Strictly speaking, death is no longer a shocking development in comics or on superhero TV -Â not in and of itself. And even Marvel’s last ABC series standing “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” is no stranger to killing off a character or two when it comes to finale time. But in the weeks leading up to Season 3’s final outing, the show has been working overtime both on screen and in promos to promise a death that will be truly shocking -Â more so than capping Victoria Hand or cutting out Agent Triplett before he could even accomplish anything. But paying off this promise is a harder thing than hyping it up, and the back-to-back presentation of the show’s “Absolution” and “Ascension” gives us a finale that doesn’t shock but might just justify the show’s future.
The first hour makes the “Absolution” title as obvious as any in the show’s history with its opening sequence. A classic “not necessarily a flash forward but hopefully just a dream sequence” setup where Daisy and Coulson are the only surviving members of the team. They’re stranded on the desolate planet that brought uber-villain The Hive back into their world and teetering on the brink of extinction themselves. That this is an impossible setup for a show already renewed for another year, the scene highlights the relationship between the two characters -Â inarguably the core leads of the entire show. That connection is returned to later in the hour as Daisy wakes from her nightmare to a S.H.I.E.L.D. lockdown cell where she’s been under observation since being released from the Hive’s murderous influence. While she self flagellates and broods with the best melodramatic comic characters, her father-figure Phil provides balance as he reaches out and attempts to turn her back towards the light. Coulson’s haunted by his own history with vengeance as he still hasn’t gotten over his choice to kill Grant Ward and thereby set off the entire Hive affair (after a fashion). So the question becomes whether Phil can absolve Daisy from what she’s done…or more accurately if she can absolve herself. Throughout the entire finale, several agents try to make her convert to her old self with varying results.
Speaking of which, spinning around this morality play is one of the most tense and fast-paced action plots the show has presented in a while. Since Hive has tapped into a nuclear missile silo in order to try and set off a literal scorched earth policy so he can replace humanity with a new Inhumanity, all hands are on deck to stop him. The immediacy of a live nuke dishes up fun character moments (Fitz going method actor to mocap replace a general with nuke codes), a dollop of “Who will die?” theatrics (Mack and Yo-Yo’s fighting over who holds the guilty party’s golden crucifix) and the show’s standard run-and-gun fight scenes (May taking down any lolly-gagging henchmen). And while the whole mission has its occasional hiccups (as predicted, Glenn Talbot has given up on “Civil War’s” supposed fallout in a heartbeat), it’s overall feel is sharp and engaging and just the right amount of unpredictable -Â befitting a finale.
All in all, the real battle here is with Hive, who in Grant Ward’s skin has become the biggest villain in the show’s history. Setting aside the cosmic monster’s bewildering choice to not reach out and capture Lincoln’s mind the second he encounters the strike team Coulson sends to the silo (for serious, the guy NEVER needed a windup until that scene), the mid-episode twist of attacking the beast with the memory machine from earlier in the season is a slam dunk moment. Not only does it allow our heroes to outwit their foe in an organic and visually arresting moment, the machine’s effect pull Hive’s most recent personality traits right to the surface. In essence, it makes the villain everyone needs to defeat more Ward than he’s been in months, and that emotional and thematic resonance helps amp up the drama even as the lame “who’s necklace is this again?” plot bounces from a ready-to-quit Lincoln to a finally-happy Fitz and beyond.
The move also draws the theme of absolution out and complicates it in some interesting ways. While Mack continues to help Daisy heal from her own (surprisingly Catholic all the sudden) guilt trip, the memory machine makes the viewer confront all the sins Ward has on his own undead soul. The villain represents a counterpoint to Daisy so that even as he’s under S.H.I.E.L.D.’s lock and key we know that the two are going to collide. When it turns out that Hive’s weaponized Inhuman crystals have been snuck into S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ, the catalyst for the final battle is revealed. But all that is just sound and fury -Â speedbumps in the path of Daisy and Ward’s inevitable collision and what it will mean.
The final twist that carries us from one hour to the next is partially predictable but no less satisfying: Daisy wants back under Hive’s sway at all costs. It’s a tragic moment for the character in that she can’t even give up on herself right and for the audience in that we want Daisy to triumph but it’s ultimately so much more exciting to watch her fall. But when the effect of Lash’s “curing” of Hive’s influence means that she can never go back to the blissful stupefaction of his power, Daisy is forced to try and take revenge as a last option.
This is the kind of stuff that the best Marvel Studios storytelling is made from. A hero of tragic origin grappling with the worst of themselves and trying to be the best. A villain intrinsically tied to that hero’s fate but who is cold and cruel to their trauma. Oh, and a bunch of ass kicking. The fight between Daisy and Hive – as brief as it is -Â is one of the best in the show’s history. Every bone-crunching moment represents years worth of pent up frustration and feelings of betrayal. That Daisy’s rage isn’t enough to knock out Hive forever shows that she hasn’t let go of her sins quite yet. That’s what the second hour is for.
The bulk of the true finale that is “Ascension” spends most of its time swerving away from the big action stories that defined the first two years of the show. As Hive steals a S.H.I.E.L.D. vessel to move from warhead distribution of his Inhuman cocktail to space born pathogen, one group of Agents is left in essentially a zombie movie back down on the ground. In that half of the story, Coulson, Lincoln, Mack and Yo-Yo team with Hive’s renegade bio-doctor as Simmons finds a way to combat the mutant Inhumans. Meanwhile up in the sky, Fitz and May attempt to bring Daisy fully back into the fold before Hive regains composure and sets off his weapon.
Either of these setups could fuel a whole episode, but in finale-mode the show doesn’t have time to play up zombie theatrics or spy tactics. Aside from a few spooky moments and Fitz’s pretty great defense against Hive’s go-to kung-fu master, the episode moves to final confrontation at lightning speed. Daisy realizes (perhaps too late) that she’s helped set the journey that will kill an agent in zero G. Coulson fakes out a “I have to do it myself” move to catch Hive monologuing while his crew overtakes the bioweapon ship. In a way, it’s a letdown. The reveal of Ward’s full Hive face is one of the best effects the show has ever had (costly as it may be), and it lasts only moments. Daisy’s own turn back towards the light is almost steamrolled by the mission at hand, even as she has a teary “breakup” with a wounded Lincoln.
But all the rapid moving of the chess pieces is there to just amp up the moment we all knew was coming: the heroic sacrifice. In order to bring the show to a close, one of the agents has to destroy the ship in midflight, and Daisy of course leaps at the chance to end her suffering and atone for her wrongs. She ends up with the cross in hand. She attempts to sabotage the warhead alone. And she of course gets to face down round two with Hive…but not really! At the last minute, Lincoln improbably appears to shock off the villain, steal the Quinjet that will serve as the fiery coffin of both them and Hive’s plan and ultimately force Daisy to live with who she is rather than take the easy way out.
The cynics in the audience will doubtlessly balk at Lincoln’s Steve Rogers-esque farewell from the show. Of course it’s the newest character with the least amount of comic book ties that dies in the finale. Of course the story falls back hard on the romantic subplot between S.H.I.E.L.D.’s two biggest Inhumans. And of course we get just the barest hint of human empathy from Ward/Hive before saying goodbye to the misundertood villain forever. But complaining that the finale didn’t 100% shock is missing the point. The death of Lincoln and Ward may wrap certain elements of this show up in a neat little bow, but as they go boom, the tragedy of the moment actually opens up more story possibilities for “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s” future than would otherwise have been possible. At this point, everything this show asked us to think about when the story began could have been closed.
But instead, the series jumps ahead six months in time where Daisy has reverted to her original Skye persona -Â the renegade hacker (now superpowered) who’s taking on the status quo that Coulson and company represent. Coulson himself has been knocked down a peg in whatever S.H.I.E.L.D. structure remains. And via their mad bio-scientist pal, Fitz and Simmons take part in the birth of a Marvel piece of Marvel lore with the Life Model Decoy. All these teases come with questions upon questions as to how exactly we got here rather than strict answers, and while they don’t beg for one more season of the show, they do more than justify ABC’s renewal. In the end, “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” remains what it has been from its earliest days – a show that few people demand be a part of the MCU but one whose considerable charms let it earn its place in the canon.
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