Over the past two seasons, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has embraced its pulp elements, moving away from the procedural, supernatural case-of-the-week format that bogged down season one. The series has grown increasingly confident, leveling up its characters to make the S.H.I.E.L.D. team feel far more relevant in a world filled with superheroes, even if they rarely stop by for a visit.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
In season one, the midseason finale of Agents of SHIELD is the lackluster, frustrating cliffhanger, “The Bridge,” an episode with very little guts and the nerve to pretend like the season thus far was building up to that point. In season two, Agents of SHIELD shows just how much has changed in its midseason finale, “What They Become.” Nearly everything set up gets a proper payoff, and the action hardly slows down except for a few brief moments between Skye and her father. A character thought dead in “Ye Who Enter Here” is revealed to be alive, but the celebration is short-lived as another beloved member of the team is killed off in a brutally fast, Whedon-esque manner. Skye’s dad predicts that today will be the “best day ever,” but by the time “What They Become” is over, no one walks away as the winner. Not SHIELD, not Hydra, not Ward or Skye’s dad, nobody.
The best way to sum up “The Things We Bury” is Grant’s observation that, “Nothing stays buried forever,” and wow, this episode finds some dark stuff buried in the past. Hydra’s human experimentation in Nazi Germany, Grant’s troubled family history, and what exactly happened to Skye’s mother is all revealed in full, gory detail. Agents of SHIELD is generally a family-friendly show, but “The Things We Bury” is violent and disturbing in a way that audiences have not seen before. It also might be the best episode of season two.
“The Writing on the Wall” is season 2’s first major call-back to the TAHITI Project and Coulson’s big mystery in season 1. As Skye says, the show is starting to collect all these stray pieces of the puzzle and fit them together into a larger picture. Ward, Skye’s father, TAHITI, and the pattern that Coulson keeps drawing are all connected, but the team needs more time to figure it out. Unfortunately, Coulson is running out of time with his compulsions driving him to sleepless nights and madness. The clue that they need to solve his madness is found in the mystery of the week, a former SHIELD agent found murdered with Coulson’s pattern carved into her flesh.
For the first time in season two, “A Fractured House” focuses most of an episode on Ward, and he is an effective catalyst for the action despite being locked in a basement for most of the episode. The show takes a darker turn with an attack on the United Nations and throwing discs that disintegrate their victims, but thanks to a new team pairing, there is plenty of good humor to prevent the episode from getting too bleak.
“A Hen in the Wolf House” steps back the amount of action from “Face My Enemy” but makes up for it with more Kyle MacLachlan, Simmons’ undercover work at Hydra, and the reveal of Mockingbird. The writers also squeeze in Skye discovering Coulson’s two big secrets, Fitz and Simmons reuniting, and another Skye-Ward interrogation scene. With so much going on, “A Hen in the Wolf House” should feel rushed and over-stuffed, but everything dovetails so neatly that none of the action or plot points feel forced.
To quote Bill Hader’s beloved SNL character Stefon, “Making Friends and Influencing People” is an episode of Agents of SHIELD that has everything: Double-agents! Hypnotism! Nazis making The Sound of Music jokes! A male version of Queen Elsa from Frozen (minus the singing) freezing a ship! Underneath all of these borderline silly moments, however, is one of the best episodes of Agents of SHIELD yet, not just for season two but season one as well.
“FZZT” opens with a ghost story, and in a way, it ends with one too. The plot comes back around to New York and the invasion in The Avengers thanks to the episode’s threat, a virus carried to Earth by the Chitauri. This type of Marvel Universe connectivity is something many viewers have been hoping for since the beginning of the season. Rather than vaguely referencing the events of The Avengers, writer Paul Zbyszewski brings the action around to New York in an unexpected way, grappling with something that the Marvel movies so far have missed. New York was a victory for S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Avengers, but it was a victory with casualties. There are obvious parallels to the volunteers who worked tirelessly in the rescue efforts at the World Trade Center only to be rewarded with cancer and respiratory illnesses years later. The episode’s three firefighters demonstrate that the world is still reeling from the attacks, and their sudden deaths represent the unforeseen damage still lurking under the surface.
Apart from the pilot, it has been difficult to recommend Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. The previous three instalments are a perfect storm of hackneyed direction, inane scripting and poorly executed action set-pieces. This week, S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t much of an improvement, but Skye’s inevitable betrayal undoubtedly spices things up. In “Girl in the Flower Dress” we learn that Skye’s parents hold a larger place within the Marvel universe; and more importantly, it gives viewers more reason to care about her. While Skye’s (Chloe Bennet) allegiance keeps shifting back and forth, she remains the only character aside from Agent Coulson, who’s wrapped up in some ongoing mystery.
The series premiere of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. scored impressive ratings: 12.1 million people tuned in to watch the premiere last Tuesday (based on the adjusted afternoon nationals from Nielsen). Another 3.7 million watched it on DVR later in the week, and another 4.7 million watched the show’s repeat on Thursday evening. Add on another 1.6 million who streamed the pilot online (and who knows how many others pirated the episode), and we’re looking at a minimum of 22.1 million viewers (and climbing). Yet despite the ratings, the pilot was also met with a decidedly mixed reception from fans and critics alike.