Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has completed its last mission: delivering a passable season finale. Despite its ominous title, last night's "Beginning of the End" plays it pretty safe: The good guys survive, the bad guys go down, and the only character who dies is John Garrett, played by the splashy (and presumably expensive) guest star Bill Paxton. Take out Fitz's debilitating injuries, and this is basically a Wayne's World–style "mega-happy ending"; we even get Patton Oswalt back, playing Eric Koenig's identical twin/clone/Life Model Decoy Billy Koenig.
"Beginning of the End" begins by dispensing with last week's cliff-hanger in about 90 seconds. (It's a good thing May brought that berserker staff, and the HYDRA's soldiers are content to stand around while she brings the roof down on them.) From there, the episode gets down to business as Coulson and Garrett assemble their teams for a final battle. This is the final act of a Marvel story, which means the same thing it pretty much always means: a little action and a lot of grandiose speechifying. Coulson offers noble platitudes about how the power of teamwork can change the world; John Garrett offers deranged rambling about tasting a new (and presumably crazier) world on his tongue.
The most intriguing story is happening far away from all that action — and for the first time in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. history, the most intriguing story is the one centered on Fitz and Simmons. The duo is where we left them: in a box at the bottom of the ocean, with no plan and a limited amount of oxygen. By the time Simmons wakes up, Fitz has analyzed all the angles and concluded that their situation is hopeless. Fortunately, by falling back on the natural teamwork that comes with any duo that has accepted a portmanteau, they come up with a plan to escape; unfortunately, that plan requires the use of an oxygen mask, and they only have one.
That leads to the best scene in "Beginning of the End," and some series-best performances by both Elizabeth Henstridge and Iain De Caestecker. For most of the first season, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. seemed to have no idea how Fitz and Simmons actually felt about each other, but this episode puts all the cards on the table: Fitz has romantic feelings for Simmons, and he'd rather die than live without her. For the first time, it feels plausible that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. might kill off a major character, and this would have been a fine way for Fitz to go out. Instead, Simmons manages to grab his unconscious body and swim up to the ocean's surface — just in time to be rescued by none other than Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury.
That moment sets the pattern for the rest of the episode. Every time things look desperate, Nick Fury pops in like Santa Claus, dispensing all kinds of wonderful presents: a super-recovery bed for Fitz and Simmons, a super-gun for Coulson, and a "toolbox" that leads our heroes to yet another next top-secret base. It's no surprise that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. pulled out a big guest star for the finale, and as always, Samuel L. Jackson is a blast in the role — but wouldn't it be more satisfying (and better for the future of the show) if our heroes were forced to solve their own problems for a change?
Nick Fury's introduction also throws off the weight of this final confrontation. Though they didn't know it, Coulson and his team spent much of the first season looking for John "The Clairvoyant" Garrett, and the cocktail of super-drugs he took in last week's episode should make him a truly formidable opponent. But Nick Fury's above-it-all badassery is contagious. Fury and Coulson spend much of the fight trading glib wisecracks, which makes Garrett's defeat feel like a foregone conclusion. In the end, it's not even an agent that delivers the battle-ending salvo. Skye rescues Deathlok's son Ace, which gives the cyborg assassin all the excuse he needs to set his sights on Garrett and blow him away. (Coulson does, however, get to deliver the kill shot later in the episode, in a gag that's straight from the Joss Whedon playbook.)
"Beginning of the End" devotes its last 15 minutes to cleanup from season one and setup for season two. Ward survives his brawl with May despite a few nails in his foot and a fractured larynx, and Coulson lays into him hard. "I'm going to invent new ways to ruin the rest of your life," he says before Ward is hauled away. "You've got the rest of your life to wrestle with the question of who are you without him." (Note to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. writers for season two: Please do not waste a bunch of time on Ward wrestling with the question of who he is without Garrett.)
Other villains make out better. Raina escapes, and Skye allows Deathlok to walk away unpunished, because committing a bunch of terrible crimes isn't a big deal as long as you feel really, really bad about it. After spending all that time pining for his son, Deathlok concludes that he's not fit to take care of his him after all; instead, he goes off to wander the earth like Caine in Kung Fu.
And that leaves our main heroes, who are tasked with rebuilding the S.H.I.E.L.D. that was destroyed a half-dozen episodes ago. In a fitting capper to the season, Nick Fury appoints Coulson the new director of S.H.I.E.L.D. — a title that will undoubtedly carry a little more weight if he can manage to revive S.H.I.E.L.D. again. "Guys like you were the heart. Now you'll be the head," says Fury. "Take your time and do it right. There's no one else I trust with this." And then he's off, never to be seen again, until the showrunners can wrangle Samuel L. Jackson into another guest-starring role.
As Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s season finale entered its final commercial break, ABC segued into a long, slick trailer for this summer's Guardians of the Galaxy. Despite its myriad improvements, it still feels like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is best at being a vehicle for driving attention to Marvel's other, bigger projects. Fortunately, it doesn't need to stay that way; ABC has officially picked up Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for a second season, and with Agent Coulson taking over as S.H.I.E.L.D. director, the series has the opportunity to redefine itself. "When you want to build something you need a strong foundation," says Nick Fury at the episode's end — and while "strong" is too generous a word to describe Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D's first season, I'd say they have enough to start building on.
Let's hit this week's S.H.I.E.L.D. points:
- Skye's dad finally shows up at the end of the episode — but in the grand tradition of villains like From Russia With Love's Blofeld or Inspector Gadget's Dr. Claw, we only get to see his arm.
- How long will Fitz be out of commission? Based on what happened with Skye earlier this season, I'd be shocked if he wasn't up and walking by the end of the second season premiere, but the writers could mine his condition for a little extra drama in the season's first few episodes.
- It's just as unclear how the final cast will shake out for season two. Personally, I'd be surprised if Brett Dalton returned as a member of the main cast; he'll clearly be back in some capacity, but it's hard to imagine how Ward could factor into the show every week, and Agent Triplett is well positioned to take over his role.
- Even with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. turning out as a minor ratings disappointment, ABC is doubling down on Marvel; the network has also ordered Agent Carter, which will follow Hayley Atwell's Captain America heroine as she helps to form S.H.I.E.L.D. in the wake of World War II. Sign me up.
- Loose ends left to be resolved in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s: the full story behind Project T.A.H.I.T.I., Skye's "monstrous" parents, the fates of Graviton and Blizzard, whatever Garrett and Coulson were drawing on the wall.
- Despite the ups and down, I've had a blast covering the first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Thanks for reading along. Coulson lives.
Scott Meslow is the entertainment editor for TheWeek.com.