With serial stories, i.e., TV dramas with story arcs, I think a very real question is when do you ramp up the intensity, increasing the tension and conflict, and when do you resolve it? When do you satisfy the audience, even if only temporarily?
I’ve been musing on that a lot this week, particularly as it applies to season finales. Since SHIELD has been steadily increasing the tension all spring, I assumed the finale would be of the ‘leave you screaming all summer’ variety (as I know Bones is going to be) and instead, it wrapped up a bunch of story lines while putting the characters in a new situation for the fall. Instead of screaming anxiety, I was left feeling very satisfied, while also more interested than ever in what happens next.
It’s not that one type of story is better than the other – the satisfaction couldn’t happen without the tension, after all. But I am glad that both of my shows didn’t go the screaming-for-the-summer route. (And another consideration here is that if you leave the tension unsatisfied for too long, your audience can actually lose interest.)
The higher the tension, the greater the payoff, and that’s the case with SHIELD, at least for me. This was a deeply satisfying hour of TV because they’ve done such a good job of setting up the problems, of making me worry and even grieve for the characters.
TV that’s emotionally satisfying doesn’t have to be of the stand-up-and-cheer variety and though this episode gave me that, it also gave me tears: Over the past few weeks I’ve finally become invested in Fitz and Simmons, and that moment where he says, “You’re more than that” broke my heart. Her sobs felt completely authentic (helped in part by the fact that Whedon’s name is on this, so there is no blithe assumption that ‘they’ll both live.’)
And so, Fitz blows the window, and Gemma swims them both to the surface, where a hand is seen reaching down to save them. Too simple? Too easy? It didn’t feel that way to me, in part because the audience has always known Fury was alive, and why wouldn’t he be listening to SHIELD frequencies? (Granted, the fact that he has a chopper/plane and people he trusts to fly it…I’m curious about that. But the emotion of watching him save them was worth a few unanswered questions.)
Next up is the confrontation between Skye, Ward, and May. There’s a lot I love there, but the top of the list is how Skye and May work together, with May’s attack synchronized with Skye’s matter of fact “because you slept with her” comment. I’m enjoying their relationship now to the same degree that I disliked it in the fall, which is not a little awesome.
Then there’s Garrett’s take down. I saw a random comment on Twitter the other day that Mike Peterson is weak. It frustrated me because, no, he’s not weak. There is no strong in the situation he was in. He could have fought back, refused to do their bidding, and let his son die…but that’s not strong. What he did do, though, is never give up. You see that, all through the episode – every time he looks at Garrett (or Ward, for that matter), he’s hoping for an opportunity to reverse what’s happening, to make a difference for the good guys. And it’s perfect when it comes, accompanied as it is by Coulson’s, “Mr. Peterson is free to do whatever he wants.”
And his strength is shown again later, in this exchange with Skye:
“I’ll be making amends for my actions.”
“Whatever you did, you did it for Ace.”
“And what I do now? That’ll be for him, too.”
I also like that Skye is part of Mike’s story here, both in getting to Ace and setting up that opportunity for him to take out Garrett, and when she lets him go, to begin making his amends. I’ve always enjoyed their story.
The only problem is that Garrett’s not dead, and that scene, where we see him crawling into the chair to turn himself into a super soldier, had the potential to be in the “too much” category – a villain who can’t be defeated eventually ceases to be interesting – which is why Coulson’s understated, “hey, guys, I found it” is perfect. Garrett doesn’t rate any more of their time – not even enough for Coulson to tell them about it.
Two other stories here, though, while equally satisfying, are more complex.
The first is Coulson’s relationship with Fury. It occurred to me while watching this just how often Coulson quotes him, almost to the point, perhaps, of hero worship. I said a few weeks ago that part of why Coulson’s so appealing is that he’s not a superhero (well not yet, anyway.) He’s Everyman, doing his best to do the right thing in some pretty bizarre situations. And Fury, too, is human, and I wonder if, instead of idolizing the Avengers he inexplicably can count as friends, Fury is Coulson’s hero.
Enough so that he trusts him, even when he’s angry. He calls him sir – the mark of a soldier to a superior – even when he’s letting him know he’s going to rip him a new one at the first opportunity, and I sort of love that, that despite his respect, he can still say, “It might be loud.”
What I love more, though, is what both we and Coulson finally come to understand here: that that love and respect goes both ways. Fury accepts that Coulson has the right to be angry, but justifies it. How? Because he doesn’t see Coulson as Everyman. In his commitment to saving people, no matter the cost, Fury sees a superhero. An Avenger.
Just re-reading this exchange puts a lump in my throat:
“It was a break glass in case of emergency situation.”
“Yes, but that emergency was supposed to be the fall of an Avenger!”
The Marvel universe is about larger than life heroes, whether they started out as human and became Other, or whether, like Thor, they were born that way. And in the midst of all of those superbeings, Nick Fury reminds us – and Coulson – that it’s not the superpowers that make heroes. It’s the heart, it’s why they do what they do, and an ordinary man can be no less a hero.
And the look on Coulson’s face – the man who collected Captain America trading cards – when he realizes that Fury considers him an Avenger was another moment of total joy for me in this story.
In contrast to the relationship between Fury and Coulson, the episode gave us their opposite in Garrett and Ward. And although not the same kind of ‘give a victory cheer’ as some of the other scenes, I found the story they’re telling here about Ward to be just as satisfying. For starters, I like his open admission to Garrett that neither of them were ever true believers where Hydra was concerned. I noted last week that motive is important where that kind organization is concerned because they wouldn’t all be true believers.
Beyond that, though, while Mike Peterson isn’t weak, Ward definitely is. Skye nailed that, even without seeing what the audience was seeing, that he’s helpless without Garrett telling him what to do. There’s something pathetic about watching a grown man, a soldier, beg for orders; in seeing his ‘thank you’ when Garrett finally tells him what to do. He’s lost, untethered from every anchor.
Ward sees himself as a monster, and the fact that he seems bothered by that suggests there is hope for him not to be. But he’s been under Garrett’s influence for so long, I’m not sure where the starting point would even be in reforming him, and maybe the story will turn out to be that some are lost to darkness, even if they weren’t born that way.
I have no idea if they’re going to redeem him, or find another way to use him to up the tension. Based on other Whedon stories, redemption is possible, but will be hard won if it happens, and all the more interesting for that being so.
And that’s only one of the threads they’ve left dangling for next season. Yes, they satisfied us, allowed us to see some significant victories won. But they also gave us things to chew on, over the long summer: What will Skye’s father do, now that he knows who she is? What kind of darkness is in her? Speaking of creepy, having seen Garrett writing the weird symbols when he was whackjob-nuts, it’s unnerving to see Coulson reacting to the symbols – what the frick is he doing there? And what about Fitz? (Is it September yet? Why not?)
Finally, I have to note how much I loved the callback to The Avengers when Fury hands Coulson the honking big weapon:
“But right now, we owe Garrett a punch in the teeth, wouldn’t you say? …This packs a pretty good punch.”
“I know what it does.”
“His brain was without oxygen for a long time, but you saved him.”
“It was the other way around.” (Fury and Simmons)
“Fury! Well, hell. When was the last time anyone saw a tag team wrestling match with four dead guys?” (Garrett)
“You didn’t tell me he’d gone this crazy.”
“He’s really stepped it up a notch.” (Fury and Coulson)
“The principle S.H.I.E.L.D was founded upon was pure. Protection. One word. Sometimes to protect one man against himself, other times to protect the planet against an alien invasion from another universe…it’s a broad job description.”
“No need to tell me.” (Fury and Coulson)