‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ Season Premiere Review: “Shadows”
Marvel’s ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ assembles its first season 2 installment in the “Shadows,” as Coulson's efforts to rebuild the organization come up against Hydra mercenary Carl "Crusher" Creel (Brian Patrick Wade), while a mysterious artifact from the 'Agent Carter' era necessitates a run-in with the U.S. government.
Last season's ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ finale “Beginning of the End” saw Coulson enlisting the help of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) in making the ultimate assault against Garrett, Ward and Deathlok, leading the team to team suffer a devastating loss, so how does ABC’s ‘Avengers‘-adjacent series begin its marvelous new season?
Read on for your in-depth review of everything you need to know about ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’’s season 2 premiere, “Shadows”!
Well. That was unexpectedly good.
I’m starting to feel like a broken record in prefacing reviews with this sentiment, but it seems especially the case here: ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ can prove staggeringly difficult to review. On the one hand, the series inspired so much discourse before, during and after its inaugural run, it’s nigh-impossible to evaluate its strengths and weaknesses under the context of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And yet, we can’t entirely divorce the series from the larger world around it, so first season reviews became a difficult balancing act between recognizing relatable character development, well-staged action, and appreciating external reasons for a lack of narrative mobility.
Think of the films as an airplane in flight, with ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ a nifty sportscar struggling to keep pace beneath, two methods of travel that were never intended to move in tandem, despite what a recent CBS climax eating away at my brain would have you believe. And yet, like the Justin Lin-directed ‘Scorpion’ pilot, ‘Agents’ had been forced to dangle its metaphorical Karen Cartwright out of the car all the same, desperately looking to connect with the supersonic behemoth above, if only for a brief exchange of information.
The upside to this increasingly bizarre and specific metaphor, is that where ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’’s first season had to contend with the likes of ‘Thor: The Dark World’ and ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ soaring above, ready to upend the ABC’s drama trajectory at a moment’s notice, season 2 has no real Marvel movies to contend with, save the ‘Age of Ultron’ next May, which itself only requires so much setup. Our failed ‘Smash’ heroine has no plane from which to dangle.
Awkward CBS metaphors aside, I’ll be straight with you. I really didn’t expect to enjoy tonight’s premiere as much as I did. Twenty-two episodes in, it seemed reasonable to expect ‘S.H.I.E.L.D.’ would keep to a certain formulaic pattern amid its various components, Hydra shakeups not withstanding. Pleasant and reasonably nerd-friendly guest stars like Lucy Lawless’ Isabelle Hartley would put in a few episodes, before conjuring some sound reason to shuffle off the main storyline for a time, Coulson would espouse some wishy-washy sentiment about the ideals of S.H.I.E.L.D., and the good guys would trade safely blue-muzzled bullets with the enemy before returning to base.
Not so much, as “Shadows” would have it. SPECIAL GUEST STAR (!!!) Lucy Lawless not only gruesomely suffers the loss of her arm in the premiere’s final minutes, but seemingly dies along with "Idaho" in a car-wreck caused by Marvel’s Absorbing Man. Moral through-lines criss-cross from every direction, as Coulson and his new team debate the merits of fighting the U.S. government for their own protection against Hydra, and the new S.H.I.E.L.D. director boldly okays the sacrifice of team members in favor of obtaining a Quinjet’s cloaking device, a hollow victory weighed against the prospect of silently protecting a public that views them indistinguishable from a Nazi death cult. Worst of all, poor Fitz has gone stone-crazy, and his teammates have given up hope of his recovery.
Where Coulson’s early “Go dark” command initially seemed like an on-the-nose assessment of the show’s new season 2 mantra, the third act of “Shadows” made painfully clear that the writers weren’t kidding around. Part of what makes “Shadows” an effectively confident return to form lies in a more established sense of villainy, as where the first season labored to instill gravity behind silly words like “Centipede” or “Clairvoyant,” here we finally allow Hydra to exist as a credible threat to the world at large. And while ‘Captain America’ admittedly did most of the legwork building up said villainy, the action flourishes under an established set of stakes.
The first season danced around vague worldwide sentiments like “the Battle of New York changed everything” and “look, alens and superheroes!,” where the dissolution of S.H.I.E.L.D. brings a very real outrage from the world at large. Men like Adrian Pasdar’s Glenn Talbot are as angry as they are embarrassed by the collapse of S.H.I.E.L.D. intelligence, and Coulson’s back-and-forth with the incensed general crystallizes the show’s new world order in a very grounded manner: any and all clandestine powers threaten humanity, be they borne of science, magic, or good old-fashioned bureaucracy.
Beyond Hydra and the U.S. Government, we also have more Marvel-ous villainy from the likes of Carl “Crusher” Creel, who isn’t afforded a great deal of individual personality within the hour, but still makes for an imposing threat in his own right, given Brian Patrick Wade’s imposing stature and some decently well-rendered (if smaller-scale) effects. And where last season languished under the wooden heroism of Brett Dalton’s Grant
Beard Ward, only to cheaply pull the rug out with a Hydra twist, the more frayed, Hannibal-esque Ward makes for a far more interesting take on the character, if only weighed by our nagging suspicions a Skye romance somehow remains on the back-burner. It’s all in the name of course-correction really, but we’re willing to forgive such a sudden change when it yields compelling results.
Of course, ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ remains as serialized a show as it can over 22 episodes, and “Shadows” also affords us plenty to play with in the future. There’s still the lingering alien formula and Skye’s parentage hovering in the aether, but “Shadows” wisely pays the two mere lip service amid the more action-driven story. Mystery obelisks, Carl Creel and the seemingly-unaged Daniel Whitehall (Reed Diamond) will no-doubt return to menace the team, while the Herculean task of rebuilding S.H.I.E.L.D. from scratch remains a strong focus, and lasting consequences like Fitz’s imaginary Simmons seem to be the name of the game. A few dry moments and glossed-over characters here and there, but ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ definitely seems to have hit a major groove, casting more than a few “Shadows” for subsequent season 2 episodes to escape from under.
AND ANOTHER THING…
- Wonderful as it was to see Kenneth Choi and Neil McDonough ‘s Howling Commandos once-more flanking Hayley Atwell’s ‘Agent Carter’ in the opening minutes, the sequence couldn’t help feeling a bit perfunctory, given the battle’s lacking scale and rushed “0-8-4” setup. At least we know where Coulson’s blue friend came from, and Reed Diamond dropped his silly accent!
- Nice nod to the comics to give Creel a ball-and-chain mimicking his comic weaponry, but dern it all if I wasn’t disappointed to see the metal finish limited to his arm. TV budgets. Also, was he naked for the glass trick to work?
- Genuinely did not see the Simmons reveal coming. I first rolled my eyes at Fitz’s telegraphed adoration for her repeat shoulder touches, but bought in after a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it look on Elizabeth Henstridge’s face that showed her discomfort with the moment. It was a nice little detail to begin with, let alone how the ultimate revelation implies Fitz’s unconscious awareness of Simmons’ unreturned affection.
- Skye seems notably less grating! If only the premiere hadn’t further solidified her role as an object of male affection, adding Triplett and Lance Hunter to their potential romantic quadrangle.
- Putting a beer in everyone’s hand is not a substitute for grit, guys.
- More Clark Gregg and Patton Oswalt S.H.E.N.A.N.I.G.A.N.S., please.
- Lucky for you, we've got a comprehensive guide of Everything You Need to Know About 'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' season 2, cameos and all!
Well, what say you? Did ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’’s second season premiere “Shadows” kick off the year as successfully as you'd hoped? How do you think the show fared with its titular organization in Hydra-torn pieces? Give us your thoughts in the comments, stay tuned more on tonight's premiere, and check back next week for our review of ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ season 2's latest, "Heavy is the Head" on ABC!