It’s been a while since my last Agents of SHIELD review, which could be interpreted as a lack of enthusiasm. This is true, to an extent. I haven’t been wowed. I’ve been entertained enough to give it a viewing when I need a break, but not so entertained that I feel like talking about it afterwards. I did catch up this Thanksgiving, though, so I figured I’d write a review. Spoilers ahead if you care about that, mainly for the episode “The Well.” 

Part of the problem I’ve been having is both the acting and the character roster. Coulson just can’t carry it on his own, however good Clark Gregg is in the role. Despite further backstory on each character, the other members of the team barely make it above their archetypes. And, to me, Skye and Simmons are the most disappointing. I often look at how a book, show, or movie treats its female characters to see how much thought is being put into any character.

Simmons can be described as “Hermione if she went to the SHIELD Academy rather than Hogwarts” without losing anything essential. There’s a lot of potential to her character that just never happens.

Meanwhile, Skye is supposed to be our outsider POV, but she’s not much of a viewpoint character. Plus the appearance of the actress just bugs me. She looks like she never misses an appointment at the tanning booth, hairstylist, or spa, and sticks to a strict diet of watercress and raw broccoli. She does not look like a morally-driven hacker who lived out of her van for two years and now lives on a plane (however bigger-on-the-inside the plane is).

I went into this show with very high expectations. Joss Whedon is famous for his strong female characters. Heck, he turned Black Widow from a two-dimensional female ass-kicker (in Iron Man 2) to a well-rounded, haunted, smart, independent, capable, genuine heroine (in Avengers), with most of that work happening in her first scene. Just the patient expression on Coulson’s face while he waited for her to knock out her erstwhile captors showed how capable she was. Getting information across by what you leave out is a skill most writers just don’t master.

I’m starting to warm up to Agent May, though. She’s been showing all the personality of a brick for most of the show, but the moment at the end of the most recent episode (“Repairs”) made me laugh. And, again, a lot of this is about what you leave out. The sort of stuff you see by looking at the whole cast rather than just a single character.

The thing Whedon excels at with heroines, the thing all writers can learn from him, is how to make a female character “strong” without gimmicks. Many writers will show a woman as smart, strong, or capable by surrounding her with male characters that are complete idiots. Now, its true that Whedon sometimes neglects male characters. Fortunately, though, even when he leaves a male character to be the primary comic relief (hi, Xander, nice to meet you), he rarely handicaps them to the extent that men get shafted by association. (Mind you, Whedon gets a bit obvious when almost every “Jee, that sounded dumb” line comes out of a male mouth, but usually it’s balanced. Usually. And I can forgive almost every drift in the other direction, simply because it’s hard to ride herd on a collective sixteen years of television and accompanying writing teams and not slip up a few times.)

In the episode “The Well,” the team deals with an Asgardian artifact that drives whomever touches it into a blinding rage. Agent Ward touches it and spends the rest of the episode struggling to contain his rage. He gets offers of help from other characters — Coulson still trusts him to do his job, Simmons offers to medicate him, Skye tries to get him to talk about the memory driving the rage, and May extends an ambiguous offer — but he tries to work it through by himself.

After fighting off a group of similarly rage-powered cultists, leaving Ward exhausted, more come in. He struggles to get back to his feet. May stops him, giving the same ambiguous offer to “help.” She picks up the artifact . . . and while it clearly affects her, she does not go into a blind rage. She wins the fight, puts the artifact down, and seems no worse for wear as the episode concludes.

We’ve had several episodes where we build up how strong and focused Ward is. When he starts flying apart at the seams, barely keeping it together, sweating in almost every shot, we know how difficult it is to control that power. We know that if Ward can’t do it, then probably no one can.

33946_4915503398293_777034221_nAs I said, you don’t show a character as strong and capable by handicapping everyone else. That happens a lot in American television, especially sitcoms and summer romance films. You show a person is capable by surrounding him or her with other capable people. Don’t lower the bar. Raise it as high as you can, and then let a character shine even more. When Agent May took in that rage and didn’t let it consume her, she showed that she is incredibly strong and focused. Ward raised the bar, and May vaulted over it.

So I rather like what’s being done with May, both because it’s good writing and because I like what’s slowly being revealed about her. I’d predicted before that we were going to learn that she is afraid of what she is capable of, and both “The Well” and “Repairs” confirmed that. At the same time, the way it’s being done is showing her as possibly the most human member of the team. Bad things happened, and she closed herself down. Now she’s gaining a family, and a little bit of what she used to be like is coming out. Plot-wise, “Repairs” was substandard, but May kept me interested.

I strongly suspect that Whedon has less influence over Agents of SHIELD than his previous shows. Whether that’s because of studio oversight or if he’s just leaving it up to the writing team is unclear. Whether he’s involved or not, here’s one hallmark of his style — and a technique that every writer should study.