he stakes of a story can be a difficult thing to arrange. When we gathered here a month or so ago to talk about Ready Player One one of the primary problems with the film was its lack of stakes. The biggest issue was that in an effort to add more comedy to the film the creators chose to make the antagonists into complete buffoons; this drastically reduced the threat those antagonists represented.
So the trick then is to simply include competent villains, right? Well, sure, but even that doesn’t guarantee success. Another issue that film faced was that the task went from being one that took extreme knowledge and skill to one that took luck and otherwise didn’t make much sense. If the audience can’t follow a logical path from the efforts of the protagonist to their victories then it’s hard for the audience to take it seriously. If the protagonist relies too much on luck – which is more or less what led Parzival to all of his discoveries – then that also makes it difficult for the audience to care.
But even those are just scratching the surface of the kinds of missteps that can reduce the stakes of a story. Take Disney/ABC’s Agents of SHIELD for example. The antagonists in this TV series are frequently competent and sometimes more than competent. But the stakes are still an issue. The first reason is obvious to anyone who both consumes comic book stories and has done any reading on this topic: people coming back to life.
I won’t spend a ton of time on this subject because it’s been pretty extensively covered by other pontificators. I do want to say that there is room in stories for false deaths that still maintain stakes. (I can think of one recent example that still worked pretty well.) Like any story trope they can be overdone but just because there is a fake death or two doesn’t automatically ruin the stakes of a given story; a story can have stakes that are other than those of whether the heroes live or die and if there is foreshadowing that dead characters may return then it can still work out OK. I think death reversals fail primarily when they aren’t foreshadowed in any way and are done just as fanservice rather than in service of the story. SHIELD wouldn’t even exist, after all, if they hadn’t revived the allegedly dead Phil Coulson from his murder in The Avengers. Another terrific example is the characters who have returned from death in a certain HBO series. However, when too many characters – good, evil, or both – come back too many times for too little reason it can begin to wear on the audience’s ability to care about what’s happening through confusion or simple apathy.
The fake deaths aren’t the only problem SHIELD has, however. By far the larger issue lies in the number and depth of the threats the team faces on a regular basis. Just for the sake of comprehension let’s go over every threat faced in just part of this current season of Agents of SHIELD. SPOILERS for the first 17 episodes of the fifth season of SHIELD follow.
- Time travel to the future
- Mindless alien predators
- Intelligent super-powered aliens
- Greedy humans
- Scared humans
- Super-powered humans
- Betrayal by alleged allies
- A need to return to the past
- Imminent alien invasion
- Other aliens with hidden motives
- Prophecy of the destruction of the planet.
- Time loop.
- The branding of SHIELD as enemies – again.
- The destruction of multiple obelisks which somehow forms a phenomenon that brings nightmares to life.
- The return of HYDRA. AGAIN.
- Multiple superpowered enemies with varying motives.
- The impending death of the team leader who has already died twice.
- A prophecy that they must allow their leader to die.
- Yo-yo has her arms cut off.
- Fitz has a split personality.
- Talbot’s impending betrayal
All of those threats or obstacles occur within 17 episodes of this season, usually more than one at a time. And I’m probably forgetting at least some of them. None of these threats are treated as minor and there is absolutely no break between them. The moment they deal with one problem two more sprout in its place. It’s frankly exhausting.
The fact that Agents of SHIELD never allows a moment’s rest for its hero creates a few problems. The most obvious one from a logical standpoint is that it ruins the believability of the story. Whatever superpowers some members of the team have, they’re all still mostly human. That means they need things like food, sleep, rest, and even relaxation. The constant inundation of enemies and disasters means they might get to eat and occasionally sleep but they’re never resting or relaxing. There are always three or more threats that need to be solved RIGHT NOW.
The other issue is probably pretty familiar to people who spend a lot of time writing stories or are knowledgeable about how they are written but might be less so for other people. Stories operate on the idea of building up tension and bring the story to a conclusion. That release of tension allows for catharsis. That’s a technical sounding term but it just basically means the relief of strong emotion or tension. A good climax will build up all kinds of strong emotions and tension in audience members. The conclusion of the story will relieve them – usually replacing them with exhilaration or sadness depending on the kind of story. This is true of a romance where the climax might be the final moment of will-they-won’t-they and it’s true of an action story where the climax is probably the final confrontation between the hero(es) and villain(s).
Because SHIELD has so many concurrent threats there’s never a release of tension. OK, great, they stopped evil villain A over here but there’s still natural disaster B and ticking time bomb C to deal with. But those won’t be solved until two weeks from now and by then we will have introduced threats D, E, and F. In a way this even goes back to another piece I wrote about filler episodes, a few months back. SHIELD hasn’t had a recognizable filler episode in at least a year and it really could use a handful to just let the characters breathe both literally and metaphorically.
The lack of a break between threats also causes them each of them to blend into a kind of white noise. As an audience member, without that catharsis, how can I judge how dangerous the latest HYDRA plan is versus the impending alien invasions versus the prophecies that Daisy will destroy the world? And if I can’t tell how dangerous they are, how can I care at all? Much less take them seriously. It’s all a swirl of loud noises and flashing lights and after a while I’m just blind and deaf instead of terrorized.
SHIELD has tripled down on these issues the last few weeks by having the cast break the fourth wall a bit and make frequent jokes about how they never stop fighting six different kinds of danger at the same time. It’s a bit baffling that the writers clearly understand what it is they’re doing without making any attempt to rectify it.
And, for the record, stakes are a complicated topic and it is possible to have all those threats and still have a strong story. But if you’re going to do that you need to eventually solve all of them and give your heroes a break. The natural point for that to occur is at the end of the season but SHIELD likes to use that time to set up the next huge threat as a cliffhanger. The cliffhanger should probably be dying as a TV trope, anyway, but that’s an entirely different article.
The first season of the show was hardly perfect, but one thing it did do right was deal with threats in a manner that allowed for occasional resolution. There was definitely a serial plot happening in the background but it was broken into episodic stories which allowed for at least a measure resolution at the end of episodes. Yes, the show was a bit campy, but that part hasn’t actually changed. The ways in which the show has improved since then include accepting the campiness and making it a part of its identity instead of trying to pretend it wasn’t there.
It’s unclear how long the show can maintain this break-neck pace without ever providing any resolution to anything and maintain viewership. Honestly, it’s unclear what kind of viewership the show is currently enjoying. It’s in the middle of its fifth season which doesn’t sound like a show that is barely crawling along but I rarely hear people talk about it and it seems entirely possible that Marvel/Disney just might not have noticed the losses they’re taking on it because of the massive profits they’re making everywhere else.
On the other hand, a quick google search of the show suggests multiple outlets were begging people to come back to the show around December of last year because it was good again. So maybe I’m completely off-base. I know I suggested on Twitter that the show was not very good because of the issues I outlined above and received nothing but disagreement. So maybe I’m the clueless one this time.
One thing that should be obvious from my writing about the show at all is that I am absolutely still watching it. It’s one of only two weekly televised shows I keep up with on a semi-regular basis (the other, Once Upon a Time, is approaching its series finale) so that should tell you a little something about how enjoyable it can be beyond the complaints I’ve raised here. The stories may not be well-conceived or always well-written but the characters are charismatic in their own ways and there is absolutely worse dreck on television. If you’re looking for a show with a great deal of technical writing proficiency you probably want to look elsewhere but if you’d like a mindless, campy melodrama then Agents of SHIELD might be just the show you need.