Coulson and co. are back for a second season as Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. returns to formula, despite exploding its central premise in S1.
Let’s bitch it out…
I wouldn’t say that I’m underwhelmed by this second season premiere, but there’s definitely something missing from ‘Shadows.’ Despite the presence of a clear cut objective – find and secure the original 084 object discovered by Agent Carter (Hayley Atwell) in Austria in 1945 – there’s no real sense of urgency. Coulson (Clark Gregg) is now acting as SHIELD director, so he’s calling the shots, but when he directs what remains of the team to go on a mission he’s back to being obtuse and secretive. The lack of context about the object and its powers means this is little more than a heist – there’s an impression that this could be “end of the world” danger stuff, but that’s an assumption because all we actually know is that it’s “bad” if HYDRA gets a hold of it.
Unfortunately this narrative approach is representative of how Agents of SHIELD operates: there’s action, and some characterization, but there are no real stakes. The show went through a troubling two-thirds of its first season trying desperately to keep the HYDRA twist in Captain America 2 under wraps to the detriment of its own success. Only when the show finally let loose did it actually become interesting. You can already see the retcon under way in this second season premiere: Coulson is back to keeping secrets, May (Ming-Na Wen) is trying to rein him in and even Ward (Brett Dalton) is kinder and gentler – character rehab well under way. I’m not suggesting that the series had to blow up its entire premise again, but why does so much of this feel the same? Oh sure SHIELD is now operating “in the shadows” (there’s a drinking game to be played with all of the light imagery that’s being tossed around), but the show’s structure remains more or less intact. They now just have to steal an invisible jet instead of using their own SHIELD sanctioned one. (P.S. Yay, we’re going back to the jet. Because everyone loved how much time was spent on the Bus last year).
This unwillingness to complicate the status quo is clear in the treatment of the band of mercenaries introduced in the episode. Initially it seems like a great opportunity to complicate the notion of what SHIELD has become. Coulson complains in an exasperated tone how difficult it is traveling the world seeking allies and May tells him that she doesn’t trust the new band because they’re only interested in profit. It’s an interesting opportunity to unpack the political implications of getting into bed with unlikely partners due to the extenuating circumstances, but ‘Shadows’ never bothers to explore them. Despite going in half-cocked and misinformed about the purpose of the mission, none of the mercenaries protest when Coulson barks orders, save Lance Hunter (Nick Blood). Interestingly only Hunter is left alive at the end of the episode, so perhaps he’ll stick around to continue questioning Coulson and co. moving forward.
Still, it’s hard not to be frustrated with the dogged persistence that showrunners Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen show for immediately reinstating the “mission without consequences” formula that bogged down so much of S1. Going into a season as underdogs should have raised the stakes, but gaining access to the 084 looks as easy as walking into a children’s store. When things go sour and Agent Hartly’s (Lucy Lawless) arm is compromised, there’s a suggestion that she’ll have to learn to live the injury for the rest of her life (she quips that they can do amazing things with robotics). However instead of examining the consequences of losing an arm and how that affects soldiers, Hartly is simply killed in an ensuing car crash caused by the Absorbing Man (Brian Patrick Wade). Investigating the fall-out would have been messy and complicated, and maybe even forced the writers to dig into who Hartly was. Instead she’s just a woman who blindly followed orders for no apparent reason and died in pursuit of a mysterious object AKA another SHIELD red shirt.
- The budget conscious viewer in me wonders if the reason Hartly dies and Hunter lives is because Lucy Lawless is more expensive to keep around. Better to pimp out the genre favourite in the premiere to snag a few eyeballs and then get rid of her.
- Adrian Pasdar returns as General Talbot. It’s a thankless role that requires the actor to act as an “idiot disbeliever” who foils plans. The issue is that since we’re aligned with Coulson and SHIELD, time spent arguing with Talbot about the value of their work is time wasted. We know they’re right and he’s wrong.
- One of the few scenes that land for me is when Skye (Chloe Bennet) visits Ward in prison. Admittedly if we never saw another Hannibal Lecter rip-off, I would be a happy man, but at least there’s tension (romantic or anger fueled) between these two. While Bennet’s disdain for her former lover doesn’t have quite the same impact as it did last season, there’s potential in this relationship. Still, it already seems clear that Ward will eventually be redeemed, which would be a huge mistake. Ward should only ever be a villain from now on.
- I’m really uncertain about the “twist” involving Fitz’s (Iain De Caestecker) brain trauma. Not only is he forgetting things, he’s imagining Simmons’ (Elizabeth Henstridge) presence. On one hand, it’s a great example of the kind of consequence I’d like the see the show do more of, even if it isn’t particularly entertaining or enjoyable to watch (perhaps because Fitz will undoubtedly be cured with a magic elixir or something in two to three episodes). On the other hand, this feels awfully manipulative. If we’re being honest, I would have preferred that the series prove its seriousness by having Fitz sacrifice himself to save Simmons back in that pod (I say this as a fan of De Caestecker’s, too, even though I’m not a huge fan of the character).
- I know we’re meant to question what exactly Patton Oswalt’s many replicas are (BJ Britt’s Triplett identifies them as “creepy”), but I don’t care. So long as Oswalt makes me laugh and this doesn’t become its own huge arc, I’m happy for him to putter around in the background.
- Finally, since I’ve been pretty hard on this premiere, let’s end with some praise: hurray for that opening scene with Agent Carter (Hayley Atwell) and the Howling Commandos. Can’t wait for that marvelous lady to get her own show in the Spring. Here’s hoping she brings Dum Dum Dugan (Neal McDonough) along with her.
- Coulson (lamenting all of his travel): “I prefer it, but flying economy blows.”
- Triplett (seeking compliments from Skye for his Captain costume): “Come on girl, you know I look good”
Your turn: do you think I’m being overly harsh? Were you expecting the show to go in different directions? Sad that Lucy Lawless is dead? Intrigued by the mysterious 084 object? Do you agree that the Fitz storyline is manipulative? And will Ward by redeemed? Sound off below
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. airs Tuesdays at 9pm EST on ABC