Oh, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., I’m not mad. I’m just disappointed. Last night’s episode, “The Bridge,” looked so promising on paper. It heralded the return of Centipede and its assorted minions, which seemed to herald a little forward momentum for a show that badly needs it. It featured a guest performance from the always-welcome J. August Richards as Mike Peterson, the super-antihero turned S.H.I.E.L.D. trainee from the pilot. Most promising of all, it was the mid-season finale — the perfect time to raise the stakes and do something we wouldn’t see in a normal episode. This is the Marvel universe, so the options were pretty much limitless: comic-book super-villain, perhaps, or the revelation of a mole in S.H.I.E.L.D., or even a cameo from one of the Avengers.
Obviously, none of that happened. Instead, we got “The Bridge”: A bland, leaden mid-season finale that somehow managed to spend an entire hour showing us absolutely nothing new. TV shows can get away with only so much wheel-spinning before they go all the way off the rails, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. looks awfully thin for a freshman drama that began with so much potential.
“The Bridge” begins by revisiting the events of “Girl in the Flower Dress,” which revealed that Raina was reporting to a sinister inmate named Edison Poe. At the start of the episode, Centipede operatives break into the prison and pull Poe out. Our heroes are sent to track Poe down, but Coulson decides to bring in a little extra firepower: our old frenemy Mike Peterson, who’s spending his free time pushing bulldozers around at a S.H.I.E.L.D. training camp. Peterson is eager to prove himself a valuable ally to his former adversaries. Coulson wants to give Peterson a chance; May and Ward are worried that Peterson can’t be trusted; Fitz and Simmons feebly acquiesce to what everybody else decides to do.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because that’s exactly how everyone reacted when Skye joined the team. We’re ten episodes in, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is recycling plot arcs. (Good try, Simmons, but lamp-shading the fact that you’ve already done this story line doesn’t actually make up for the fact that you’ve already done this story line.) Still, Peterson was a potentially rich character for a show that could use a little more tension among the ranks: a super-powered agent who was too valuable not to use, even if it wasn’t entirely clear whether he could be trusted. Instead, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. dispensed with all that drama as quickly as possible in favor of the stockiest of stock story lines: his beloved, pure-hearted child waiting for him at home. In a totally non-shocking twist, Centipede manages to kidnap little Ace. The initial plan calls for Mike to trade himself for his son. It’s not exactly an even swap, but Centipede has something even more devious in mind. They insist on taking Coulson instead of Mike — and to make matters even worse, Mike knew that was their real plan all along.
How does Coulson react to this betrayal? Is he angry? Does it hurt him? Does it make him question, even for a moment, his blanket policy of trusting anyone who seems really, really sorry? Nah. “You made the only choice you had,” says Coulson, passively going along with Raina and the rest of her Centipede cronies.
And that’s when it hit me: I’ve had enough of Saint Coulson. I’m all for sympathetic characters, but his smarmy attitude, his little pearls of wisdom, and his willingness to sell out the mission (and, by extension, the fate of the world) in order to continue being a really swell guy have grown more than tiresome. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t need an unflappable Zen master running the show; it needs a Jack Bauer, with the kind of focus and drive that will give the battles against these alleged earth-shaking threats some actual urgency. Coulson should care about being betrayed, and he should also be afraid that Centipede will use him to escalate the threat they already pose. If you’re in the business of saving the world, you should be forced to make the occasional hard decision — like, say, sacrificing a 10-year-old boy for the safety of everybody else on the planet. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. never even pretends that’s a plausible option.
Incidentally, Coulson’s faith in Mike turns out to have been well-placed after all. Mike attempts to “make it right,” leaving Ace with Skye in a last-ditch attempt to rescue Coulson. Unfortunately, Mike winds up being blown up almost instantly as the Centipede helicopter takes off with Coulson in tow. I imagine we’re supposed to feel something for Mike now that he’s (presumably) dead, but when a character’s primary personality trait is “I really like my kid” — and even if the character in question is played by J. August Richards — it’s hard to get all that attached to them. (My primary reaction was, “God, I hope this doesn’t mean Skye is going to start toting that kid around now.”)
So “The Bridge” ends the first half of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s maddeningly uneven first season on a cliffhanger, with the revelation that we’ll get to find out the real story behind Coulson’s death and resurrection sometime in January. Maybe. And still: Laugh if you want, but I’m going to stay optimistic about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I’m intrigued to see how our heroes will work together without Coulson there to guide them. The upcoming return of Victoria Hand, in what looks like a meatier role, is a welcome opportunity to bring in more characters and stories from the comics. And maybe — just maybe — we’re going to stop getting cryptic, repetitive hints about Coulson and Centipede and Skye’s parents and start getting some actual answers.
Let’s hit this week’s S.H.I.E.L.D. points:
- Skye’s mom update: still probably Melinda May. That is all.
- “He’s standing right behind me, isn’t he?” Screenwriters: Please, please, please retire this line from your vocabulary. It is a horrible cliché and no human being would ever actually react that way. Even Brett Dalton almost rolled his eyes when he said it.
- I’m assuming, based on the secrecy here, that “the clairvoyant” is a major character from the Marvel stable. The most prominent clairvoyant in Marvel Comics is Madame Web, but her standard M.O. doesn’t quite fit the story Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is telling (and with Sony Pictures holding the rights to the Spider-Man franchise, I suspect they wouldn’t legally be allowed to use her anyway). Until now, I’d been kicking around the semi-plausible theory that “the clairvoyant” was a code name for the Scarlet Witch, who will be played by Elizabeth Olsen in The Avengers: Age of Ultron. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. would be a convenient way to introduce audiences to an out-there character like the Scarlet Witch before her big-screen outing, and a baddie turned hero would be an interesting person to throw into the Avengers mix. But Raina and Edison Poe described the clairvoyant as a “he,” so that’s out, and I can’t come up with another character that fits the bill. If you happen to recall a male clairvoyant from the Marvel universe who doesn’t like to be touched, feel free to chime in below.
- Edison Poe. If only he’d gone down a different path. He could have been a great inventor and/or horror writer.
- Lest Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. maintain any semblance of suspense for more than ten minutes, ABC aired an extended trailer teasing the second half of the season right after “The Bridge” ended. It was full of spoilers and I hope you didn’t watch it.
- Don’t forget to check back in for more recaps in January, when we’ll find out whether the agents can rescue both Coulson and this frustrating TV show.
Scott Meslow is the entertainment editor for TheWeek.com.