Screenshot: ABC

For the 100th episode of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the show pulls out all the stops to try and deliver a heartfelt, moving meditation on the relationships between these characters, how far they’ve come, and where they’ll go from here. It’s only fitfully successful, a reminder the series is struggling to nail its pacing this season.

S.H.I.E.L.D. brought in its MVP director Kevin Tancharoen to helm this episode, but unfortunately, it suggests he’s more versatile with action than with tear-jerking character beats. Than again, it’s hard to fault him for what is honestly an overstuffed installment. The show is racing all over the place this season, trying to do too much in too little time, and it again results in cramped dialogue and awkward transitions that shuffle too quickly from beat to beat. A rift to a fear dimension that manifests people’s greatest terrors? Excellent! The team realizes Coulson is infected with dying tissue thanks to his deal with Ghost Rider? It’s about time! Yo-Yo and Mack are attempting to grapple with the sad new state of affairs? Needed. And aww, Fitz and Simmons get married? Love it. What’s less great is watching all of this get awkwardly juggled in a single installment; the balancing act the show maintained so smoothly last season is wobbly now, and even with a fan-service wedding at the conclusion, it’s hard to shake the feeling the momentum is off.

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“You did this wrong, Phil,” May says to Coulson after he reveals the bargain he made with Ghost Rider resulted in the spirit of vengeance burning out whatever alien substance brought the S.H.I.E.L.D. leader back from the dead, and it feels a little bit like she’s talking about the structure of the episode. “The Real Deal” makes a big production of the life of Phil Coulson, but the way it gets introduced is jarring and haphazard. The problem with introducing a big fear dimension manifesting people’s nightmares is that it means we can’t trust our own eyes. So when you start revealing big surprises and only exposing part of the narrative that’s unfolding, the audience holds back from investing emotionally, because we don’t know if we’re watching a long con play out in any given scene. When the show begins a new act with Coulson sending off Deke on an unclear mission up in the town, who’s to say if its real or not? What if it’s just someone’s biggest fear come to life? That hesitation prevents some of the weightier emotional moments over what Coulson means to the individual members of the team from being as moving as they might otherwise have been, because the episode worked overtime from the opening moments to suggest we couldn’t take anything at face value until the rift is closed.

Similarly, Coulson’s big talk with faux-Mike Peterson is enjoyable, and hits on many of the bigger themes of the series about the importance of finding your own family, caring about the people that matter to you, and living a good life, but the show seemed to genuinely want ambiguity about whether faux-Mike’s explanation was possible. (To wit: Coulson’s been dying on an operating table this whole time; everything that’s unfolded in the series only took place in his mind after being stabbed by Loki in The Avengers.) That doesn’t really work when you’ve already established such a clear “this is a creation of a fear dimension” premise, letting us know it’s not even slightly plausible, and there’s no real danger Phil will succumb to these manipulations, because he’s not an idiot. He’ll talk with this being, sure, but he’s not going to willingly walk into the light, ever, and especially not under such half-baked circumstances. And while his failure to tell them all he was dying is a little more acceptable given the sudden jump into the future and its attendant crisis, it still took him fainting to force the issue after he should’ve come clean.

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Screenshot: ABC

Thank goodness real Mike Peterson, a.k.a. Deathlok, was there to help bring a little action to the proceedings. As always, even when he’s going over the top, Tancharoen’s fight compositions and choreography are fun to watch, even managing to make the slo-mo seem less gratuitous than normal. Then again, maybe it was just the necessary catharsis after all the pinched heart-to-hearts and waterworks. It provided a moment of respite from the nonstop button pushing. Not that some of said pushing wasn’t effective; the show knows that wry, steadfast Daisy crying is a potent tool in its arsenal, and her breakdown was the most moving of the various confessionals Coulson staged. The one with May felt a bit more apropos in the circumstances, though, with the two seasoned vets once more pulling back their true feelings to enjoy, if only briefly, the comfort of their hard-won working relationship—two friends ultimately smiling in the face of death.

The various speeches to and about Coulson, his impact, and his legacy in “The Real Deal” can’t help but make you wonder if the show could survive the departure of Clark Gregg. I’m not convinced it could; this isn’t Buffy The Vampire Slayer, where the mentor figure had to leave in order to push the title character forward. (And let’s be honest: How well did it even work in that situation?) If anything, Phil Coulson is Buffy, not Daisy. He’s the central figure around which everyone else pivots, and this episode—far from prepping us for letting him eventually move on—actually reinforced how crucial his presence is, to the point that when Daisy says there’s no S.H.I.E.L.D. without him, you’re inclined to agree.

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Screenshot: ABC

Still, Coulson’s not wrong when he tells Fitz to go ahead with the wedding even if he doesn’t make it back from saving the day. “Symbols are important. Institutions are important. People need things to believe in.” You can hear echoes of last season’s avowedly political back half in this sentiment, Phil pushing back against the idea that institutions and symbolic actions are the enemy and everything earnest is deserving of scorn. Coulson believes in the idea of S.H.I.E.L.D. even when the whole rest of the world seems to be trying to bury it for good. And that’s where a little more showing, not telling, of heroism and simple good deeds might help anchor the series back onto more consistent ground. After all, as Fitz says, words don’t really do it justice.

Stray observations:

  • Speaking of Buffy references, how’s Coulson doing? “Five by five.”
  • Deke continues to shine in his role as the new comic relief of the team. From his fear of forests and nature (“Pro-tip: Tuck your pants into your shoes, nothing gets up”) to spraying air freshener on his tongue, Jeff Ward is doing fine work.
  • Yo-Yo’s greatest fear was...Jemma as an LMD? That was odd. It couldn’t have been just a normal robot, though.
  • Some of the other fears were also good, from Lash appearing in the opening drone footage to Hive making a last-ditch arrival before Coulson closes the rift. The fact he was talking to Mike during his spiritual fear-crisis, however, only really makes sense insofar as they were already bringing in J. August Richards as Deathlok and decided to get two characters for the price of one.
  • Hale has called off the search for the time being. Maybe everyone will have a moment to join Deke in some more delightful Zima product placement?
  • I’m a sucker for some nice wedding vows. And congratulations, everyone who assumed Deke was indeed the grandchild of Jemma and Leo.

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