8 June 2016

Agents of SHIELD S3E22 "Ascension" review

Between the super-powered brawl that opens the episode, an assault on SHIELD by the primitive Inhumans, a last-ditch attempt to stop Hive's master plan and the death of a series regular, you'd be forgiven for thinking that "Ascension", the third season finale of Agents of SHIELD, runs the risk of feeling rushed. It's not like Agents of SHIELD hasn't produced it's fair share of episodes that are overstuffed, after all - even the first half of this season suffered thanks to how much it tried to do in just ten episodes, a focus on telling the story quickly over telling it well that robbed the show of it's ability to properly dramatise it's most important moments.

Fortunately, "Ascension" understands the difference between story elements that can be dealt with quickly and story elements that need some real time devoted to them, and in doing so offers us what may well be the most emotionally engaging episode of the show to date. Individual moments are given plenty of time in order to allow us to really feel them rather than just see them, an aspect of "Ascension" that also helps highlight how good the writing and performances are here.

Chloe Bennet hasn't always been a good actress - I'd go so far as to say that she was downright bad in some of the shows earliest episodes - but to deny the strength of her performance in "Ascension" would be disingenuous. I spoke about how vulnerable Daisy was in my review of last weeks "Absolution", but that pales in comparison to how badly "Ascension" breaks her, and Bennet really sells that to us in her most convincing, earnest performance to date. In much the same way, Luke Mitchell gives an equally strong performance - it seems safe to say that Lincoln has never been anyone's favourite character, but he's also something of a linchpin in "Ascension" and I'm happy to say that Mitchell makes that work wonders.

And as with last weeks "Absolution", I'm both surprised and relieved that "Ascension" doesn't rely on us knowing that someone is going to die in order to build tension. YoYo's cross only changes hands once in "Ascension", and even that instance serves a purpose beyond simply making us worry about the fate of a different character. As usual, Agents of SHIELD is better than it's advertising would indicate - the cheap nature of the #FallenAgent marketing campaign simply isn't a fair reflection of the shows intentions.

Additionally, it'll come as no surprise to any long-term viewers that director Kevin Tancharoen delivers big when it comes to the action scenes in "Ascension". He's the person behind all of the shows most memorable set pieces to date, and although "Ascension" fails to live up to the standard set by the one-take, John Wick-esque action scene in last seasons "The Dirty Half-Dozen", that doesn't make what this episode does do any less impressive. Of particular note is the aforementioned super-powered brawl that opens the episode - not only is it a very well choreographed fight, but it's also totally character driven and uses Daisy's superpowers is new, exciting ways.

All of which means that claiming "Ascension" to be the best season finale of Agents of SHIELD to date wouldn't do it justice - "Ascension" ends up being one of the best episodes that show has ever made full stop, perfectly paced and genuinely affecting with great action to boot.  The third season of Agents of SHIELD may have just about failed to live up to it's second on the whole, but the "6 Months Later" segment that "Ascension" bows out with promises fairly radical changes to the show for it's fourth and most likely final season - and I, for one, can't wait to see what's in store.

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