Last night on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Lucy Lawless! Yes! There’s no way this episode can rate below a 7 with Lucy Lawless here. My first review of the season will be full of joy and laughter and the Queen of All Lady Action Stars! What could go wrong?
Spoiler Alert: Everything. I had high hopes for Tuesday’s season premiere. The title alone, “Shadows”, sounds like the moral ambiguity of S.H.I.E.L.D. may have had a good chance of taking center stage. I mean, that’s what we love about S.H.I.E.L.D., right? Captain America, Iron Man, Thor—they all have to operate with a certain amount of good intentions and clean-cut morality, but S.H.I.E.L.D. gets into the back alleys of the super power game. And the episode certainly starts out in a good place, as the opening scene features another certifiable lady of action, Peggy Carter, leading the charge into a Hydra base in 1945. She’s flanked by Dum Dum Dugan and Jim Morita, and with this scaled-down version of the Howling Commandos, we get a little taste of what the upcoming Agent Carter might look like. Still under the moniker of S.S.R., they shoot up the base and steal the Hydra tech, along with a strange geometric alien object (eventually called the Obelisk). We don’t know much about the alien tech, except that touching it with a bare hand is bad. Spoiler Alert: Someone’s going to touch it with a bare hand.
That’s for later though, as we instantly cut to Skye zip lining down into a warehouse. She’s apparently gone up a level in badassery, as she’s also been outfitted in all black and gifted a flat iron. Black Widow would be proud. Her back up crew is made up of May and Triplett, and they’re spying on some rogue agents trading S.H.I.E.L.D. secrets. Pretty bland spy stuff, but then LUCY LAWLESS appears. She’s the buyer for these classified secrets. Ironic since, as of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, all of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s secrets are on the internet. Just as the deal is about to go down, a bulletproof golem super human breaks into the room, stealing the info and killing the turncoat agents. Skye, May, and Triplett blow their cover by shooting at the intruder, but it doesn’t matter, as it turns out Hartley (Lucy Lawless) and her gang are actually working with our heroes. This becomes a bit of an unintentional theme for the episode. We’re constantly being offered twists with very little set up. A note for the producers here, because I like to be helpful: It’s not a twist—an upturning of the expected reality—if you don’t offer the audience an established reality in the first place.
As we move along, it seems Hartley and her mercenaries are going to be joining our regular cast. New characters could definitely help. Sure let’s go for it. I mean we don’t dwell on any of them, except for Hartley and her second in command, Hunter. And maybe that’s a good thing, since we’re still having trouble negotiating the relationships between our original cast of characters. Apparently, no one has seen Coulson for a while, and the father/daughter relationship between him and Skye that was pushed so hard last season, is pretty much gone. It’s a blessing and a curse, because now the only truly affectionate relationship left on the show is the one between Fitz and Simmons. We catch up with the two in a brief lab scene where Simmons shows saint-like patience in dealing with Fitz. It seems his trip to death’s door at the end of last season has resulted in damage to his temporal lobe, so while he’s still a genius, his vocabulary has taken a major blow. I’m not sure if this is how actual damage to the temporal lobe would manifest, but I’ll take it, as long as it means the dream team gets to stay together. Spoiler Alert: They don’t.
Hartley briefly mentions her own trip to Budapest—which, seriously Marvel, is Budapest some kind of jinx, or was this all the same mission to Budapest? I could definitely get behind a mission where Hawkeye, Black Widow, and Xena run around taking out bad guys, but you’ve got to give a girl more than just a casual name toss now and again. Anyway, we figure out that bulletproof monk is none other than Carl Creel. 10 Points Marvel! I’m throwing you a piñata party with streamers for stepping up and using a character from the comics as a villain (Check out Journey Into Mystery #114). It’s one of my primary bones to pick with this show. Marvel has an amazing library of characters, and while we had a few last season, I’m really hoping they’ll draw more on that library now. Basically Creel’s powers are a mix between Colossus and Rouge. He can absorb the chemical structure of any element he touches, and change himself into that element. Here he’s on hire for Hydra, who is after that Obelisk taken from them back in 1945.
Coulson and the team don’t know about the Obelisk yet, just that Creel is after a certain container that’s only mention has been in a file in Fury’s office. They do figure out the Hydra connection, which means Skye has to take a trip into vault D. It’s set up so that she’s the only person who can do it because of her amazing hacker skills, but really it’s because that’s where they’ve locked away Ward. Yep he’s alive, and in custody, and willing to sell out Hydra in any way he can for nothing (not even his freedom) in return. But he’ll only talk to Skye. After a bit of back and forth between the two, Ward finally offers up some useful information on how they can track down Hydra. Coulson reveals that this is exactly why they’re keeping Ward around, but when it’s mentioned that Ward could have a possible ulterior motive, he says he doesn’t care. Um, Coulson, not to tell you how to do your job or anything, but a lack of questioning why the bad guy would want to be locked up in your top secret facility is how you ended up with a Chitauri staff through your sternum. Still don’t care? Nope? Okay.
From here on, the plot gets a little one-note. Creel tries to kidnap General Talbot (who is just General Ross, without the daddy complex), but Melinda May gets to him first. This results in two things. Creel is captured by regular military and locked in a glass containment cube in the very facility where Talbot has been storing all of the S.H.I.E.L.D./Hydra memorabilia he’s been collecting. Remember how we were just talking about why super-powered or super-skilled people would allow themselves to be captured? The great irony is that Coulson points this very idea out to General Ross, I mean, Talbot in result two. Coulson and friends partaking in two (yep two in the course of five minutes) manipulative twists to show how very clever they are when compared to our straw hat villain. It plays more like Home Alone than spy craft. Every television show is going to require a character to carry the idiot ball from time to time. It’s what creates longevity, but there are serious moments in this episode where I wonder if Coulson knows where he’s working. He even gives a “we’re the good guys speech”. No. NO! That’s the whole point. S.H.I.E.L.D. is not the good guys or the bad guys. They’re the reality, and yes the reality is messier than we’d like it to be, but every time you try to claim that an organization of super spies is the Good Guy, I am going to side with those who say S.H.I.E.L.D. is an organization of liars. Coulson, we’ll talk about this more later.
Basically it all comes down to a major heist scheme, where Skye, Hartley, and the gang are in a race against time to reach the mysterious case before Creel who has escaped his prison cell. Not a big surprise when he can absorb the glass, and essentially makes himself invisible. Comic book logic may have been applied a bit liberally here.
Hartley finds the case first, and when confronted by Creel does the one thing you’re not supposed to, and touches the Obelisk with her bare hand. This instantly causes it to start eating away at her. Creel is understandably freaked out and decides to beat a hasty retreat once the other agents arrive. They ask Coulson if they should abort the mission, as Hartley is in pain and probably dying. While it has a bit of clumsy execution, I appreciate the fact that it takes Coulson longer than it probably should to make this decision, and that in the end he tells May and Skye to continue on. There’s that moral grey zone I was talking about.
It turns out our regular cast had a secondary mission all along. They’re going to steal a Quinjet. Yay Quinjet! Hunter doesn’t take to kindly to this, so he takes Hartley to get medical help. He then has to cut off her arm in an attempt to save her life. Yeah, okay Marvel, I can totally live with a one-armed Lucy Lawless and her band of mercenaries running around. That would be totally – Ah, Marvel… Marvel, no. Creel shows back up, and now in asphalt form collides with their getaway vehicle, killing Hartley and all of her team except Hunter. Creel makes off with the Obelisk in the end, turning his own hand to rubber, so at least someone got the “no bare skin” memo.
The end of the episode is where a little spark of genius can be seen. First, Coulson tells us that they don’t want the Quinjet for itself, but for the cloaking technology on board. It’s a b-plot that Fitz has been having trouble restoring cloaking technology to S.H.I.E.L.D., and it’s buried pretty nicely, so that when Coulson expresses doubt in his abilities, we’re genuinely surprised to see that the team really has lost faith in him. On top of this, Coulson revels that Simmons is gone. Remember that spoiler from earlier? It turns out that the Simmons we’ve been seeing all episode is a hallucination in Fitz’s mind. The real Simmons left, believing it would give Fitz a better chance to recover. I’m not sure how this plot line has come about as Elizabeth Henstridge, who plays Simmons, is clearly still on the show, but I’m going to cross my fingers that the writers have thought this one over really well. We also get a nice look at our big bad for the season, and while it may not be the most original idea, I’ll give Marvel props and not spoil it for you.
Overall this episode is pretty flat, and very disappointing as season premieres go. We only see character development from one of our main cast. Okay I’ll give it one and-a-half, since we do get a chance to see how directorship may be having some negative effects on Coulson. The plot doesn’t give us much to look forward to. and certainly doesn’t open any new doors. And finally, you had Lucy Lawless Marvel, and you barely used her. I admit, I’m probably harping on this a bit, but it’s part of a pattern with this show. Episode after episode, we see that it has amazing individual parts, and yet those parts never come together to create a solid whole. This was the episode to show your loyal viewers that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is back, and the creative team has fresh ideas—and has learned from last season’s mistakes. First seasons are almost always rough, so it would have been awesome to say that this second season showed signs of turning itself around. Unfortunately, instead of a feast of shawarma awesomeness, we were handed the same old milk toast.
Katherine Siegel is a Chicago-based freelance writer and director, and a regular contributor to Paste. You can find out more by checking out her website, or follow her on Twitter.