First things first, here be spoilers! Spoilers aplenty.
The first season of agents of shield promised so much and 12 million crammed around the TV to watch that first episode. A constant dose of sweet geek nectar directly into our eyeballs on a weekly basis. Sadly the excitement receded quicker than Clark Gregg’s hairline as the series was safe and middle of the road for the most part. Luckily Captain America: Winter Soldier came along with its Hydra hi-jinks and gave the show the shot in the arm it craved. After the first series took repeated blows from critics and fans alike, the last few episodes staged a strong and surprising comeback that would make Rocky Balboa proud.
In the second series we find our team in hiding and providing security for a sting operation contains an ex shield operative Agent Hartley (Lucy Lawless) and her team of mercs. Xena: Warrior Dealer has her bust interrupted by a seemingly hydra operative, looking for an ancient artefact believed to be the original ‘084’ which is an unknown, alien or special item. The operative Carl Creel (Brian Patrick Wade) who any geek worth his weight in adamantium will tell you is the Absorbing Man, then targets General Talbot (Adrian Pasdar) from the first series who is hunting both Shield and Hydra. The team intercept communications after help from the captive Ward (Brett Dalton) and save Talbot. Finally after obtaining Talbot’s fingerprints our heroes and the mercenaries head off to a military base to find the original 082 and find cloaking technology to help Director Coulson’s (Clark Gregg) team to operate on the run, quietly……like….wait for it….shadows. Oooooh like the title. Yay for forward planning.
Straight off the bat we are back to the formula of plucky banter and straightforward story. A few new characters appear and are thoroughly unexplained such as ‘Mac’ the new mechanic that seems to have constructed random things, maybe he should construct himself an introduction since no one else seemed to bother? Skye (Chloe Bennet) is still around and all grown up, she has a fringe and everything! And to go along with her grown up haircut is May (Ming-Na Wen) and Tripplet (B.J Britt) who seems to have a extra helping of cocky this time around, oh good. Coulson is hardly around as he hunts for global Shield support and our group and the mercs slap each other around verbally as doom looms, it seems like Agents of Shield will enjoy mediocrity again.
Then it starts up. Well strictly speaking a nice scene right at the start piques interest, it shows Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and the howling commandos ‘Dum Dum’ Dugan (Neal McDonough) and Jim Morita (Kenneth Choi) finding the original 084 or the ‘Obelisk’ as we discover. The commandos are played by their actual movie actors and everything! The scene itself is nice enough but what matters is that this is a direct and high profile link between the marvel of the silver screen and the weekly, TV world. It reminds you the series is part of something bigger and this time it means business. We hope.
Now the problem with an ending like the first season had is that there is a lot up in the air, with plenty of time and expectation building in equal and titanic measure. The first loose string is agent Ward who is imprisoned on site at the ‘Playground’ and questioned by Skye on the identity of the Absorbing Man, Carl Creel. This is a fantastically creepy scene and without being a lame impression of anything Hannibal Lector-ish. Bennet as Skye does a great job of being believably unnerved and bitter as Ward describes and proves his many attempts at taking his own life. We see his scars on his wrist and head as he describes the ways he found to slice himself and run into a wall to which Skye in her infinite wisdom prescribes that he “runs faster”. Whoa there Shield, we aren’t in Disneyland any more apparently?! Coulson even confirms it and this proves a new, dark and visceral edge that the series lacked before with a consequence that is very un-comic like and real.
Fitz (Iain De Caestecker)and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) were shown to have survived the underwater prison but with Fitz hinted at some form of price being paid for his sacrifice of giving the remaining oxygen pack his oxygen to Simmons after declaring his true feelings of love for her. The last is heard in season one when Simmons disturbingly will only commit to him being “alive”. After a serious build up of time and questions between seasons one and two, he is shown to be seemingly and disappointingly ok, yes with a memory and thought problem but not the shivering wreck we expected. His performance however is endearing and Simmons breaks all manner of hearts as she struggles to navigate their new minefield of a friendship. Fitz struggles to rustle up a cloaking prototype for their plane as they are fugitives and grounded, and he feels isolated and useless as he speaks only with Simmons. Apparently the team get frustrated as they seem to believe cloaking technology is like asking Fitz to make a staggeringly plain sandwich.
So far the episode has been solid as Creel and the team descend upon the base after some clever trickery gives the team Talbot’s fingertips and therefore base access. When Hartley comes face to face with a reel at the Obelisk she picks it up and it drains the life from her, probably much like doing the final years of Xena. Her mercenaries drag her to the car where she demands they cut off her arm. The final few scenes are what set the episode apart.
Hartley’s spontaneous surgery coincides with Coulson demanding his team continue against the odds instead of “going dark” and retreating as they have become accustomed, this shows his desperation to survive as he puts them on the line with the hard call. A fantastic montage as he explains his decision on necessity ties a nice and bloody bow of dark intent on the gift that is this surprising episode. Flicking between shots we see the team steal a Quinjet to use its cloaking technology, Coulson then explains the necessity as we then learn that Simmons has left them a while ago and was in Fitz’s head all along. He isn’t ok. We are shown shots of him speaking to himself and holding where her hand should be in a haunting fashion. During the same speech we also see Hartley have her arm removed in the back of a car with her knife in aptly painful but non grizzly shots. This effort is an example of brutal and importantly futile sacrifice by the good guys as her arm barely hits the floor before Creel destroys the car, killing Hartley and leaving only one mercenary able to play dead less convincingly than the two corpses besides him. Creel takes the obelisk as Coulson’s team back at the base escape with a Quinjet, and its cloaking technology.
This ending is for me what makes an ideal start to a second series, a bittersweet victory as Creel wins the battle for the Obelisk but our heroes obtain the cloaking tech and survive. Victory found in merely surviving.
The verdict: This is a new, grim era as our team make a start down a darker road which has proven to be paved in money and success for Marvel products lately. The episode shows intent and belief in a more mature style but most importantly it shows a willingness to learn from the mistakes of the lighter, sometimes empty first season. Let’s hope it is sustained and well received.