There are spoilers for Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. here.
Getting people to understand esoteric comic book stuff like Inhumans (humans with latent alien DNA that, when exposed to a material called Terrigen, grants them superpowers), a giant alien stone nugget called the Monolith that zaps people to other planets, or the bureaucracy of a shady government agency called the Advanced Threat Containment Unit is no easy task. Getting them to give a damn is even harder. Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has done a great job with the latter, considering it has to deal with so much unwieldy and even banal material.
The current third season is the show's best one to date, thanks to its Inhumans plot line. Each episode in the first half of the season built up a sense of mystery and possibility as more Inhumans joined the fray. Lurking deeper was sociopolitical commentary on how we treat people we fear — something that resonates with and reflects the xenophobia and Islamophobia that are now so prevalent in America. And even the show's B-plot — a swirling conspiracy theory involving Hydra and a distant planet — had its moments of ambitious storytelling.
But in the midseason finale, "Maveth," all the good work that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has put in and the exciting stories it's been telling just sputtered down a predictable road to the show's winter hiatus.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s midseason finale needed more action
The episode picks up as our Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are in for a showdown against Hydra. Mack (Henry Simmons) is calling the shots, Daisy (Chloe Bennet) finally has a team of Inhumans at her disposal, and May (Ming-Na Wen), Hunter (Nick Blood), and Bobbi (Adrianne Palicki) provide the muscle. While this war rages on, Coulson (Clark Gregg) has traveled through a portal to hunt down Ward (Brett Dalton) and bring back Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) while also trying to avoid bringing back an ancient evil that lives on the other side. With all this going on — along with the previous episode's cliffhanger of having Coulson briefly knocked unconscious — it should have been an exciting 40 minutes of Marvel television.
But it wasn't.
ABC and Marvel hyped this episode as the capper to the first half of this (really good) first season.
The biggest struggle for most superhero TV shows — and the primary factor that dictates which superhero shows get made — is budget. Special effects are expensive, especially ones that look amazing. And that limits what kind of powers we see; it's the reason a lot of superheroes have super strength, like in Jessica Jones, or are martial arts experts, like in Arrow or Daredevil. Those powers are cheaper to film, easier to produce, and much simpler to execute on a budget.
The problem Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. faces is that it has to feature Inhumans with spectacular powers but work within the constraints of a television budget (it's Marvel's television budget, but it's a television budget nonetheless). This became painfully evident in the midseason finale, where a lot of action happened off screen. One of the sequences featured the villain Lash — an Inhuman supervillain — killing myriad people outside of the camera's view. Daisy's Inhuman team only had one showcase moment, which featured bullets getting melted. And the action on the distant planet was just another gunfight.
There just weren't any compelling action sequences in this episode, even though ABC and Marvel promised there would be. Plus, we were supposed to see a giant S.H.I.E.L.D. versus Hydra battle, which made the lack of dazzle even more of a letdown.
We can forgive Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for its TV budget, but if there's a battle being hyped and action being promised, there needs to be some kind of payoff.
The Inhumans have become an endless tease
Currently, the most frustrating thing about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is how uninterested it seems with regard to exploring Inhumans. Since the start of season three, we've only seen two people added to Daisy's Inhuman team and only one other main Inhuman character, the supervillain Lash. The possibility of more Inhumans is always hinted at, but we rarely if ever see them onscreen because they're only discussed in theory or they're killed before they're shown.
This happened once again in the midseason finale, in which Inhumans were gathered in stasis chambers to allegedly become an army for Hydra's great evil being. But before we could see any of them, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had Lash just kill them all off screen. We didn't get a sense of how dangerous they might've been. We didn't even get to see any of them fight for their lives — which, if they were gonna die anyway, would've been more interesting than just finding out they're dead.
We're right back where we started from
Initially, this half-season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. felt more consequential than the show had in the past. It embarked on an ongoing exploration of humanity, looking at how these agents must have some parts of themselves "turned off" in order to do their jobs and the risk of them becoming hollow "good guys."
But by the end of the midseason finale, the only person who's arguably lost something was Coulson. Hunter has Bobbi. Bobbi has her health back. Daisy has her team and a new boyfriend. May's ex-husband is now an Inhuman named Lash, but he's still alive, and there is a looming feeling that there will be a Jekyll-Hyde storyline in the future. Fitz and Simmons still have each other. Even Ward is still alive (though he is possessed by an ancient evil), and is still the bad guy.
Yes, Coulson lost his new girlfriend Rosalind (Constance Zimmer) in a devastating manner. But her character had accumulated maybe 10 minutes of speaking time (this isn't a knock on Constance Zimmer, who played Ros really well). It never felt like we had the time to get to know her character, or at least to know her in a way that warrants the show's love-of-a-lifetime-speaking-from-beyond-the-grave treatment.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s recent episodes have presumably been about consequences for all these agents, but it never truly felt like there were any. And that's the main reason "Maveth" was a disappointment. I wonder if something bold, like Fitz's death or Rosalind not dying in the first place (which could have allowed the show to flesh out a relationship between them that reveals how damaged Coulson is) might have made the show feel more in line with what it had wanted to accomplish.