Last season, Agents of SHIELD was a big ole pile of disappointment. Everyone stopped watching it by mid-season. So, of course, that’s around the time it suddenly got pretty good, rewarding the faithful for their patience even if it had the gall to introduce multiple season-long mysteries it declined to actually solve by the end of the season. Now, here’s season 2, crying out, “Hey, look at us! We finally figured out what we’re doing. Kind of.” Let’s break it down.
Season 2 premiere spoilers ahead. Duh.
I’m doing a recap this week, but to anyone reading this – do you actually need plot recaps from my reviews? Or have you usually already seen the episode by the time you read something like this?
Back in WWII, HYDRA is busy transferring all of its crazy gadgets in the aftermath of Captain America’s defeat of the Red Skull, and Daniel Whitehall (Reed Diamond) is in charge of an alien obelisk we later learn was the very first 0-8-4. Then Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and the Howling Commandos show up to bust his operation, sending away the 0-8-4 to be guarded by the early version of SHIELD and Howard Stark.
Cut to the present where a rogue SHIELD agent is attempting to sell intel about that WWII 0-8-4 to badass S.H.I.E.L.D. vet Isabelle Hartley (Lucy Lawless) and her colleagues Lance Hunter and “Idaho.” Of course, it’s actually a sting operation with May, Skye and Triplett lurking in the wings as back-up, but the rogue agent is killed and his intel stolen by an intruding Absorbing Man.
After the mission, everyone returns to the new SHIELD base first glimpsed in the season 1 finale, and the team has expanded in-between seasons to include a mechanic named Alphonso “Mack” Mackenzie (Henry Simmons). Coulson has spent so much of his time as the new Director of SHIELD traversing the globe and recruiting AWOL agents back into the fold that hardly anyone ever sees him anymore. When he instructs Skye to get HYDRA intel from Ward, whom they have in a Hannibal Lecter-like lockdown, it appears to be the first conversation they’ve had in weeks, if not longer.
With Ward’s creepy ass assistance (he’s oddly serene but still obsessed with Skye), the team hijacks HYDRA’s method of communication, and tracks the movements of the Absorbing Man, who they realize means to kill General Talbot. Of course, when they spring into action to protect Talbot it actually works out in Absorbing Man’s favor since he lets Talbot’s men capture him thus affording him better access to the facility where the 0-8-4 artifact is stored. May, Hartley, and her assorted group of mercenaries attempt to get to the artifact first, but when they do Hartley makes the mistake of grabbing it with her bare hand — and then is unable to let go, as it transforms her hand, and then arm, into inanimate (read: dead) matter. During the getaway in an SUV, the dead part of her arm is cut off, but the Absorbing Man shows back up and causes their car to crash, killing Hartley and Idaho and allowing him to take the artifact, which doesn’t damage him because of his absorbing powers I guess.
However, Coulson had a secondary agenda, which was for the team to steal one of Talbot’s cloaking-enabled jets, seeing as Fitz has been unable to nail down the cloaking technology on his own just yet. Coulson knew casualties were a possibility, but viewed it as a necessary risk because they need to “go dark,” to operate in the shadows…blah, blah, blah. They’re a covert group now. We get it.
- Big twist #1 – They need the cloaking plane because Fitz can’t make one for them because he’s so not right in the head anymore that he actually hallucinates a version of Simmons he talks to even though the real Simmons left the team months ago.
- Big twist #2 – The evil Hydra dude from the WWII prologue is still alive and in charge of HYDRA, looking exactly the same (minus the Nazi costume). More importantly, he has dropped what was a truly, unbelievably, hilariously awful German accent.
Is it bad that I was relieved when Lucy Lawless’ Agent Isabelle Hartley and a side character so indistinct we knew him only as “Idaho” both died in the purposefully bleak ending of the season 2 premiere of Agents of SHIELD? This was a premiere which threw so many new characters at us that I had already decided I wasn’t even going to bother with trying to remember any of their names since it seemed obvious from a practical standpoint that many of them wouldn’t be sticking around very long. Heck, by the end I was still looking at Lucy Lawless’ character and simply thinking of her as a modern Xena or a tougher version of Ron Swanson’s wife from Parks & Recreation. So, when she and her “Idaho” buddy went to deadsville I was just glad the show had winnowed its suddenly sprawling cast down a bit.
To be clear, my not caring about their deaths is not really a reflection of the quality of this episode or the manner in which their demise was depicted. Nor is it meant as any kind of slam on Lucy Lawless’ performance. She did enough in a short amount of time to get me to see her as playing a distinct, new character just as long as I was willing to engage with what I was watching. That’s where the problem is, though: I just don’t really engage with Agents of SHIELD that much. It is good enough to watch and enjoy, possibly even on in the background while multi-tasking, but not good enough to get too invested in. I can watch and really care about Vampire Diaries and Arrow but not so much with Agents of SHIELD, although I’d have to be a monster to not find Fitz and Simmons harrowing escape from the bottom of the ocean in the season 1 finale emotionally affecting.
Back in April and May, the SHIELD-shattering events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier granted Agents of SHIELD a freakishly entertaining forward momentum, completely upending the entire universe of the show and humbling our heroes to the point that they were actually forced to base all of their operations out of a crappy motel. This was a time when the show was asking what happens when your best friend (Ward) turns into a monster, seemingly overnight, and what kind of social order is there in what is essentially a military unit when the military crumbles around them. What did it mean to be an agent of SHIELD when SHIELD turned out to be an entire lie? These ideas were gifts delivered to them by the audaciousness of The Winter Soldier.
However, that movie was so last April. It’s not the movie I was blown away by in theaters just a couple of weeks ago, but instead something which is now out on home video, its twists less fresh in the mind and the urgency of its plot less, well, urgent. As such, when horrible moustache man Talbot showed up as a TV talking head in this season 2 premiere of SHIELD discussing the continued fall-out from HYDRA-sized reveal in Winter Soldier I had to kind of remind myself that was something that happened. It’s sort of like I was having so much racing along with SHIELD during its post-Winter Soldier run that the season 2 premiere feels like taking a step back and assessing what exactly this show is now and what its main story arcs and themes are going forward.
For starters, based on this premiere episode it would appear that SHIELD is now at least a competent spy show, crisply paced, efficiently written, and capable of good-enough special effects. The manner in which the team abducted Talbot, and then used his voice to infiltrate the military base was pure, fun spy stuff. It’s also far more self-assured, as killing off two brand new characters and effectively leaving blood on the morally compromised Coulson’s hands feel like things which would have been studio note-d away early last season. It’s also learned how to have its big twists actually land with any emotional resonance as the cliffhanger reveal of Fitz’ truly compromised state was more heartbreaking than expected from this show.
Going forward, it has established a clear connection to its eventual spin-off Agent Carter, set-up a potential big bad in Daniel Whitehall, further teased the eventual reveal of Skye’s dad, used two big spy maps to showcase just how outnumbered they are (way more Red=Hydra than Blue=SHIELD on the map), and re-established the military as an additional obstacle to our team’s goals. Plus, by killing off Hartley and “Idaho” it has introduced uncertainty going forward, although there’s still a big difference between killing off a regular and offing a special guest star.
So, the question, really, is do you like where the show is heading, placing our team as outlaws, lurching in the shadows, trying to put right what’s about to go wrong, and likely taking on more and more supervillains that are actually from the comics? There is a clear course correction going on here, and while this new version of the show is better than the old one there’s still the spectre of “Yeah, but none of these characters are all that great” (to be fair, some people really, really love Coulson and FitzSimmons and May) and “They still have all those crappy mysteries to deal with from last season.” As a result, I still hold this show at arm’s length, wondering if the aftermath of tragedy gifted to it by Winter Soldier will ultimately prove to have been a far more dramatically compelling period than its new “Let’s be outlaw spies now!” era. However, I didn’t really see that twist with Fitz coming nor did I really expect anyone to die, even if I had assumed Lucy Lawless wouldn’t be on the show very long. So, they surprised me, and now I’m intrigued. It’s a good start.
1. It’s cool seeing Peggy Carter and the Howling Commandos and all, but it was fairly obvious how much cheaper Agents of SHIELD’s version of WWII looked compared to Captain America: The First Avenger’s. Plus, that film had a sepia-toned, nostalgic visual flair (as did the Agent Carter Marvel One-Shot) which was completely lacking during the prologue.
2. Agents of SHIELD ended last season saying that the mission going forward was for Coulson to rebuild SHIELD. Well, at least they appear to be following through on that. It remains to be seen how its season shakes out, but as of right now that’s more than you can say for Doctor Who, which established a new narrative mission to find Gallifrey and then completely ignored that, although I highly suspect they’re just doing it in a far more indirect, Steven Moffat-y kind of way.
3. It occurs to me that a fair deal of what I’ve said in this review will be undone if Lucy Lawless’ character isn’t actually dead, but that’s not the story being told by Lawless and the show’s producers in various interviews today.
4. When it comes to movies, I’m a Marvel guy, but when it comes to TV shows and comics I’m a DC guy. What that means is I can watch Gotham and catch every single little reference to Batman lore, but I can watch this episode of SHIELD and have no preconceived notions about comic-book based characters like Hartley and The Absorbing Man. One is not necessarily better than the other, but it’s actually nice to just take it all in, not at all bothered by incessant, “Actually, that’s not how it was in….” thoughts.
5. The Absorbing Man? More like Biceps Man! Am I right ladies? That dude was ripped! I didn’t even care that he had no real personality or dialogue. He was a walking special effect.
6. I still really hate the lighting on this show, specifically any scene on The Bus.
- Agents of SHIELD Season 2 Premiere Review | Soipondered
- Agents of SHIELD “Shadows” Grade B+ | AVClub.com
- :A (Hair)cut Above The Rest | TV.com
I’ve said my bit. Now, it’s your turn. What did you think of the episode? Take to the comments!