SPOILER WARNING: The following review contains light plot description of tonight's "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." season finale, and major spoilers of past episodes in discussion of the entire season as a whole.
Just like any good hero from the world of comics, "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." proves with the finale of its debut season that it has rallied victoriously against the forces that have challenged it throughout its early adventures.
"Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." has, of course, traveled an occasionally rocky road during its freshman tour of duty as it attempted to build upon and burnish Marvel's now-enviable comics-to-screen legacy and establish a beachhead on TV, doing so without the advantage of a cast of colorfully costumed superpowered leads. After a promising launch, the series appeared to wander aimlessly a bit shortly out of the gate, lacking both the wonder of Marvel films and the smart pop cultural frisson of a Joss Whedon-produced project.
But, improving by increments as the season progressed, the series was quietly setting up a number of particularly juicy dominos that it was able to start knocking over once it reached that game-changing pivot point provided by the plot of the big screen's "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" in which S.H.I.E.L.D. was revealed as something entirely more sinister than even its most loyal operatives -- like "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." lead Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) -- ever imagined. With each new episode the show has unveiled the interconnectivity of its various plot threads, raised its stakes exponentially and delivered one satisfying Big Reveal after another as it hurtled like a runaway Helicarrier towards its season finale, finally earning the description "Whedon-esque."
"Beginning of the End," written by wife-and-husband showrunner team Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon, leads Agent Coulson and his strike team to an extremely satisfying conclusion -- indeed, even though the show was just formally and finally assured a second season, the episode could've served as a fitting finale to the series as a whole, resolving a number of long-standing storylines even as it leaves more than a few tantalizing story possibilities dangling out there.
It begins on a most Whedon-y note, with an inside view of the supposedly dastardly Hyrda-run tech firm Cybertek though the most mundane of everyday operations, but quickly accelerates into Marvel-style action -- that is, action as driven by character. All of the myriad schemes of renegade agent John Garrett -- now loopy with seeming psychedelic, self-aggrandizing universal vision from the Guest House drug in the increasingly delightful form of Bill Paxton -- have reached a flashpoint: tortured turncoat Agent Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) remains Garrett's pawn despite the tug of his friendships with Coulson's team; the newly activated cyborg Deathlok, aka Mike Peterson (J. August Richards), is also under Garrett's sway, fearing for the life of his son; both slippery Ian Quinn (David Conrad) and allegiance-challenged Raina (Ruth Negga) of the Centipede Group have come into alignment with Garrett's as well, ready to help sell a ready-made army of Deathlok-style super-soliders to the U.S. government. But Coulson has been pushed as far as he'll allow, and rallies his team to finally put an end to Garrett -- well, most of the team, anyway: Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) lie trapped in an airtight capsule at the bottom of the ocean after Ward jettisoned them from the agents' stolen aircraft, The Bus.
Every action beat of the finale is wisely infused by the characters' emotional investments in each dilemma: May hopes for an opportunity to deliver some payback to former paramour Ward even as she struggles to earn back Coulson's confidence; Ward's sole investment in Hydra's plan has been to please Garrett, but he desires Skye (Chloe Bennet) so deeply he longs to bargain his way into having both; Fitz and Simmons have to rise to the challenge of freeing themselves from their seemingly unbeatable deathtrap, but even harder is saying the things they've left unsaid should they fail. Even the bad guys face moral quandaries: Ever only interested in evolution and, as she says, "what will I become," Raina contemplates if the seemingly enlightened Garrett is the leader she should follow; while Deathlok/Mike has to consider on which side of the line he straddles he really belongs.
And then there's Coulson, the lynchpin upon which the series always hinges. The show was envisioned as a view of the Marvel Cinematic Universe from the perspective of unpowered everyday heroes, a perspective perfected by Clark Gregg's Coulson in the films. And what's especially delightful here is how Coulson, now pushed nearly to the breaking point by the betrayal of Ward, the secret of his resurrection and the collapse of the institution he'd built his life around, finally feels more in line with the Coulson we met in the films than at points earlier in the season.
Gregg's pitch-perfect performances is aided by dialogue featuring the most witty, straight-faced one-liners he's enjoyed since "The Avengers," and watching him stand up to quite literally everything that frustrated him since the series launched -- including ex-SHIELD director Nick Fury, in the form of guest-star Samuel L. Jackson in the show's most organic and non-forced MCU tie-in to date.
There are even more Marvel-ous surprises in the finale, very pleasing callbacks to both earlier films and "AoS" episodes, and, yes, there are clunkier moments, too -- including a Ward/Skye reunion that doesn't quite play and a sorta funny/sorta too goofy outcome for one of the antagonists -- and the show should reconsider its overall photographic approach for season two: its bright, clean, glossy look too often betrays budget shortfalls or simply reads too "TV."
But by the end, the finale delivers a rousing closing payoff that makes sticking around for the entirety of the season feel quite worthwhile, and it puts all the pieces in a provocative place for a second season (and maybe even a spinoff series in addition to the forthcoming "Marvel's Agent Carter") and leaving a few very intriguing lingering questions. When it comes to bringing the Marvel storytelling aesthetic to television, "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." has gone from what seemed like Mission: Impossible to Mission Accomplished.
The "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." first season finale, "Beginning of the End," airs 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 13, on ABC.