J. August Richards as the tragic villain, Deathlok.
After a long and mostly disappointing season, The End of the Beginning is the first episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. that sets the stage for the finale. With only a few episodes remaining after this, the stakes are being raised significantly- as is the sense of mystery. The End of the Beginning is thankfully one of the show’s stronger episodes so far; it features some well-shot (if brief) action sequences and some genuinely compelling plot revelations. The episode begins with the S.H.I.E.L.D. teammates led by Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) separating and searching multiple locations for the Clairvoyant: the mysterious antagonist who’s been pulling strings behind the scenes for most of the season. The team’s splitting up allows the show to re-introduce Agent Hand (Saffron Burrows) as well as make a passing reference to the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier; the 2014 movie that is supposed to be taking place in the same continuity as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. It is not long before one of the teams is attacked by Mike Petersen (J. August Richards), their former teammate now calling himself “Deathlok” (a reference to a Marvel Comics supervillain of the same name). It is only when the Clairvoyant is seemingly found that the situation begins to unravel. Before long, Coulson and his teammates are left with no one to trust.
Since the S.H.I.E.L.D. organisation was first introduced to the world outside of comicbooks in 2008’s Iron Man, they have been a compelling background presence in many Marvel superhero movies. Appearing in Iron Man 2, Thor and The Avengers, the organisation has always been portrayed as extremely powerful and morally questionable. Like a science fiction-drenched equivalent of the CIA or MI6, S.H.I.E.L.D. has typically been portrayed as doing whatever was necessary to protect ordinary people from extraordinary threats. In The Avengers, S.H.I.E.L.D. attempts to nuke New York City because they believe that it may save the rest of the world. The announcement of a spinoff TV show starring agents of this organisation not long after The Avengers held great promise; a chance to show the darker, morally greyer side of the world of superhuman heroes – a very intriguing premise for a television programme. Instead, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was a show comprised of the bland adventures of “witty”, “quirky”, two-dimensional characters. The audience did not even get the opportunity to watch these misfits slowly become a tight unit of comrades, and then into something of a family (in the manner of similar shows like Fringe or Warehouse 13) because the characters were written as a dysfunctional family from the pilot onwards. Outside of Ward (Brett Dalton) beginning to engage in casual sex with May (Ming-Na Wen), none of the characters developed in significant ways. Even Skye (Chloe Bennett), the “audience surrogate” character is given precious little to do after she served her initial purpose of bringing the team together.
The End of the Beginning is really the first time in the show’s short and sad history that it begins to feel like the show that it should have been from the beginning. The characters hunt down a dangerous superhuman, there are shocking revelations and red herrings and twists, the agents are paranoid and unsure who is friend or foe. Not only is this great television, it is exactly what espionage-centric TV is supposed to be like. Apparently, it took almost the entire run of the TV show for the writers and creators to realize what kind of project Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was always supposed to be. Whilst the show has improved in quality gradually over time, this is the first episode that really feels like what was promised when the show was green-lit. What really saves this episode is the cameos from recognisable talent. Bill Paxton returns as the always-amusing Agent Garrett, as does BJ Britt’s Agent Triplet (whose possible romance with Elizabeth Henstridge’s Simmons appears to be developing into a major plot point). J August Richards remains a compelling tragic antagonist as Deathlok, who now looks like a fully-fledged comicbook supervillain. Special praise should be given to Brad Dourif, who manages a chilling and very effective performance whilst barely saying or doing anything but sit in a chair. It is a testament to Dourif’s expressive face that he manages to be terrifying whilst only using his eyes.
Not that the episode is perfect. Its pace and tone are as uneven as usual, the cinematography remains bland and lifeless and the one exciting action sequence in the episode, the attack by Deathlok, is over before it begins. This is, however, a massive step up in quality for this maligned show. Unfortunately, for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a massive step up in quality simply means that it is now as good as every other genre procedural show on TV. In other words, not good enough.
Image from io9.com
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