Airdate: September 23, 2014
Directed by: Vincent Misiano
Showrunner: Joss Whedon, Jed Whedon, Maurissa Tancharoen
Written by: Jed Whedon, Maurissa Tancharoen
Tonight marked the season 2 premiere of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., introducing a leaner, smaller, and frankly, more endangered version of the super spy agency. With Coulson beginning his tenure as Director, and HYDRA still a very real danger all around them, their job is not going to be easy. Consider also that the US military is treating every S.H.I.E.L.D. agent as though they were HYDRA as well, and the job gets nigh on impossible. Their first task, then? Get together the personnel and materiel that will help them survive – even if that means making sacrifices. Click through after the break for my review.
<<Spoiler Alert: This review of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. S02E01 – “Shadows” – will discuss plot points and events in the episode. Read at your own risk!>>
The cold opening tonight was a real treat. We’re in Austria, 1945, as a HYDRA officer overseas the loading of several artifacts into trucks, including a silver obelisk that, apparently, turns anyone who touches it into a statue. Suddenly, the gates to the compound explode inward – it’s Agent Carter [Hayley Atwell], flanked by Dum Dum Dugan [Neal McDonough] and Jim Morita [Kenneth Choi], two members of Cap’s team from Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). They capture the HYDRA officer, and take the artifacts, intending to put them in safe keeping at the SSR (Strategic Scientific Reserve). The identifying number that Jim stencils onto the box with the dangerous obelisk? 084.
Flash forward, and we see the team – in this case, May, Skye, and Trip – on what appears to be a routine intel mission. There’s a former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent trying to sell information: the location of the SSR-084 container. Little does he know, but the team he’s selling the info to, led by Isabelle Hartly [Lucy Lawless], is a mixture of mercenaries and S.H.I.E.L.D. – Hartly is an agent. Before they can seal the deal and take the intel, a third party breaks in, killing the seller, and escaping with the file after being shot several times – shots that don’t seem to phase him in the slightest.
As the episode develops, we get a few answers as to where things stand with the team. Some indeterminate time has passed since the end of last season, and Coulson is constantly on the move, trying to rebuild and recruit to make S.H.I.E.L.D. a force again, all while avoiding HYDRA and the military under Talbot [Adrian Pasdar], who has now been promoted from Colonel to Brigadier General. We see him in a televised interview with George Stephanopolous (playing himself), telling viewers that S.H.I.E.L.D. needs to be taken down for everyone’s safety. Coulson’s not likely to find any quarter there.
There’s also a new baddie tonight – the man who was bullet-proof in the first sequence after the opening. Turns out he’s a super-powered individual named Carl Creel. He is better known to comic book aficionados as Absorbing Man (they must have been low on good names when they created him), a boxer turned villain first rolled out by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1965. His special ability is to be able to absorb and take on the physical properties of any material (hence the descriptive name). Fortunately for the episode, they only ever refer to him by his boxing nickname, Crusher, rather than his nom de guerre. According to his file, he’s deceased – which he quite obviously is not. The agent who signed off on his death? None other than Garrett.
Coulson asks Skye to go into Vault D for him. We’re not told why she’s so hesitant, until we see what’s kept down there: Grant Ward. He tries to start up a conversation, but Skye is clear – if he does anything other than answer her questions, she’s out of there.
He reveals that he knows a little about Creel, but more importantly, he tells Skye how HYDRA used to hijack S.H.I.E.L.D. transmissions – conveniently on bandwidths that are still broadcasting. Koenig starts a trace, and sure enough, they detect HYDRA communications ongoing. Where are the transmissions heading? All over the globe – dozens, perhaps a hundred, red dots light up across the world map, showing potential HYDRA agents or bases. When seen in contrast to the dozen or so blue dots that represent potential S.H.I.E.L.D. assets, things look daunting indeed.
Using the information gained by eavesdropping, the team intercepts Talbot as he’s about to be taken by Creel. Coulson talks to him, trying to use reason and common sense, but also cleverly angering him enough that he grips the armrests of the chair he’s tied to – giving Koenig access to his fingerprints, and thus access to the secure base where the obelisk is being kept.
The remainder of the episode sees the team infiltrating the base, and coming away with the obelisk – albeit in the stony clutches of Isabelle Hartley, whose arm is slowly turning to stone and killing her. May, Skye, and Trip remain behind, Trip and Skye stealing a stealth jet with full cloaking capabilities, while May rides off on a motorbike while under fire.
Ultimately, the second team with Hartley fail to make it back to the Playground. Creel shows up, absorbs some asphalt, and places himself in front of the SUV carrying Hartley’s team, causing it to flip. Hartley’s hand and arm, still gripping the obelisk, fly out of the vehicle – she made one of her partners cut it off to save her life – and Creel walks away with the obelisk, after absorbing tire rubber into his arm to protect it from the artifact’s touch. Of Hartley and her team, only one British mercenary, Lance Hunter [Nick Blood] is left alive.
The stinger takes us into a HYDRA lair. As a lackey reports on the recovery of the obelisk to his superior, whose back is turned to us, the superior takes of his glasses and wipes them. They’re round and tiny, exactly the same pair the HYDRA officer taken by Agent Carter and her men was wearing at the beginning of the episode. He turns – sure enough, it’s him. His lackey calls him Dr. Whitehall. Meet the new Big Bad for Season 2.
From the beginning of the episode, Coulson, at least initially, has a tentativeness about him that seems uncharacteristic. But later, when he commits all of his resources – and you realize that the team and a few mercenaries are literally all he has – his caution makes sense. He still knows when to take risks when necessary. One very refreshing aspect of his new role as Director, is that he is no longer running point on the missions. This is a lesson television dramas fail to learn time and again, beginning at least with Star Trek, and continuing as recently as this summer’s The Last Ship. Commanding officers, save for perhaps General Patton himself, do not lead from the front – they organize from behind the scenes, monitoring the strategic and tactical situation, and adapting as they need to. This is exactly what Coulson does in this episode.
May is fully back into Coulson’s good books. She’s his top agent, and the de facto leader in the field. He trusts her, and she still questions most of his decisions – exactly what he needs to help temper his plans. She hasn’t dropped a beat, still coldly effective in the field, even under automatic weapons fire
Skye is less Skye-y. She’s still going to annoy those people who aren’t her fans, but she’s just another part of the team now, becoming more effective and efficient as May continues the training that Ward began. It is only with regard to Ward, in fact, that Skye is particularly focused on, which I’ll discuss when I talk about Ward below.
Trip is sliding into the gap left by Ward’s departure as part of the team. He has a moment with Skye which brought a smile, when he walks up to her wearing a uniform. She asks, “A general?” and he responds, “You know I look good, girl” with a broad grin. The two seem to get along fine, with none of the tension that sometimes got in the way between her and Ward.
Agent Koenig [Patton Oswalt] is a delight, and tonight he was much more helpful in his incarnation as Billy than he was as Eric (back at Providence Base). A conversation between Trip and Skye has them wondering at how many brothers Koenig has, and whether they’re triplets, quads, or clones, as Trip believes.
Ward is in the doghouse – or more specifically, Vault D – and is protected behind a laser containment field. He acts contrite, but just comes across as creepy-stalker-crazy. He refuses to speak with anyone but Skye, who would rather see him dead. When she notices scars on his wrists, he tells her he also tried running his head at the wall. “You should have run harder” she deadpans. He does have one of the more promising (so far as future episodes are concerned) lines of the night: as Skye is leaving, he says he has lots to talk to her about her father, but she misses the last part, because she drops a shield on his prison as he gets to the word “about.” So, he knows information that will likely lead to future missions, and perhaps solve some of Skye’s mystery. It is interesting to note that his apparent interest in Skye is not affected by this knowledge. Either he’s creepier than he appears to be, or the information isn’t of a devastating nature.
The saddest storyline remains, predictably, Fitz and Simmons. At the end of last season, when the team asked after Fitz, Simmons reply was, “He’s alive.” Here, we see him trying to work through a few problems – creating a cloaking device for the Bus, determine the properties of metal shards taken from the scene of Creel’s first appearance – but having a great deal of trouble concentrating. Simmons is at his side throughout, encouraging him, and providing the words that his aphasia, brought on from brain damage due to lack of oxygen, has taken away from him. His struggles are palpable, and to be honest, Iain De Caestecker stole every scene he was in. At the end of the episode, as Coulson lists off the reasons he is willing to sacrifice in the short term to gain long-term security, he states that the reason he had to risk the team to get the stealth technology is that Fitz isn’t capable of coming up with it himself. He’s been struggling, and ever since Simmons left, talking to himself and becoming more insular. It turns out that, a la A Beautiful Mind, Fitz is hallucinating Simmons the whole time – she isn’t currently with the team.
The episode was, in many ways, a throwback to the mid-season style of last year. There’s a mission, some people are in danger, and then the principals all get away. Meanwhile, at least one menacing baddie is able to live to fight another day, usually taking something that will cause problems for the team in the future. Another effect of this step backward is that the episode wasn’t as tense or as fast-paced as the wonderful seven-episode “Uprising” arc that finished out last season. This makes sense – if they tried to maintain that pace, the show would burn out. Still, besides the Agent Carter/Dum Dum/Jim cameos at the beginning, and the (sadly temporary – she does appear to be dead) addition of Lawless’s Isabelle Hartley, there wasn’t a lot of new and exciting going on here. As a season premiere, it was merely serviceable.
The main problem here was that there was no clear and distinct cliffhanger left from the finale. Yes, we didn’t know Fitz’s condition, nor did we know how S.H.I.E.L.D. was going to survive going forward. And then there’s the whole “who is Agent Koenig” question.
But none of these provided satisfying reasons to anticipate this premiere. Yes, I was worried about Fitz, but it was obvious from Simmons’ response about his health that things weren’t good. Why not up the ante? Why not try to do brain reconstruction on him as Fury had done to Coulson? Why not create a moral conundrum there? Yes, this could happen in a future episode, but it would have been a worthy storyline to pursue now, and would have shown the team how loyal Director Coulson was to them, now that he isn’t just their team leader.
The survival of S.H.I.E.L.D.? Never really in doubt here – they’re in a secure base that provides them with the materiel they currently need, although it reduces their mobility – but the tenuous nature of their existence was never emphasized. The fact that they can safely bring Talbot into their base, interview him, and then safely take him out, reduces any kind of tension or worry in that regard to almost zero. An on-the-run S.H.I.E.L.D. would be much more interesting, rather than one that is still able to pull off missions to infiltrate an extremely high-security military base with nary a scratch (yes, Hartley dies, but that is because of a combination of the obelisk and Creel, not because of anything the military does). Strangely, the one death that could, even should, have been meaningful simply wasn’t. Whedon and Tancharoen are clearly using Hartley’s death to show how dangerous the situation is for S.H.I.E.L.D., but her death never feels that overwhelming – perhaps because her character had almost zero chance to be developed before she was killed.
And Koenig? His mystery is relegated to the one conversation between Trip and Skye. Otherwise, he might just as well be another base functionary, despite that I enjoy everything that comes out of his mouth. I hope he is utilized better moving forward.
All of that said, the episode did have a few cool moments, which I’ll list below.
- In the cold opening, Agent Carter quickly shuts a box sitting among the others – but only after we get a glimpse of the blue alien from Episode 119, “T.A.H.I.T.I.”, the one that produces the GH-325 drug that saved Coulson’s (and Skye’s) life
- Finding out that Koenig has more than one brother – now if only they worked that more into the episode
- The room where the government is stashing dangerous objects was an obvious homage to the end scene of <i>Raiders of the Lost Ark</i>
- Creel’s escape from his plastic cell – by absorbing the properties of the plastic, and thus rendering himself invisible. The unspoken aspect of that and the following scenes is that he had to be naked for it to work. Pretty risque for network television
Overall, a few moments of cool couldn’t entirely save this episode nor elevate it from mediocrity. I like the show, and I have high hopes for what they might do this season, but I’m hoping it improves from the season opener.
Steve’s Grade: B-
Although the show had some moments, and Fitz’s plotline was particularly poignant, there just didn’t seem to be enough real tension or danger for the main players in tonight’s episode. The introduction of a couple of new baddies bodes well for the future, but Season 2 has stumbled a bit coming out of the gate.