Late in the first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., regular cast member and almost-a-real-boy agent Grant Ward revealed his true colours as a murderous and sometimes-psychopathic sleeper agent for the enemy faction, HYDRA. As a result, fans of the show combed through the previous 16 episodes looking for any red herrings of Ward’s hidden, duplicitous nature (one example in particular is rather intriguing).
The show’s writers and directors must have really liked the response, because we’re seeing several “aha!” moments in both episodes of the second season that have aired so far. Last week, Coulson revealed through authoritative monologue that Agent Fitz’s partner in crime and almost-but-not-quite love interest Simmons left the team some time before, and Elizabeth Henstridge’s on-air appearances have thus far been solely manifestations of Fitz’s imagination.
In this week’s episode, “Heavy Is the Head,” the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments happen near the halfway mark when Director Coulson and the team make contact with Raina, the mysterious Woman in the Flower Dress.
Raina, no longer working with HYDRA, is on the tail of Crusher Creel, a.k.a. the Absorbing Man, because he currently possesses The Obelisk, a weird object that has the power to kill anyone it touches. Coulson is talking to her via speaker phone, as hacker/social engineer Skye tries to track her. Raina says that her former boss, John Garrett, knew something about the secrets The Obelisk holds, and here’s where things get interesting.
Coulson looks at Agent May when Raina mentions Garrett. May gives a split-second look of concern, her usual stony demeanour caught off guard. Skye gives a look of confusion, just as Coulson turns off the speaker phone to talk directly into the old-timey receiver – just at the moment that Raina mentions Garrett had begun scribbling weird symbols into the walls.
These are likely the so-called “Words of Creation,” which Skye has been studying and saw on The Obelisk. The same words that Coulson scraped onto the walls with a hunting knife at the end of the Season One finale.
We learn at the end of this week’s episode that May is, of course, entirely aware of Coulson’s recent compulsion to imitate Bart Simpson in detention class. He’s had to do it roughly every two weeks, so he and May had installed a pull-down chalkboard University of Toronto lecturers would die for, solely so he can engrave it with the Words again. Coulson gets his chance to release the alien text from his head for a few days, while May documents the process, presumably in the hopes of finding out just why this is happening.
The entire exchange in that phone call neatly encapsulates what “Heavy Is the Head” is going for: establishing some of the major threads this season will follow, reintroducing some of the elements and characters from last season that still have a role to play, all while focused primarily on the threat of the week: an increasingly unstable Absorbing Man.
Last week, Creel turned his hand into rubber in order to pick up The Obelisk. We thought that kept him safe from its petrifying effects, but apparently it only slowed it down – parts of his body are slowly hardening, and he’s absorbed the ability to petrify and kill any person he touches, whether he likes it or not.
Hot on the trail of Creel is Lance Hunter, played by newcomer Nick “Nicky The Dragon Steamboat” Blood, out for revenge after Creel killed his teammates Isabelle Hartley and Idaho last week. Much of this episode’s airtime is spent observing Hunter’s character as this season’s new team regular, and his loyalty is tested multiple times.
We see him show moments of tenderness reminiscing on his teammates’ deaths, and waffling between selling S.H.I.E.L.D. out to General Talbot and staying loyal to Coulson because…well, because he waffled on helping out General Talbot. It’s not a terrible plot, and had some nice fake-outs but I kind of hope he settles into his role as another field agent with clever lines, because compared to what the crew from last season’s been through I really don’t care about him as much.
Our other newcomer, Mack Mackenzie, impresses as a mechanic able to connect with the afflicted Agent Fitz. Perhaps as a result of never having seen Fitz before his injury, he’s less uncomfortable around him when his symptoms manifest. Mack challenges Fitz when he glances at imaginary Simmons, asks him outright about her departure, and crucially helps him find the right words and ideas Fitz is having trouble recalling, allowing them to repurpose an old gadget to stop Absorbing Man. It’s a surprisingly sensitive role for the burly Henry Simmons, who plays well off of Ian De Caestecker’s unnervingly convincing performance as someone struggling with brain damage.
So while “Heavy is the Head” serves mostly to set up the dominoes sure to tumble later this season, viewers are still treated to meaningful developments that, at the very least, didn’t leave me as unsatisfied as the early episodes of the first season. Answer one question and two more take its place.
– This marks the first on-screen appearance of Kyle Maclachlan, Raina’s current accomplice and Skye’s father. He’s probably the season’s big bad, what with his seeming knowledge of The Obelisk and his literal hands dripping with blood and all.
– Agent Ward doesn’t appear this week, which is honestly a relief. He can’t be a convincing last resort if you pull him out of the basement regularly.
– Coulson learned how to use the holo-menus he and Ward had so much trouble with last season. It’s a good thing because that’s the only way he can browse the minefield of data held in that cube Nick Fury gave him last season.