By Contributing Writer, Joesph Shrader
Since it arrived on the small screen in September 2013, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has always been somewhat of a crapshoot, a real hit-and-miss of oftentimes truly great television. From its highest of highs—Ming-Na Wen as Agent May, the Agents meeting the Ghost Rider, the love affair that is Fitz-Simmons, and most importantly the fantastic Clark Gregg giving us the continued adventures of Marvel’s Phil Coulson following his “demise” in the first Avengers film—to its lowest of lows (several seasons with most things Inhuman), this television show has often been one step forward and two steps back. Struggling in the ratings each season, and now on the heels of an uncertain Season 6 renewal, the show has always had to work diligently in an attempt to cement itself on solid ground despite having a strong cast, bold ideas, and a major television network from which to perform on.
But it’s the storytelling over the first 4+ seasons of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (from here on out referred to AOS) that has been the show’s true Achilles heel. Marvel jumped the shark in seasons past as they attempted to hold pace with the cinematic universe by having the show introduce, mostly unsuccessfully, some lesser-known Marvel heroes and villains into the overall Marvel storytelling fray: Quake, Deathlok, Graviton, The Inhumans, The Kree, and so on. And while a few of these have been successful, specifically the character of Daisy Johnson/Quake, most of the other attempts have faltered (some egregiously), causing a show with almost limitless potential to fall off the rails more than a time or two across five full television seasons.
This could have been disastrous, but instead of cashing out and pulling up their anchor, Marvel doubled down, removed some of the dead weight (most things Inhuman-related), and focused instead on true character development with all its major AOS players, not just Gregg’s Coulson. Side note: quite frankly this idea is something that their MCU has been truly lacking across most of its first 19 films, save for a few leading heroes (Iron Man, Captain America, T’Challa).
Clark Gregg’s wonderful, heartwarming, and tragic portrayal of the Coulson character is what spearheads the AOS show and has always made it watchable since Episode 1. His outstanding work is the glue that binds this AOS family together, with a fifth season dedicated to reminding us all how truly important family is and should always be. All of this is delivered by Gregg in a performance that should at the very least spark an Emmy discussion. And ultimately it’s been Coulson’s love for this well developed team, and its well-written characters, that has taken a once good television show and turned it into something where the stakes always feel real, and today every member of the team shines with true purpose.
A direct case in point can be found in this fifth season’s seventh episode, aptly titled “Together or Not at All.” Having spent all of this season thus far in a future where Earth is fragmented, destroyed and unlivable, Coulson and his team are in the process of returning to the past with a plan to save humanity and the planet from certain doom, a fate which they were told comes from the hands of Quake at some point in the future. Quake/Daisy Johnson/Skye was an orphan taken in by Coulson in the first season of the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., added to the team during time when she was a hacker searching for her true parents, but also someone without a true sense of purpose or belonging.
In this episode, and now that she is armed with the knowledge that she is responsible for the destruction of our planet at some point in her future, Quake refuses to return to the past with the rest of the team. And Coulson refuses to let that happen; instead, he explains that they will deal with this situation just like they have dealt with all the other things that they have come up against across these five seasons of television – together, as a family. Coulson assaults Quake, knocks her unconscious, and takes her back to their own time alongside the rest of the entire team knowing that this could still potentially set up the fate of the world as they know it. The eventual endgame that fate may have planned for them all is of no concern to a team that will now travel through space and time to keep their family together.
Season 5 has finally flipped the proverbial script, and this show has finally become something truly special—a comic book television series that’s all about family first, and the Marvel Comics/MCU second. And it did so with little warning and a return to basic storytelling: with superb character building and great execution.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. reminds us of the old adage that you can’t always pick your family, but instead that you can, and you must, choose to care for and always protect them, no matter the cost. Phil Coulson continues to do this time and again on AOS, with the utmost and greatest significance in this current fifth season as the team has now traveled across time and space to save the Earth, and leaves no one behind in their century spanning mission to keep the planet from exploding.
And Season 5 is now drawing to a close, with the team returning from the future with plans to save our doomed (cracked and crumbled!) planet, only to discover things are far worse now than they were in the not-too-distant future: Thanos has now arrived on Earth, and The Avengers may finally, truly, be hopelessly, hilariously outgunned.
With all of this, the show comes full circle as not only must-see Marvel/comic book viewing, but also truly great weekly, episodic television. The entire cast delivers enthralling performances each week, capped off with Gregg’s Coulson constant drive to hold his family all together at all costs, and the costs could not be any greater than they are right now. They are only a snap of the finger away from their changing reality forever, and Coulson’s S.H.I.E.L.D. family may be all that’s left to save the Marvel Universe.