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Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – The Well (Review)

So this is what a tie-in to Thor: The Dark World looks like. This is the episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. broadcast specifically to tie into the major motion picture blockbuster. In essence, this is as close as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will ever get to integrating with the shared Marvel universe. Given the fact that the show’s official title includes the prefix “Marvel’s”, that cross-media synchronicity is a large part of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s branding.

The result is… disappointing, to say the least. It’s just a generic “strange phenomena of the week” episode with even more crossed wires than usual, a tiresome bit of back story for a bland character played by a mediocre actor and an unwillingness to take advantage of any of the benefits of being a television show tied into a blockbuster franchise while remaining firmly anchored to the weaknesses associated with the medium.

Hot rod...

Hot rod…

Those weaknesses mean that the actual crossover with Thor: The Dark World is fairly minimal. Despite the hype surrounding the episode, none of the characters from the film actually appear, and the characters only spend a few moments in the same location as the alien attack from the climax of the film. There’s no real sense of continuity here. Indeed, I’m not sure why Coulson’s crack special squad are handling something like this. Surely S.H.I.E.L.D. has properly qualified and equipped specialised teams to deal with this sort of thing, rather than having to land a giant jet with six people on it.

The clean-up these guys are doing could easily have been from any other blockbuster event – the throw down with the Destroyer in Thor, the Battle of New York in The Avengers, the attack on the Stark Exhibition in Iron Man 2. Hell, it could be the aftermath of the battle of Metropolis in Man of Steel for all the connection that the sequence has to the plot of the episode or the plot of the associated movie. “Hey! Ever wonder what happened to all that glass Christopher Eccleston smashed at the climax of The Dark World? Have we got the episode for you!”

My interest is Petering out...

My interest is Petering out…

It feels like the most shallow form of pandering. Instead, we get more name dropping. “You should give your buddy, the God of Thunder a shout,” Skye suggests at one point, in case the audience missed that fact that our lead totally knows Thor; the dude just never returns his calls, but they’re like best buds. “Director Fury told me he’s off the grid,” Coulson offers lamely, and The Well can’t even rope Hemsworth for a gag cut-away or anything to defuse the fact that this is a television show, and it’s going to have trouble roping in the headline attractions.

Instead, the group tackle a thematically appropriate mystery of the week involving the “leaders of a Norse paganist hate group.” As you do. Apparently this group just coincidentally found an ancient Norse super-weapon, providing The Well with a way to tie into the movie in a way that doesn’t involve so much as a cameo from the Warriors Three or even D’Arcy, let alone a character the average audience would recognise. There’s nothing here as effective as that Samuel L. Jackson cameo from 0-8-4, something which confirms that the show is connected to the film in a manner more explicit than mentioning the Chitauri yet again.

Obligatory shirtless scene!

Obligatory shirtless scene!

There are limits to a television show. It is unlikely that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will be able to interact with any of the major characters from the film franchise for an extended period of time. Robert Redford isn’t going to become a recurring character in order to set up Captain America: The Winter Soldier, for example. The budget means that depictions of superpowers and conflicts between superheroes will inevitably be minimal. This is all understandable. The Asset seemed to pitch itself to the right level when it introduced the character of Graviton.

However, there are advantages of television over film. The most obvious is the fact that television has an expanded scope. A full season of American television can run over fifteen hours. That allows for longer stories, better character development and more world-building than is possible in a feature film. Compare the realities of shows like Game of Thrones or The Wire (or Hannibal, if you want to stick to network shows) to those of feature films. There’s more room for nuance and depth.

Night terrors...

Night terrors…

If any part of the Marvel cinematic universe deserves more exploration, it’s Asgard and the concept of the gods. “They are sufficiently advanced aliens,” is an understandable piece of mythology for a two-hour film, but there’s so much more potential to play with that idea in a television show. There’s room to really roll up the sleeves and delve into what these creatures actually are, and what they represent.

Go big on this. Go Kirby. Go Simonson. Hell, go Fraction. Have some ambition. “They’re really aliens” is so trite and cliché, so Chariots of the Gods. Explain how these characters become “gods”, how they each find a niche in the pantheon. Why do they look human? Is it possible that they are living stories? Or are they just perceived that way by us? How did they evolve? Why are they so associated with Earth? Are there other pantheons out there? What is their relationship to their faithful?

Going by the book...

Going by the book…

These are big and bold and interesting ideas. These are all things that The Well could play with, if it was half bothered; but it isn’t. Instead, we get the same old trite clichés recited as generic exposition. “You guys might think that it’s old news, but to us it’s new news to everybody else,” Skye explains. “Asgardians are aliens from another planet who visited us thousands of years ago. And because we couldn’t understand aliens, we thought they were gods?” Coulson helpfully chips in, “That’s where our Norse mythology comes from.”

Even with that simple boring idea, there’s a wealth of potential that the episode barely touches upon. Skye idly wonders if that means other gods are aliens. “Vishnu for sure,” she suggests. Interestingly, she steers clear of mentioning Jesus or the Judeo-Christian God. Because, you know, last thing we want to do is touch on something that might bother that precious middle American market that the show is aiming for. But it’s a question that at least somebody in this universe must be asking.

Ward of the State...

Ward of the State…

How does Christianity or Islam or Hinduism respond to the existence of Asgard? How does the existence of Thor affect the way that people think about their faith? It’s an interesting thought experiment, but nothing the episode is remotely interested in. Even the bad guys are generic – a “Norse paganist hate group.” What does that even mean? Are they racist? Are they neo-nazis, perhaps? The episode, like Captain America: The First Avenger and 0-8-4 before it, tries desperately to avoid dwelling too heavily on the Nazis. After all, you might want to sell this in mainland Europe.

But let’s back up a bit. Paganism is a religious belief system. It’s one that is rarely handled with any skill or consideration in mainstream media. For all that The Well tries to avoid raising any issues that could possibly offend any members of major religions, paganists are treated as generic bad guys. There’s no real explanation or exploration of the beliefs of these individuals. They barely register as characters. They talk about using the power of the gods to kill the gods, so surely they’re more in line with the philosophy of atheist anarchist Mikhail Bakunin?

Stick with it?

Stick with it?

It’s an interesting philosophical position – if the gods existed, would their very existence pose an existential threat to mankind? How would it re-structure the way that mankind perceives itself? Would there be an argument for a post-modern Prometheus to steal fire from them? These are the sorts of interesting questions that get brushed aside in order to make room for bland stereotypes about angry Scandinavian pagans. It’s just lazy writing, and completely unsatisfying.

To be fair, the episode’s Asgardian guest star, played by Peter MacNicol, is one of the nice things about the episode. I like the little bit where he’s asked if he knows Thor. “No, I don’t know Thor!” he insists, rejecting a nice piece of narrow-minded racial profiling. There’s also a suggestion that the retired immortal perceives the world in a genuinely different way than the people around him. The trials of an immortal character are well-worn ground when it comes to genre fiction, but at least it gives us a solid character beat. “That is one of the pleasant aspects of life here. Everything changes!”

Throw a bit of stick about...

Throw a bit of stick about…

At least that’s an interesting plot point. The Well decides to focus on the character of Ward. Which makes sense, since he’s probably the least developed lead so far, with the possible exception of May. However, The Well is so stilted and awkward in its attempts to probe Ward’s dark side. He was picked on as a kid by his older brother, which is terrible – but it’s like a twist from a trashy day-time soap opera. There’s even a kid down the well. Paired with Skye’s cliché daddy issues, I can’t wait to see the childhood traumas they foist on Fitz and Simmons.

The Well completely messes up its emotional arcs. Simmons’ attempts to reconnect with her family following the events of F.Z.Z.T. are dutifully raised in the opening scene, and paid off at the end of the episode, but The Well struggles to make the connection. Simmons is convinced to talk to her parents by Coulson’s willingness to reach into a stab victim’s chest cavity and clamp down on their heart.

There's a hole in my heart, as deep as a well, for that poor little boy, stuck half way to hell...

There’s a hole in my heart, as deep as a well,
for that poor little boy, stuck half way to hell…

It’s a questionable connection at best, but it’s undermined that we’ve had no real foreshadowing of Coulson’s willingness to jump right in this episode. In fact, Coulson barely registers before plunging his hand into another character’s chest cavity. It feels like a character beat that would make more sense if Simmons overcame her fear and reached right in there, and from that she decided that she could jump right into a conversation with her folks. It’s supposed to be a big moment for Simmons, but she’s entirely passive. This is an obvious scripting mistake, and it suggests that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. really isn’t trying that hard.

Similarly, the episode ends with a booty call between Agent May and Agent Ward. Which would be grand if it seemed like the show might be interested in exploring the dysfunctional sex lives of secret agents. There’s a reason that James Bond’s womanising is so intriguing, and it might be interesting if the show was willing to explore a mutual unconventional relationship with an eye to how people in extraordinary circumstances try to ground themselves. Give us a genuinely dysfunctional relationship. Or give us a one-night stand handled with the professionalism expected from international master spies.

Cut!

Cut!

Unfortunately, all experience with the show to date suggests that this is just an attempt to create a few more love triangles among the cast. Because that’s just what American television needs, more love triangles and unrequited love stories. The problem is that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. misunderstands why romantic plotlines are so compelling. We don’t invest in characters because of their unrequited love stories; we invest in unrequited love stories because of the characters. So I won’t care more about Simmons or Skye or Fitz or Ward or May because they love each other in different ways. We need to care about the characters first.

Let’s be honest. The first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been a mess, but it’s been a lazy mess. It keeps making the same mistakes, and there’s no indication that the show is trying to learn from any of its flaws and problems. First seasons are meant to be about expanding and experimenting and growing, but Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has no real ambition to be anything other than what it is. There’s a grace period for new shows to find their footing, but it’s infuriating when a show is so terrified of experimenting that it just settles into banal and generic mediocrity.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.:

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4 Responses

  1. Great review.

    While I do agree that a desire not to offend Christian America is part of the demythification of the Asgardians I also wonder if a desire not to lose more secular viewers (especially in Europe) is also part of it. I remember how many fans of Battlestar Galactica were unhappy when that show ‘got religion’. I think there is a sizeable contingent in the sci fi fandom that would not welcome gods in their television, even of the pagan kind.

    I’m also thinking here of the attitude towards the divine in Star Trek or Stargate were there sometimes seemed a strong antipathy towards religion. In that case perhaps the neopagans are simply acceptable targets in a way the more mainstream faiths are not.

    • You mention Star Trek, but it’s worth noting that Deep Space Nine actually handled religion quite well, basically arguing that just because there is a scientific explanation for something doesn’t rule out its religious significance.

      I’m agnostic (or, rather, lapsed Catholic, which is its own special grouping here in Ireland), but I appreciate the value of religious narratives from a cultural and a historical standpoint. Plus, they’re fascinating – many religious stories work quite well in their own right, as parables or philosophical statements. “Do unto others…” for example, or stories about lions and thorns and paws. They’re great ways of conveying ideas. I’m not an active Church goer, but I’m frustrated by the fact that teachers can’t talk about the nativity in schools, because then Christmas just becomes about crass commercialism.

      (I do accept the dangers of being too Christian-centric here, but there’s no reason why that can’t be broadened out to include other cultures. A teacher I know got had to navigate dangerous water when a parent gave the class Diwali cake. “It’s friendship cake.” What’s wrong with saying, “She made a cake as part of a celebration that is important to her, and here are some nice stories about why it matters to her.”)

      Given that comics tend to be heavy on meta-fictional elements, I love the way that Thor and his people become a vehicle to explore all these big ideas about stories. (And, occasionally, religions.)

      So while I understand the marketing impetus to keep it as safe and inoffensive as possible, it’s really just picking the most boring avenue possible. Imagine exploring the idea that the Asgardians are shaped by our perception of them, or perhaps the sense that they exist in a realm of stories rather than hard science. “They’re aliens” is very cliché stuff, which seemed provocative when Roddenberry wrote it into every second Star Trek episode (as you note), but just seems a cop out now.

      • Oh I’m an Irish theistic agnostic myself (not sure on the existence of God but more pro than anti) so I certainly didn’t want to negatively portray the use of religion in television – personally I agree with you it would be fascinating to see the impact of Thor in the Marvel universe.

        That said, and while conceding DS9 I do think there is a strong antitheistic element in some very mainstream sci fi – the Ori in Stargate for instance always felt like a very thinly veiled slam against religion and the whole idea of God or gods and Judeo-Christianity in particular. So I’d question whether making Thor and kin aliens is solely down to a fear of offending the religious or whether it stems from almost the opposite desire; to strip out the supernatural all together. The Norse Neopagans in that reading are more or less stand ins for all religious belief.

        Take the mention of Vishnu for instance which is a pretty startling comment. I can’t help but wonder if the show wanted to substitute another religious figure but didn’t quite have the courage to be so overt.

        For the record I do regonise religion can and has been handled remarkably sensitively in sci fi television – J. Michael Straczynski is an atheist but I have no complaints at all about how Babylon 5 handled faith. Still I do have to wonder if the attitude in the Marvel films and the show is based more on a desire not to offend or is something more ideological.

      • It’s funny. The Vishnu reference has apparently caused a bit of a backlash. Which I can kind of understand. Not in a “religious beliefs should be impervious from discussion or explicitly excluded from conversation” sort of a way, because there is a lot of merit in being able to play with faith for the purposes of telling a story. I like that they were criticised in a “somebody called you out for the very blinkered thought that Vishnu was some how a less offensive choice than a wealth of other candidates (including Jesus, for example) for that line” sort of way, if that makes sense.

        Speaking of atheists who write around faith quite well, I actually really like the way that Russell T. Davies tends to deal with faith in Doctor Who. It gets a bit much in The Last of the Time Lords, but there’s this recurring theme that having faith in something is not inherently bad – it’s just what you choose to do with that faith. Faith keeps the drivers strong in Gridlock, when there’s nothing they could do to fix the system from inside; Rose and Jack and Martha (and, briefly Donna) have enough faith in the Doctor (“the lonely god”) to give them strength to make the world a better place. Of course, there’s always creatures willing to exploit and prey on faith, but it’s not explicitly a bad thing.

        (In contrast, Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek had a bit of trouble with this. Whenever anybody believed in a religion, it turned out to be an evil alien or a computer. In contrast, the characters’ faith in the Federation as an institution was never really written in a self-aware manner until after Roddenberry loosened his hold on the reins. On Deep Space Nine, Bashir’s faith in Roddenberry’s utopia is presented as just as optimistic an empowering as Kira’ faith in the prophets; in fact, you could argue Bashir objectively has less proof that his beliefs are validated.)

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