Joss Whedon Jeopardy

***SPOILER ALERT!!! This post contains spoilers concerning Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 1 all episodes through Episode 13 “T.R.A.C.K.S.”, Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 2 Episode 17 “Passion”, and Serenity (the Firefly movie).***

The moment the gun was fired in the basement this week on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., I thought, “Oh my god, he’s done it again!”

I was referring, of course, to the habit Joss Whedon has of killing off major characters without warning in the middle of the story.

My first experience with this ‘Joss Whedon Jeopardy’ was, as I’m sure it was for many of my readers, in the second season of Buffy, with the sudden, brutal demise of Ms. Calendar. I later either watched an interview with him, or heard the commentary– I can’t remember which– but Joss Whedon said something like, “After that, everyone knew they had to always be acting at their best level.”

In many ways, sudden deaths of dearly beloved main characters– the ones you think are safe and will never die– has become one of the hallmarks of Whedon. In Serenity, the death of Shepherd Book was a shock, but it also lulled the viewer into a false sense of security: OK, he has killed the one major character he’s going to kill. Then Wash’s death is that much more of a blow.

Skye (Chloe Bennet) lying in the compression chamber on the brink of death.

Skye (Chloe Bennet) lying in the compression chamber on the brink of death.

So when Quinn shot Skye not once but twice towards the end of the episode this week, I thought, ‘Oh my god, he’s done it again! A game changer! A Joss Whedon Jeopardy moment!’ I don’t want you to think I was happy about it. No, I’ve grown to like Skye quite a lot, though I’m not yet identifying with her the way I do Whedon’s other female main characters. However, I thought it could be a really promising move on the part of a show that, while doing well, hasn’t quite hit the ratings high that the network expected of it.

Once I realised there were still seven minutes left in the episode, of course, my hopes for Skye’s life expectancy went way up. By the end of the episode, when she was still alive, I decided that in all likelihood she wasn’t going to die, and so I’ve been much less stressed this weekend than I might have otherwise been. But Skye’s near-death still achieved what the other actual-Joss-Whedon-Jeopardy-sudden-deaths also achieved.

These seemingly random actions increase the shows’ “Heart,” as readers will know I like to call it. To understand more about what I call a “Show with Heart,” please read this post. Essentially, shows have Heart when we care about the characters, and the characters truly care about each other (and not just in couple-y sorts of ways).

Ms. Calendar (Robia LaMorte) in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Jenny Calendar (Robia LaMorte) in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

In Buffy, Ms. Calendar’s death in the episode “Passion” draws the Scooby Gang together in grief, gives Giles motivation to become more aggressive than he had been previously in the show, and gets the Scoobies over an internal betrayal that had previously been threatening to tear them apart. Jenny Calendar had been of questionable Scooby-membership due to her withholding important information about Angel and the curse, and in her death it becomes clear that she was still loved by all the Scoobies. Her murder also provided proof to the audience that Angel was truly a dangerous enemy, to be taken seriously. Jenny’s death shocked and upset the audience, making us worry more about the other characters, and empathize with the pain they display. Joss Whedon Jeopardy made the characters care more about each other (the first thing Buffy must do after is save Giles from his own recklessness), and made us care more about them. In short, it gave the show more Heart.

Firefly was full of Heart from the get-go, and there was therefore no need within the short time it was on air to create more. Had it continued for multiple seasons, I feel certain that the relative security of a few of those characters would have changed, and it would not have been Jayne who went down (more on Jayne soon I hope). But the show was cancelled, so we will never know. However, in the reincarnation of Firefly into Serenity, I feel that the change in medium did cause some loss of Heart in general. At the beginning of the movie, the Captain is withdrawn, more taciturn than ever, and Kaylee seems pretty pissed off at him which is never a good sign. The crew of our favourite smuggling space ship is more fragmented, and people spend more time apart from each other. Furthermore, Mal is kicking Simon and River off the boat, which we all knew would never have happened on the show. In short, they needed a little more Heart in the movie.

From the beginning, it certainly helps to have Inara back on board so quickly. Inara melts the Captain’s heart a little bit, which starts to thaw things all around. But it certainly wasn’t enough. After all, Mr. Universe just seems like a different sort of jive than the rest of the space-western feel of the show, and everything is still a little off-kilter without some good old moral judgement from the Shepherd. When he dies, Book’s death does make us a little outraged. (Besides, we never get to learn who he really is, and what his history is!!) But it’s Wash’s death that leaves us gasping and shaken. In Wash’s death we see Zoe’s pain, and see the crew begin to take care of each other again. It is only with Joss Whedon Jeopardy that Serenity finds its Heart.

From L-R: Wash (Alan Tudyk), Zoe (Gina Torres), Kaylee (Jewel Staite), Mal (Nathan Fillion), Inara (Morena Baccarin), and Simon (Sean Maher) in the movie Serenity.

From L-R: Wash (Alan Tudyk), Zoe (Gina Torres), Kaylee (Jewel Staite), Mal (Nathan Fillion), Inara (Morena Baccarin), and Simon (Sean Maher) in the movie Serenity.

One thing that has been lacking in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has definitely been Heart. I have been enjoying the show, especially the characteristic witty banter and slightly made-up words that signify something truly Whedon. But I wasn’t sure I really cared that much about any of the individuals, and the mode was a bit too militaristic for me to always be sure that they cared about each other. That improved in “FZZT” when Simmons became infected and we all were very worried, especially because of how worried Fitz was. “The Well” also increased the show’s Heart score for me, but more in May’s favour for me than in Ward’s favour. “The Bridge” and “The Magical Place” also increased my ability to care about Coulson, though not as much as they could have. When Coulson told Skye about her origins, and I watched the actress with tears streaming down her face, I must admit I wasn’t very moved. But “T.R.A.C.K.S.” has done what couldn’t be accomplished before.

First of all, the moment the agents run to Skye’s side as Simmons attempts to save her is (I believe) the first time in the entire show that all the main characters are gathered in the same room without a techno table between them and a screen up for briefing. It’s the first moment they become a social entity, caring for one of their own, rather than a team that works together.

Second of all, without Skye needing to die, the current situation creates the exact same motivations for characters in S.H.I.E.L.D. as “Passion” did in Buffy. The agents are suddenly drawn together in urgency and concern over the tenuous thread that remains of Skye’s life. Skye’s membership in the group had until this point been fairly suspect; she had even worn a monitoring bracelet until very, very recently. Her mortal wounds have clarified the group’s feelings: she is now one of them, and they will seek revenge for her (or avenge her) as one of their own. I found the look of determination on May’s face upon gazing down at Skye in the pressure chamber especially remarkable. (This goes towards a theory I have about May being more a part of Skye’s origins than she’s letting on– more on that later!) I also found Simmon’s desperate tears with Fitz far more compelling than the tears shed by Skye some weeks earlier.

No matter what happens next week on S.H.I.E.L.D. (and you know it’s going to be big because the episode is called “Tahiti”), I’m going to care a lot more about these characters than I did at the beginning of “T.R.A.C.K.S.” I’m sure Skye will live, and I’m very happy about that– her death will matter to me more now than it would have even the moment she was shot. While I’m not completely sold on S.H.I.E.L.D. as a show yet, it has definitely moved up the ranks. I hope this is the beginning of S.H.I.E.L.D. becoming a Show with Heart. We shall have to wait and see.

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