ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Shadows TV Show Review. The second season premiere of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., ‘Shadows,’ hit the ground running, with what may very well have been a checklist of how to maintain its roll from last season’s concluding Uprising arc.
For starters, we were treated to a tie-in to the upcoming Agent Carter series. A flashback scene (which served to establish the stakes of ‘Shadows,’ as well as season two’s potential Big Bad – and he’s a biggie) kept alive Agents‘ ties to the Captain America franchise, with an appearance by Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), and some Howling Commandos. If you’re asking “so what?” then clearly you’ve never sung the praises of Dum Dum Dugan (Neal McDonough) to the tune of Cat Scratch Fever. I shall now wave my hand, and Jedi away what I have just shared with you.
The point is: fan service (the family friendly kind). From big and small screen tie-ins, to Easter Eggs (one of them blue), Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. seemed set to prove that it was going to continue being an active part of a larger Marvel live-action universe – not just an ongoing place-holder for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Back at present, a sting operation that went sideways, thanks to a seemingly invulnerable third party, brought forward the new field team of Agents Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen), Antoine Triplett (B.J. Britt), and Skye (Chloe Bennet). While it was encouraging to see Triplett holding on to his late addition role (as a more charismatic straight arrow than his predecessor only pretended to be), it was the first look at no nonsense field agent Skye that seemed to reinforce last season’s parting promise; one of a Skye more worthy of the team. May, remained May, of course; but as the most steadfast character of the series, her being left unfazed, by everything that had transpired, makes her something of a fulcrum, around which her rattled team mates have revolved.
Among the rotated: Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), now director of an agency that no longer officially exists, and, thanks to the ongoing efforts of one Brigadier General Glenn Talbot (Adrian Pasdar), has to operate completely underground. Coulson wouldn’t be Coulson without taking such pressure with humored grace, however, and his relationship with his subordinates – including Skye – was a balance of charm, gentle coercion, and stern authority. A place he had to return to, at the end of season one, after his initial awkwardness had given way to a distracting paternal dynamic with Skye, and preoccupation with his own resurrection.
We were treated to more of Agent Billy Koenig (Patton Oswalt), continuing the mystery of the ever affable ‘Koenig Brothers’ as almost as much a running gag, as a potential plot element.
The sting operation also brought us Lucy Lawless, as Isabelle Hartly, trusted former colleague of Coulson, turned leader of a small team of rogues-for-hire. Their mercenary status lent itself well to the agency’s state of operation, just as Hartly’s bold, hands on leadership style complimented Coulson’s well managed, clockwork precision handling of his own team.
Lucy’s lawless might as well have been a stop gap measure, to help ween viewers off the anti-hero, badass goodness, that was Bill Paxton‘s contribution to season one. While I appreciate the showrunners’ understanding that such an edge is, in fact, necessary, I was more impressed by the ballsiness that went into the outcome of Team Hartly’s involvement. Playing fast & loose with assets like Team Hartly, suggests a wealth of material that renders such assets expendable, in the grand scheme of things. That’s a promise that better be fulfilled.
Speaking of promise, Skye’s scope of responsibilities have expanded well beyond resident hipster hacker. In addition to playing Robin, to May’s Batman, she has been tasked with making sense of the crypto-code, that has since passed from being an obsession of Garrett, to being an obsession of Coulson. With this latest development, involving HYDRA’s directing one of Garrett’s secret living weapons into action, Skye now had to serve as lead (ie. sole) interrogator of a prisoner with special insight on the matter; but a prisoner that will only speak to Skye. The captive former agent, Grant Ward (Brett Dalton).
The evolution of Evil Ward (now with evil facial hair, to match) seems to have entered a Lecter/ Starling phase; with the viewer expected to ponder the sincerity of his devotion to Skye, as with Lecter’s admiration of Starling. The real leverage Ward has, in this case, isn’t what he knows (and, so far, seems honestly willing to share) about HYDRA, but rather what he can tell Skye about her father; only, Skye doesn’t know that, yet.
Her additional role of Starling, to Ward’s Lecter, served to further demonstrate Skye’s maturation, since season one. Gone are the too-cool-for-the-room quips, and the hey-I’m-only-the-tag-along moments of cutesy cluelessness. Of specific note, was her unwavering resolve, in the face of Ward’s warm over charm. As far as she was concerned, his heart-on-the-sleeve approach might as well have been a tactic (the best since Romanov, I recall someone saying of him); but I can see where that poisoned well could prove to be a draw back. Her eagerness to cut him off, and demonstrate his lack of influence over her, has already cost her some initial info about her past. This game has some room to play out, yet.
As welcomed as Skye’s development seems to be, arguably the single biggest character development, since last season, had to be evolution of Fitz-Simmons (Iain De Caestecker, Elizabeth Henstridge). Fitz’s sacrifice, in order to deliver the pair from a watery grave (courtesy of Ward), had apparently caused some lasting damage. His faculties impaired, he has been in a perpetual Lion in Winter state – unable to fully articulate his thoughts, and wary of his colleagues having to walk on eggs, regarding his condition. I can relate. The phrase “nouns are the first to go” has become something of a fixture, in my circle.
Fitz’s state has left Simmons in something of a caretaker’s role; devoting her time to helping him along his work, and providing an outlet for the venting of his frustrations, rather than resuming her originally assigned role on the team. Sacrificing Simmon’s contribution, in order to shore up Fitz – while in line with Coulson’s sense of compassion – would be inefficient, given the team’s threadbare disposition; so clue #1.
While shippers were no doubt encouraged by this new closeness, between the two, I thought Agent Triplett completely ignoring – and being ignored by – Simmons was something of a jarring departure from the dynamic that had been slowly evolving, at the end of season one. Clue #2
While it was hard to watch Fitz suffer through his condition – just as it was to watch Simmons walk a fine line, helping him through it – it was still preferable to the pair’s original techno-twin babble; and even though being clued in did little to soften the impact of the episode’s Fitz-Simmons reveal, it did open a distinct possibility that my cynical mind could not ignore.
The particular shadow, that hangs about Fitz, may have less constructive things to say to him than the Simmons we were reintroduced to. Evil Ward may have blessed the series with an edgier Skye; but he may have also compromised Fitz far more seriously than anyone realized.
Another box checked, to assure viewers that the showrunner’s had learned their lesson, was the dipping into the larger Marvel Universe’s pool of source characters; done in order to bring some real super powered muscle to the second season premiere (an opportunity not taken, for the series premiere). The casual roll out of the sting crasher’s identity, as Carl Creel (Brian Patrick Wade), was handled with a respectable degree of restraint. Restraint wasted, of course, on source fans, to whom he is better known as The Absorbing Man.
Talbot is shaping up to be the perfect foil that keeps Coulson on his toes, and away from his original ‘by the book’ role. After an initial good faith effort, foiling Creel’s attempt on Talbot’s life, a more direct ‘face to face’ meeting, between Coulson & Talbot, was orchestrated. This only served to cement the pair’s dynamic, for the foreseeable future, but it was a pleasure to watch two very strong personalities interact.
The fact that Talbot has a family made for a useful plot point, for both Coulson & HYDRA, but on a completely unrelated note, it occurred to me that this also meant no vying for the affections of Betty Ross, or any other prominent role, in any prospective Hulk project. I always liked the personal animus, to the Ross-Banner-Ross-Talbot dynamic; but oh, well. Talbot’s role on Agents does take him out of Thunderbolt Ross’ shadow, and has been earning him the spotlight, so far; so, good.
Of course, Talbot counts as small potatoes, as far as Hulk hassles go, compared to ‘Crusher’ Creel. Next to The Leader & Abomination, The Absorbing Man has always been at the top of the Hulk rogues gallery. While Agent‘s Creel lacked the shear elemental power of the source character (likely meaning he won’t be going up against the MCU’s Hulk without a significant upgrade… if at all), he was still better served than Ang Lee‘s version (I appreciated his allusions to Stan Lee‘s allusions; but his godly father-figure Absorbing Man – not to mention the Gamma Dogs – took things off the rails). Extra points for the use of an approximation of the source character’s signature ball & chain.
The limitations of the production were still, evident, however. The Peggy Carter flashback had that studio back lot polish to it (complete with pristine, fashionably black-clad HYDRA-Nazis), and some of the action sequences were still a bit on the cheesy side (particularly the disengagement to the climactic heist), and there were a number of leaps in storytelling logic. For one thing, I’d expect a facility housing items like the one HYDRA sent Creel to retrieve – and Coulson was so desperate to keep away from them – would be garrisoned by regulars. Teams Coulson & Hartly should have been up against highly trained SpecOps types – or at least some half-descent shooters (again, the disengagement). Even someone as stubborn as Talbot should have been a bit more tactful in the face of Coulson’s logic, regarding the delivery of Creel to his objective. More glaring was Talbot allowing his identity to be stolen, after having the presence of mind to get rid of the phone that Trip had planted on him, just before the Creel attack.
Small matters, all in all, compared to the reassurance checklist, and the boldness of the Hartly outcome. Given the Whedonesque tradition of burying the lead, for each season’s opening episodes, ‘Shadows’ may not actually paint a clear picture of what season two has in store. It did keep alive the high points of season one’s climax, however; and that’s as good a place to start as any.
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