power keeping down small threats.
That was the flaw in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season one.
For the first 16 episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. the team went on adventures to different parts of the world to deal with relatively unconnected missions. There was drama, but there wasn’t much of a sign that the show would become one cohesive whole.
Then Captain America: The Winter Soldier came out. Now, when S.H.I.E.L.D. crossed over with Thor: The Dark World it really didn’t. Sure, there were Asgardians, but no element of the movie affected the show. But The Winter Soldier ended with S.H.I.E.L.D. being shut down because it had been taken over by HYDRA.
The stakes were raised, to say the least, and the show delivered a string of episodes that (mostly) brought the whole season together. It was an exciting time to be a fan of the show because the characters were turned into the underdogs. That’s a status quo the series has largely kept to for the following seasons.
Season 2 ran with the S.H.I.E.L.D. vs Hydra story, but knew that the super-spy series needed more super powers in it. The MCU couldn’t use mutants, so S.H.I.E.L.D. revealed the Inhumans. The back half of the season became about figuring out how they move forward with more superhumans running around than they knew of, and they’re all organized. Aside from almost forgetting to tie into Avengers: Age of Ultron, that season ended with terrigen crystals getting into the worldwide food supply and S.H.I.E.L.D. becoming the Inhumans police.
Season 3 was a pretty good X-Men show with extra spy fun. Of course they spent the first half of the season fighting Hydra again, though this time led by their old friend Ward. They’re like cockroaches that Hydra, though they are up front about it. “Cut off one head, two more take its place” is the catchphrase after all. Plus they revealed that the jerk world security council member from The Avengers, the one that wanted to nuke New York City, was actually Hydra all along. So that’s fun!
The season took an odd turn when Hydra brought Hive, the Inhuman that Hydra’s been worshiping for centuries, to Earth. Maybe I prefer my Hydra to be Nazis and not ancient cults but I wasn’t a fan. Also they killed Ward. Ward! Either way, they beat the bad guy, a team member died, and we were treated to a time jump of several months. Which is how we come to season 4.
You’re probably starting to figure out how this works now. Around season two the series started breaking its season into two wholly separate arcs. At that point this was probably necessitated by the long break Agent Carter forced into the series, but it also made the writers tell concise stories that were stronger for it. S.H.I.E.L.D. vs Hydra, S.H.I.E.L.D. vs Inhumans, S.H.I.E.L.D. vs Ward, S.H.I.E.L.D. vs Hive. But in season 4 they made this explicit by giving the series a fun subtitle for each arc. That first arc was Ghost Rider.This was the first time SHIELD could really get their hands on an iconic Marvel character and shape them as their own. Smartly, they chose to skip Johnny Blaze and instead introduce Robbie Reyes as their Ghost Rider. They told a simple revenge tale with extra magic fun, but they still kept that magic in the Marvel mold of, “this is all super science from a certain perspective.” Most important of all though, Ghost Rider looked great on a TV budget.But the Ghost Rider arc also happened at the same time as S.H.I.E.L.D. stepping out of the shadows and becoming a real US intelligence organization again. The fear was that S.H.I.E.L.D. wouldn’t be underdogs anymore. Well the show solved that issue in the second arc of the season; LMD.Waaaay back in season 1, when the Hydra reveal happened, it was seismic because we didn’t know who we could trust anymore. We didn’t know who was Hydra and who was S.H.I.E.L.D. Now the show has managed to put the audience back in that head-space in a completely new way. First there was one LMD ( an android or Life Model Decoy), Aida, who appeared to go rogue. She was easy to fight because the team could identify her easily. But then the evil scientist who made the LMDs started copying members of the team. First Melinda May, and then four core team members at once to infiltrate the S.H.I.E.L.D. base. That episode aired last night and it was, no lie, one of the best the series has ever put out.
The team couldn’t trust anyone, leading to some great standoffs, Daisy had one of the best fights of her career–
–and LMD May had a crisis of faith over whether or not she’s truly alive. Then the whole thing ended with a small band of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents on the run. They are the underdogs once again, leading us into the the third arc for this season. Plugging their minds into the Framework, a matrix-like simulation of the world where their friends’ real minds are being stored.
This season has been killing it, turning in one consistently great episode after another, which is not something every superhero show can say. I am on record saying I would stop watching this show after season 3, but I am really glad I did not keep that promise.
I’ll leave you where the show left me, an introduction to the Framework:
PS, WARD! WARD! WARD!