There’s going to be a lot of stuff written about Agents of SHIELD over the next few months. Anything which isn’t banal ratings speculation should be pretty interesting because there’s a lot to chew on in there. Not only do you get the sensibilities and plot beats of Marvel movies transferred to the small screen, but a bunch of really interesting stuff about large scale intelligence agencies and their role in modern society as well as superheroes, a flying car and Clark Gregg’s completely beguiling screen presence. He’s talked about how Coulson has been slightly different every time he’s played him and this time the overwhelming sense you get from Phil is…calm. He’s an extraordinarily gentle, disarmingly honest man who raises his voice precisely once in the entire episode and that’s when he’s told someone’s life can’t be saved. That’s a really interesting beat that we’ll get back to.
First through, the thing that really jumped off the screen at me after episode one was this; this is a show about the Singularity. The Singularity is traditionally viewed as being a technological event, the moment where digital life become self-aware, machines gain sentience and Sarah Connor feels a sudden tidal wave of equal parts horror and vindication. However, this is how the inventor of the term, John Von Neumann described the singularity:
“ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue”
The emphasis there is my own because that phrase is where Agents of SHIELD, and the SHIELD agents in its cast, live. This is a show that’s a direct sequel to Avengers Assemble and explores the almost primal shock that the events in that movie caused. The finale, where a hole in space is ripped open and alien soldiers attack and destroy a sizable portion of New York, is one of those events that exists as a full stop in global and personal history. It’s the effect the Battle of New York has on individuals that the show focuses on. Coulson, May and Skye in particular seem to have had their lives changed completely by New York and its aftermath. Phil Coulson, we’re told, died for a short period of time. May, a legendary field agent, demanded to be taken off the line and Skye had something unutterably horrible happen to her that drove her to erase her digital existence. In comparison, Ward’s problems with authority and the Fitzsimmons’ gestalts’ innocent glee at the toys they have to play with seem positively light and airy. It’s also interesting that all three of them seem to have their attention elsewhere. Ward clearly has family issues that look set to power later episodes, whilst Fitz and Simmons live in the rarefied atmosphere of theoretical science and don’t quite see the world the same way everyone else does. They’re innocents in a world that has lost that quality and I suspect the show is going to mine a lot of drama from the points where they lose that innocence.
Regardless of individual characters’ response, the Battle of New York stands. As Coulson says ‘That was the end of the world’, the moment where every rule changed and the world had its eyes jammed open and forced to focus on what was really going on. I’d argue that, more than anything, shows that the intelligence agency trappings of the show are just that, trappings. Post-New York, SHIELD is public at best and irrelevant at worst. Every intelligence agency, every terrorist organization, every government, every scientist and every mercenary on the planet were shown just how small they were thinking the moment the sky above Stark Tower burst open and the show looks set to explore what that means for the world. The genuinely troubling moment where Skye is black-bagged aboard the Bus is a good example of this. It’s awful iconography, mashing the Gitmo button good and hard, but it’s immediately shown as being all but useless. She knows where she is, she knows who they are and Coulson all but admits Ward was letting his feelings get the better of him. That doesn’t excuse it in the slightest, but it does shift the justification for the action somewhere very interesting. Even more interesting, it and several other moments in the show actively subvert the traditional intelligence agency tropes. Everything from the jolly hockeysticks banter of Fitz and Simmons to the gloriously cherry red, retro sci fi of Coulson’s car constantly drag the focus away from monolithic organizations and down to individuals. This isn’t a story about an intelligence agency, it’s a story about a team of agents working how out to protect the brave new world. Or as another mysterious, frequently resurrected team leader put it;
‘The 21st century is where it all happens. And you’ve got to be ready.’
In four seasons, Torchwood went from the ridiculous to the politically charged and it never, once fulfilled that promise. We never saw the world change, and still haven’t, in contemporary Doctor Who as a whole despite the theft of the planet, multiple invasions and global events like the 456 arriving. Each time the world has shrugged it off and gone back about their business and each time the universe has creaked a little more. It’s what Who has to do and the strain isn’t anywhere near as bad as it was a few years ago, but it’s still there. The world should change, Jack’s told us it was going to and yet it never quite does.
Agents of SHIELD starts with that change having already happened and runs headlong towards its consequences. Even better, it does so with absolutely the last thing you’d expect a show like this to have at its core; compassion. That comes entirely from Phil Coulson, a man who openly talks about the price he paid for doing his job and yet does it anyway. Even better he does it with none of the angst of May or Ward and in a significantly more grounded way than the Fitzsimmons gestalt. Phil Coulson has paid the ultimate price to do what he does. He’s lost everything and that gives him both distance and engagement. The distance is shown through his playful, almost stream of consciousness dialogue and the fact everyone is carefully not talking about how Phil has been excised from his old life. This, again, is one of the show’s engines starting to gun and there are already plenty of hints as to what happened to him. My two favorite theories are that he’s a Life Model Decoy of the original Phil Coulson and that he’s been resurrected by magic (As Brendon Connelly points out, listen to the way he uses the same phrase to describe Tahiti both times he’s asked about his rehab).
The engagement is far and away the more interesting trait though. Coulson is completely honest without being remotely confrontational and the empathy that implies is clearly on display here. He’s a man who loves his work but knows its price viscerally. The moment where he shouts at Fitzsimmons isn’t anger at them it’s anger at their thinking. There’s always a way to save a life, always a way to do the right thing and anything less is lazy thinking. It’d be powerful enough coming from pre-Avengers Assemble Coulson, all polite, shy demeanor and relentless competence. Post- Avengers Assemble it plays very differently; as a man whose seen the impossible, and may be impossible himself, refusing to let anyone get left behind. The singularity is here and Phil Coulson will make sure it’s standing room only.
There’s another pair of quotes I couldn’t stop thinking about through the entire episode. The first is the tagline of the magnificent Warren Ellis-scripted comic series Planetary. Following three ‘mystery archaeologists’ as they uncover the secret history of Earth, the series’ tagline was;
‘It’s a strange world. Let’s keep it that way.’
That speaks to SHIELD’s new found mission, or at least Phil Coulson’s version of it; Help us make it through the transition, give the new heroes every chance, find a third way. It also speaks to the sense of wonder running through the show, especially in those final moments. Fitzsimmons’ work is vindicated, May is shown that field ops don’t always have to end badly, Skye is shown SHIELD aren’t the bad guys and Ward is shown he’s more than just a killer. Each one is shown just how strange their lives can be as they orbit the polite, unflappable Phil Coulson. It’s a strange world, and now they all have reasons to fight to keep it that way.
The last thing it reminded me of is The West Wing. There’s the same sense of idealism in the face of crushing opposition and the same feeling of quiet triumph when something goes right. Most of all though there’s the same enthusiasm and drive, all summed up in two words. Said one way they’re a plea, a defensive whine. Said another, they’re a mission statement.
Coulson has no idea. Neither do we. We’ll find out together, and I can’t wait.
Agents of SHIELD is airing now in the UK on Friday nights at 8pm on Channel 4.