Summary: A confident hour that somewhat reboots the show without neglecting the consequences of last season. This solid premiere demonstrates a series that might have learned from its mistakes and is much more enjoyable as a result.
If you have not seen this episode yet and do not wish to be spoiled, do not continue reading!
In 1946, SSR agents led by Peggy Carter infiltrate a hidden Hydra installation run by a mysterious Doctor Reinhardt, who is trying to continue the Red Skull’s work but without his madness. They confiscate a number of odd artifacts, including an ominous obelisk that slowly kills anyone who touches it with bare flesh. Everything is boxed, branded with ascending numbers, and cataloged. The obelisk is labelled item 084, giving rise to the designation in subsequent S.H.I.E.L.D. operations.
In the present, as new director, Coulson is sprinting around the world trying to shore up what’s left of S.H.I.E.L.D. and recruit new talent. May is left in command of the unit we got to know last year, which is but a shell of itself. Turncoat Ward is being held in a vault buried deep within the Playground, the team’s base of operations. Fitz is back on duty but his brush with death in the ocean has taken a toll on his intellect and memory. Skye is better trained and has become May’s righthand. Together with Triplett, they shadow a group of mercenaries led by S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Isabelle Hartley, making an intelligence buy from another former agent.
The buy is broken up by Carl Creel, former Hydra S.H.I.E.L.D. plant who was working with John Garrett at one time. Creel has the ability to absorb and assume the properties of any substance he touches. He steals information on the original 0-8-4. Fitz is tasked with repairing cloaking technology so that the team can use the Bus to travel without detection by Brig. General Glen Talbot, the head of military operations hunting down both S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra. Simmons tries to keep his spirits up and help him through his efforts. Coulson has Skye talk with Ward, who says after a despondent period that he wants to make right his wrongs and help Skye. Ward reveals that Hydra used white noise space within S.H.I.E.L.D. communications to contact and coordinate operations. Koenig finds that it is still active and that the Hydra network is far more extensive than everyone had feared.
Creel is ordered to attack Talbot, and is captured by the military during the strike. May’s team is able to haul Talbot into custody. Coulson attempts to convince Talbot to work together, but the Air Force officer isn’t having it. Koenig lifts Talbot’s fingerprints and his authorization code, as well as the location of the original 0-8-4. Creel used his incarceration to get into the building when the object is located to steal it. May’s and Hartley’s teams are able to infiltrate the building, and Hartley locates the artifact. Creel attacks her and during the struggle she grabs the obelisk to use against him. Now fused to her hand, her arm begins to die. One of the mercs, Lance Hunter, grabs Hartley and her team escapes to get her to a doctor. She asks Hunter to cut off her arm to stop it from killing her. Just as he’s done, Creel appears and causes their fleeing SUV to wreck, killing Hartley and her other man. Hunter is stunned but alive as Creel makes off with the obelisk.
At the military installation, May, Skye, and Trip are able to steal a Quinjet with cloaking technology they can reverse engineer. Coulson is not confident that Fitz can make it back and be of use to them. It’s revealed that the Simmons he was speaking to is a hallucination, as she left the team a while ago. Meanwhile, at a secret Hydra base, a man named Daniel Whitehall, who curiously looks like Reinhardt and may very well be the WWII-era man, is told that Creel recovered the obelisk and they finally have it in their possession after all of these years.
My colleague and review collaborator Derek B. Gayle and I have become sort of the de facto comic book adaptation opiners for the KSiteTV network, with our flagship work on that regard covering The CW series Arrow over at GreenArrowTV. This was not by design of any sort, but we’re both certainly fans of the genre and welcome the embarrassment of riches that television offers for it at this moment in time. We were gladly tasked with covering Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. last year. While we gave it the ol’ college try, both of us let it go come the winter hiatus. It was a series that felt inert, and each week became a struggle to watch as an audience member let alone as reviewers.
For some reason — perhaps hope, but most likely innate geek masochism — I ended up sticking with the show every week for the entire season and, free of having to be actively critical of it, was eventually rewarded. While still not an unqualified success by year’s end, the Hydra reveal post-Captain America: The Winter Soldier gave the series a sense of purpose and crystallized it into a stronger story. The resolution to traitorous John Garrett’s plotline felt kind of pat given the importance placed on “the Clairvoyant” throughout the season, but it felt much more fun to tune in week after week. More important, there were reasonable plot threads left dangling to spin into a new season with a little bit of heat.
It’s with relief, and a bit of joy, that I can declare that the opening hour of this new season easily trumps anything done in the first. This was the series I had envisioned and wanted to see from the very beginning. The ragtag team learning to work together trope was an understandable crutch, but the idea of a capable and experienced squad forming that invisible first line of defense from the “weirder world” was what fired the anticipation and possibility of the premise of an Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. show. Now that we’ve got that, it easily proves the concept.
There is something to be said, though, in having the foundation of experience of the first season to play off of for characters, particularly with Skye and Fitz, both of whom were relative innocents swept up in something far over their heads. The growth in each adds weight and compassion that helps to make them richer characters. Fitz’s story is significantly more poignant because we’ve seen where he’s fallen from. Mixed with Iain de Caestecker’s deft performance, it makes Fitz perhaps the most interesting of the team’s players this year.
It’s one of a few key elements that serves to steer the narrative down a darker path, which is aided well by the move to the 9 o’clock hour. Like any of the Marvel Cinematic Universe properties, they aren’t going to shy away from some humor here and there. In the first season, the series seemed to butt against expectations that it be family-friendly and readily accessible to the broadest audience possible. It’s safe to say that that unspoken mandate hasn’t gone anywhere, but perhaps isn’t as forceful. A character cutting off the arm of another to stop an artifact from killing them pushes hard against that believed restriction to superb effect. The captured Ward bluntly explaining to Skye how he tried to commit suicide to escape both incarceration and seeming guilt for his actions does, as well.
Seeing Fitz cognitively crippled by events of last year’s finale provides consequence, an absolute necessity in this day and age of television. It’s something of a trademark of Joss Whedon’s work, but as he’s only loosely involved here, one hopes that his brother is also a fan and servant of it. I have to admit to being snookered by the reveal that this Jemma Simmons we were seeing on-screen was but a figment of Fitz’s broken mind. (Though, it should be noted that his Mind-Simmons was the one providing guidance, clarity, and answers, which is a sly way of demonstrating that Fitz still owns all of his faculties. They just don’t all work in quite the same fashion as before.) One hopes that when the real Simmons returns that she won’t have a cop-out, quick fix to return Fitz to full capacity.
The other aspect revealed by the continued use of Fitz for tech is just how truly serious is their situation. If they had access to more resources, it’s likely they’d be relying on someone else to figure out the cloaking capability for the Bus. That Coulson calls an audible and has the team trying to recover the original 0-8-4 artifact also steal a confiscated Quinjet as a shortcut reinforces that desperation. Same goes to accepting help from Hartley’s mercenary companions.
Just because Fury handed Coulson a sort of reset button to rebuild S.H.I.E.L.D. didn’t mean he could suddenly put everything back together. This approach that he has to actually go out and convince former S.H.I.E.L.D. agents that they should recommit to the cause is juicy material, not least because it actually pulls Coulson away from this small band we’d come to know. That there’s no guarantee he can convince them, as well as recruit new members, makes it an even more appealing endeavor. The stakes for everything are extraordinarily elevated, and that brief glimpse of thousands of red dots signifying active Hydra agents out in the world beautifully demonstrated just how harrowing their footing is.
Establishing clearly defined bad guys in Carl “Crusher” Creel, the Absorbing Man, and Daniel Whitehall, the mysteriously unaged World War II-era Hydra agent known as Kraken in the comics, is also a serious boon. The case of the week, episodic approach to early season one didn’t do the show much favor. It was when it had clearly identified opponents in Garrett, Ward, Reina, and Deathlok, with serialized storytelling that the show became stronger. Starting this year out in such a fashion adds to the improvement.
It’s thrown out frequently to the point of cliche, but “Shadows” serves as a great jumping-on point for those who either never gave the show a chance last year or dropped it along the way. There is baggage that fully informs the hour, but nothing too inside to drive people away in confusion. It’s well-paced and features a number of storylines to be provoked or entertained by as the season unfurls. Unshackled by the MCU continuity that too often forced the series to be tentative, the sky is wide open for it this year, no pun intended.
Avengers: Age of Ultron will hit theaters near the season finale. Captain America 3 will deal with the ramifications of the Winter Soldier storyline, which ties directly into the Hydra plot that looks to continue to inform AoS this season, yet it doesn’t arrive until 2016. That leaves the show free and clear to chart its own path without worrying about what any one of the MCU movies is doing and how they can tie it into the show. The inclusion in the MCU is both a boost and a thrill for the show, but now we get to see how it operates in its corner of that universe. That’s an exciting prospect, and this first hour clearly demonstrates that they are energized by it.
Odds & Ends
- The opening sequence with Peggy Carter leading the Howling Commandos turned SSR agents against a Hydra installation was fun from a nostalgia standpoint, but also a neat little preview of the Agent Carter series that will be airing during the winter hiatus this season. It was a visual touchstone to get back to the foundations of S.H.I.E.L.D. as Coulson seeks to rebuild the organization, yet also effectively reconnected this year’s threat to the original Hydra and not just the shadowy version that has infected organizations over the past 70 years in the MCU.
- The term 0-8-4 has a practical beginning, and like so many things that take on a life of their own, it’s a rather simple one. The term was taken from the simple cataloging code SSR stamped the necrotic obelisk with when they confiscated the Hydra artifacts following Carter’s raid. It’s a terrific little touch.
- Amongst the artifacts captured by SSR in 1946 was the T.A.H.I.T.I. alien. Dugan tries to get a quick peek but Carter slams the lid of the box down on it. (I’m still going with Kree, by the way; which also ties in great to this summer’s blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy.)
- Perhaps it was a bit obvious, but allowing Creel to have his trademark ball and chain during the Talbot confrontation worked well. Brian Patrick Wade nails Creel in an all but silent role that’s somewhat reminiscent of their use of Blackout last season, yet much more effective.
- Really enjoying Adrian Pasdar’s turn as now Brigadier General Glen Talbot. There are some big aspects to the character but he’s not a caricature. And Pasdar seems to be having fun with a number of the lines. I particularly enjoyed the “kidnapping and holding me in your honeycomb kill room” bit from his interrogation with Coulson.
- The series means business this year: Can’t say I expected Lucy Lawless’ Isabelle Hartley to have been killed so abruptly. It’s been known that Nick Blood’s Hunter will be a regular this season, but taking out Hartley’s little team as a means to bring Hunter into Coulson and May’s fold was a bit surprising. Not sure if I’m going to like this guy.
- I do like Henry Simmons’ Alphonso “Mac” Mackenzie, the mechanic. Branching out and having more supporting cast of S.H.I.E.L.D. members out in the field is both a good choice and gives the opportunity to shake up the team makeup on various missions. As someone who felt that the show should’ve been a bit more like Mission: Impossible, with Coulson and May as constants and a rotating roster of agents chosen specifically for each mission, this possibility excites me.
- Perhaps other career commitments didn’t allow it, but I really wish they had made B.J. Britt’s Agent Triplett a regular this season. He’s a perfect fit for the team and eminently likeable. His complaining to Skye about the weirdness of the multiple Koenigs was fun stuff, and his brand of light humor is the right touch for this darker direction this season. Trip being called General Jones, even as a cover, seemed to legitimize the prevailing theory that Howling Commando/SSR agent Gabe Jones was his grandfather. They still haven’t conclusively confirmed it, but all the allusions fit. It’s just a shame that Derek Luke wasn’t available to join his SSR buddies in that opening raid.
- The beard aside, Brett Dalton’s Ward looks decidedly different this year. He seems both fitter but also a bit more gaunt, which adds wonderfully to his performance. He’s as broken and worn as any of our returning cast of characters.
- Chloe Bennet is also quite a bit more rooted in her part as Skye. Making her a full-fledged agent was necessary, primarily to give the audience someone solid to invest in. Her new look is fantastic, especially in the S.H.I.E.L.D. field suit with the tactical hood. And a badass Skye is infinitely more enjoyable than the fidgety version from a year ago.