Tonight’s mid-season finale certainly deserves its high rating. It was well-executed, with a lot of great reveals and really interesting moments of development for some of the show’s flatter characters. Still I’m going to be harsh here, if only to put it out in the open: Your fans deserve a better show, Marvel.
That’s not to say you’re not trying, or that it isn’t much harder to deliver a consistently exciting and meaningful plot every seven days than it is twice a year. I’ve worked on television shows in the past, so I know a lot about the challenges that can arise from just getting something prepared to air from week to week. Unfortunately, I’m also old enough to remember comic book movies before Iron Man. I grew up in the dark days of The Phantom, Daredevil, and Hulk. All of them good movies (okay, maybe not all of them.), but very conventional, and flat. All of them were reflections of what Hollywood saw comic book movies as: fun, but ultimately disposable action films where explosions could be used to hide one-dimensional characters. This is the feeling one can walk away with from even the best episodes of Agents.
It’s a bit to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s disadvantage that they’re the product of Marvel’s post-Iron Man renaissance. Their audience should (and for the most part does) expect more. Of course we want the explosions and unbelievable alien tech, and this show delivers those in abundance. Still there’s that ugly mid-nineties-to-early-2000’s Hollywood attitude peeking it’s head around the edges. In the end, Agent’s of S.H.I.E.L.D. lacks strong character development. Yes, the one liners can be spot on, and a few characters (Fitz, Simmons, Ward, and May) are definite stand outs, but unfortunately it’s seriously lacking in development for the character’s that sit at the center of the plot, and while a lot of effort has been put into Coulson, there’s one blind spot that hurts more than helps, particularly last night.
Skye. Or rather, Daisy, as we now know. And seriously, how much easier and just as interesting would it have been for her name to be Lisa or Jenny? Much fuss has been made over Chloe Bennet’s relative inexperience as an actor (she spent much of her entertainment career as a pop star), and I know a few who would happily blame this for Skye’s lack of emotional depth. While I’ll admit she’s not my favorite actor on the show, to lay all of Skye’s problems at her feet is unfair. She’s a decent actor, and in episodes like last night’s where they give her a lot to do, she certainly shows that she can run the gauntlet emotionally.
I’m going to argue instead that the development and production team have put Skye in a rough spot. Clearly it’s been decided that she will be the central character of this show. All of the plots (somehow even Coulson’s possible descent into madness) ultimately revolve around Skye, and how special she is. This is a hard sell even when your audience genuinely likes the character you’ve put this burden on, but the production team at Agents never gave us a chance. Skye’s been forced on us from the start as a perfect being that deserves the love and affection of not only every character on the show, but also the audience. In fan circles there’s a name for this type of character, and it’s not a nice one.
Skye gets along with everyone, is always ready with a quip, and is widely shown to be the most capable of computer hackers and, when she finally sets her mind to it, competent of entry level S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. But it’s the imperfections that endear your character to the audience, not their tragic past or the magic superpowers they are granted through birth or accident. The most interesting moment for Skye in last night’s episode was her shooting Ward. It was unexpected, and showed a lot of development and intelligence in a character who is frequently shown as being very naive to the world she has entered.
There are many dangers in placing a character like Skye at the center of your plot. To maintain their innocence and lack of culpability to the bad things that happen, you have to dumb their emotional intelligence down, and force other characters to make revelations for them: like Reina’s reveal that Ward is in love with Skye. They also lack an ability to acknowledge moral grey zones. Not only does this put Skye in a strange position conceptually (she’s a hacker, but she’s still, morally speaking, a hero because she does it for the right reasons?), it makes her read completely unsympathetic to more troubled characters. We saw an extreme example of this tonight when she first meets her father, Jack… fine, all right, Cal. I’m really not loving the name choices tonight. Now I’m not saying she should fling herself into his arms (he is still a murderer), but she seems completely unable to understand his point of view, or even acknowledge that he feels at all. If she has to remain so perfectly White Hat that she can’t even acknowledge the feelings of a villain, then there is really no way for their relationship to grow.
Next, the focus on a central figure in what is set up to be an ensemble show can stunt character development for those not directly involved in that character’s plot. Bobbi and Hunter finally showed us why their relationship is worth investing in, and how it’s not just the result of two people who hate each other, bickering. May’s character development has been pretty much nonexistent this season, beyond the fact that, mostly off screen, we can assume she’s warming up to Skye.
And then there’s Tripp. A classic example of how other characters become expendable because the plot needs someone else’s tragedy to effect the central character. Early this season there was a moment of flirtation between Tripp and Skye that never really went anywhere, but I genuinely wish it had. Even if there was more subtext to read into (the implication that they may be growing into something more emotionally complicated than what they have as friendly coworkers), Tripp’s sacrifice and just the simple act of Skye calling out to him would have carried much more weight. And maybe that’s the thing. By spending so much time telling the audience that we should all just love Skye by default, the production team never gives us a chance to see why anyone would love her specifically, or to see her love anyone in return.
It’s a catch-22. I’m sure some fans love Skye, and that’s awesome. On paper, her character description from her first introduction in Season One reads like a great opportunity to defy gender stereotypes and give Coulson a new thorn in his side. But this layering on of consistently positive attributes, and now super powers, make her character development read more like mediocre fan fiction. Give me more mercilessly shooting Ward or Obelisk-assisted Hydra takedowns if that helps. But please Marvel, back off of Skye for a bit. I need more than three episodes a season that don’t ultimately end with this idea of how awesome and interesting I’m supposed to find her. That’s all I want for Christmas.
Oh, and more in-fear-for-his-life Hunter snark.
Katherine Siegel is a Chicago-based freelance writer and director and a regular contributor to Paste. You can find out more by checking out her website, or follow her on Twitter.