Agents of SHIELD, S.O.S. ~ A Finale So Great It Took Months to Write About
This ripple won't fade. It'll grow and grow, until it's a tidal wave.
This post contains nothing but spoilers for "S.O.S. Part 1" and "Part 2." If for some reason you're reading this before getting caught up, what are you thinking? Set this aside for now. You have mere hours before the season three premiere. Use them wisely.
MY FAVORITE MOMENTS -- THE SHORT VERSION, FOR THOSE IN A HURRY
Coulson and Cal at the beginning of Part 2. I was hoping all season for an understanding between them anf Cal to stop trying to kill Coulson. Both love Skye and will do anything to protect her, and both needed to come to that realization about each other. It was good to see Cal working with S.H.I.E.L.D.
Skye and Cal at the end saying goodbye one final time with tears and a big hug for each other. It was a painfully beautiful scene. Knowing what came after, that he underwent the Tahiti protocol, made me an even bigger puddle of tears than if he simply went to prison. He'll get a second chance to live a normal life, but at the expense of never remembering the daughter he fought so hard to find or the wife for whom he became the worst version of himself. I'm having a really hard time remembering any recurring character in anything that has been so wonderfully entertaining and had such a range of emotion as Cal. Kyle MacLachlan really went for it, put everything he had into it, and obviously enjoyed playing the man a great deal.
Then there was Simmons finally telling Fitz there was something she needed to discuss with him about what he said to her at the bottom of the ocean! The best part of the scene was right after Fitz left the room to go on arguably their most dangerous mission yet. Tears ran down Simmons' face and a little whimper of fear escaped her lips, and Elizabeth Henstridge was brilliant. Let's just forget for now what happened at the very end of the finale and think only happy thoughts about FitzSimmons.
Gordon asking Mack who he was and Mack responding with, "I'm the guy who kills Gordon." Simultaneously funny and badass. Of course, he wasn't actually the one who killed ol' Gordo. That honor accidentally belongs to Fitz, who had a great line of his own when he trapped Gordon in the room with himself, Mack, and Coulson.
Bobbi getting out of her restraints, taking the needles Ward pushed under her nails and sticking them into the back of his neck. Do NOT give this woman anything that can be used as a weapon, especially if you're using it to torture her. In fact, I would be afraid to leave anything that seems harmless near her. What a fighter.
Psycho Ward accidentally killing his psycho love, Kara. Great job, May! But you better reeeeeally watch out for Ward now.
THE REALLY LONG VERSION, FOR THOSE WITH OODLES OF TIME
This is quite late, I know. The Friday prior to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s second season finale, soon after writing about the last two Art of Evolution prints and feeling excited about the finale, I learned that my cousin and godfather had passed away suddenly. The following Friday was his funeral. In between, the last two episodes had to become more than they were meant or expected to be. It had to be a real distraction from life, and it was until all those bittersweet tears from Kyle MacLachlan and Chloe Bennet reminded me of my own. But that's all right. That's wonderful, because it was such a beautifully acted finale, grounded in emotion, as this series has a tendency to do. "S.O.S. Part 2" was particularly moving, but it was a hectic and stressful month all the way through and writing became an afterthought. It's actually been that way since, because the only time I'm not being interrupted is when I'm sleeping.
There were a number of things to get done/worry over/distract myself with, but the first of these was when I decided I needed more MacLachlan in my life; my TV (and movie) choices didn't cross paths with him very often. Though, when he did turn up he tended to stick around for a little while as a fascinating, charming or ridiculously funny recurring character. So, I chose to start Twin Peaks not too long after Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. ended. Intending to watch one episode before bed one night, instead I binged late into the night for almost two weeks on that wonderfully off-kilter series. MacLachlan can really draw you into a character. Even back then he had this intuitive and effortless talent. I rewatched little moments dozens of times because he is just so spot-on with emotions and reactions, and he was also wonderfully amusing. He invested the same into Cal, and after a 25-year wait to see Twin Peaks was finally satisfied, I was able to get back to writing about the final two episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and MacLachlan's contribution to the series. But every time I tried to whittle it down to a manageable size, I would add so much more that I didn't expect to. Finally I finished whittling and I think I have something resembling coherent thoughts here.
CAL AND COULSON AND SKYE, OH MY
So much happened worth mentioning in this spectacular two-part finale, but at some point my writing became mostly about three people. So, that's how I'll start. While everyone had a moment, what struck the biggest, loudest chord with me were the interactions between Cal and Coulson and then Cal and Skye. They were gorgeous character portrayals, overflowing with humanity and emotion. This is the kind of show that will linger on that emotion and build on it rather than cut away to some action so that we don't have to feel anything for too long. It's the best thing a series can do to create a real connection with their characters, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. makes it look effortless.
"S.O.S., Part 2" gave us Cal's two best scenes of the year, which I watched so many times I thought I might wear out the DVR's rewind button. Those scenes weren't only the highlights of Kyle MacLachlan's delightfully unhinged and ultimately touching role, but also of the entire series. They sit proudly amongst sequences such as Skye's transformation and Tripp's disintegration in "What They Become" and the desperate frustration of Coulson's "Agents of Nothing" speech in "Providence." That speech came after the team was betrayed, fractured, hunted, exhausted and alone in the middle of nowhere; it was Clark Gregg's defining moment for me, proving once again that here was a series with an emotional core, with fantastic actors and writers committed to making it something to care about.
That commitment has extended to the guest stars and semi regulars throughout Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s run. As the standout of a talented lot, Kyle MacLachlan as Cal Zabo/Cal Johnson/Mr. Hyde was the antithesis of all those blank, emotionless performances I've seen in countless other series from guest stars who have no real grasp of or investment in the material. I'm always delighted to see him because I know he'll be a delight, but here he gave a brilliant performance, effortlessly shifting from outrageous to subtle and everything in between and proving to be one of the best actors around. With this role I have added him to my list of favorite people. He sits among a great company of emotionally fearless actors, such as John Noble, James Spader, and Bryan Cranston. They can break you with a look and tie you up into little knots, but also have a sense of humor and a warmth, and make you marvel that anyone can be so real at this profession of pretending.
MacLachlan brought a genuine beating heart to someone who could have been a complete monster. I can't imagine anyone else making more of an impact.
Before Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. formally introduced Skye's father, showing only a stand-in's hand dripping with blood, I had imagined that he might be an irredeemable monster played by someone who would have a tough time scoring any points with me, if that was even one of the show's goals. It seems to be standard TV practice for the bad guy to be an unsympathetic impression of a human being solely motivated by hatred, greed, or psychopathy. Sometimes interesting, but most often just an aggravating nuisance. It seems I forgot I wasn't watching any old series. For a little while I forgot that the creative team knows what they're doing. They had a major role to fill for the main antagonist of this sophomore season, and there's no better choice they could have made than Kyle MacLachlan. He had a humor and irreverence that was necessary to lighten certain moments and make us fall in love with such an unpredictable character. MacLachlan brought a genuine beating heart to someone who could have been a complete monster. I can't imagine anyone else making more of an impact.
A great example of that impact is the scene below, where Cal has transitioned to his Mr. Hyde persona. The bulging veins, unkempt fingernails, bed head, and just got back from the dentist look didn't impress those who were expecting more. I was only expecting a performance to remember from MacLachlan, and I sure got it. When story is what matters all you really see, when he's trapped by his enemy and forced to talk about his problems, is a man desperate to get his family back, whose obsession to heal the past has become all he has. MacLachlan is very affecting here, showing the damage Cal has lived with for far too long, the inescapable hurt fueling the anger.
*Coulson convincing Cal he needs to stop Jiaying to save Skye.*
Coulson and Cal's scene at the start of "S.O.S. Part 2" was one of the most beautiful this series has done, and it was complemented near the end of the same episode by another, even more powerful scene between father and daughter. This is where my respect and love for Coulson grew again. After being repeatedly threatened and harrassed by Cal, Coulson disarms him with the truth he needed to hear rather than simply putting him down. Though Cal was a seething wall of hatred, fueled by a dangerous drug cocktail, Coulson saw in front of him a man in pain, desperate to get back all the time that was stolen from him. He broke through to Cal by recognizing him as a father and husband who had been through more than anyone could bear and treating him as a person, not as an enemy. That willingness to put himself in danger to help another, that kindness and sympathy, those are Coulson's superpowers (besides all the sassiness, always the sassiness).
I was hoping for a scene like this from the moment Cal heard Skye call him a monster, where he could let down his guard and be reasoned with. I was relieve when Coulson said that he believed that deep down Cal is a good man and Cal opened up to Coulson about what happened to Jiaying and what he did for her. This engrossing personal moment between the two of them meant that the series wasn't going to waste one of their greatest recurring characters by having him fight to the death without knowing the truth. I figured that would be the outcome and he wouldn't survive the finale. I was quite surprised they went the way they did, but it was the best way they could have. Apparently MacLachlan was just as surprised. (Zap2It.)
SURPRISINGLY MULTILAYERED "VILLAIN"
This series continues to surprise me by not doing the obvious or easy thing. They created an unbelievably entertaining, multi-layered character, who never would have been bad had so much bad not happened to him, and they gave him the opportunity to redeem himself. That multi-layering makes him one of the best antagonists. In fact, I think Cal is my favorite next to Heath Ledger's Joker, who, as a anarchic whackjob with a wicked sense of humor and a striking menace in his eyes. He was on the opposite end of the villain spectrum: bad for the sake of it, because it's fun, because it was his idea of a good time.
But Cal could be understood as just an ordinary man, a doctor, caring and kind, who was devastated by his family's destruction. He felt helpless and broken and needed to cling to the hope that he could put them back together, no matter the cost. In the end, that hope was partially fulfilled in saving his precious daughter, but at the expense of killing the woman he loved so much; one final horrifying act, but this time in defense of another. He finished what he started, kept his promise to Jiaying to find and protect Daisy, and he no longer needs to be the bad guy. In this goodbye between father and daughter there is both overwhelming sadness and joy on his face and in his eyes, but no trace of anger. Cal looks so exhausted, physically and emotionally. It's the best scene between Kyle MacLachlan and Chloe Bennet, and one of the most gorgeous and bittersweet scenes in one of my most beloved series. Powerfully moving and truly special.
*Cal and Skye saying goodbye, so soon after finding each other.*
"Bittersweet" doesn't really begin to describe all the emotion in this scene. If you haven't seen it - and I don't know why you've read this far if you haven't - Cal finally gets his daughter back, gets to know her, and he not only has to say goodbye, but he will never know her again even when she's right in front of him. I already appreciated this scene as much as any moment I ever have in television, but forcing myself to gif it made the connection even deeper. It blows me away time and again seeing every little expression on their faces, hearing how much Cal loves Daisy by telling her his best day ever was the day she was born, how she's better than he imagined though he imagined her perfect. I was reminded of a line from Fringe where mad scientist Walter said to his son, Peter, "I didn't think it was possible to love you more." Just like John Noble and Joshua Jackson in that series, you can't ask for any better than what Kyle MacLachlan and Chloe Bennet gave in this aching scene of raw emotion from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
You could already tell they were both really moved in this scene, by the material, by the fact that they had worked so well together, gotten to know each other, and were now really saying goodbye. But actually reading directly from Chloe Bennet that their tears were real confirms what they both had conveyed on screen and added a wonderful extra layer to that fragile moment. Taking this story and each other to heart is what made their characters believable as real people, more so than so many others on television.
A JOURNEY OF REDEMPTION
And that's why I don't understand anyone who said they hated Cal and that Jiaying should have been the one to get a redemption arc, that the writers hate women or some nonsense, and blah, blah, blah. Luckily, I've only seen a few of these people I wanted to slap some sense into, all commenting on one Tumblr post I accidentally got drawn into reading. But I suppose I should thank them, because after that I couldn't stop writing in defense of Cal, something I never thought I'd have to do. So, why do I think he's more deserving of redemption? Well, even ignoring everything I already said, look at that second gifset again and any moment when he's with Skye. There's a whole lot of love there. He never wanted to the be the monster that she saw at first.
Besides the fact that the actor himself couldn't have done a better job with the material, the character of Cal was more present, much more of a force, much more alive and vital. Jiaying was the one who sat back and had Cal do all the dirty work while she went about surrounding herself with a community of strangers. Cal was the one obsessed with finding their daughter. Jiaying did her best to move on from that traumatic time in her life, burying feelings for her stolen child and devoted husband. Cal turned into a monster so he could put his family back together. Jiaying turned into one for herself, to survive what happened to her and never be vulnerable like that again. Cal wore his vulnerability where everyone could see.
Having been through so much, they are both compelling characters, but Cal showed far more emotion (and humor!) and was therefore far more relatable. Cal wasn't cold and detached but held onto an essential part of himself, while the horror of merciless experimentation hollowed Jiaying emotionally and ate away her humanity. Terribly sad and horrific, yes, but she chose to retaliate against people who did her no harm. Jiaying was a far more ruthless killer than she had turned her husband into.
The drug Cal concocted to become stronger so he could find his Daisy on his own, so his wife would love him again, is what made him particularly unstable and unreasonable. Jiaying, on the other hand, was completely in control of herself and made the decision to strike down people trying to keep the world safe rather than first trying to come to a peaceful resolution. It was understandable that she didn't want to be backed into a corner, never wanted to feel helpless again, so she lashed out. Unfortunately, that gave more weight to S.H.I.E.L.D.'s point about her people being too dangerous to be ignored. The Inhumans needed a leader that would guide them through tough situations with a level head, but Jiaying was full only of hatred for every human without powers.
WHO JIAYING WAS AND WHO CAL IS
She had a good heart, Phil. It was just...torn out.
Someone who used to hate taking lives to extend her own, who would "beg and scream" for the sacrifices to end; that's who Jiaying used to be. But after Whitehall's remorseless evil got a hold of her, she embraced her vampiric nature and even attempted to commit genocide to find all the people like herself, to make the world right and safe in her eyes. Anyone who wished Jiaying would have been redeemed over Cal hasn't grasped the stark difference between who she was and who she became. Maybe Jiaying could have been brought back to reason, and I would have welcomed it because I like Dichen Lachman, but it would have taken a great deal of time.
Jiaying was merciless, remorseless and unwilling to listen. She tried to kill her own daughter just to escape and carry out her heinous plan when Skye was just trying to get through to her. She was too far gone. At that point, Skye was just a stranger who got in her way, not the little girl she named Daisy and had once adored. Their reunion was tearful, but their time together wasn't enough to truly renew the bond - a bond that never broke in Cal - before S.H.I.E.L.D. came in and forced her to show her true self. She had given up long ago and didn't really let herself feel.
We spent far more time getting to know Cal. We saw him finding his wife's body and dropping to his knees next to her. It would be unimaginable to see a stranger in that state; another thing entirely if that person were family. He told Coulson how everything was torn out of her and how he had to put her back together. He sewed her organs back in, had to have held them in his hands, even kept the medical tools he used and showed them to Skye. We saw him interact with Skye and saw how much he loved her, was so happy just to be near her and show her some of his life before, and how much it pained him to have lost so much time with her - every science fair and scraped knee, every "I love you, daddy," sweet 16 and graduation, an entire childhood and every milestone in her life. He could never let that go. Even in his rage we could see how he cared; because of his rage, what he had become to find her, we could see how he cared. And as they got to know each other, we got to see the Cal he had been.
You're better than I imagined. And I imagined you perfect.
While Jiaying became a shell of what she'd been, not caring for life the way she once had, Cal's love and obsession became all he had. Though he did awful things to get back what was taken so violently from him, it should be remembered that he was often not in control of himself thanks to his dangerous drug cocktail; and Jiaying used his love for her and Daisy to manipulate him, so she bears responsibility for his rampages. In essence Cal was just a father, driven mad and willing to do whatever it took because he'd been so very hurt. There's only so much a person can take and, knowing the tragedy someone has been through, it becomes harder to judge so harshly. His plight garners a lot of sympathy from me. He's so very human, so very broken, his pain palpable, and yet somehow he held onto hope.
Cal had been on an emotionally redemptive journey from the start, because he cared deeply and never gave up on finding Daisy. Coulson saw this in Cal and had to try to reach the man he was under all his scars. But until our courageous and compassionate Son of Coul was able to talk some sense into him, Cal never acknowledged to himself that he was at his worst when trying to please his wife, never imagined that Jiaying could ever be a danger to the daughter they had searched for and longed for all those years. So in the end, had Cal ignored Phil, it would have been like pulling the earth (not just the rug) out from under the series. It would have undermined all the work done to set up the story and the best "villain" possible and the all work MacLachlan had done to show us the humanity Cal still had in spite of everything. Cal had been a good man. Coulson allowed him to be once more.
If that had all been thrown away in the end, it would have been pointless to have had the father-daughter relationship develop in the first place, the relationship that drove so much behind the scenes. If they'd gone in a direction where Jiaying still held sway over Cal, they might as well have not had any moment where Cal said he was doing it all to find his daughter or any of those tender scenes between Cal and Skye after they finally met. Because Cal had always been so overwhelmed with emotion when it came to his daughter, it would have been entirely unconvincing had the finale gone any other way.
A LITTLE ROLE REVERSAL
But let's entertain for a moment that it had. What might this season have looked like if the Cal haters had their way? Let's start with a small change. Maybe they could have been satisfied if at the last minute Jiaying escaped to fight another day, but that's a trope used too often in TV and movies. It would have been a huge letdown to anyone who paid attention to the storyline. Jiaying was intent on committing a heinous act for which she could never be forgiven, so she could never come back to her family, even if they wanted to give her another chance.
Is that what those unsatisfied few wanted? For Jiaying to have the chance to be a mother and wife again? I'm not sure. I do know that they complained that Jiaying, being a woman, was expendable and that's why she died without getting redemption. How hilariously inaccurate. They gravitated towards Jiaying instead of Cal entirely because they wanted a woman to be the hero for once and save the day. I have no idea what show they were watching where Skye and Bobbi and May and Jemma have not been heroes and have not been an integral part. They must have paid little attention to what was really going on.
Jiaying's reveal as a very dangerous antagonist and her unfortunate yet deserved death in no way implied that women are less important on this series. What a character contributes, what happens to them, has to do with where the story needs to go for the main characters, the personality of the individual, and sometimes the impact that the actor makes in the role. Jiaying had a huge impact and her actions are the catalyst of the major plotline of the third season, which ties into the larger MCU. But that doesn't mean she also needed to be the emotional core of the story. That was Cal's job. Cal was the more emotional (and charmingly nuts) of the two, the one whose pain was palpable, the one who never gave up. Love drove him. Love turned him into a monster, but it also made him less monstrous. Love made him relatable and it brought him back. Love made him worthy of a second chance.
So, I'll pull it back a bit more. Another possibility is that Jiaying could have stopped herself at the very end, let herself be convinced by Skye that she was wrong. Jiaying's maternal instincts taking over at the last moment would surely have made an impact, but not nearly as much as showing that Whitehall's abject violation had taken her humanity along with her life. If Jiaying had stopped herself, that extra layer of pain resulting from her betrayal and absence would have been missing from Cal and Skye's goodbye scene. For me this would have been the only other acceptable outcome, but then Cal's role in the end to save Skye from Jiaying would have changed.
Either they're Inhuman or they're dead.
But maybe that's still not good enough for Cal haters. They didn't like that S.H.I.E.L.D. was lenient with him. They said they hated him because he had done bad things, completely ignoring that he had done so under the influence of drugs and at the behest of his beloved wife to win her love back, to get their daughter back, completely ignoring that Jiaying was willing to murder as many people as she could. Kyle MacLachlan turned in a stellar performance in each of his episodes and it didn't matter to them. Maybe they would have enjoyed a last minute twist on what played out, like Cal turning on Skye and then Jiaying in turn killing him to save her. But seeing how Cal had been developed up to that point, in devotion to his daughter, and every emotional beat MacLachlan had invested in him, that would have been the most dishonest thing the writers could have done.
Cal had finally freed himself from the influence of his wife. He finally realized that he couldn't heal the damage or turn back the clock. He finally admitted that the Jiaying he loved was lost long ago and now had to be stopped. Cal earned his redemption. I would never wish for it to be different for the simple fact that the amazing father-daughter scene in the end was one of the best of the series and, honestly, my entire life. I'll never understand someone who can watch it and not be affected. Cal spent his life looking for his daughter and ultimately, devastatingly, had to save her from her own mother, and it all led to the most tenderly acted and achingly bittersweet goodbye. There's a beauty in the pain that characters go through, making it more real and relatable. I love when talented actors get weighty material to bring to life. It's worthy of every tear when done right, and as an incredibly painful resolution to the story of a happy young family violated by evil, this was absolutely done right.
FLIPPING THE SCRIPT
*If I had time, I would make a gif of Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory flipping his roommate agreement into the air.*
But those few who despised Cal and thought him undeserving of where his journey ended would probably only be satisfied with the most extreme change of swapping his and Jiaying's roles from the start. Maybe the dissatisfaction stemmed from the fact that they expected him to be a remorseless villain without deviation from the source material, while Jiaying, as the unknown quantity, was assumed to be the reasonable one. Some people can't stand when their first impressions turn out to be wrong, when someone is more complicated than they appear. But new ideas about old characters can bring them to life and make them believable as real people. Alluding to Cal's place in the comics as a thorn in the side of a number of the good guys was obvious, but to then change the origin of his madness and turn him into a far more sensitive person was a stroke of brilliance.
This new Cal wasn't a madman to be just another foil for our heroes but had a real reason for what he was. He carried a great deal of pain and had humanity where originally there was none. He may have been volatile, but he was truly distraught, not faking his concern and love for his family. I applaud this version of Calvin Zabo who had a fathomable and agonizing justification for his villainous acts. He was far more sympathetic than the character I've read about in the Marvel wikis. If Cal had been the true threat to S.H.I.E.L.D., instead of Jiaying, then he could have been a carbon copy of his comic book counterpart: just another enemy craving power, control and/or gleeful destruction. That would be predictable and uninspired. Better than that, we got a fundamentally broken man ruled by his pain, and that's far more relatable.
If Cal were the man behind the curtain instead, what would his role be while Jiaying searched the world for their daughter? It wouldn't be to run the sanctuary. That's a job for Inhumans and Gordon would be ready, willing and able to do that. So, here we immediately encounter problems. As it happened, Jiaying turned into an ice queen after being vivisected, so it would seem she'd be unlikely to seek out Daisy with the same zeal that Cal did. Would she even have any motivation, any desire to search on her own? She would have to in order for things with Skye to turn out the same way. If neither of Skye's parents had been looking for her then it would have been pointless to introduce them to the story, the only reason being if they were different characters altogether. Now, that just wouldn't do.
So, say Jiaying had been motivated. If she were left with the capacity for love, it would likely mean her time with Whitehall ended far less tragically...or never happened at all. Jiaying's vivisection was an enormous emotional and mental breaking point for both her and her husband. She stopped caring. He desperately tried to hold onto what was. If Jiaying didn't go through that, a vampiric healing power may never have come into play in the story, unless she used it to save Skye from Cal.
Also, knowing what I've read about the original Calvin Zabo, he seems to be a sociopath and would have no love for Jiaying. It seems probable that the only way a character like that would care to put her back together would be to somehow use her for his own gain. Jiaying would not have loved that Cal in the first place, because he was a monster whether in his Mr. Hyde persona or not. So, they wouldn't be together and Jiaying may never have gone through the horror she was subjected to. Were their roles changed like this, the depth of their pain would vanish and yet another layer of emotional complexity would be stripped. But it was all these layers fitting beautifully together that made it so poignant in the first place.
AN HONEST CONCLUSION
That was a lot of ifs and coulds and woulds and maybes, and they're all quite useless. You can't go back and change it now. Besides, none of these alternative storylines would have worked, at least the ones I came up with involving both Cal and Jiaying and ending in the same place. I can't imagine a better way for this season to unfold. Everyone was at the top their game, and Cal and Skye's story reached an unexpectedly powerful conclusion, resulting in one of the most poignant and flawlessly performed moments I've ever seen on television. There was great care put into this story, and I don't want to know someone who feels they have to argue this point.
With a series like this - one that delivers action, humor and warmth - I am just along for the ride. I want to experience it, not complain about it not living up to what I decided it should be. I want the storytellers to tell me the story. I'm not talking about fans with hopes and theories or little issues here and there. I'm talking about those people who seem to think that a series needs to follow their own internal narrative and are dead set against any direction that conflicts with that, when they have no idea where it will go and how threads will intertwine, when they have no idea what really would deliver both the biggest emotional payoff and a logical, fitting end. I appreciate Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. fully for being a well-crafted, emotionally-fulfilling character-driven story wrapped in a very entertaining package.
Cal bringing an end to where it all started and having to choose between the two people he loved more than anything, was the most honest conclusion. Going to those lengths is what makes the finale remarkable in its poignancy the way few series ever achieve. That and the fact that Kyle MacLachlan was outstanding in his portrayal makes Cal one of the greatest characters I've ever had the pleasure of watching. It drew tears and made me wonder at the ability of the writers and actors to be so affecting. For me, it was as unforgettable as the Fringe series finale.
If you didn't understand Cal's motivation and why in the end it was right that he got a second chance, maybe thinking of it this way will help. As MacLachlan said about having a child, "Someone explained to me, a door opens in your heart that you didn’t even know it was there." ((WSJ interview, Inside Out). MacLachlan is a father and it feels like his emotions were spot on. Cal loved too much and was hurt too much. Had evil not befallen him and his family, he never would have been what he became. His terrible deeds to please his wife and find someone as dear to him as life weren't forgiven by his actions in the end, but he proved he was deserving of starting over in a magical place.
BUT THE MEMORIES
The T.A.H.I.T.I. Protocol locked a big piece of Cal away, and I can imagine him feeling like he was missing something...
Every time I think of this finale, which is nearly every day, I keep coming back to the word "bittersweet. Getting his daughter back and having her return his love restored some of Cal's sanity and ultimately calmed him, let us see the man he once was. That makes erasing all his memories more devastating than if he had been killed off. (Mean, mean writers!) But I love that he's alive and that Skye may visit him as a friend once in a while, off screen of course.
Even with the likelihood we'll never see him again, it's also an uplifting end, because he gets to start over rather than rot in prison. The gentle personality he had before his life turned into a nightmare was restored and all the pain that drove him mad is gone. But it's also the most tragic end, because that pain stemmed from love for his family. He lost them in the first place when Daisy was taken. Then he got them back and had to kill one to save the other. The third and final time even his memories of them, the most precious things, have been taken. The T.A.H.I.T.I. Protocol locked a big piece of Cal away, and I can imagine him feeling like he was missing something, that something was scratching at the corners of his mind, but never being able to figure out what.
The series may be moving ever forward, but I hope Cal figures into another story at some point. Anyone who despised him and thought Kyle MacLachlan did a bad job must have great difficulty recognizing superb actors. It's sad, really. He was a large part of an exceptional work that makes me wonder how more series can't pull off scenes and stories of this quality. It was honestly moving and unforgettable. He truly cared about doing justice to the character.
WHAT ABOUT SKYE?
This is a series meticulously planned to have both the epic and the delicate beats intricately intertwine with the larger universe.
Looking at all I've said so far, it may seem like this finale was only about Cal and how this episode, and the entire sophomore season, revolved solely around his single-minded goal. That was a big part, but it's because MacLachlan really took me by surprise. I expected to have a great time when he was brought on board, because he never fails to be entertaining and I already loved the series to death. I just never expected how great it was going to be, how much MacLachlan could bring to the role, how he would commit to it completely. After the reveal of Cal, knowing he's Skye's father and was looking for her for more than two decades, his looming presence now underscores the entire first season; all before we knew his real name, before we saw his face, before we knew he was alive and would have a role to play. He gave the already excellent series another level of depth and will continue to be a haunting reminder of what was gained and lost again as it heads into its third season and beyond. I'll never be able to look at Skye/Daisy/Quake without thinking of Cal.
But now let's just take a bit of time to appreciate that Chloe Bennet also did justice to her character. I remember seeing dislike for her and her character at the beginning, which is just ridiculous to me. I assume that still exists, because there are always people who are needlessly rude to others, who don't care about who a character or actor is as an individual, how they feel, what they think, whether they're kind and decent. Chloe did nothing to deserve the abuse. She always seemed like a good person to me and it has been great seeing how she's developed Skye. She can hold her own with more experienced actors, like Gregg and MacLachlan. She played it beautifully when Ward turned and when Tripp turned to dust. She's an important member of the cast playing an important role in the series.
And now we know Skye was always meant to be that way, not just some random character that at some point I read a comment about being poorly conceived and unimportant. Since when does one of the main cast in a Whedon production have no reason to be there? Early on it was clear Skye would have a big part to play. The second episode of the series, "0-8-4," hinted at the mystery of Skye when she asked what the titular designation meant and Coulson said, "An object of unknown origin. Kind of like you." A little later on, those "Seeds" started to bloom and we found out Skye was really an 0-8-4. Did this mean Coulson had recruited a potential superhero? And was she from the comics or someone brand-new?
This is a series meticulously planned to have both the epic and the delicate beats intricately intertwine with the larger universe. Season One Declassified and Season Two Declassified shine more light on the undertaking it is. The writers wouldn't just throw in a storyline of a mysterious origin for no reason, of a village slaughtered and a child hidden by S.H.I.E.L.D., never to return to it. They reminded us now and then and, when the time was right, revealed Skye to be the nascent form of an established Marvel hero. She was definitely important. They made her mother a catalyst for major change, and her father a villain that comic fans know well. Adapting to the story they wanted to tell, they gave Skye's few-screws-loose daddy a new, more relatable, absolutely tragic backstory, making him far more human and vulnerable in the process. So...there was a lot to set up, and the series spent just the right amount of time getting there.
STORIES OF SUBSTANCE AND FICKLE VIEWERS ARE LIKE OIL AND WATER
Reviving Coulson didn't cheapen his tragic, heroic end but instead strengthened our relationship with him.
But there are people who didn't like the pacing and that it didn't immediately answer every question they had. If they had stuck around they might have realized the depth and characterization was far greater than what they could have expected. This is something I have talked about before. I'm writing about it again because it intertwines nicely with the series still today, and I have a bit more to say about these fickle viewers (not to be confused with discerning) who prefer their shows to be mostly surface and of little substance. A series with substance requires patience in the establishing of character and the telling of a season- or series-long arc, and so they abandoned Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. quickly.
Then there are those who wanted it to fail from the beginning, who thought Coulson should stay dead. Before even knowing the details of his resurrection and what the repercussions might be reaching beyond the series itself, they decided it was just unnecessary backpedaling to appease hysterical Avengers fans. I was one of those fans; not hysterical, but I couldn't get that scene out of my head. I knew it was important for the story, but it hurt and that was the right way to go. It meant that Coulson really meant something and that the movie wasn't all fun and games. There's that pesky, weighty "substance" again. Still I hoped that I could see more of that character in any capacity, and I wasn't alone.
Some people who were against Coulson returning in his own non-prequel series never cared for him, didn't get his dryly humorous, cool as a cucumber, slightly goofy every man quality. I'll never understand them. Others thought his resurrection cheapened his sacrifice. In their haste to hate, they failed to acknowledge that something good could come from the Coulson Lives love, which I was proud to be a part of. Marvel plays a long game and wouldn't do something on this scale if it didn't fit within the overall design. Coulson's pivotal sacrifice wasn't faked to manipulate the Avengers, as I explained it away here right after that movie in a scenario where he could return. He really did die.
Then an outpouring of love from around the world sparked a terrific idea for a series that brought Coulson back, surrounded in mystery, and gave even more emotional weight to his story than his death alone had. His survival was shrouded in mystery, and the reveal made me feel a bit guilty that I hadn't let him go to be at peace. Reviving Coulson didn't cheapen his tragic, heroic end but instead strengthened our relationship with him. It also gave a fantastic actor another chance to play and develop a character that we had grown to love yet knew little about, and it provided a firm footing for the Inhumans era. A job well done.
Those who jumped ship had some version in their heads that the show didn't live up to, or are averse to continuing storylines. Some are turned off by complexity and much prefer the shallowness of a series where every episode is a simple mystery wrapped up in 43 minutes, bad guys that get caught without fail before the credits roll every week, and main characters who aren't always given enough screen time to develop because the case is always more important. They get bored way too quickly and need to move from one thing to the next. Some people have no sense that characters, relationships and stories need time to develop naturally, that the groundwork needs to be laid and the pieces of the puzzle arranged. Story matters; if it didn't then there would be no surprise at a reveal, no meaning in any action, no connection to the characters. There would be little concern about how they feel or what happens to them. There would be no point in watching.
But this show cares about such non-trivial things, and so does the thoughtful core audience. We care that Skye has lost the two people she spent her life hoping to find, the people she needed most and who needed her. We care that she got to spend time with them before everything went sideways. What a tremendous blow to find out the mother she should have had was lost long ago, so disturbed by what happened to her that it fundamentally changed her personality. And what a beautiful realization that the father she thought was a monster was the one who cared very deeply. We care that after Cal searched for so long for Skye, after turning himself into something the man he had been before would never recognize, he will never again recognize his own daughter when she's standing right in front of him.
Fun fact: While I was editing the paragraph above, Coldplay's "Fix You" was playing on Pandora. Naturally, the lyrics "tears stream down your face when you lose something you cannot replace" made me think of Cal and Skye. In my mind, this strengthens Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s connection with Fringe. Besides the stories of emotionally fragile fathers, this song was used in one of the best Fringe fan videos. And the same thing happened again the next day when "The Scientist" played.
EVERYTHING ELSE (THAT I CAN REMEMBER)
I knew one day that Coulson's heroic heart would again put him in a dire situation.
Clark Gregg, Kyle MacLachlan, and Chloe Bennet's scenes were so significant that the memory of them will always be the strongest. But there were other important things in the finale, too. Since this is already so long, and I have no time for another rewatch to refresh myself, I'll wrap this up with the highlights.
Bobbi being tortured by Ward. Ooh, nasty. I remember the "needles" under the nails from Lost. I used to feel bad for Ward and hoped he could find a way back from Cuckooland, but that's not happening. His idea of closure is apology by torture. That's pretty messed up. But Bobbi is such a bad-ass she got out of her restraints and was mopping the floor with him until Kara joined in. Two against one isn't quite fair when you're hurt.
Hunter and Bobbi will never be over each other. Hunter being so afraid for Bobbi that he was willing to walk into what he knew was a trap, and then Bobbi taking a bullet for him. They're the most compatible incompatible couple. Adorable.
Poor Raina. I was just getting to like the Girl in the Flower Dress. She finally has a place in the world, but because she's always been untrustworthy, no one will listen to her when she tells them what's coming. And then she realizes her destiny is to die for the truth.
Um, Jemma and Fitz! Jemma wants to talk about what Fitz said - you know, how at the end of last season he confessed his love for her, before sacrificing himself (and suffering brain damage) so she could have enough air to make it to the surface of the ocean? But he had to leave with Coulson, Mack, and Cal to get Skye, stop Jiaying, and take back the Iliad. She couldn't hold back the emotion after he left. That was her best moment of the season, because it showed in those few seconds just how much Simmons cares about Fitz.
Fitz versus Gordon. Seeing that shocked face that Fitz made, I thought that it had to be a bad sign for him. This was a season finale of a series that always finds little (and big) ways to break me, and I just knew no way my little science babies could be happy for very long.
...and I was right, but not in that particular scene. Jemma, NO!!! But more about that in a second.
Coulson's selflessness. Coulson made a dive to the floor to catch the crystal that Gordon dropped, and I was relieved that we weren't going to lose three characters in one fell swoop. That relief changed to agony when I saw Coulson's hand and arm start to turn and I was certain he was a goner, which I had dreaded since the show began. I knew one day that Coulson's heroic heart would again put him in a dire situation. Then Mack brought down the axe, and I thought of Hershel on The Walking Dead. Good to know that axes work on both zombie bites and Terrigen crystal infections. Just in case. ;)
Skye, Jiaying and Cal on the carrier deck. I never expected Jiaying to be a vampire of sorts who manipulated her vulnerable husband into bringing people to sustain her. Just assumed she was like Wolverine. I didn't see it coming that she was so far gone that she saw her own daughter as an enemy and would use her power on her. I had no idea that the the man who put her back together would have to stop the monster he helped create because he couldn't let her go. Ouch.
And the very end of the episode! FitzSimmons were going out to dinner. They were going to finally talk. I knew there would have to be an intriguing tease to set up next season, like Coulson starting the alien writing on the wall while sleepwalking, accompanied by mournful music. I had hoped it had already happened with the Terrigen crystals infecting the fish. But as soon as the camera stayed with Simmons as Fitz walked away, I had a very bad feeling. I was thinking, "No, Fitz, don't you dare leave her alone in the room with that evil, shape-shifting liquid rock thing! Don't you know this is a season finale? Don't you know about cliffhangers?" And then he left. And, son of a bitch, I hope Jemma doesn't come back as something else and cannot be fixed. I really hope Jed, Maurissa, and Joss didn't even consider pulling an Ilyria from Angel here. I thought the next season couldn't come fast enough after that. Now I know the break was almost too short, because it took me so long to finish this.
AND A FAVORITE BECOMES EVEN MORE SO
While there will never be another villain role as sympathetic as Cal Johnson, I'm sure the show will continue to surprise and delight in other ways.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. became one of my favorite shows of all-time just half way through its first season, possibly earlier than that, and still it got even better. It's in the company of series like Fringe, Doctor Who, The Blacklist, The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, Supernatural, Psych, and the Whedon siblings Buffy, Angel, and Firefly. S.H.I.E.L.D. joined those ranks for having a lot of action and fun and humor, but most importantly an emotional core. It's one of those rare shows that I'm excited for every episode.
Last season I realized just how much I could love this show when Hydra rose from S.H.I.E.L.D. and ripped it apart, as witnessed on a large scale in Winter Soldier and more personally with Ward's unforeseen betrayal. From the moment of Coulson's speech in the following episode, I knew this series would remain a favorite even if it happened to be cancelled after the first season's finale. Beyond being intertwined with a universe across storytelling mediums, beyond the events that they were leading up to, it had a lot to do with the people playing these characters. Then season 2 came along and blew apart any expectations I may have had.
When I think back on how Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D has been consistently great and has built something wonderful and solid upon its foundation, and how high it reached with its emotional content, I find myself wondering how it can top what it's done in the upcoming third season. Then I put my worries to rest because for me it doesn't have to and I don't doubt that it could. While there will never be another villain role as sympathetic as Cal Johnson, I'm sure the show will continue to surprise and delight in other ways.
What other ways? I don't know yet. But I have a request for season 3.
I can't believe I finished this monster of a post, and with hardly any time to spare. Now I will finally have time to read the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season One Declassified book I bought months ago. If you made it to the end, too, congratufreakinlations! You could reward your incredible perseverance, or mine, by buying Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 2 or the Season Two Declassified book. I know I will.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 2
Version: Blu-ray / DVD
Note: Apparently Season 2 is an Amazon exclusive, and people have not been happy that it has far fewer extras than the first season and was initially overpriced. Still, the series itself is worth every penny.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season Two Declassified
Author: Marvel Comics