Season one of Agents of SHIELD ends with Fitz recovering from nearly drowning, Coulson taking on the task of rebuilding SHIELD, and the remaining agents loyal to SHIELD on the run from the over-zealous Brigadier General Glenn Talbot. It only stands to reason that season two would open in Austria, 1945, with Agent Peggy Carter and the Howling Commandos taking out the final Hydra base. The scene is an obvious tie-in with the upcoming Agent Carter, but it also acts as a solid connecting story thread between the two shows. All of these artifacts that Peggy helped bring in will be in play, adding a potential Warehouse 13 element to the show that fans of that show would really love. Plus a World War II-era Hydra leader, who is still alive and inexplicably young in present day, is set up as a season-long villain for Agents of SHIELD. The Agent Carter opening seems a bit gimmicky at first, but by the end of the premiere, it is actually a smart tie-in.
The big new bad guy introduced in “Shadows” is Carl Creel, a super-villain known as the Absorbing Man in the comic books. He can touch a material and then transform his skin into it. For example, he can touch diamonds and turn his skin into a diamond shield, and he can easily camouflage himself when he needs to be stealthy. Despite the limitations of its television budget, the transformation effects look really good, especially compared to a similar effect used earlier for Pinocchio on ABC’s Once Upon a Time. Wisely, the effects are used in a limited way. Pinocchio’s entire body and face had to transform into wood, but Creel’s transformation is mostly limited to his hands and arms. His hand transforms into rubber so he can pick up a dangerous artifact without harming himself, or his hands and arms turn into steel so he can fight his way out of a tight spot, even when outnumbered. There are only a few instances of Creel undergoing a full-body transformation, when he is sitting in a chair and enjoying the sensation of transforming, rather than during a combat situation, which probably makes the effect easier to create.
One of the biggest problems with season one of Agents of SHIELD was that the show’s good ideas never fit together quite right. Some of the ideas or characters had definite possibilities, but there were problems with the pacing, tone, and dialogue, which was frustratingly clichéd at times. “Shadows” represents a marked improvement in all three areas and it sets up plotlines that can easily stretch a whole season, unlike season one’s infuriating Agent Coulson-Tahiti mystery. Coulson is in charge of SHIELD now and already, he is facing difficult choices. Will he become yet another Nick Fury, or will he forge his own path? He is already employing mercenaries, like Agent Isabelle Hartley (Lucy Lawless)’s team, and he is using Skye to get information out of Ward. Clark Gregg’s performance is not outwardly anguishing over these dilemmas, but rather confident and almost cold, even with Skye.
Similarly, Fitz is unsure of his place on the team, should he not fully recover from his head trauma. He is no longer the quirky comic relief, which was never the right fit for actor Iain De Caestecker anyway, and he might not be the brains of the operation either. Post-injury, he is less naïve and innocent and more angry. At certain moments, Caestecker’s performance is reminiscent of Sherlock‘s Benedict Cumberbatch, particularly Sherlock’s frustration that everyone around him is slow. Except Fitz’s impatience and cruelty is directed at himself. Fitz is recovering from nearly drowning, but he is also recovering from Ward’s betrayal, which will take much longer to heal. With the episode’s last-minute twist revealing how damaged he really is, it will be interesting to see where the writers plan to take his story in season two.
Speaking of damaged, Skye is also recovering from Ward’s betrayal, but she is forced to see him on a regular basis, as she is the only one who can get good intel out of him. Ward says that he still loves Skye, but their romance has been replaced with a dynamic that more resembles Hannibal and Clarice. By far, this is the most interesting development in Skye’s character, and the scene with Ward discussing his various suicide attempts is some of the best acting from both Brett Dalton and Chloe Bennet on the show.
As far as long-term antagonists, Creel is set up as the season’s new bad guy, but it’s likely that the writers are setting up Hartley and her gang as villains. Coulson leaving Hartley and her team behind could give her the proper motivation to turn against SHIELD, and Lucy Lawless a great reason for sticking around. As it is, she does not have much to do in “Shadows”, aside from reminding Coulson that her team cares about money more than morality. It would be an absolute waste for Agents of SHIELD to bring in Lucy Lawless and not utilize her beyond this episode.
As a premiere, “Shadows” does its job, pulling viewers back into the Marvel world and getting them excited for the season ahead. With the exceptions of Triplett and Patton Oswalt’s Billy Koenig, Coulson’s entire team is having a rough time, and their personal dramas are more intriguing than the promise of more super-villain-of-the-week storylines. They are trying to rebuild SHIELD while remaining broken themselves, and with everything else that Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen set up here, that premise is enough to sustain 21 more episodes.