Season 2 Episode 1 - Shadows
Coming in to this raw and unfamiliar may be a bit tricky for the uninitiated, I’m passably knowledgeable of the Marvel universe but by no means totally up to date and struggled, in a way having no knowledge may be a benefit since you would not be trying to piece together the connections but you’d also be at a loss as to why you should care for any of these characters. Be warned, reading further there will be spoilers. (Now you can't say you've not been warned.)
Snap cut to the present and the midst of an arms trade, Lucy Lawless is playing Isabelle “Izzy” Hartley a deep cover agent who had been working with mercenaries. She is trying to buy secrets off of Agent Browning a former S.H.I.E.L.D. operative selling what little he can to get ahead in the fall out of The Winter Soldier. We also see the remains of our crew Tripp, Skye, and May watching the trade go down, when an unknown individual storms the meeting the team swing in to action. Browning is dead and we find out that Hartley is working on the side of angels (Coulson called her back to the fold). A lot is communicated in this dense scene, first the team are good. They are tight, efficient, and Skye has been “practicing”. Ward’s betrayal kicked something in to gear within her because now she’s more of an agent then we would have expected even after the end of last season’s solid finale.
Also though, we see powers, last season there were very few “Supers” in action in the show. We had weirdness, aliens and gadgets, we had a few minor powers but nothing truly “Super” here though out of the gate we see Carl Creel (thanks Stan the Man for your addiction to alliteration I suspect we’re going to see a lot more of that in the coming months). Carl is also known as The Absorbing Man, he can replicate the molecular pattern of any object he touches which makes getting shot by bullets a bit of a tricky proposition. He killed browning and made off with the data the team were hoping to capture.
Returning to The Playground (their new base of operations) things are decidedly more low tech which I can’t help but consider is an active choice to simplify the story. They can rebuild over time but by bringing it down to a more street level situation we are able to reconnect and also draw in the other Marvel properties that will be kicking off on Netflix soon. The movie world has moved intergalactic while the small screen world is moving more down to earth. While this show is grounded it’s certainly not gritty. We see the crew is slowly building the team with Fitz and Simmons apparently back in the lab, a few more agents working in the office but very few field agents available. Coulson is out trying to drum up recruits and suss out the potential face to face which is starting to wear him thin. We see Koenig has become the right hand man of pretty much everyone (which spurs a little jealousy in Fitz), we have Al “Mack” Mackenzie a mechanic helping get the team mission ready (in the comic he was a CIA liason to S.H.I.E.L.D. who flipped to S.H.I.E.L.D.’s side and became a liason for the organization with the CIA), Lance Hunter (played by Nick Blood seriously either way you cut that it would have been a good mercenary name) and Idaho (played by Wilmer Calderon who is delightfully earnest). That’s it, that’s the big team, and that’s scary. They have less gear, less money, and less manpower than ever and are now facing an enemy who has all of the same resources they had before and possibly more. What’s more their nemesis Brigadier General Talbot is still on their backsides and even more determined than ever to bring them (and Hydra) down.
This episode is all about establishing the characters, it may be Jed and Maurissa running most of the show but the Whedon touch is seen here through and through. The attention to character and motivation really makes these characters work. Fitz is working with Simmons in the lab and he’s struggling, he may not have died when he was sunk to the bottom of the sea but he may wish he had. He is struggling with words and while the ideas and abilities are still there they are trapped behind a wall of damage. Skye has shut down, she and Tripp are becoming solid partners but there’s a certain emptiness and May is frustrated at Coulson’s apparent change. He has hardened in to the kind of man who makes the calls you used to think he would find a way around having to make before. The only one of the former crew that seems to be together and adjusted is Tripp because he’s a field agent and doing his job which has me worried. Tripp has yet to show up in any promotional material. This could be deliberate, keep us off guard and thinking something is going to happen to him or something is going to happen to him. We get tastes of things to come, agents being vetted for entry, a connection to the UK S.H.I.E.L.D. equivalent S.T.R.I.K.E. (fingers crossed for Captain Britain but I doubt it’ll be Brian Braddock if at all since those darn folks at Fox own X-Men characters).
This is where we are introduced to the one person from the old team who has been on the material and a big part of me had hoped would die… painfully… slowly… and then be brought back and made die slower and more painfully. Ward is appropriately enough rotting in a cell in the basement of the Playground. Skye has not had the pleasure of having to deal with him yet which I’m sure she is grateful but the time has come, they need information and he’s the one who holds it. Skye finds Ward in a cell and if you thought Fitz was damaged he’s actually more together than Ward is. Ward has made multiple suicide attempts but after his last he woke with “clarity”. He is trying to help and I suspect he may spend the rest of the season (if not the series) in a box which I think is actually the best way to use him. There’s a real Hannibal Lecter/Clarice vibe going on here at times with the set up for a quid pro quo but Skye is also now a seasoned agent. She’s not taking any of his bologna and is willing and able to shut him down fast but I’m looking forward to the back and forth that’s going to develop since she’s the only person he will talk to and now they have identified (thanks to Ward’s help) there are hundreds of Hydra agents and facilities that are currently active. That said, holy crap is he creepy! Ward for the lion’s share of the first season played a smiling Boy Scout which turned out to be a disguise thanks to daddy issues he was in fact a damn evil bastard hiding in their midst playing them all, there was a sliver of good in him but once he flipped to Hydra his character just oozed loathsome self-confidence and contempt for S.H.I.E.L.D. only to be knocked in to place at the end of the season and thrown in a box. The one thing that seemed to be consistent was his dedication to Skye, if it was some kind of puppy dog adoration (making his dead dog from last season an even more apt metaphor for his character) or some kind of brain damage from his suicide attempts it’s hard to tell but this is, in every way shape and form, a disturbing character.
The S.H.I.E.L.D. team find the next target for The Absorbing Man (yup they dropped his comic name in the show) which is Brigadier General Talbot, Talbot has been dropping all over the news he’s boxed up all these artifacts and baddies and this has attracted Hydra’s attention. The team does save him and there is a great interplay between him and Coulson, they are able to extract what they need and try and retrieve the Obelisk but not before The Absorbing Man has broken out of the cage that Talbot’s men have put him in and made a play for it himself. We get to see a cool low tech spy infiltration with some fun back and forth that is tense but never comedic. The crew move to retrieve the Obelisk when Creel makes his move and bang Chekov’s gun goes off. Lawless grabs the Obelisk in the hopes to use it (since there are no documents on what is in it she didn’t know what it’d do) and it latches on to her and starts to kill her.
Hunter grabs her and flees with Idaho cutting her arm off to save her but it’s all for naught since Creel smashes their car by merging with the concrete in front of them. It appears that Idaho and Hartley are dead (though why would you bring in Lawless to kill her on the first episode?!) Given the Obelisk’s “power over death” I suspect we may see more of her though that’s hardly a given since they have happily killed characters before. Meanwhile Coulson continued the operation, and this is where we see he’s now the man with the big chair to fill making the hard calls. They need a Quinn Jet, there are three there so despite the potential death of one of his field agents he tells the rest to go on with the mission because they need to fight for the dead of which he lumps in Fitz who it turns out has been talking to an imaginary Simmons who left the Playground months ago. He’s talking to himself like a lunatic imagining she’s there helping with his recover this is why he’s doing it and Fitz is a reminder for him the price they paid. DARK! The crew is successful but at tragic cost one that we still don’t know how far it has reached.
As per last season’s tradition we get a teaser at the end and what a teaser it is. Remember that Nazi I mentioned? The Kraken? Well guess who’s still alive and kicking and apparently hasn’t aged a day since World War II! I don’t know if he’s a clone or what, he didn’t have to stick his head in a computer like Zola but he’s still around and he’s been waiting for the Obelisk for a very long time and we have this season’s big bad (well him and Skye’s dad who we should see soon as played by Kyle MacLachlan which should be weird he’s a great actor and can play ominous Twin Peaks or Blue Velvet but I keep thinking Mayor of Portland now and that’s going to be distracting).
Where does that leave us? A broken team barely able to make ends meet but desperately trying to hold on to their convictions, a leader who’s former affable nature has given way to grim determination, an innocent turned hard, a hard person turned desperate, a turncoat finding the faith and a genius laid low. These are the seeds for an incredible season.