Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Haven’t Seen Captain America: The Winter Soldier? Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. Says “Screw You!” With “Turn, Turn, Turn.”

The Good: Good reversal, Good character retcon for May, Good acting
The Bad: Truly requires seeing Captain America: The Winter Soldier to buy the premise, Systemic issues within S.H.I.E.L.D. that make the episode’s resolution more ridiculous than revealing.
The Basics: Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. picks up the Marvel Cinematic Universe developments from Captain America: The Winter Soldier with “Turn, Turn, Turn.”

Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. has a unique position in television right now (perhaps in history). The television series is compelled to interact with a series of guaranteed blockbuster films and none has threatened to change the nature of the television series as dramatically as Captain America: The Winter Soldier (reviewed here!). The latest episode, “Turn, Turn, Turn,” hinges largely on the gamechanging aspects of the new film and it is impossible to discuss without revealing the conceptual spoiler behind Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Despite all of the hype and packaging, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is essentially about how the villainous organization from the first film, which was assumed to be destroyed by the end of that film, is truly in control of S.H.I.E.L.D. H.Y.D.R.A. was revealed to be in control of S.H.I.E.L.D. and “Turn, Turn, Turn” is all about how S.H.I.E.L.D. is collapsing in the wake of the H.Y.D.R.A. takeover.

Picking up immediately where “End Of The Beginning” (reviewed here!) ended, Agent Garret is hunted by S.H.I.E.L.D. drone planes. With the standoff on the Bus between Coulson, Skye, Fitz and May, the Bus is on remote control lockdown headed toward the Hub. Rescuing Garret, Coulson imprisons May and reveals to Garret that he believes that Hand is the Clairvoyant. Skye cracks the encrypted signal that H.Y.D.R.A. sent out, awakening their sleeper agents and essentially cracking S.H.I.E.L.D. from within. With May trying to contact Nick Fury and learning that he is dead, the Bus finds itself locked down at the Hub. Ward becomes committed to keeping Skye safe.

When Simmons and Triplett are captured by Hand, she insists that she is not H.Y.D.R.A., but Coulson is. Simmons resists accepting that Coulson is corrupt while Skye, Ward, and Coulson infiltrate the Hub. At the Hub, the Clairvoyant is finally revealed as an agent of H.Y.D.R.A. and as S.H.I.E.L.D. collapses, Coulson and his team have a chance to stop the Clairvoyant and stunt the H.Y.D.R.A. takeover.

“Turn, Turn, Turn” was advertised as a “game-changing” episode of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. and genre fans are likely to be excited by the notion of the episode, if not its originality. Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is forced to take a risk, but the risk is not the most original one seen in recent spy thriller television: the collapse of S.H.I.E.L.D. is essentially a plot point that occurred in the second season of Alias (reviewed here!) with the destruction of SD-6, the agency Sydney Bristow was tasked to infiltrate. While Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. seems audacious by having one of the Agents actually working for H.Y.D.R.A., even that was done as part of SD-6’s collapse (as a sleeper agent was revealed to be working for the remnants of SD-6 and one of Bristow’s allies was framed as an agent of the enemy). So, at the turning point, “Turn, Turn, Turn” necessarily pushes Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. in a different direction for the series and it is exciting to watch, but those who like spy thillers are likely to see a lot of the reversals coming.

In fact, the final act of “Turn, Turn, Turn” is tragically bad . . . in a way Alias managed not to be at the same plot point. At a time when no one can be trusted, Coulson and Hand continue to trust all of their own people (plus Agent Triplett). While some H.Y.D.R.A. agents are marched out of the Hub, we do not see intense interrogations of the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents who claim to be loyal to S.H.I.E.L.D. There’s a pretty dimwitted sensibility to Hand and Coulson when they can implicitly acknowledge that H.Y.D.R.A. has been working under the noses of S.H.I.E.L.D. since its inception, completely undetected, but then simply trust any S.H.I.E.L.D. agents who claim to still be loyal to the organization. There have to be smart H.Y.D.R.A. agents at facilities – like the Hub – who see which way the wind is blowing and simply do not stand up with the other H.Y.D.R.A. agents. So, that Coulson immediately trusts Hand after the Clairvoyant is revealed seems ridiculous. That carting the Clairvoyant off to another location is not treated like the most obvious escape attempt H.Y.D.R.A. could ever come up with seriously diminishes Coulson’s character.

Fortunately, the final reversal of the episode is not so obvious as leading to everyone on the plane to take the Clairvoyant away simply smiling at one another to reveal themselves to be Agents Of H.Y.D.R.A. Instead, despite the many red herrings, “Turn, Turn, Turn” manages to play off enough important character moments to make viewers believe they are watching something motivated by smart internal motivations of the characters they have been watching. The explanation that Agent May gives at the outset of the episode is actually a smart and powerful bit of exposition that completely redefines her position in Coulson’s team. More important than that, her reveal reinforces the idea that she is pretty much the archetype of an intelligence agent who is principled, loyal, and brutally efficient.

Coulson and Skye are given decent build-ups in “Turn, Turn, Turn” to make the episode’s last-act reversals have real consequences for the main characters of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Sadly, whether or not the series has a powerful follow-up is left for subsequent episodes. Within “Turn, Turn, Turn,” much of the character elements play off trust and fear; the main characters wrestle with believing their friends who have recently done questionable things and they sift through a lot of information to make judgments about who is worthy of their loyalty.

What binds the episode together is a surprisingly good number of decent performances. Saffron Burrows, as Agent Hand, plays the role with such efficiency and coldness that her true allegiances were constantly in question. That makes Hand interesting to watch because she could credibly go any possible way; Burrows defines the role in such a way that she is able to make potentially mundane reversals fantastic. Bill Paxton and Clark Gregg play off one another in “Turn, Turn, Turn” well-enough to make their alluded-to friendship entirely believable.

The rest of the cast – Ming-Na Wen, Brett Dalton, Chloe Bennet (who would have guessed?! Skye has a decent moment that Bennet pulls off well!), Iain De Caestecker, Elizabeth Henstridge, and B.J. Britt (Triplett) – each have moments in “Turn, Turn, Turn” that director Vincent Misiano gives them focus and a chance to rise to the occasion of showing viewers something they have not yet seen on Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Each one meets the challenge, from the simplicity of De Caestecker crying while keeping a rigid posture to Ming-Na Wen emoting through otherwise dry exposition, “Turn, Turn, Turn” is better acted than it is a character piece.

Ultimately, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is at a pivotal moment with “Turn, Turn, Turn.” Will the series progress with the H.Y.D.R.A. agent in their midst like a dim recasting of Alias that forces viewers to accept just how dumb intelligence agents who have all been betrayed can be? Or will the series progress by exploring important questions that realistically rise out of the collapse of major intelligence agencies (where the hell can S.H.I.E.L.D. vehicles like the Bus go to refuel when they no longer have facilities of their own and H.Y.D.R.A. agents are all around the world?!)? Will the H.Y.D.R.A. agent’s betrayal turn the show into a manhunt and how will Coulson start to trust May again? Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is at the cusp of failure or finally breaking out of the stagnant shell that plagued the build-up of the first half of its first season: “Turn, Turn, Turn” lays the framework, but it is up to the subsequent episodes to truly sell the premise.

For other works with Kylie Furneaux, please visit my reviews of:
The Avengers
Pirates Of The Carribbean: On Stranger Tides
Tron: Legacy
The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus
Catch And Release
X-Men III: The Last Stand
Fantastic Four
Dead Like Me

[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. - The Complete First Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the debut season here!


For other television and movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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