I caught up on the end of the season for Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD. (Yes, it’s that time of summer when I get to catch up on the shows I missed.) The first season ended with the fallout from Captain America: The Winter Soldier, when the entire Marvel universe was scrambled. Could Season Two match it?
Short answer: Surprisingly, yes. Spoilers ho.
Moreover, it isn’t because they ratcheted up the stakes. Although the Inhuman storyline (which runs roughly parallel to the arc of X-Men, to which Marvel does not actually hold the rights at the moment) elevates SHIELD back into world-saving territory, that’s not what makes this episode, or this season, work. The payoff comes in the surprisingly well-rendered characters.
Clark Gregg remains the heart of the show and a consummate actor. It’s been a long time since Special Agent Mike Casper, but Gregg still nails the technocrat who’s impassioned about his work but stoic. During this season, especially, the writers have allowed Coulson to show vulnerability and emotion, without it undermining his credibility or determination. I like that Phil Coulson is not perfect — he misleads his team, keeps too many secrets, and makes a lot of mistakes, and gets called on it. Gregg’s portrayal helps bring home what seems to be the series’ philosophy: Rules and organizations will let you down; you need to find and trust in good people.
The other breakout character has been Cal Zabo, played by Kyle MacLachlan. This low-budget Hulk ripoff should have been annoying and distracting. But MacLachlan got the character exactly right. He’s funny and devoted and, at random intervals, fully terrifying. In a lot of ways, he and Coulson are twins: Both are determinators driven to protect the people they care about. Kyle is like a funhouse mirror of Phil, showing what happens when you let your determination overrule all other considerations. But the madness and anger stem from a genuine core, and his final act — to save his daughter by killing his wife — truly stirs the heart.
For perhaps the first time, Skye works as a character. They’ve built the show around her and it never really seemed to pay off… until this episode. She’s less two-dimensional than she’d been. I also like the moment when Mac reminds her (and us) that she had a role before she had powers; that she is, nominally, a super-hacker. I don’t know if she just benefited from the general step up of the cast but she’s been a lot less annoying in the later episodes.
It would seem Fitz has more-or-less recovered, which is good. I like the character a lot and it was painful to see him deal with the effects of oxygen starvation. I applaud the show for having consequences last and for trying to show, sympathetically, what it means to suffer cognitive degeneration … but I appreciate the wit and humor they’ve allowed to creep back in.
The subplot with Bobbi dragged for me. Once Ward left her in the overly complicated death trap — thereby leveling the nuance they’d spent a season building — I knew that the end result would be Bobbi throwing herself in the path of the bullet. I didn’t know if she’d actually die (this is a Whedon show, but not a Joss Whedon show) but I honestly didn’t care. The trap itself annoyed me, since it required Hunter to come in at exactly his normal height. And don’t people generally break down doors and step out of the way? However, a lot of this was redeemed by May’s subterfuge. Getting Agent 33 to disguise herself as May and thus luring Ward into killing his lover/confidant/project? A truly delicious Batman gambit.
So, where does it all end up? The status quo ante is more-or-less restored: the Inhumans remain off the map, the war with SHIELD (and normal humans) is averted, the team is back together-ish. But the leaking terragen crystals mean that things are going to change. At the very least, a lot of people are going to eat some fish and end up turned to stone. And something will be up with Jemma, who of course manages to get herself abducted by whatever is in the hold.
(And two notes: One, Jemma has been erratic and disappointing this season. She’s gone from action-scientist and double-agent to stay-behind doctor. And she’s gotten a little clingy and whiny. Two, are there no cameras focused on mysterious alien tech that the Inhumans were trying to steal? In the base where every inch seems under surveillance? Gah.)