Last night's Agents of SHIELD was billed as being a quasi-sequel to Thor: the Dark World. As if Coulson's squad would be spending the whole episode cleaning up the aftermath of Thor's fight with Malekith. In fact, it was much more a standalone affair — which pointed to one problem with the shared continuity.
Don't worry, this isn't going to be another anti-Agents of SHIELD rant or anything. It's a perfectly serviceable show, that's getting slowly more watchable as the cast gels a bit, and last night's episode was pretty watchable.
But by hanging a sign out that says "movie tie-in," this episode pointed out one of the main pitfalls of having a TV show that has to dart between the ankles of big movies: the worldbuilding. The show couldn't tell a definitive story about Asgard or Asgardians, or really stretch our understanding of Norse mythology in the Marvel Universe, because it was stuck trying to avoid competing with Thor 2.
And this is kind of an odd episode, in that we get a lot of talk about Asgard and how much everybody wants tomeet Thor (except for Coulson, who's met Thor) — but nothing particularly new gets said about any of it, and the episode's McGuffin could be the product of any random alien civilization. There's nothing about the Berserker Staff which requires it to be Asgardian, per se.
And I started to wonder at some point, watching this episode, if it wouldn't have been more interesting if the Berserker Staff had been the product of the Globdonian race instead of the Asgardians — because then we could have learned something about the Globdonians, or gotten some interesting worldbuilding.
The biggest problem with this episode, actually, is the two white supremacist-y black-metal fiends who want the Berserker Staff — for reasons that remain somewhat unclear. Are they actual white supremacists? Or just scary Norwegians? They say something about "taking back the power" at one point, but they're honestly the most nondescript villains this show has given us. (Which is actually saying something.)
So in our team's pursuit of the Asgardian Staff, we do meet one an Asgardian deserter, who's disguised himself as a college professor (just like James Marsters on Warehouse 13 not long ago.) He mentions that he had a shit job (literally) in Asgard, so he volunteered for the army, but didn't enjoy the Asgardian Army life, so he snuck off and hid his magicky staff in three places.
Agents of SHIELD should maybe get away from doing stories about Asgardians and Extremis zombies and Chitauri for a bit, and instead do something about Lemurians or whatever. Wouldn't it be cool if we met our first Atlanteans on this show? The Marvel Universe is jam-packed with corners that the movies haven't touched yet — or the writers could just do what Stan and Jack would have done, and make up a whole new race during their afternoon sandwich break.
The larger problem with being tied in with the movies, of course, is the Captain America: The Winter Soldier thing. We know, from the trailers, that Cap 2 is going to be all about SHIELD being evil — which is the most interesting story you can tell about SHIELD, really. So as long as that plot is teed up for an upcoming movie, Agents of SHIELD can hint that SHIELD is a flawed organization (as the show did last week, with the "no extraction" mission) but can't just go to full-on "Nick Fury Vs. SHIELD" territory.
I asked showrunner Jeff Bell about the Winter Soldier issue a while back, and he basically said that they have their own plans, which Marvel has okayed.
Anyway, like I said, this was a perfectly decent episode, with some funny moments. And we're starting to see the human side of Grant Ward, which is a plus.
To some extent, the real theme of last night's episode has to do with repression — Grant Ward touches the Berserker Staff, and it causes him to become more aggressive, but also to relive a childhood trauma that he'd suppressed in the name of efficiency. (Grant's kid brother was stuck down a well, and Grant was forbidden to rescue him by some mean kid, and you sense that it ended badly.)
Grant struggles with his supercharged anger, but also with his returning memories, and actually shows some real vulnerability. The best scene of the episode is when he goes to see Coulson to confess that he might be a liability because of his uncontrolled emotion. And they share something like intimacy for a moment, before Coulson says that Grant raising the issue proves he can be trusted.
And yet, when Melinda May touches the staff, she seems fine — and she tells Grant that she doesn't repress her trauma, she sees it all the time. Is this why May is so cold and withdrawn? And which one of them has the right approach? Does repression make you more efficient, or does just facing your trauma, over and over? This is the first time we've really been encouraged to think of Grant and May as opposites, rather than two of a kind.
And on the theme of repression, we get more hints that Coulson is repressing something awful that happened — he's increasingly dissatisfied with the explanation that he was revived and sent to Tahiti. And his fake-idyllic memories of Tahiti seem to slip away, to reveal something awful.
And at one point during the Tahiti flashback, Coulson asks, "Did I fall asleep?" "For alittle while," replies his masseuse. That's right — this isn't a Thor 2 sequel at all. It's a Dollhouse sequel. (And in terms of dealing with the issues of memory and ethics that this show is flirting with a little bit, especially this week, it's hard not to remember how much more audaciously Dollhouse approached them. I still miss Dollhouse.)