Review: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Ends Season Three on a High Note with “Absolution” & “Ascension”

Plus we say goodbye to more characters and say hello to new possibilities for season four.

Before we dive in let’s recap, shall we?

Daisy is in isolation. Hive has a nuke armed with Radcliffe’s formula to turn humans into primitive Inhumans. A team consisting of Mack, May, Lincoln and Elena infiltrate his base and use a rigging of the memory extraction machine to scramble his brain and capture him in containment gel. Back at S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ, a hidden bomb turns agents into Primitive Inhumans and they release Hive. His minions bring the nuke and Hive steals the Zephyr, heading for the sky to disperse his insta-Inhuman formula across all of Europe, but not after being confronted by Daisy who he takes along for the ride. The team dock in a quinjet, take on Hive and his crew and one of them makes the ultimate sacrifice to save the day.

As always, proceed with caution, there be spoilers here!

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has a history with its premiers and finales. The former are usually rote and lackluster.  The latter (both at the mid and end of season) are frequently season bests.

Season three is no exception to this pattern. It’s finale is fast-paced. It’s suspenseful. The two-part installment delivers on all the show’s best attributes with very few of the bad and brings the season to a satisfying close while shaking things up (pun totally intended) in preparation for season four.

I used the word suspenseful above. And that’s really what “Absolution” and “Ascension” are all about: suspense. As an audience, we know someone is going to die in a quinjet, in space, with Elena’s necklace floating in the air. But who? The two-parter revolves around that one big question and it lends the episodes a nail-biting undercurrent as the S.H.I.E.L.D. team deals with crisis after crisis and the list of agents potentially in the exploding ship gets longer and longer.

Options are teased from the start, with Elena’s necklace acting as a symbol of death. Mack has it to start so he is suspect number one. But Fitz picks it up. Fitz, May and Daisy all end up on the Zephyr so it’s down to three. Then Daisy has the necklace. Then the whole team arrives. While they fight off Hive’s primitives Daisy loads the nuke into the quinjet. An injured Lincoln tries to stop her. Hive confronts Daisy but Lincoln has snuck onboard too and fries the manual controls. He blasts Daisy out of the jet and heads up into space with Hive to die saving the world.

Season three’s latter half spent a lot of time teasing this death. It opened with the explosion. Then Daisy received the vision and it’s been a shadow over the team ever since. Such a long buildup is a dangerous choice to make because the result is frequently either an anti-climax or necessitates the death of a beloved character to give proper consequence at the sacrifice of a satisfying character arc. To the show’s credit, it manages to find a balance. While the question of who is in the quinjet stokes the engines of suspense and is the center around which everything else orbits there is plenty more going on. Each character gets their moment where their value is laid out to the viewer. The stakes are high: the base is invaded, people are injured and the team is split before they manage to come back together. It does manage some quiet moments, like FitzSimmons planning a vacation or Mack comforting Daisy but otherwise it’s a non-stop whirlwind ride with barely a moment to pause. It’s this sort breathtaking pacing that the last couple of episodes have been missing, clearly holding back for the sake of the finale.

The episode presents so many genuine possibilities for the death seat it becomes edge of your seat kind of viewing. The episodes keep the viewer engaged in the moment while still keeping one eye ahead, trying to figure out who exactly is going to die. It manages both at the same time, while never feeling like any moment is rushed through and not given its due, which is not an easy accomplishment

In retrospect, Lincoln is the obvious candidate as he not only wants to leave S.H.I.E.L.D. but is also the right balance between a character whose death would be inconsequential and those that would be too consequential. But the reason it works so well is because the writers – and the show as a whole – make his death count. I’ve never been a fan of Lincoln as a character, finding him bland and frustrating. But the second half of the third season has steadily been using him in more interesting way, giving more depth and flavor to the character. The choice to exit him is a good one in my opinion and the show does an excellent job of making the departure effective rather than a throwaway, anti-climactic moment. The radio cuts off and you have the team standing around knowing what’s coming. And it’s heartbreaking, possibly even more so because Lincoln never truly got to be an integrated member of the team. His death comes just as he was becoming part of that dynamic. When the quinjet does finally explode, it’s just a tiny blip on the screen. The smallness of explosion actually punctuates the tragedy more. Lincoln died a hero, despite never thinking of himself in such terms, but for Daisy and the team down on the ground there’s no inferno, no blaze of glory, just a little flash of pixels on a computer screen.

And yet he still saves the world.

The show made me care about Lincoln in the end. It gives him a solid arc, despite his bland beginnings. He starts as the rogue who wants nothing to do with S.H.I.E.L.D. and ends as a man willing to sacrifice himself to save the day. And since the flash-forward at the very end indicates that Daisy herself has gone rogue, it’s an interesting inverse to have the death of the male character motivate the female superhero onto a darker path. It’s nice to see S.H.I.E.L.D. playing around with and twisting those comic book tropes and hopefully they will continue with that trend as they move forward into future seasons.

Beyond delivering a satisfying conclusion to the overarching mystery of who was in the exploding ship, “Absolution” and “Ascension” also set things in motion for season four, jumping forward in time, teasing future plotlines and enticing viewers with just enough to hopefully keep them interested for another season. And they come through on that challenge as well. Daisy has gone rogue. Coulson is no longer Director and is partnered with Mack to track his wayward agent down. Radcliffe has something up his sleeve and Fitz is preparing a surprise for Simmons. It looks like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is switching gears next season in a major way. The cast is more compact – with Luke Mitchell and Brett Dalton bowing out that makes a total of four main character who exited this season. Those characters that remain are being shifted into new positions and roles. With Lash/Andrew out of the picture as well May can hopefully dive into some new material instead of cycling through her past and romantic traumas yet again. Season three not only delivered a kickass finale but it also set the gameboard in a new and intriguing way for season four and I’m looking forward to what it’s going to deliver!

Other stuff I didn’t like:

Yet again, no Joey. The episode was already packed to the gills with plot and characters but it would have been cool to see Joey back in the fray. I’m actually fine with his character having a strong enough sense of self-preservation to want nothing to do with S.H.I.E.L.D. but it is becoming increasingly frustrating that the show’s only gay character is the one least utilized.

Yet again, James. I don’t find the character amusing in any way. Though I did enjoy seeing Lincoln and May kick his ass.

Daisy’s styling in the flashforward. I suppose it depends on exactly what the plan is for her but once she goes rogue she automatically starts wearing far too much black eye makeup, ratty clothes and dying her hair jet black? It’s television visual 101 for ‘this character is in a dark place’ And while I understand they’re working within the time restraint of a couple minute coda, I wish they could possibly have figure another way to telegraph her change.

So are the Inumans predestined or something? The talk about everyone’s Purpose is a little weird and vague.

Other stuff I liked:

The exit of Brett Dalton. Now don’t get me wrong, I actually adore the actor. But his time on the show was up. By the latter half of season two Ward’s continued presence on the show was becoming increasingly strained. Having him killed and his body overtaken my Hive was a clever move to switch the character but keep the actor. But Hive came with his own problems. He was the big bad. Keeping him around beyond this season would have damaged the show in numerous ways so killing him was the right call. And it’s a damn good exit too. I loved how, once the quinjet blasted off, death was inevitable. So the last moments we get with Brett Dalton are these quiet, thoughtful words between his character and Lincoln and it’s about as perfect an ending as Dalton, Hive and Ward could possibly get on the show.

It’s possibly because I’m still in mourning over the cancellation of Agent Carter but it’s very much a Steve and Peggy moment between Lincoln and Daisy there at the end. He’s in the doomed ship and she’s on the radio, with the connection cutting him off halfway through a sentence. It doesn’t have quite the same impact as Steve and Peggy’s situation and I don’t think Lincoln will be magically waking up in seventy years time but it is an effective moment, especially with the rest of the team standing, helpless, in the background.

Elena stuck around for the finale! She’s fast (heh heh) becoming one of my favorite characters. She doesn’t get to be a part of the grand finale on the Zephyr because she took a bullet in the gut trying to catch bullets out of the air but her presence definitely adds something to the show. I’m hoping they continue to use her on a regular recurring basis in season four or upgrade her to main cast!

Fitz offing Giyera. Damn that was cool! It made me so happy that Fitz got such a badass moment! Plus, invisible gun? Awesome.

In fact, everyone gets their moment. Simmons is the one who figures out that the primitives see in infrared and cranks up the heat so the team can move freely through the base. Elena saves Mack from machine gun fire. Mack is the one that gets through to a despondant Daisy (plus he’s got a new and upgraded shotgun-axe). Coulson tricks Hive with a hologram. May takes down a group of primitives all by herself. Daisy goes hand-to-hand with Hive. The finale gives every character their due, letting them showcase their strengths and their essential place on the team roster. Even Lincoln, before his big sacrifice, gets to lay the smackdown on James/Hellfire (as I mentioned above).

Speaking of Daisy going toe-to-toe with Hive, the show finally started using her powers in interesting ways! Combining her powers with hand-to-hand combat and spy training is an awesome variation on her abilities and she gets to be majorly badass in that sequence. Plus, she can now use her powers to propel herself over buildings? I’m looking forward to seeing what else she can do in season four!

The phrase “Ward Reboot Nightmare Hellbeast” though I was less impressed with Hives true form being some red-eyed blue-skinned octopus head thing.

The big team fight in the Zephyr hanger! Everyone is finally reunited and working together to try and stop Hive. Simmons is wailing at a primitive with a crowbar. She and Fitz work in tandem to hold another one down. May is going full Calvary. Coulson’s got his murder hand. Mack has shotgun axe. It’s a brilliant sequence of teamwork.

Questions going into season four:

Who is the new director?! In my wildest dreams they’d get Cobie Smulders to step in as Maria Hill. Hill has been the director S.H.I.E.L.D. multiple times in the comics and she is so cool-headedly efficient and capable she’d be interesting to have there at the top of the chain of command. My vote, however, actually goes to May or General Talbot. She’s the only one who doesn’t appear or get mentioned in the flash-forward but we know she’s sticking around and they’ve been using him steadily in the latter half of this season so it feels like he might be due for an upgrade.

What is Daisy up to? She’s clearly gone rogue but she’s also going around destroying things. I’m guessing there’s some purpose behind her actions so I’m curious to see what exactly she’s up to.

Speaking of being up to something, what has Radcliffe got cooking? It looks to be Life-Model Decoys, a replicating technology that creates duplicate robots of people. That opens up so many interesting possibilities for season four!