Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD – Season 5 Episode 12
“The Real Deal”
Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD celebrates its 100th episode by celebrating the characters and their relationships while calling back to the past.
Reaching 100 episodes is one of those milestones that a TV show has to celebrate. By this point a network TV show has to have been on the air for 5 or more years meaning that it must have a fan base that have stuck with it since the beginning. Writers and producers usually use the nice round number milestone to deliver something that fans will appreciate and make the landmark noteworthy. The most recent 100th episode I experienced belonged to Arrow where the focus was on everything the show had accomplished as well as all that had been left behind up to that point.
This outing is almost a bottle episode and gives the characters the room to breathe that they didn’t get last week. As always there is impending doom hanging over their head in the form of a rift leading to a fear dimension. This allows all of their greatest fears to physically manifest and prey on them. The opening of the episode sets this up effectively with an appearance from Lash before Fitz explains what’s going on.
One thing the episode doesn’t do so well is create a sense of urgency. Fitz talks as if they’re in constant peril from everything they’re afraid of but the engagements are few and far between which makes this feel like less of a threat than it should be. Most of the attacks are brief and easily dispatched which also reduces the threat level considerably.
The episode could have done so much more with the fear mechanic. This makes me think that it would have been better served as a feature length experience to allow more time to play around with this idea. Daisy is terrified of being the destroyer of worlds so why not show her being faced with that either with the vista of a ruined Earth right after she destroyed it or a manifestation of a version of herself capable of doing such a thing? That would have been great to see and tapped into something very primal for Daisy. Fitz and Simmons are afraid of losing one another forever so that would have made for an obvious yet effective exploration of what they are most afraid of.
Mack is clearly most afraid of losing Elena or perhaps failing in some way to protect those he cares about so that was rife for exploration and May’s greatest fear is most likely no longer being useful. Perhaps she could have faced a version of herself who can’t walk or has lost the ability to fight in some other way. The potential was there but the episode fails to make use of it for some reason and suffers as a result.
Another problem with the fear dimension conceit is that it makes it difficult to invest in anything that’s going on. Every conversation has the potential to be not real meaning that the sentiments being shared might not be real. Even when those moments are genuine the impact can be a little lost because of the possibility running through the mind of the audience.
There is only one instance where a character moment turns out to be a manifestation of the fear dimension; the scene that results in Simmons trying to kill Elena turns out to be her fear of a Life Model Decoy killing her. As a fear for Elena it doesn’t make a lot of sense but the rationale behind it was the fake out and it works reasonably well. There’s no real guarantee that the Robo-Simmons is Elena’s fear based on the fact that everyone’s fears are apparently running around trying to kill them.
The fear dimension is only a device to allow for some intense emotional moments between the characters. Fitz comes up with a plan to seal the rift but it may involve one of them sacrificing their lives. Coulson volunteers immediately because he already knows he’s dying so feels like the logical choice. Daisy in particular takes exception to that because she’s happy to run head first into danger especially if that sacrifice prevents her from being the one to destroy the world.
Daisy lists everything that is currently wrong with the team such as May never getting back at full strength, Mack being ready to quit after Elena lost her arms, Fitz and Simmons waiting for the next disaster to hit them, their recent betrayal at the hands of Piper and now Coulson being ready to kill himself. She tries to argue from a military standpoint around not sacrificing a General but Coulson pushes that aside and comes from the point of view of them being a family rather than a ranked hierarchy. To his mind none of them are expendable so May’s list of everyone’s jobs within the team isn’t valid as far as he’s concerned because his approach is akin to a father willing to sacrifice everything to make sure his family is safe.
The argument is cut short when Coulson collapses and his big secret comes out after Simmons examines him. His deal with Ghost Rider in last season’s finale has sealed his fate and the wound that killed him before is slowly killing him once again. This brings Coulson right back to the beginning of his development in this particular series following his resurrection after Loki stabbed him through the heart in The Avengers. He talks about having a second chance at life and not needing a third. Even though they had the capability to save him when in the future it isn’t something that Coulson wants to go through again because it was so difficult to deal with the first time. In short he has accepted his fate and is willing to bow out gracefully rather than spend his last days obsessed with saving himself.
This is a really relatable mindset for Coulson as he is essentially a terminally ill man who has accepted his illness and just wants to enjoy the time he has left with the people he loves. He doesn’t know how much time he has but will certainly make the most of it while he can. It will take time for the other characters to accept this eventuality as they’ve only just heard about it but it looks like the theme of acceptance will be ongoing through the rest of the season.
His main concern seems to be legacy. He believes in S.H.I.E.L.D. as both a symbol and an institution that must endure after he’s gone. It has been around before him and must last beyond him. Acceptance of his own mortality has led him to accept that May also won’t be around forever so someone else has to step up and take charge. For Coulson that candidate is Daisy which doesn’t entirely track based on her characterisation of late but makes sense when considering the father/daughter bond that exists between them. He sees her as his daughter meaning that he wants her to be better than he was which means that S.H.I.E.L.D. as an entity will grow and change with each passing generation. I do like the idea of S.H.I.E.L.D. becoming a generational thing and the idea of a family being chosen rather than dictated by blood is a very modern idea that seamlessly fits the dynamic of the core characters.
All of this is completely sold by the actors who use their natural chemistry together to give these relationships and the grief felt at the prospect of the end of them to deliver the necessary emotional connection. Clark Gregg and Chloe Bennet in particular excel themselves as Daisy’s unrestrained anger and grief is countered by Coulson’s fatherly calm support.
When going down to seal the rift Coulson is confronted with a manifestation of J. August Richards’ Mike Peterson in his pre Deathlok guise who gives him the Total Recall treatment and tells him that everything he has experienced since his “death” wasn’t real. “Mike” makes a case for those experiences being preposterous and talks about all the things that could be his dying mind trying to resolve the experience. Coulson became a history teacher in the Framework because his father was a history teacher, really wanted a team, the opportunity to coach brilliant minds, a daughter and the chance to be a hero. None of which he could actually have in his real life so his brain created a scenario where he could have all of those things before his life could end with a sense of closure.
Pretty much every science fiction and fantasy show gets around to this idea sooner or later. Funnily enough the afore mentioned 100th episode of Arrow was built around such a premise but in this case it doesn’t work as an actual real possibility. The reason for that is Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD shares a universe with a lot of films and several other TV shows so its very existence means that it can’t all be in Coulson’s head…or maybe it can since he’s been around since the first Iron Man. All kidding aside this isn’t possible because so many things have happened after the events of The Avengers that a near death Coulson fighting for his life on an operating table couldn’t possibly know about. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has had many years of events since The Avengers and the episode tries to argue that he’s experiencing this delusion directly after being stabbed by Loki. It might work as a possibility if the episode tried to tell us that Coulson had been in a coma all this time.
The point of this manifestation isn’t to make the audience consider the possibility that the entirety of Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD has been in his head, the point is to make Coulson consider that possibility. “Mike” does make the scenario sound convincing enough and Clark Gregg plays Coulson’s reaction with the right amount of disbelief tempered by serious consideration. Since this isn’t real it suggests that Coulson’s biggest fear is that he dies without really making a difference. This ignores the fact that his “death” inspired the Avengers to come together and save the world but in the context of the show his death at that point would mean nothing for all the people he has helped and the overall difference he has made following his resurrection. Real or not he decides that it’s unacceptable and refuses to go into the light with “Mike” which reveals the deception perfectly timed with the arrival of the real Mike Peterson in full Deathlok mode.
This leads to an entertaining action sequence with cameo appearances from Lash and Hive who are easily dispatched before the rift is sealed and things start to return to normal. Seeing Deathlok in action once again is a great bit of fan service and his timely appearance with a collection of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents proves his point about the symbol being important to people.
The episode ends on a happy moment as Fitz and Simmons tie the knot before anything horrible can happen to them again. It’s a sweet ceremony with well delivered vows confirming the feelings they have for one another before taking their relationship to the next phase. Hope for their future is also teased with the predicted reveal that Deke is their grandson thanks to an effective piece of dialogue confirming that the wedding ring he bought is the same ring that he remembers belonging to his grandmother. This is confirmed by General Hale seeing the results of a DNA test showing that Deke is connected to them. Of course this hope also comes with an omen as Deke is unknowingly fulfilling another part of the time loop further suggesting that the future he’s from is inevitable.
A fitting celebration of a significant milestone for this show with focus on the core characters and their relationships. The reveal that Coulson is dying works well because it affects all of the characters with more attention given to Daisy because of the father/daughter bond that they share. Coulson is effectively a terminally ill man who has come to terms with his own mortality and intends to enjoy what time he has left. His family still have to come to terms with that so Daisy’s reaction is entirely understandable. Having Coulson’s priority being legacy and the importance of S.H.I.E.L.D. as a symbol is a nice touch as it shows he wants what he believes in to be carried on and improved by those he cares about. Showing Coulson’s greatest fear to be that he never mattered was perfectly suited to him.
The fear dimension gimmick was a nice idea but was used in surprisingly limited ways. Manifestations of fear were very infrequent and easily dispatched with no attempt to explore the greatest fears of most of the characters. It’s a shame that the obvious potential of this was squandered and ended up having very little overall impact. The Fitz and Simmons wedding was charming enough and led to the predicted reveal that Deke is descended from them which also makes for a further omen that Deke’s future can’t be prevented.
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