Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – Season 7 Episode 1
“The New Deal”
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. begins its final season with a prohibition era adventure, debates about changing the timeline and questions over the nature of life itself.
That sounds like a lot for the first episode but it actually isn’t because everything is woven neatly through the characters and the narrative being presented that it all feels natural. This show goes into its final season confidently and clearly intending to have some fun before the end credits roll on the final episode. Arguably the show should have ended with season 5 as the finale of that season capped things off perfectly. Season 6 wasn’t bad but it didn’t always feel entirely necessary so season 7 has a lot of work to do to prove itself worthy of existing. Amusingly that seems to be the actual plot of the season on a meta level as the Chronicons are trying to prevent S.H.I.E.L.D. from existing and the characters are working to stop them from succeeding. In other words, they’re working to justify their own existence. It’s clever and deployed well.
This episode picks up right where the finale of last season left off with the awakening of the Coulson Life Model Decoy and deals with the initial reactions. The Coulson L.M.D. -hereafter referred to as Coulson for the sake of simplicity- is initially confused because his memory is scrambled. Simmons built his memories from the brain scan that was done when he was in the Framework and has done her best to fill in the rest of what has happened since that time. Initially Coulson only remembers up to the point where the scan was done but everything rapidly comes flooding in causing him great distress. It’s hard for Mack and Daisy to watch to the point that Mack turns him off. It’s a really good scene as it opens the season with the enduring debate over whether it was right to recreate Coulson in this way. Early signs point to it being a bad idea because of the distress experienced by the L.M.D. but there are wider questions to ask and a huge amount of things to consider. Mack is rightly apprehensive because they have all had bad experiences with L.M.D’s in the past so letting another one into their lives could be asking for trouble. He asserts his authority right away by pointing out that anything to do with L.M.D’s is a Director level decision. Once again, Mack shows himself to be a capable leader who commands authority. Chloe Bennet’s silent performance shows that Daisy regrets being so impulsive in hitting the button especially after witnessing the aftermath.
The debate is casually woven throughout the episode and asks big questions about the nature of existence. Mack and Daisy have the debate over if the L.M.D. having Coulson’s memories feelings and personality makes it the same as having the real thing around without taking a definitive stance on it because it’s far too large a question to be answered so early in the season if it can be answered at all. For now it’s a lot like having Coulson back which is surely a good thing because everyone likes Coulson but the questions will always linger over what this means on an existential level.
It’s certainly at the front of everyone’s mind -including Coulson- but it has to be pushed to the side for now because the team have a job to do and a fairly limited time in which to do it. They have to track down the Chronicons and figure out what they plan to do in order to stop S.H.I.E.L.D. from existing. They’re starting from a place of having no information which means they have to get right to work. This means making use of the resource that is this new Coulson with his library of S.H.I.E.L.D. knowledge and enhanced abilities that make him a significant asset. I like that he’s initially content to follow Mack’s orders because he knows that he earned the position of Director and acts as a supporting resource to him. Their discussion about getting the job done before then thinking about what it means to have an artificially created version of Coulson is a good one because it draws a distinct line in the sand that makes it clear the job comes first.
Mack is even forced to admit that Coulson seems a lot like his old self though there are some red flags to be aware of. His attitude has shifted because of the awareness that he has already died to the point where he feels comfortable being more reckless than he used to be. He also identifies as a superhero because of his invulnerability and other enhanced abilities which will likely create issues down the line. In this very episode he already failed to appreciate that his reckless behaviour could have put Mack in danger. Equally it could also just be growing pains and he will settle soon enough once he realises the consequences of his actions.
Coulson is already settling back into the old dynamics he used to have back when he was alive. The one he shared with Mack has changed a bit because Coulson is now taking orders from him but it’s as if no time has been lost between him and Daisy. She very quickly becomes comfortable in his company and looks to help ease his transition into the land of the living. Naturally she can’t be sure exactly what he is but for now she’s happy to be talking to her father figure. Coulson complimenting her hair was a really nice familial touch and Daisy apologising for making the snap decision to activate him despite the original Coulson demanding that they don’t bring him back because he wants to be at peace was a great display of regret combined with self awareness on her part. She knows within herself that she shouldn’t have done that but also takes responsibility for the fact that her emotions took over and now everyone has to deal with the consequences. Apologising to Coulson for not being able to carry out his dying wish is an interestingly complex conversation and it’s good that the show doesn’t shy away from it.
There are other things the show doesn’t shy away from, specifically relating to the time period they’re currently in. The 1930s is less than welcoming to black people or women, less so to Asian women. This is addressed head on by acknowledging it as a problem of the time and not accepting them. The need to blend in is acknowledged but that doesn’t mean that Daisy is going to let an ignorant cop away with telling her she should go find herself a husband. It’s not in her character to let that go without saying a word and the scene where she stands up to the cop to prove that she isn’t someone to be messed with works really well. It’s a difficult line to walk but the show does it well especially when highlighting that their undercover missions will require Mack to take on certain roles and keep his mouth shut in just the right way to divert suspicion. I’d like to see this played with more but this was certainly a strong start. Ignoring historical racism would stand out but it’s also a tough topic to address without coming across as preachy. This feels about right so I hope it continues.
The time travel rules are also addressed though only in a limited way. None of the characters really know how it actually works so they have a discussion about what they can and can’t do. Daisy references the Butterfly Effect and worries that their very presence is altering the flow of history where Deke subscribes to the idea that the timeline won’t be heavily impacted by minor changes. He illustrates this by using the analogy of throwing sticks into flowing water. The water will move around them but still end up in the right place where if you throw a lot of sticks into the flowing water it’ll create an obstruction that diverts the water entirely. Basically they should avoid the latter and only make minor changes but at the same time not be afraid to take action because the timeline will largely be fine, at least according to Deke who is only an authority in the sense that he has travelled through time though so has everyone else and they changed the timeline significantly when they did so it’s easy to see where Daisy’s coming from. The working
Another thing the episode takes time to address is Elena’s artificial arms. Simmons offers her the chance to attach more advanced artificial arms that will give her the full range of feeling that she has been without for so long. Her point is that a woman with metal arms will stand out when in the past which is a good point but Elena doesn’t want to accept this change as she sees it as denying what happened to her. She isn’t ashamed of what happened to her so clearly feels that hiding it with arms that blend in would be something of a betrayal. It’s a very obvious point about disabilities not making someone any less of a person. I suspect she will end up swapping her old arms out for the more advanced ones but having Elena be conflicted about using them is a strong piece of characterisation.
The main plot is focused around the team thinking that the Chronicons are going to assassinate future President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Joseph Culp) because he will go on to be instrumental in the creation of SHIELD. In a surprising twist it turns out that Roosevelt wasn’t the target at all; instead it was Freddy Malick (Darren Barnet); father of Gideon Malick who was/will be one of the key figures associated with HYDRA. The Chronicoms go after him because as we all know HYDRA was basically a cancer that hid within S.H.I.E.L.D. and manipulated world events to play out the way they needed to in order to achieve their goal. They hid in plain sight for so long until they were discovered and stopped. This means that the team need to face the prospect of making difficult moral decisions as they will need to save HYDRA in order to ensure that S.H.I.E.L.D. exists. It’s definitely not an easy prospect as HYDRA are known for doing terrible things over the course of many years but arguably S.H.I.E.L.D. have balanced the scales by doing a lot of good even if they were at times on the wrong side of history so it’s an example of taking the bad with the good when it comes to preserving the timeline. If this moral ambiguity becomes a feature of the season then it could lead to some really interesting developments.
There are some missteps like the handling of Simmons. This show has an unfortunate tendency to tease the viewer by keeping their most engaging pairing in FitzSimmons apart. This wouldn’t be an issue if it it was something done in the past for a deliberate purpose but it’s something the writers constantly migrate back to and it’s beyond the point where it makes sense. They are kept apart because the inevitable reunion is usually well done but it rarely makes sense in context for them to be apart. This is happening here and it amounts to Simmons being vague about how long it took both of them to solve time travel before they had to separate for vaguely defined reasons. Much of Simmons’ dialogue is vague though she does bring May back from the dead which sets up an interesting reunion in the next episode.
Despite the minor issues, there’s a good energy to the first outing and it has a distinct visual style; something that this show hasn’t always managed to create. The attention to detail reminds me of Marvel’s Agent Carter which is no bad thing. It’s unclear at this stage if the season will remain in the 1930s for the duration or if the team will hop through time. I’d be interested to see the production designers tackle multiple eras and for everyone to keep up the high octane adventure that this episode more than provides.
A strong and confident opening to the final season that looks great while successfully tackling large scale questions about existence and altering the timeline. The introduction of the Coulson L.M.D. immediately raises those questions with the L.M.D. wondering who and what he is as Mack and Daisy consider the implications of making a copy of Coulson in this way. Professionalism prevents them from dwelling on those questions as there’s a job that needs to be done which takes priority. Coulson is largely the same as he was before but his attitude has shifted in profound and potentially concerning ways such as being more reckless since he has died before and identifying as a superhero because of his enhanced abilities. This will either be something he sorts out quickly or a problem that will escalate. His dynamic with Mack has changed because he now takes orders rather than giving them but his dynamic with Daisy remains the same. They have an excellent conversation where Daisy apologises for impulsively activating him which means that she ignored his wish not to be brought back. It’s a great moment that works really well. The main plot involving the Chronicon’s attempting to prevent S.H.I.E.L.D. from existing pivoting from killing Roosevelt to the target actually being Freddy Malick to introduce an interesting moral dilemma where the team have to protect HYDRA to save S.H.I.E.L.D. made for a really clever twist and sets up a considerable ongoing problem.
The episode does a really good job covering issues typical to the prohibition era setting such as racism and sexism. A measured approach is taken to addressing them and a great deal of care is taken to ensure that it fits the story without being ignored when convenient. Elena’s opinion on swapping her metal arms for something that blends in more easily makes for an interesting take on how disability doesn’t make anyone less than what they were. She isn’t ashamed of what happened to her so is reluctant to swap her metal arms. I suspect she eventually will but addressing the problem was a nice touch. The commentary on the time travel rules is also deployed well and sets up the rules that will hopefully be adhered to over the course of the season. There are some missteps such as the handling of Simmons who does little more than provide exposition and less than inspiring excuses as to why she and Fitz are being kept apart once again. Much of her dialogue is frustratingly vague which does let the episode down some. Despite some slight missteps there’s a really good energy to the episode and the production design of 1930s New York is excellent. Hopefully several different eras will be represented over the course of the season.
- immediately tackling big questions about the nature of existence
- the similarities and differences between the Coulson L.M.D. and the original
- a strong and meaningful conversation between Coulson and Daisy
- neatly outlining the time travel rules
- addressing period specific issues such as racism and sexism
- Elena’s feelings about replacing her metal arms leading to a great commentary on disability
- an impressive twist around who the actual target was
- excellent production design
- Simmons doing little more than supplying exposition
- keeping Fitz and Simmons apart for unjustified reasons
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