Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Finish Cinematic, Anticlimactic, “The Beginning Of The End” Completes The First Season Of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.!

The Good: Moments of character, A few fun moments of banter, Good special effects
The Bad: Very predictable plot
The Basics: With “The Beginning Of The End,” Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s first season finishes in a way that reminds viewers of the charm and form of the Marvel Cinematic Universe . . . though it does not end the season in a truly powerful or exceptional way.

Season finales have a special place for me (and most television viewers). A good season finale makes one beg for the end of summer because it sets up the next season in such a compelling way that viewers want to rewatch everything in the season that preceded it just to hold themselves over for what comes next. Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. completed its first season with “The Beginning Of The End” and one of the key issues the series has to address is how to keep the spy thriller show interesting in a Marvel Cinematic Universe that has become far less magical or interesting over the course of the prior twenty-one episodes. Sadly, “The Beginning Of The End” is an end and it is the logical finishing point for the first season’s big Clairvoyant/Deathlok arc, but more than being something that begs viewers to watch more, like Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “The Best Of Both Worlds” (reviewed here!), the episode has an anticlimactic quality that finishes storylines and ends with intrigue, but low, much like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s “Tears Of The Prophets” (reviewed here!). Like most season finales, “The Beginning Of The End” works to tie up the loose ends of the season while seeding some elements for the next season, but unlike many science fiction or spy thriller shows, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. steers away from a cliffhanger with the episode.

Picking up where “Ragtag” (reviewed here!) left off, the two conflicting teams are moving toward a conflict led by their respective leaders. The Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. are two members down and the Agents Of H.Y.D.R.A. are finding themselves wondering about the mental state of their leader. The obvious foil sets up a finale that raises the stakes for both Coulson and Garrett. There is an interesting aspect to the writing of “The Beginning Of The End” which is that as Coulson becomes more of an authoritative, true, leader of his S.H.I.E.L.D. team who is able to make the hard decisions, Nick Fury pops out of his self-imposed retirement to illustrate the opposite. Given Fury’s place at the climax of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (reviewed here!), Nick Fury going into hiding was always going to require some sacrifice and his unwillingness to make the sacrifice that such a tactical move required undermines Nick Fury’s badass nature some.

Cybertek launches an attack on the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. using a team they are controlling. Surviving only through May’s use of the Asgardian spear, Coulson’s team manages to escape. Garrett’s H.Y.D.R.A. cell is put on edge when Garrett begins to react to the serum he was given to save his life. As Quinn and Raina question how they can raise an army of supersoldiers given that Garrett used all of the serum. Ward agrees to follow Garrett anywhere, but he questions if H.Y.D.R.A. is the organization they should be changing the world with. When Coulson finds that Fitz and Simmons managed to tag The Bus, the team is dismayed that the pair has fallen out of contact. As Coulson’s team heads toward Mexico to intercept Garrett’s H.Y.D.R.A. team, Fitz and Simmons realize they are likely to die at the bottom of the ocean unrescued. As Quinn tries to impress the U.S. military with an attempt to sell the Centipede-based supersoldier technology, Coulson’s team attacks the Mexico facility.

With John Garrett losing control of his sanity, Raina and Quinn flee the Mexico facility with the gravitonium. Skye and May reprogram Cybertek’s supersoldiers to help Coulson find Garrett’s location. With Ward heading off to kill Skye, Fitz prepares to sacrifice himself for Simmons in a desperate escape attempt from the escape pod at the bottom of the ocean. But after he finally reveals his love for her, the hatch is blown and the two are put in even more jeopardy. As the situation at Cybertek reaches a climax, Skye communicates through Deathlok to try to defeat Garrett and May confronts Ward for a cathartic asskicking.

“The Beginning Of The End” is a somewhat erratic episode that ends well, but without a strong climax. In fact, the episode feels like it is the end of a Marvel Cinematic Universe Movie . . . complete with foreshadowing events of the next film through seemingly pointless tangents. The episode also has some good banter, a cool promotion, and moments that work to undermine the impact of prior episodes (which would be impossible to discuss without spoiling the episode). Nick Fury’s part in the episode does more than undermine his unflinchingly efficient and cool character (though it fleshes him out with more of a heart than he has revealed before), but it does raise some plot/character questions that are inexplicable (namely Fitz’s absence after the hatch is blown).

In “The Beginning Of The End,” Ward is a lot more conflicted than in prior episodes. The question of how much he is invested in H.Y.D.R.A. is almost immediately addressed and it seems that he is more loyal to Garrett than H.Y.D.R.A. That Ward would shoot S.H.I.E.L.D. agents in the head without being a true believer in H.Y.D.R.A. (or anything, really) makes one question how well-defined the character is. It also makes him less interesting. A villain is good when they have a strong motivation and Ward has made the journey from white bread to weakwilled lackey over the course of the first season. In “The Beginning Of The End,” Ward ends up as May’s chew toy and there is something cathartic to watching May beat the crap out of him, if for no other reason than he seems underwhelming enough to deserve it.

At the other end of the spectrum is Garrett, who becomes much more interesting . . . before he turns into a stereotypical over-the-top action movie/comic book villain. There were a few moments where Garrett’s “vision” into the universe seems like it might hint at or foreshadow something from Guardians Of The Galaxy, but Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. does not go there, unfortunately. Sadly, Garrett becomes a ridiculous, crazed, maniac who is utterly generic. That said, his resurrecting abilities lead to one of the episode’s high points and gives Coulson a great line.

Coulson makes a very spy-like decision to leave Fitz and Simmons. That decision makes him a great leader and Clark Gregg carries his scenes exceptionally well. The arc that Coulson has gone through in the first season climaxes well in “The Beginning Of The End.” Coulson finally gets his answers in a face-to-face with Nick Fury and Clark Gregg and Samuel L. Jackson have some great on-screen chemistry in their scenes together in the episode. The direction of the arc between Coulson and Fury makes for a satisfying end to the season, even if it is not the most exciting (in terms of tone) turn that the season could take.

Ultimately, “The Beginning Of The End” does not present any catastrophic shifts in the Marvel Cinematic Universe or Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.; the season neatly ties up the Clairvoyant’s arc and elevates the importance of Coulson, but otherwise it is a largely unremarkable end to the first season. The big character moments are not followed up on (especially between Fitz and Simmons, as well as any emotional resonance for Ward’s character after Cybertek is infiltrated) and the plot events are more predictable than they are surprising.

For other season finales, please visit my reviews of:
“Becoming, Parts 1 & 2” - Buffy The Vampire Slayer
“Cicely” - Northern Exposure
“Hope And Fear” - Star Trek: Voyager

[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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