Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 7 Episode 1 “The New Deal”
Director: Kevin Tancharoen
Starring: Clark Gregg, Ming-Na Wen, Chloe Bennet, Elizabeth Henstridge, Henry Simmons, Natalia Cordova-Buckley, Jeff Ward, Joel Stoffer
Runtime: 45 minutes
The time travel finale is becoming a common feature of sci-fi and fantasy media, especially in the superhero genre. Avengers: Endgame used it. Arrow used it in both its final season and the Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover. Even Legion, which otherwise prided itself on being as wildly different from other comic book adaptations as possible couldn’t resist sending David Haller back in time to participate in his own past in its last episodes. So the premise of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s seventh and final season, in which the team must travel back through the history of their own organization to prevent it from being wiped out, isn’t especially novel. But Shield has made a habit of approaching familiar genre material from new and interesting angles and if its premiere is anything to go by the final season looks to do so again with the time jumping historical tour. “The New Deal” is an example of the show at it’s energetic, action-packed best while also setting up an emotional final journey for our beloved agents.
Picking up right where the Season 6 finale ended, “The New Deal” finds the team arriving in 1930s New York in the enhanced, time travel capable Zephyr One. Having already filled her friends in on their new mission to prevent the extremist Chronicoms from erasing Shield from history so they can colonize Earth as their new homeworld, Jemma Simmons then drops an even bigger bomb on them. In need of an expert in Shield history she and Fitz (Iain De Caestecker), from whom she now must remain separate for security reasons, have created an advanced Life Model Decoy of late Shield director Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). The android duplicate has received of all Coulson’s memories from the Framework files and is ready to help in the mission but Jemma was waiting for the team’s consensus before activating him. Daisy Johnson (Chloe Bennet) has no such patience and immediately hits the button to bring the duplicate of her surrogate father to “life”. What follows is an equally heartwarming and disturbing scene, expertly played by Gregg in which “Coulson” is first overjoyed to see his friends before becoming disturbed by the revelation that he was again resurrected by risky science against his express wishes. Overwhelmed by the memories Fitz and Simmons provided of what has happened since the death of his flesh and blood self the android sputters into incoherence before Director Alphonso “Mack” Mackenzie (Henry Simmons) shuts him down. After Simmons assures him that this is only a temporary glitch as the android’s artificial intelligence adjusts, Mack puts his reservations aside and allows it to be taken into the field. The two men head into the city to locate and neutralize the Chronicoms accompanied by Daisy and Deke Shaw (Jeff Ward) while Simmons and benevolent Chronicom Enoch (Joel Stoffer) watch over injured agents Elena “Yo-Yo” Rodriguez (Natalia Cordova-Buckley) and Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen).
It’s important for any time travel story that wants to be coherent to quickly and firmly establish its rules, even if it eventually plans to break them, and this episode wastes no time doing exactly that. Daisy is concerned about The Butterfly Effect but Deke offers an alternative interpretation of time travel physics, referred to as the “Time Stream” theory, which posits that minuscule changes to the past are relatively inconsequential and only significant alterations to history will alter the future. The team proceeds with this interpretation, resolving to only “make ripples, not waves,” in the ocean of time. It’s not really clear why they believe this to be the right theory but it’s the natural progression from the show’s last depiction of time travel (in Season 5, when Coulson and Daisy’s actions proved the future could be changed, despite Fitz’s firm belief otherwise) and is both dramatically exciting and reasonable. The knowledge that some things might change is tantalizing but the lack of effects caused by ripples means when the agents presumably return to their time the majority of the status quo in their world and the wider MCU will remain as is (not that the show would have likely been allowed to make any big changes to the latter even if it wanted to).
Deke manages to get the group era-appropriate clothes and even identification that gives them access to a crime scene where the victims’ (three New York cops) faces were removed, which they believe to be the work of the Chronicoms. However, the only law enforcement badges he could find were from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, resulting in the episode’s best line when Mack talks their way into the crime scene by ensuring the NYPD security officers that this type of case “Happens all the time in Canada.” The beginning of the investigation highlights several strengths of the episode that are direct results of the time travel presence. First, there’s the tone of it all and everyone’s mood. Despite the high stakes of the mission the agents can’t help basking in how cool the latest situation is. It’s only natural that history buff Coulson would be geeking out but being back in time even draws an awed reaction from Daisy. The hacker turned super agent has become understandably jaded to the superhero lifestyle given the considerable trauma she’s undergone while living it but the sheer wonder of a trip back in time manages to bring back some of the wide-eyed enthusiasm she showed back when she was still known as Skye and Chloe Bennet does an excellent job of reintroducing the necessary pep into her performance, after she had, by necessity, become more stoic over the years. The period setting also turns production elements that have traditionally been weaknesses of Shield‘s, such as costume and set design, into strengths. The artists in those and other departments clearly relished the opportunity to break away from the gray hallways and black leather that typically fill the show and the results of their work are impressive. The sets are authentic and vibrant and the cast looks like Golden Age movie stars in their fancy new wardrobes.
The fun continues even as the group gets deeper into their investigation. The distinctive design on a bottle indicates to Coulson that a speakeasy that served military groups that predated the SSR and Shield is involved. When he and Mack head there to check it out they find themselves face to face with bootlegger Ernest Koenig, with Patton Oswalt returning to play the ancestor of his earlier characters. It’s always a ton of fun to have Oswalt back to play a new Koenig, especially considering the last time he did so was in Season 4. Having Oswalt’s latest character be a bootlegger is also a nice change of pace and he clearly enjoys hamming it up as the old-timey criminal. Ernest’s heart is ultimately in the right place but he doesn’t immediately sign on with Shield, first having his thugs rush Coulson and Mack after Coulson escalates the situation, out of a mixture of confidence in his new android capabilities and disregard for his own safety. Daisy and Deke also find themselves in a scrape when the Chronicoms who stole the cops’ faces return to the scene of the crime. Series MVP director Kevin Tancharoen steps behind the camera for the season opener and the action sequences bear his signature striking style. There aren’t any fights here on a level with Daisy’s long one-take battles or the May vs. May brawl that originally proved Tancharoen’s talent but the choreography is still fast and complex and Tancharoen’s quick but clear camera movements capture it all well. And there are two really great stand-out moments when Daisy delivers a quake-powered uppercut that sends a Chronicom flying and when Mack uses the rock bottom wrestling move on a gangster.
After Daisy (and Deke) capture a Chronicom they bring it back to the Zephyr where Simmons puts it through some severe interrogation, before it eventually spits out a few syllables, leading the agents to believe the Chronicoms are targeting then-Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt to prevent him from creating the SSR during World War II. The field team heads out to a fundraiser they know FDR will be attending at Koenig’s speakeasy, allowing Coulson to meet his historical idol when they believe an assassination attempt is being made. Joseph Culp plays the future president with a lot of warmth and authoritative energy, giving the scene the majesty it deserves. As excited as they all are to meet FDR the agents are surprised when they don’t actually encounter any Chronicoms trying to kill him. It’s only then that the captive Chronicom actually manages to get a full word out: “Freddy”, indicating a bartender the group briefly met (played by Darren Barnet) is the real target. Confused, Coulson asks Koenig the young man’s full name, to which he replies “Wilfred Malick,” and the true nature of the Chronicoms’ plan becomes clear. Frederick is the father of Gideon Malick, the powerful Hydra head the agents battled in Season 3. The death of his father would irrevocably alter Hydra’s history and since fighting and then being infiltrated by Hydra are such fundamental aspects of Shield’s history it would be wiped from the timeline as well. Shocked, Daisy and Coulson realize that “We have to save Hydra.” It’s a thrilling twist that should bring up a lot of interesting personal and ideological conflicts going forward while also potentially giving the season a much more interesting villain. I can’t imagine protecting their sworn enemies will go smoothly for the agents so it seems likely that at least one or two members of Hydra throughout history will discover the time travel shenanigans occurring around them and throw monkey wrenches into everything which should make for much more fun conflicts than a game of cat and mouse between Shield and the Chronicoms. The Chronicoms are, so far, a very dull, one-dimensional threat but beyond that featuring Hydra, presumably in many of its different incarnations is a fitting choice for Shield‘s final season. The terrorist group has been featured in some form or another in every season of the show except the last one (which is also easily the weakest season) and having to defend Hydra after all they’ve suffered at their hands is a wonderfully dramatic final challenge for the agents.
“The Real Deal” is most concerned with setting up the plot and stakes of the season but that doesn’t mean it’s devoid of character moments. The most significant one it delivers is a talk between Daisy and Coulson while they’re at the fundraiser that highlights their mixed emotions about their current situation. Daisy feels bad for her impulsive decision to activate him but ultimately doesn’t regret it. Coulson similarly is happy to be back among his family and is especially proud of watching Daisy act so heroically, despite his reservations about his new form. It’s ultimately interrupted by the mission to save Roosevelt and I would like these themes to receive more resolution eventually but it’s a lovely scene regardless that serves as a reminder of what a great rapport Bennet and Gregg have. Simmons is once again carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders and Henstridge does a predictably excellent job conveying the toll the mission, particularly her separation from Fitz, is taking on her. A brief scene with Daisy also hints that Simmons’ separation from the group was much longer and more eventful than she’s letting on which should offer some interesting baggage to unpack. Simmons also gives Yo-Yo some new, more human-looking and sensitive arms and Natalia Cordova-Buckley makes the few brief scenes dealing with her adjustment quite touching.
“The Real Deal” is not the deepest nor the most exhilarating episode Shield‘s ever delivered. But it constantly delivers well-executed action, humor, and character development and does a great job setting up what looks to be a captivating final run for the show.
- The stinger finds Enoch surprised to see May has left her pod. As he starts to look for her we see her hanging from the ceiling, looking frightened.
- Mack bristles at the 30s racism but the show doesn’t really say anything substantial about it.
- Whether Deke and Daisy will actually begin a romantic relationship is one of the show’s big outstanding questions. His plea for more recognition for figuring out how to hotwire a 30s car so quickly, to which she responds “Yes, yes, I’m very proud,” seems to suggest she’s at least somewhat aware of his feelings.
- Having already seen Koenig and Malick ancestors, who else from the show’s history do we forsee making return appearances? I’ll be shocked if Grant Ward doesn’t.
- The show is treating the android like he really is Coulson, whether he believes it or not, so that’s what I’ll refer to him until it indicates otherwise, which is a bit of a shame as I was looking forward to using the nickname “PhiLMD.”
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 7 Episode 1
Shield's final season gets off to a rousing start with a fast-paced and action-packed episode that delivers a killer twist.