Agents of SHIELD entered its fifth season on a simple premise: "SPACE." Having flirted with aliens and occasional jaunts into low Earth orbit or portal-driven teleportation to other planets, this season sees the show turning into a full-on SF adventure with the SHIELD team fighting aliens in space. It's a tribute to how well Agents of SHIELD has evolved over its run that it handles this shift into another genre and location with confidence and verve.
However, it's very much a tale of two seasons. The first half of the season sees Agents of SHIELD matching the fourth season as the best it's ever been. The actors are all on good form, the plotting is solid, the pacing a little stretched but otherwise good and composer Bear McCreary brings his A-game to deliver an unsettling, minimalist score that really gives the show an atmosphere and edge it's never had before. The first half of the season is outstanding, helped by a strong villain in Kasius (Dominic Rains), who mixes elegance and ruthlessness.
The second half of the season, where (spoiler alert) the SHIELD team return to the present day to try to avert the future they've foreseen, is much patchier. The new set of villains are much less interesting and much more tedious, and the return of Hydra as a force will make some people want to scream with frustration. Hydra were a great enemy in the movies and in the first two seasons of Agents of SHIELD, but it feels like the show really needs to move on from them.
The second half of the season does have some good ideas, like the ticking clock as the team race to avert the fate they've already seen. Natalia Cordova-Buckley, who plays Elena Rodriguez, is particularly outstanding in this last set of episodes, delivering heartfelt and genuinely heart-wrenching performances as she wrestles with how to save the day in a way that doesn't mean killing one of her friends. But whenever the story shifts back to the new set of tedious villains and their even more tedious motivations, the pacing slows and the story becomes dull. Things do liven up in the finale and the last couple of episodes before it, which do a surprisingly solid job of bringing back storylines and characters from Season 1 to tie them off nicely. And the finale delivers both surprisingly-effective superhero spectacle on a budget (a huge battle in Chicago that, whilst not challenging any of the movies for epicness, at least doesn't embarrass itself in comparison) and ties off some character arcs in a very final way. Season 5 of Agents of SHIELD was supposed to be the last, but Disney ordered its renewal at the last minute, resulting in something that could have been a series finale turning into a pause instead.
The latter part of Season 5 also suffers in a minor way from the elephant in the room. When Agents of SHIELD started, it was decreed to be a canonical part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and it tied into the movies in a major way. By the end of Season 5 such references had mostly fallen by the wayside and the departure of various executives meant there was no longer any such impetus to keep the two settings aligned. However, the last few episodes of Season 5 do make mention of Thanos and his impending attack on Earth (seen in Infinity War), and the fact they mention this and then don't follow through (nobody is turned to dust in the finale, and the Snap is not referred to at all in Seasons 6 or 7) feels a bit weird. They should have probably committed properly to saying the shifts in the timeline this season moved Agents of SHIELD into a different timeline, or they should have probably not just mentioned Thanos at all and pretended the last three seasons simply happen before Infinity War. As it stands, it distracts at just the wrong moment.
Agents of SHIELD's fifth season starts off with the show being the best it's ever been (Episodes 1-11, ****½), but in its second half it falters in pacing, particularly suffering a major quality drop-off with the villains (Episodes 12-22, ***½). It remains watchable, but it's a shame the show could not maintain the excellent form from early on. Season 5 of Agents of SHIELD is available to watch worldwide now on Disney+.