Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Is Perfecting the Art of Going Big by Going Small

TV Features Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Is Perfecting the Art of Going Big by Going Small

In its first three seasons, the best story Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. told took all of one hour, and featured all of two characters—only one of whom was a series regular.

That may sound like damning praise, but it is the very opposite: After stumbling into its strengths in the first half of Season One, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. took the MCU’s Hydra twist by its many heads and set itself a new high bar—certainly in terms of storytelling and acting, but even more so in terms of sheer ambition. The series took one of its main heroes and (if this four-year-old twist is a spoiler, that’s on you) turned him into a genuinely evil, irredeemable villain. It went hard on Inhumans and broken found families, then turned hard into spy vs. spy, then turned hard into the supernatural, then turned hard into high-tech science fiction. It has let its ensemble cast be an ensemble, with different members rising and falling in strength and leadership as needed. It has used its narrative latitude to develop one of the most believable, lowkey-cursed slow-burn romances of any series, genre or otherwise, in a long time. It has, on the most meta of levels, fulfilled S.H.I.E.L.D.’s own statement of purpose, labouring in the background with dependable, quiet excellence in order that the more explosive and punchy stars—your Luke Cages; your Jessica Joneses; your (for better or worse) Runaways—might thrive.

So when I say that Season Three’s “4,722 Hours”—a bottle episode which I spent all of November 2015 watching every single night—managed, in the space of a single broadcast hour and without the crucial, balanced dynamic of the full S.H.I.E.L.D. team, to fly so high and fast it set the show’s already high bar on fire, I do not make that claim lightly. The superlative nature of that episode, which saw team scientist Jemma Simmons stranded on a hostilely barren alien planet with no sunlight, no supplies, and no way to know if she could ever make it home, let alone when, is testament to the skill of the show’s creative team and to the charisma and agility of star Elizabeth Henstridge. It is also testament to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s secret strength: constraint.

It may seem like I’ve lost (or haven’t yet even found) the thread of this piece’s purpose—tonight’s finale of Season Five’s terrific first “pod” arc, S.H.I.E.L.D. in Space—but I promise, I am not a crackpot: All the successes of this pod specifically, and of the mini-series pod concept generally, are directly tied to the creative constraints that elevated “4,722 Hours” to art.

As far as the pods in general are concerned, the value of constraint is easy to see. In most but the rarest of cases (Veronica Mars, Season One), serialized stories can’t maintain momentum for a full 22-episode season. The truncated 13-or-under seasons of Peak TV may be trendy, but they do usually carry with them the practical possibility for propulsive efficiency. In expert hands (i.e., not yet Marvel’s Runaways’), these time-constrained stories take on a unique vitality. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., with “4,722 Hours” in particular, has proven to have expert hands, and its energetic, genre-shifting Season Four pods bore that expertise out.

When it comes to this season’s first pod, though, the parallels to both the story and constraints of “4,722 Hours” are very nearly one-to-one. In a twist of creative flair, the 10-episode S.H.I.E.L.D. in Space pod funhouse-mirrors all the elements that conspired to give us the original Henstridge-starring banger. Both start with a monolith, but while the Season Three monolith took a single member of the team (Jemma) and stranded her across space, the monolith of Season Five took the whole team but one (Jemma’s cursed love, Fitz) and stranded them, instead, across time. Unable to match the washed-out majesty of Jemma’s true isolation in “4,722 Hours,” S.H.I.E.L.D. in Space instead satisfies itself with gradually splitting the Fitz-less team into smaller and smaller factions, until eventually Daisy (Chloe Bennett), May (Ming-Na Wen), and Jemma are each isolated in different parts of the Kree-controlled space colony in which the last of humanity is trapped, with isolation-trained Jemma suffering the even deeper isolation of forced deafness and blurred tunnel vision after she is forced to become handmaiden to the station’s Kree dictator, Kasius (Dominic Rains).

Fitz (Iain De Caestaeker) of course finds his way back to the same story as everyone else, but by that point, it has become clear that the problem this pod is setting up for our team is not a problem so much as a paradox—which is, itself, just a problem under the severest of constraints (i.e., without a solution). The S.H.I.E.L.D. themselves, through a convoluted connecting of dots, are responsible for their own time travel, and for the dystopian future it lands them in. Solving their problem solves nothing; seeing the disastrous results of their future actions fixes nothing.

For a genre-loving audience fluent in time travel paradoxes, this obstacle shouldn’t be as compelling as it is. But stacked on top of the many other ways in which S.H.I.E.L.D. in Space, like “4,722 Hours,” has effectively locked the show out of its every comfort zone, this paradox instead leaves both us in the audience and the team on screen no clear path out, and thus, no option but to forge a new kind of experience.

In retrospect, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s coup of constraint shouldn’t be so surprising: Taking the outsized scale of the Avengers’ literal superheroics and shifting the storytelling frame to the government grunts cleaning up in the heroes’ epic wakes was the show’s founding thesis. And yet, while Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. may have eventually found its longform footing in the wake of the Hydra/Inhuman/Sokovia Accord tsunami in its first three seasons, it wasn’t until the artful smallness of “4,722 Hours” and the propulsive vitality of the new pod format that the series proved that, by constraining so effectively every element of an MCU show that could otherwise sprawl into infinity, even government grunts could find their way through to gianthood.

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. airs Fridays at 9 p.m. on ABC. The finale of Season Five’s first pod airs tonight.

Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.

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