“Go dark.” –did Agents of SHIELD production crew get that command, too?

Last season Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (to be hereafter referred to Agents) left us with a shattered intelligence agency, injured team members, and more traitors than allies. Most of the first season wound up feeling more killing time than action packed story-telling–probably because the production crew knew that Captain America: Winter Soldier would bring S.H.I.E.L.D. to the ground–something with which Agents would have to cope. The last few episodes of the season, Coulson’s team had to contend with the collapse, with traitors in their midst, and then stop Agent Garrett. The team saved the day, but not without losses.

Season 2 picks up a few months after last season’s close. Throughout the episode we’re given little updates on our main team. For starters, Skye is doing field work with Trip and Mae. Agent Barkley (Lucy Lawless’s character) is a new face on the show, but she’s an undercover operative with a team of mercenaries.  Coulson isn’t around. He’s been looking for agents, out recruiting and having to meet with people face to face in order to ‘get a read on them.’ Fitz and Simmons are working in the lab on cloaking technology and identifying metal for their most recent mission.

All on the surface looks slightly problematic. Scratch the surface and the raw pain comes through.

The first symptoms of the pain? Fitz. The beginning of his scene shows him withdrawn, but that’s a bit of a false start. He communicates, but sometimes he pauses to search for the right word. When the metal they brought back begins to bleed, Fitz asks Mae, “Can you see that?” The relief that comes over him when she does is palpable, suggesting that in the interim months, Fitz has seen many things that others haven’t.

More pain follows. We finally see Ward. He’s locked up in the new base’s basement and demanding that if he’s going to talk, it’s going to be to Skye. When she’s finally forced to face him for the first time in months, she notices the self-inflicted injuries. Ward went through a ‘dark patch’ (I think those were his words), and the way he flinches when Skye references his murders suggests that he might not be through yet.

Skye is hurting, too. She doesn’t want to talk to Ward, but she does. She follows orders without question in this episode. We see the way the rest of her team, but Skye’s pain comes through with Chloe Bennet’s performance more than any actions and lines. Overall, though, she’s calmer and interjects less thoughts.

Then there’s the plot–We find out that Talbot has only sent Hydra off into the dark. Agent Berkley commands one of her subordinates to cut off her arm in order to save her life. Meanwhile Mae, Trip, and Skye continue on towards their other prize of the mission, even though they’re pinned down. We’re led to believe that not everyone makes it out of this encounter alive–with Agent Berkley’s SUV flipping and most likely killing her and one of her subordinates.

At the climactic moment, Coulson reveals even more. That while we knew SHIELD would have to downplay their existence, that SHIELD needs to ‘disappear’ and ‘operate from the shadows.’ In that speech, we learn that Simmons has been gone and that Fitz is deteriorating. He’s gotten worse.

Darkness isn’t only in play with the plot and character development. The warehouse for the undercover job, the new base, Ward’s cell, the base they break into, all feature dark rooms with only just enough lighting to see. Added on top of that, everyone’s favoring dark clothing, making the bright blue uniform Trip and General Talbot wear a fantastic pop of color.

Word choice hints at the darkness, too. Hydra has ‘slithered,’ SHIELD has to ‘fight from the shadows,’ a focus on stealth technology, the cell wall becomes ‘opaque,’ the command for an abort mission is to ‘Go dark.’ While out of context the choices are obvious, they repeat the motif in the episode.

We are given one shining moment of hope, though. Skye, Trip, and Mae are successful at stealing their objective. Coulson gives a rally idea in his speech–that SHIELD will fight on to honor those they’ve lost. While it isn’t much, it’s what SHIELD has to hold onto.

Honor and duty–if those remain SHIELD’s first two stones in its reconstruction, there may be hope for them yet.

Freezing up the Protagonist, examples in how antagonists make life hard for Nikki Heat

Recently, our PeoWriMo group had a workshop on antagonists. We talked about the antagonist in the fairly abstract quite a bit and primarily used examples from sci-fi and fantasy projects since those are the fields Barb and I write in and pay the most attention to. This week, I’m reading Frozen Heat by Richard Castle (a pseudonym) and as I close in on the final pages, I realize that it has so many different antagonists that it goes through the abstracts we talked about. I’ll break down the different antagonists and how they function in the novel.

A short summary on the book first: Frozen Heat is the fourth Nikki Heat book based off the characters discussed in the television show Castle. For this book’s case, Heat discovers a murdered woman in the suitcase that once belonged to her own mother. The case thaws details on the murder of Nikki’s mother and she investigates both the recent murder and the cold case. The farther she gets, the more obvious the connections between the two cases, but she faces more and more opposition at each step.

The Subordinate/Rival: Sharon Hinesberg. Sharon has been in all the Nikki Heat books so far, but her usual level of incompetence and disrespect has only been an annoyance. In Frozen Heat, Hinesberg moves up from disturbance in the background to obstacle to overcome. Now, I’m not completely done with the book yet, so some of these facts may turn out to be false. Hinesberg creates problems for Heat by being constantly late to work, by showing little to no respect for Heat as lead detective, by questioning Heat’s assignments on occasion, and by having crummy investigation skills–those are the normal Hinesberg traits. In this book, Hinesberg conspires with the captain (who is also her secret boyfriend), she turns off her cellphone over the weekend despite policy stating she always have it on and with her, and Heat believes Hinesberg is leaking important murder case details to the press.

So how does Nikki Heat overcome Sharon Hinesberg? A lot of the behavior Nikki ignores. She adopts a “Hinesberg will never change” mentality and brushes off the minor inconveniences because she has bigger problems on her plate. Often, she’ll give Hinesberg simple follow-up assignments and busywork to keep her out of the main investigation. However, when she suspects a leak in her team and pins it on Hinesberg, she hands out the more secrecy-critical details and assignments in one-on-one fashion or discusses the cases with her squad when Hinesberg is gone. She refrains from putting those details on the murder board. Essentially, Heat does everything she can to cut Hinesberg out. Are these obstacles going to affect the outcome of the novel? I doubt it. Hinesberg has been around for a while, at the most, Hinesberg might finally see reassignment at the end of the novel, but I don’t think Heat will be that lucky.

What does this tell us about Nikki? Hinesberg is a contrast foil. Her laziness, lack of respect, and somewhat indifference remind us that Nikki cares, she’s early if she’s able, and she’s always trying to find the best way to communicate with others. Hinesberg shows us what Nikki could have been, but refuses to be.

The Boss: Captain Irons. This is the second book for Captain Irons. At the end of the last novel, Heat was offered Irons’s job, but she turned down the promotion. This has put a huge kink in an already tense relationship. Irons has a reputation for going after numbers (closure rate, etc.) instead of caring about individual cases. He does the job and looks for a pat on the back while doing it. He’s pretty much everything Heat hates about the upper brass–and he knows it. I’d say from his behavior (and I might be forgetting a detail that actually says it) that he believes Heat sees herself as better than himself. Irons likes to run everything by the book and gives Heat a hard time, even though she rarely goes off book to begin with. Irons impedes Heat’s investigation constantly–though he does so in legitimate ways. He refuses to hand over resources, he ‘takes lead’ during certain points of the investigation, and he forces Heat to go on a suspension and see a therapist after a traumatic event.

So how does Nikki overcome Captain Irons? Well, she doesn’t typically do it alone. The first problem is when Irons won’t allow for the extra overtime or additional resources. Heat explains this frustration to her partner/boyfriend/resident-writer Rook and Rook appeals to Captain Irons’s vanity by saying that this murder case could make a wonderful story piece. So, Rook exploits a personal character flaw of Irons. The second time Nikki needs to deal with a huge roadblock Irons put in, she uses an ally contact at One Police Plaza and goes over Irons’s authority to get what she needs (something that puts her in debt to that ‘ally,’ which is bound to be a problem in another book). So, Nikki exploits the fact that Irons isn’t an absolute authority–that there are people above him in rank. And on a third event, Nikki shows that she knows more about the case when interrogating a ‘suspect.’ She exposes that Irons isn’t that great of an investigator. What will happen with these plot points in the end? I don’t know, but I suspect that Irons will remain the head of the 20th’s homicide division and Heat will have to keep putting up with him. This is a work relationship that is deteriorating before it could form into something productive, but like everyone else, Nikki doesn’t get to choose her boss.

What does this tell us about Nikki? Irons is another foil, as all antagonists are. He has a habit of bringing Nikki’s passions to the surface–making her argue for and have to stand up for what she wants in her investigative trails, though she has to learn not to lose her temper with him (a hard task when she deals with Irons). He also helps her galvanize relationships with her allies–Rook, Raley and Ochoa, and other detectives, as well as One Police Plaza. In doing so, he brings out her support system, which helps us understand how complex and huge Nikki’s world really is.

Opposing Force: Homeland Security. Homeland Security agents keep a close track on Heat and Rook through much of this case. They record conversations and eventually, abduct Heat and Rook in order to ask questions about where their investigation is leading. So far, these agents have been neither bad nor good–the only impediment they’ve been in the investigation has been to detain Heat and Rook for a short while.

How does Nikki overcome them? So far, she hasn’t needed to, but she has been a bit more tight-lipped during the investigation.

What do they tell us about Nikki? Encounters with these two have reinforced Nikki’s determination. They’ve been more plot element than foil.

Antagonistic Family Relationship: Her father. Mr. Heat (for I forgot his first name)  and Cynthia Heat (Nikki’s mom) had divorced at least a couple years before Cynthia’s murder. Nikki and her father haven’t had the greatest relationship, and the passing years haven’t helped. While she loves and respects her father, she has troubles going to him for information, even telling Rick that he would have to be the one to keep the peace if the conversation became too dicey.

This isn’t exactly a relationship to overcome. Mr. Heat doesn’t purposefully block Nikki’s investigations, he’s simply not forthcoming. Their terse relationship doesn’t improve, but it doesn’t grow much worse.

What does this tell us about Nikki? This relationship highlights, and perhaps explains, why Nikki has a hard time emotionally. She has a tendency to lock down and ignore everything, putting up a wall between herself and others who should care about her. With the other cops, this wall’s expected and respected, but Rook calls it into question. The relationship with her father points out painfully that this is a family that doesn’t communicate about emotions, and that’s what stunts Nikki’s personal life.

The Big Bad: No frickin’ clue. I’m nearing page 300 in this book and I can’t pinpoint who the killer is. I could make assumptions and point to evidence, but I don’t have a name to label the clear and present danger. This book is one of those cases where it’s working. There’s so much digging through the past, so many other hurdles in Nikki’s way, and then there are little tidbits here and there. A hitman tries to take Nikki out, one of the evidence pieces goes missing, the toxicology labs are destroyed in accidents, the body is cremated before anyone knows what’s going on–all these incidents are clues, but no name. As soon as Heat discovers a possible line of inquiry, she’s crossing the newest name off the list.

How does Nikki overcome the Big Bad? Well, that’s the whole plot of the book, isn’t it?

What does this say about Nikki? She’s determined with a capital D. Determined and dedicated to finding this killer, Nikki won’t stop until she’s forced to–either by finding the bad guy, or by winding up in a grave herself…

So you can see, there’s a *lot* of problems for Nikki in Frozen Heat. Her way of navigating through the difficulties is what keeps the novel interesting and the suspense of the nameless powerful villain keeps readers on the edge. Every antagonist is different and complex, coming in with their own motivations and goals, which keeps Nikki from responding to them in the same manners. I can’t wait to see how this all finally finishes and discover, alongside Nikki Heat, who the murderer is.

Fall TV Line-Up

As fall approaches, the tv seasons are finally ’bout to start up again. Not having all the time in the week to catch up with every single show out there (or the interest in absolutely everything), I’ve got my list just like everyone else. So here’s my “must-see” list:

Sleepy Hollow: Returning for a sophomore season, we’ll finally get the chance to see what happened to Abbie after last season’s finale. Season 1 of this show was a surprising joy to watch. For those not in the know, Sleepy Hollow follows the end of days story of Revelations from the Christian Bible. Okay, not a new concept there (and part of my early hesitation). It’s got the Masons and conspiracies–also not new. A man waking up from the past in the future. Again, so not new. But what really makes this show is fitting all those overused pieces into a new puzzle. You’ve got characters of color in abundance, you’ve got an almost X-Files feel to the way Lt. Abbie Mills and Ichabod Crane are going through the Apocalypse, and to top all of that off, every member of the cast gives a great performance. As partners, Abbie and Ichabod work in perfect tandem and each has their strengths and weaknesses. Their friendship and working relationship are clearly based on a level of respect. The seriousness and attitude of the setting and the believability of the characters make what could’ve been a trite piece of trash into a spell-binding journey. Sleepy Hollow Season 2 premieres September 22nd.

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Also on return for a sophomore season! What’s amazing about Agents of SHIELD is how it’s worked into the same Marvel tapestry as the recent movie blitz. Last season saw both mentions of Thor 2 and The Winter Soldier. Hell, you know anything about Winter Soldier and you know that Agents had to deal with it. Honestly, I blame the movie with why Season 1 wound up dragging in some places. Agents had to stall time until the movie had come out. Now, for season 2, Coulson’s been charged with rebuilding SHIELD and considering all the fallout of Winter Soldier, we’re bound to see more and more consequences of that as well as the ramifications of what happened at the end of last season. I’ll admit I’m a Whedonverse junkie, but things are going to get morally gray this season and I can’t wait. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 2 premieres September 23rd. 

Arrow: You have to admire a show that has twenty-three episodes in a season and yet not a single one of them could be labeled filler. Also, Arrow has almost equal numbers men and women in the cast. In the last two seasons, the plots have peaked into a brilliant finale where the heroes often lose–yet without the feeling that the heroes failed to live up to their potential and without cheapening anything that’s happened through the course of the season. Season 3 premieres October 8th.

Flash: A spin-off of Arrow, I’m mildly curious to see if the CW can manage to produce two interesting shows or if Arrow was a complete fluke on their part. Flash premieres October 7th.

Revenge: I’ve got a thing for bad dramas. I used to watch Desperate Housewives for a couple years too. There’s something about the show being so far outside the realm of logic that I find attractive. It’s a complete escape from reality, but at least some of the cast is pretty hot. Revenge Season 4 premieres September 28th.

Scandal: Much the same line as Revenge, though with more characters of color and the levels of espionage and conspiracies delving into the back rooms of Washington, D.C. rather than the Hamptons. Scandal features better dialogue though and more interesting performances. Scandal Season 4 premieres September 25th.

The Walking Dead: The complexity of morals when the world’s gone to hell is definitely one of the main themes of the show. While Walkers present a huge threat, by this point in the series they’ve become background noise to the constant interpersonal problems. The show also has fantastic scenery every time and the cinematographers and directors have used the settings to their advantage in their story telling. The Walking Dead Season 5 premieres October 12th.

Constantine: Super powers or supernatural seems to be the theme of this list if you haven’t realized that yet. I picked up a couple of the early comics at the beginning of last spring and was thrilled to see that the show’s coming up this fall. Hopefully, the show’s as gritty as the trailer seems to promise. I’m interested in seeing how this translates to the small screen (and if maybe they might eventually come around to their senses about the character’s sexuality.) Constantine premieres October 24th.

Castle: For the first time in forever, I’ve actually caught up to the plot of Castle. I’ve got a long blog post, Heat vs. Storm, that explains what I adore about the show, so I’m not going to repeat all the reasons here, but do you need a better reason than watching Nathan Fillion and company being awesome? Season 7 premieres September 29th. 

Supernatural: I literally only watch this show with my friends in order to be able to bitch about it with them. Last season was beyond a disappointment and I expect that they’ll fall even flatter on their face this season when the episodes have to do with anything other than straight white men—assuming they even bother having characters that fit a different profile. If they do, I’m sure they’ll get murdered by the end of the episode. Very few characters seem to survive, unless you’re Sam, Dean, Castiel, or Crowley–the only season regulars yet again. I won’t even bother catching up on episodes I wind up missing, ’cause I doubt they’ll even go anywhere interesting, even if they have made Dean a demon. Season 10 premieres October 7th. 

Heat vs. Storm

Being a huge Nathan Fillion fan, I checked out Castle when it first came on the air many seasons ago. Despite being yet another procedural show about yet another NYPD homicide department, having a writer in the mix changed up the game enough to keep my interest and unlike other cop shows with specialists, what Richard Castle and the guest spots have to say about writing is fairly authentic. (You wanna see a physical anthropologist’s head explode, ask them about Temperance Brennan of Bones.)

Some executive had the brains to green light one of the best media tie-ins you could do with a show about a writer. ABC Entertainment has actually published books bearing the pseudonym Richard Castle which has so far included several novels, three ebooks, and even the comic books referenced in the show. Media tie-ins often get the rap of being glorified fanfiction, but anyone who spends rampant amounts of time delving into fandoms will wind up telling you that fanfiction’s got a place in the world. That’s a topic of conversation for another day, but the point is that even if they are, some media tie-ins are definitely worth the time. The fantastic part about Richard Castle’s books is that they actually stand alone from the show. While knowing Castle will get you insight into where certain lines or situations come from, the characters of the books only bear a resemblance to those on the show and come with their own histories and personalities. You don’t need to know Castle in order to understand what’s happening and that’s one of the great aspects of the books.

Recently, I finished reading Storm Front, a Derrick Storm novel available, and rereading Naked Heat along with listening to an audiobook format of Heat Rises, both of which are Nikki Heat novels.

Both series of books are murder mysteries. However, Storm Front sees Derek Storm coming back as a private investigator turned CIA operative while Nikki Heat remains a NYPD homicide detective in her books so far (I have yet to get to Frozen Heat). They share quite a few characteristics–both characters are driven, resourceful, and intelligent, but Heat’s got a leg up on Storm. Storm’s attitude, mannerisms, and behavior come off as a blunt caricature of the man’s man best-spy-there-is-besides-007. In Storm Front, he’s impersonal with everyone but the Chinese Agent Ling Xi Bang. While the ghost writer attempts to make Storm more likable–looks, he’s fallen in love with a beautiful woman inside of two seconds, hey also look he cares about these orphans–Storm comes off entirely flat. Storm never changes as a person. He is as he was at the beginning of the book and despite his actions, he winds up barely scratched himself. Even the great budding ‘romance’ he had with Ling Xi Bang getting cut off abruptly by her death does nothing to sway his overall attitudes.

On the other hand, Nikki Heat is an individual. The ghost writer(s) for her, especially in Naked Heat and Heat Rises, has shown that Nikki is a full person. She’s smart, she’s independent, she’s a quick-thinker, but she’s angry, outraged, and frightened at times too. At points she runs into an aspect in her personal life that reminds her what she’s doing wrong in a case, or she’ll chastise herself for the kind of thoughts that everyone gets from time to time. Nikki Heat is never a machine running from one plot point to the next. Every moment of Nikki’s has a clear motivation and emotional connection, whether it’s approval and support as she delegates tasks to her squad or anger and wanting to forgive when Rook finally has a chance to explain where he’s been. Nikki is human first and a cop second, and that makes all the difference in the text.

These two sleuths share another same character background piece: both of them have the dead woman trope in their stories. You know the trope well, a woman must die so the plot can advance and/or the hero has motivation to fight the good fight. Once again, the handling’s done completely different between Storm Front and the Heat series. As mentioned, Derrick entangles himself with the mysterious foreign agent Ling Xi Bang (which the book says to pronounce ‘she bang’) and from the moment he’s laid eyes on her, he wants her. And of course he gets her, despite him working for the CIA and her working for the Chinese government, they hook up, because who can resist Derrick Storm, right? (This isn’t just my ranting, it’s hinted at in the book with some of the other men’s attitudes towards Derrick having no trouble picking up women). To top off the incredulous hook-up, and Derrick’s massive passionate feelings that have blossomed overnight, the bad guy Valkov takes out Xi Bang during a shootout that’s not even on the page. Derrick comes up after the violence is done to see that she won’t survive her injuries–one of which is the classic gut wound, of course. While she’s painted as a somewhat novice in her field, there’s no real reason why Xi Bang had to die in that scene, except to take her out of the picture for Derrick’s other love, Clara Strike (who, btw, had apparently faked her death at one point and left Derrick to mourn her for a while. Also, Derrick’s mother passed away when he was young. I’m all for the rule of three’s in writing when it makes sense, but this one’s ridiculous.) You can’t even argue that Xi Bang’s death was motivation for Storm hunting down Valkov (he was already determined because of their past), or that her death caused him to learn a valuable lesson about rushing in (he chases down a plane and climbs onto the freaking landing gear.) Her death, basically, was only to try and keep a not-even-flagging sense of danger going.

On the other hand, we see the same dead woman trope in Nikki’s background, but the treatment’s different. It’s mentioned a few times in Heat Rises and Naked Heat that her mother was a murder victim. The murder of a loved one carried a strong emotional punch in Nikki’s life and drove her to become a cop–but that’s not where the treatment of the trope ends. Nikki’s past motivates not only her life’s goals, but also her attitudes and behaviors. She does everything in her power to ensure that respect is given to the victim and to the families of her cases–including reminders to her squad and even visiting detectives that they need to have that respect too. When her mother’s death is talked about, the pain is an old emotional scar that still affects her psyche, so instead of falling into the chasm of cliche, the ghost writer(s) used the trope to make Nikki more of a human being by instilling emotions and behavior alongside the motivation.

In the end, Nikki Heat is far more believable and convincing a hero than Derrick Storm of Storm Front. She’s human and he’s an obnoxious stereotype. If you’ve only got so much time for novels, put Heat on your list first, especially if you’re looking for a well-rounded lead character and/or to be welcomed into a world-setting that’s vibrant and enjoyable.