Season 2, Episode 1: Shadows
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had a hard run when it began last year. Saddled with its connection to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and plagued with frequent extended hiatuses, the show spun its wheels for several months with passable, yet unfulfilling done-in-one episodes. It was kind of like an okay season of Murdoch Mysteries with an Infinity Gem thrown in once in a while.
Roll out to March 2014, and the theatrical release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and things changed dramatically for the better. In the film the major antagonist organization HYDRA reared its multiple heads, and S.H.I.E.L.D. as we know it was ripped asunder, with unavoidable consequences for a television show starring Nick Fury’s favourite normal human, Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). Storylines that had been bubbling for months finally reached a turning point; allies new and old showed their true colours; and the first television offshoot of the Marvel Comics films was finally realizing its promise.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is taking its success and running with it, if the second season’s premiere is anything to go by. New characters join last season’s main cast, a much more imposing villain shows up early into the episode, several major plot threads are already thrown into play, with seemingly major implications.
The list of new characters is impressive in its own right: Nick Blood plays mercenary Lance Hunter, joined (at least for this episode) by Lucy Lawless as merc Isabelle Hartley and Henry “definitely not Dwyane Johnson” Simmons as Alphonso MacKenzie, a mechanic and friend of Tripp.
Perhaps more exciting for Marvel fans is Hayley Atwell reprising her role as Peggy Carter, joining the Howling Commandos we met in Captain America: The First Avenger. A short vignette set in the 1940s sets the scene for the modern-day storyline thanks to the first magical macguffin of the season: an alien artefact that appears to slowly turn any living thing it touches to ash.
They’re good foils for the crew we’re more familiar with, who are in a state of flux themselves. Hacker Skye (Chloe Bennett) replaces the lived-in flannel shirts with tactical gear more fitting of a field agent, now being supervised by veteran Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen).
Skye’s former mentor, Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), meanwhile, is being held in a dank cell with a Star Trek-like forcefield after revealing he was a sleeper agent for HYDRA the entire time. Dalton doesn’t appear to have been given a more interesting script since last season’s epic heel turn. But he still manages to show viewers that he isn’t the boring, one-note tough guy we met last year. No, he’s flat-out crazy, with blood on his hands but no real sense of what he is without HYDRA and his former mentor Garrett.
It’ll be interesting to see where the show goes with him this season; the maligned “Skye-Ward” relationship we were teased before appears completely unfeasible at this point, but showrunners have attempted more hamfisted redemption arcs in the past.
Most crushing, though, is certainly the state of the two tech specialists, Fitz and Simmons. Jemma Simmons, played by Elizabeth “definitely not Emma Watson” Henstridge, admirably takes a stalwart stance to her friend and colleague Leo Fitz (Iain De Caestecker), who suffered injuries of an indeterminate degree at the end of last season. Simmons gives Fitz her undivided attention, waiting for him to find the right words while he struggles completing tasks that would have been finished in a heartbeat before suffering what is apparently significant brain trauma. But through a monologue by Coulson late in the episode, we realize that Simmons actually left earlier, and her appearances throughout the episode were a manifestation of Fitz’s disparate consciousness.
The action of the week involves the team infiltrating a U.S. military base to find the aforementioned alien artifact, which was captured from HYDRA by Peggy Carter and the Commandos in the ‘40s. It’s nothing viewers aren’t used to in the show, but we’re helped along by some shocking moments, including the apparent death (or at least extremely dire situation) of Lawless’s Isabelle Hartley, and a spectacle in the form of the Absorbing Man.
Kudos to the show for introducing the Absorbing Man, also known as Carl Creel (played by Brian Patrick Wade) so early on. Last season we saw months of development from J. August Richards’ character into something close to what comic book fans know as the cyborg warrior Dethlok. Here, Creel shows up here with little introduction needed: he’s a HYDRA agent recruited by last season’s big bad John Garrett, and keeps his trademark shirtless look and ability to absorb the power of any substance he touches. He’s a regular villain in the Thor comics and easily the most high-profile show-only villain with a pedigree from comics lore.
The show’s treatment of his character is pretty unique too, to my limited knowledge of Thor lore. Creel keeps a cabinet full of several different substances because he appears to experience a drug-like high from the transformation. A HYDRA agent rewards him with a rare diamond, apparently not for a mission but because the sensation of his body transmuting into the alloy is pleasurable. Throw in the use of his signature ball-and-chain, and a throwaway scene where he holds a piece of wood to change into a budget version of the Guardians of the Galaxy’s Groot, and we see a show that has little problem mixing in its grounded spy action with off-the-wall comics fantasies.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has returned with the urgency and excitement of the second half of its first season, and thankfully none of the plodding nature of the first half. I fully expect the show’s visual effects budget to plunge after this season premiere, but there are still lots of things I’m looking forward to, and questions I actually care to find out the answers to. What was the magical artifact that HYDRA is after? Will Fitz recover? Can Agent Coulson rebuild S.H.I.E.L.D. before things inevitably go to shit, again? With almost an entire season before The Avengers 2 looms over the plot threads like some vast, predatory bird, I’m looking forward to whatever comes next.
Biggest question: The artifact everyone’s going on about briefly flashes the strange symbols and writing Skye’s been studying – it was the script that John Garrett was obsessed about last season, and what Coulson has apparently been sleep-writing on the walls of the base, possibly unbeknownst to him.
Best line: Intel from Ward reveals HYDRA is still active from dozens of locations, easily outnumbering known SHIELD allies. “I hate being right,” muses Coulson with his usual deadpan.
Best laugh: Thanks to some nifty tech, Coulson speaks in the voice of the crusty General Talbot to a hapless guard, ordering him to let in an unknown general, who is actually Tripp in disguise. The look on Agent Billy Koenig’s (Patton Oswalt) face as Coulson threatens the private with poop-related imagery is glorious. It’s like he’s a kid in Third Grade who just heard his teacher swear for the first time.