Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Mike (J. August Richards)
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has had a very difficult season. Time and again, the show has failed to find a coherent tone or a captive audience (in the US, ratings for the show have steadily declined since the Pilot). Between the poor dialogue writing, lack of interesting characters and an inability to decide what kind of show it wants to be, it is not hard to see why Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is unlikely to be winning any television awards in the near future. This is unfortunate as the show has been getting progressively better recently. The newest episode, The Bridge, is a high watermark for the programme so far. The Bridge is the first episode in which the series realises its potential as a combination of drama, action and comedy television. Perhaps most interesting is the fact that for the first time in this superhero television show, the S.H.I.E.L.D. team actually work with a superhero.
The episode begins as a psychopathic military strategist named Edison Po (Cullen Douglas) is broken out of prison by a group of superhuman soldiers created by Centipede; the mysterious organisation that the S.H.I.E.L.D. team have been pursuing since the Pilot. Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and his fellow teammates begin the hunt for Po, his accomplices and an enigmatic figure called “The Clairvoyant” who seems to be one step ahead of S.H.I.E.L.D. (interestingly, Marvel Studios has a policy against using clairvoyant or psychic characters in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in order to avoid any perceived connection to the X-Men franchise). In order to combat the Centipede-enhanced soldiers, the S.H.I.E.L.D. team recruits Mike Petersen (J. August Richards); the superhuman “villain” of the pilot episode, who is now attempting to turn his life around. With a literal superhero in tow, Coulson leads an assault on Centipede… with shocking results.
The fact that it has taken this long for a superhero character to join the S.H.I.E.L.D. team is a clear demonstration of how directionless and misguided the show has been until now. What separates Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. from other science fiction procedural dramas is the fact that it is set within a pre-established universe filled with superhuman heroes and villains. Until the re-introduction of Mike, the creators of the show have ignored the perfect opportunity to create unique characters and stories out of this premise. Now that the S.H.I.E.L.D. team have a superhero of their own, the creators seemingly intend to finally embrace the comicbook source material. Mike is even given a “costume” that resembles the kind of black rubber outfits worn in superhero movies of the 90s and early 2000s. Clearly, the show’s creators are having fun with the premise of a hero on the team. Mike’s superhuman strength provides for more visually interesting action sequences then what is usually offered by the show. J. August Richards delivers a strong and poignant performance in this role. It is abundantly clear that Mike should have been a recurring character from the very beginning. Interestingly, Skye (Chloe Bennet), the character who began as the “audience surrogate” figure that viewers were supposed to relate to, has been very much pushed to the sidelines. Her ongoing search to find her birth mother is mentioned and then very quickly dismissed; May (Ming-Na Wen) literally walks on screen, faces the audience and informs Skye (and by extension, us) that her quest to find her mom is simply no longer important.
The episode attempts to provide a shocking ending that will rejuvenate interest in the show. Between this ending, the introduction of new heroes and villains and the temporary dismissing of Skye as main character, one could argue that the show’s creators are trying to reassemble Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. from the ground up. The episode’s second scene reintroduces all of the team members as if it’s the start of a new season (rather than the end of a short mid-season break). The episode’s tone also feels very different from what has come before. Many of the Joss Whedon-esque one-liners and snappy dialogue is surprisingly absent from The Bridge. Whereas there was a period in the show’s history when 90% of the dialogue was made up of sassy jokes, the characters now communicate to one another in a more serious and more realistically human manner. Perhaps by the time that this episode was filmed, the initial episodes had aired and the production team realised that a change was needed if the show was to survive. Even the introduction of a new villain in the personage of The Clairvoyant feels like a sort of “narrative housecleaning”. Ruth Negga returns of Raina, the femme fatale in the flower dress from a previous episode. However, whereas before, Raina was written as a leader in the ranks of Centipede, she is now presented more as a henchwoman to Po and The Clairvoyant. In one sense, this is an embarrassing reminder of the state of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.; that is has to essentially re-invent itself in order to become compelling television. However, in another sense this transformation should be very much welcomed. For the first time since the Pilot, the mystery villains seem genuinely compelling and the stakes for the characters are truly gripping. Here’s hoping that the show lasts long enough to become the programme it was always supposed to be.
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