Everything Was Beautiful and Nothing Went Well At All. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: “Shadows”

Is this love? Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I think this might be love. If you keep this up it will almost certainly be love and we will leave New York City and buy a house in Long Island that we hate forever.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is back and telling stories about a world where men absorb asphalt for kicks and Coulson wonders what the hell to even do about that. Except this time…this time…Coulson’s got it under control. He’s had months to cobble a new S.H.I.E.L.D. together and he and SkyeBangs, the Skye with the bangs, May, and the rest are so good at their jobs they don’t even talk to Coulson they’ve just got this handled, okay?

I didn’t know what to expect from the return of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., mostly because I don’t know what I want out of the show. Last season was such a wrestling match and even though it came out on top that wasn’t a guarantee that it had figured out a clear direction for itself going forward, even with the intriguing premise of Coulson rebuilding S.H.I.E.L.D. under his own vision. I love the idea of a show focused on worldbuilding, but Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a little too kinetic for that. It needs something to shoot or kick or it gets restless and starts gluing robot parts to Bill Paxton. For example, a triptych episode about Coulson visiting three wildly different possible S.H.I.E.L.D. recruits (and thus justifying the existence of S.H.I.E.L.D. three different ways yay learning) would be lovely, but a little slow.

And the main takeaway I got from the season 2 premiere “Shadows” is that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is well focused on preserving the momentum they gained from the post-Winter Soldier Hydra storyline last season. “Shadows” is all action action action. We meet a bunch of new people, get our new ongoing threats set up, and update the status quo all in the midst of the episode’s ongoing mission. The only scenes in which the episode actually slows down are purposefully done, their intent being to make us feel as trapped as the particular characters in those scenes feel.

It’s a nicely crafted episode and this feels even more notable because for the majority of its running time “Shadows” doesn’t come off that way. Rather, it feels like a by-the-numbers mission of the week, creating an accustomed lull that the episode then uses against the viewer at the end, when a new logic suddenly asserts itself. Up until that point, the consequences of the first season seem difficult but manageable for Coulson’s team. They’ve become a lot more capable in the six months since we’ve last seen them. Then suddenly that’s not the case.

But, and in my case this is new territory for the show, the impossibility S.H.I.E.L.D. faces by the end of “Shadows” isn’t caused by the team’s general incompetence, as used to be the case. Rather, they simply have too many threats of too wide a variety coming at them to be able to win all the time. (Or win cleanly, that is.) They’ve gone from bumblers to underdogs, and that makes me want to root for them.

In fact, as the episode opens S.H.I.E.L.D. is making sure a new group of bumblers doesn’t mess up a transaction to pinpoint the very first 0-8-4 S.H.I.E.L.D. ever catalogued. It’s a weird probably alien Italian Bialetti coffee maker that, according to a creepily-spectacled Hydra…commandant? baron? whatever…is probably “the answer to death itself.” (Alien coffee sounds awesome.) They call it the Obelisk and Peggy Carter and her Howling Commandos are responsible for liberating it back in the 1940s and letting/not letting Howard Stark mess with it.

In the present day, the bumblers bumble the transaction and Carl “Crusher” Creel grabs it and then jumps out of a window like an idiot despite having just taken a bunch of point-blank bullets like a champ. But, you know, I shouldn’t judge. You do you, Carl. You do you.

Our bumblers are mercenaries but Coulson likes them even though they all seem to be named after their favorite Vegas sex worker. (For the purposes of this episode, Lucy Lawless’ character’s name shall be Lucy Lawless and I refuse to entertain any other notion.)

Coulson says hey Lawless and “Lance Hunter” and “Idaho,” sure, welcome to The Playground aka Our New Base That Is Not a Stifling Plane, we got a Patton Oswalt, we got a Trip, we got all your favorites and also a brain-dead Fitz LOL just kidding he’s only kind of broken. Simmons is looking after him, at least, even though she’s really patronizing about it. And hey, Fitz is making progress on fitting their plane with the same cloaking tech that S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarriers used, and he doesn’t eat much or take up too much space or endlessly recite state capitals so we let him stick around. All of this will be really important later. Who knew?

It’d be nice to stop and chat about how much flying economy to recruit secret agents totally sucks, Coulson continues, but CANCEL MY FLIGHTS because General Haircut Talbot is still out to get us and also we really need to find this 0-8-4 and oh yeah now there’s a guy named Carl who just absorbs stuff? Does he work at Tor.com, too? Because that would just be too much.

S.H.I.E.L.D. puts together a pretty sound, quick plan in order to make progress on all of these fronts at once. Coulson sends SkyeBangs to pump the imprisoned-by-lasers Ward for information on Hydra communication channels and “Shadows” slows down so the viewer can really, really drink in the crazy eyes that Ward now puts between himself and the world.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 2 episode 1: Shadows

That is a face that wonders if you have a moment to hear the Good News out back in the death-corn maze. Brrrr.

SkyeBangs doesn’t give Pastor Ward an inch and learns how to monitor Hydra frequencies. The team immediately learns that Creel is heading off to kill Talbot, so they get there first and kidnap Talbot themselves in the guise of rescuing him. Also they get to try tasing Creel since bullets don’t work. (Fun fact! Tasing kind of works, although there’s a moment where you wonder if he’s going to go all Electro. LET’S CATCH A SPIDER.)

S.H.I.E.L.D. turns Talbot loose from their “honeycomb kill room” (hee) which turns out to be another bluff that allows S.H.I.E.L.D. to follow both Talbot and Hydra to the Obelisk. Coulson’s really got this whole “secret agent” thing down! He must have read a book or two on management during the break. It’s so important to remember to delegate, Phil.

Things are going pretty well for the team. They find the S.H.I.E.L.D. stuff the government confiscated and the Obelisk but then, aw crap, Carl shows up and Lucy Lawless unthinkingly grabs the Obelisk and tries to run, knowing she can’t face off against this guy by herself. She must not have read the chapter in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince about not touching the horcrux.

Things are suddenly not going so well for the team and the bumblers take off even though Coulson orders the team to stick to the mission. Director Coulson is notably uncomfortable with ordering his friends to continue with a mission where they stand a high chance of dying. But he does his duty.

Events continue to spiral from there. The Obelisk continues to calcify Lawless and as they make their getaway she orders Lance to cut off her hand. Its either that or she dies and, tearfully, she always saw herself as a good person but she doesn’t believe in this kind of work. She doesn’t want to die for this. She wants to live, hand or no. And that’s how suddenly we’re watching Lucy Lawless getting her hand sawed off in the back of an SUV.

Bullets dance around S.H.I.E.L.D. as they escape the warehouse and head out into the airfield. They seem to be escaping in an aimless fashion until May turns and spies their second objective: A Quinjet.

The 0-8-4 wasn’t the only priority for Coulson. He wants a plane that can cloak so S.H.I.E.L.D. can leave The Playground and continue to rebuild in the shadows, rebuild against a Hydra that still outnumbers them 100 to 1, that still has gifted and deranged individuals like the Absorbing Man at their disposal. And he can’t rely on Fitz to eventually struggle his way towards engineering a cloak. His brain suffered too much damage from lack of oxygen six months ago. He’s not the same person. And when Simmons left—the same “Simmons” that Fitz has been muttering at all episode—he broke completely.

Coulson gets his Quinjet, but he doesn’t get the Obelisk. The Absorbing Man catches up with Lawless’ team and flips their car, killing Lawless, who had just made a life-changing sacrifice, and putting the 0-8-4 back in Hydra’s hands after so many decades.

And we mean decades, because that creepy bespectacled Hydra agent from the 1940s? He hasn’t aged a day.

 

Other thoughts:

  • It’s not stated that Lawless’ character dies, and this is the Marvel universe, but that’s how I read the scene from the camera blocking and the lack of blinking…
  • Ward knows a lot about SkyeBangs’ father that he’s not yet had the chance to admit/emotionally blackmail the team with.
  • Man, Ward is delightfully crazed.
  • SkyeBangs has been trying to untangle the crazy circuit scheme that Coulson was unwittingly doodling at the end of last season. No luck so far.
  • I don’t mention it up above but Garrett recruited Creel for Hydra, which just raises the question of why Garrett didn’t use someone as powerful as Creel last season.
  • I wonder what would happen if Skye touches the Obelisk?

Chris LoughBangs is the production manager for Tor.com and once absorbed a whole pizza but only felt like he had become a pizza. You can find his Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. recaps here, but why?

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