Well, that was everything I was afraid it would be. With Avengers: Age of Ultron just a few days from its U.S. release, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. spent this week's "The Dirty Half Dozen" reverting to one of its least appealing permutations: a shameless promotional tool for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The episode even used its final minutes to air a special extended preview for Age of Ultron, as if to say, "Hey, who cares about this show, anyway? Go see the new Avengers movie — in theaters this weekend!"
Marvel is clearly happy to use Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. as an agent of Ultron, despite the not-inconsiderable consequences to the show's narrative, tone, and general sense of forward momentum. Yes, we lose the Bus (a bland, unappealing set) and Bakshi (a bland, unappealing villain), but the status quo is more or less restored by the end of the mission.
More important, we learn the big secret Coulson has been keeping from May: a Nick Fury–mandated hunt for Loki's scepter, which leads directly into the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron. Yes, our prize for enduring this unrivaled feat of corporate synergy is a tossed-off, half-assed, and functionally meaningless tie-in to Avengers: Age of Ultron (complete with a small cameo from Cobie Smulders, looking bored, in a scene she could have shot in ten minutes using a webcam in her living room).
I'm not above enjoying this kind of cross-pollination; as a Marvel fan, I love following the beats of this big, weird story across such a massive and diverse series of platforms. But the fundamental problem with this arrangement is that it's not a two-way street. This week, Age of Ultron has a clear impact on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will justly be deemed irrelevant by the millions of people who will see Age of Ultron without watching it. For Marvel, it's a practical concern — you can't really expect moviegoers to carefully follow a TV series over 22 episodes. But for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., it's a catch-22. If the primary draw of this series is its connection to the Marvel universe, why does it lack the import to have any meaningful impact on the Marvel universe?
With all that in mind, you can't really blame Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for gamely introducing and dispensing with its Age of Ultron tie-in as quickly as possible. Last week's episode set up a clear conflict that united the show's disparate factions: Hydra captured a S.H.I.E.L.D. operative (Deathlok) and an Inhuman (Lincoln), forcing Coulson and Gonzales to temporarily combine their conflicting S.H.I.E.L.D.s in order to rescue them. In "The Dirty Half Dozen," our heroes launch an attack on Hydra's secret Arctic base, where Lincoln and Bakshi are undergoing some nasty-looking involuntary surgery.
Not all of this is bad. It may be contrived, but it is fun to have Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s original lineup — Coulson, May, Skye, Ward, Fitz, and Simmons — on a mission together (even if everybody is within a hair's breadth of killing Ward this time). And late in the episode, director Kevin Tancharoen stages one of the show's all-time-great action sequences, following Skye through a series of gunshots and acrobatic takedowns in a single, unbroken take.
But those relative successes are undercut by how perfunctory and cobbled together the rest of "The Dirty Half Dozen" feels. There's never any real sense of danger in the mission itself, and even the gimmes — like, say, the natural tension between Ward and the rest of the team — are cast off by the episode's end, as Coulson essentially just shrugs and lets Ward walk away.
"The Dirty Half Dozen" ends by cutting back to Raina, whose precognitive powers conveniently double as a spoiler-free pitch for Avengers: Age of Ultron. "Men made of metal will tear our cities apart," she warns. "And the world will be changed forever."
Sounds crazy, right? I'd definitely pay money to see something like that in theaters. And next week, we'll still have Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., dutifully following Marvel's lead as it grabs whatever scraps the movie leaves behind.
- Assuming the widespread rumors about a possible Bobbi/Hunter-centric Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. spinoff are accurate, "The Dirty Half Dozen" seems to be laying the groundwork. Hunter's easy reconciliation with Mack feels like a rush-job attempt to get them back on the same team before the season ends, and Agent 33's recovery process could easily drive an overarching story.
- Man, Robert Gonzales sure is a nothing of a character, isn't he? I don't know how you cast an actor with as much natural gravitas as Edward James Olmos and botch his role so badly, but I suspect it has something to do with his droning dialogue about "sacrifices for the greater good," which play like placeholders a lazy writer forgot to replace in a later draft.
- "The Dirty Half Dozen" also continues the scourge of Dark Simmons, as she attempts to murder Ward with a disintegration grenade (and ends up killing off Bakshi instead). I'm all for evolution, but the dramatic shift in her character has been both off-putting and unconvincing — and unfortunately, I suspect she's already too far gone to fix it.
- Clark Gregg has successfully delivered some pretty stupid dialogue in this series, but no actor in the world could make a line like "He was the only therapist I could talk to about my alien writing impulses!" sound good.
- Skye, however, got a pretty good quip about Raina's spiky new look: "I thought her gift was spinning really fast to collect gold rings."
- Next week: S.H.I.E.L.D. takes on the Inhumans, and we all see how Age of Ultron further imposes itself onto this show's narrative.