Amy Acker’s Audrey: a strong performance in an otherwise empty episode.
Procedural genre television shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. typically follow conventions established by the trailblazers of the genre (such as The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Supernatural/science fiction TV shows utilise many character archetypes, motifs and themes again and again because they have proven successful in the past, or perhaps because their usage represents one less thing for the show’s creators to concern themselves with. This can be observed by examining the characters of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Chloe Bennett’s Skye could just as easily have been a recurring character on Smallville or any other teen-based sci-fi show of the last decade, whilst Agent Ward (Brett Dalton) has, until recent episodes, represented a perfect embodiment of the troubled and emotionally distant “dark stranger” archetype made famous by David Boreanaz’s Angel. This “pattern recognition” is also evident in the structure of many Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episodes. The episode T.R.A.C.K.S. presents the same event from the point of view of each principal character in order to playfully unfold the narrative to the audience. Almost every show of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s ilk has utilised this trope at some point (Buffy’s “The Replacement” was such an episode). The latest episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., “The Only Light in the Darkness”, is the (seemingly required) “romance episode”; the instalment in which of the characters admit and explore their various sexual attractions to one another. The best science fiction television will examine many aspects of the human condition, including romance and sex, by approaching it through an unconventional filter (Fringe’s “A Short Story About Love” would be an excellent example of this). As is expected by now, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s attempt at a romance-themed instalment fails on multiple levels.
Beginning immediately after the close of the previous episode, Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and his S.H.I.E.L.D. team remain in hiding from the authorities and from the villainous HYDRA organisation. When Coulson discovers that a super-powered sociopath (Patrick Brennan) has escaped imprisonment, he insists that he and his allies leave their safe seclusion in order to stop him. Coulson’s desire to break cover to apprehend the criminal are motivated by the maniac’s intended victim; a beautiful cellist from Coulson’s past named Audrey (Angel’s Amy Acker). As Audrey believes him to be dead, Coulson must stop the demented criminal without revealing himself to her. Meanwhile, Agent Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) is having trouble reconciling the obvious mutual attraction between his unrequited love, Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), and Agent Triplet (B.J. Britt). Back at their secret headquarters, Skye and Ward are developing a deep romantic attraction, despite Skye’s increasing fear that Ward may not be all that he seems.
Ever since she was mentioned in passing in The Avengers (the Marvel Comics movie of which Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a spinoff), fans of the Agent Coulson character have been speculating about “The Cellist”. It is certainly no surprise that the character should appear, and that she should be played by a Joss Whedon TV show alumni like Amy Acker (Whedon’s brother has produced and written most Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episodes thus far). Acker certainly gives a strong performance during her limited airtime. Despite the fact that she and Clark Gregg barely share a single scene together, the doomed relationship between Coulson and Audrey is by far the most compelling romance in the episode; a testament to the abilities of both actors. One only wishes that the writers could have conceived a less cumbersome reason to bring the pair together again than a cackling supervillain. This isn’t helped by Patrick Brennan’s terrible acting and hammy line delivery. In a show rife with melodramatic supervillains, the antagonist of this episode stands out as being so awful as to become comedic. Far more compelling as a villain is Brett Dalton’s Ward; the character commits a truly grizzly act in this episode’s subplot. The fact that he is able to seem unfazed and even sexually excited about his relationship with Skye only moments after killing someone is far more chilling than the moustache-twirling antics of the villain in the Audrey plot. Kudos should also be given to Chloe Bennett; normally one of the weakest performers on the show. A sort sequence in which she suffers a panic attack upon discovering Ward’s villainous nature is actually uncomfortable to watch because of how well the actress sells her character’s distress and isolation.
There is certainly much to appreciate about “The Only Light in the Darkness”. However, none of these strong elements come together as any kind of cohesive whole. The overall pace and tone of the episode is characteristically uneven, many of the actor’s performances are lacklustre at best and terrible at worst (Iain De Caestecker remains hopelessly out of his depth alongside far better actors) and absolutely nothing about this episode feels important to progressing the larger narrative of the season: a major fault considering that there are only three episodes remaining before the season finale. It is as if the writing staff felt that the show had to take a break to humanize the S.H.I.E.L.D. team by having them all fall in love. This is an utterly unnecessary instalment of a show that is desperately trying to justify its existence.
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