Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. returns for Season Five…but they are not returning to Earth. Instead, most of Coulson’s team find themselves transported to a mysterious ship in outer space—filled with people who see Coulson and the team as mythical heroes, and with monsters that want to kill them.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. returned for a fifth season last week in its new Friday timeslot. It has been reported that ABC wanted to cancel the show, but Disney wanted it to continue; while live ratings have been low, recorded viewings of the show are high, and Disney must see signs that they can profit from the series in syndication and through streaming services. Moreover, the fourth season, with its three arcs covering magical adventures with Ghost Rider, battles with Life Model Decoy androids, and adventures in the alternate reality of the Framework, was one of the best reviewed seasons of the show to date.
The first two episodes of Season Five, entitled “Orientation (Part One)” and “Orientation (Part Two),” were shown back to back. The press release and episode synopsis released by ABC before the episode were rather cryptic: “Coulson and the team find themselves stranded on a mysterious ship in outer space, and that’s just the beginning of the nightmare to come.” Disney and ABC have promoted the show vigorously through appearances at New York ComicCon, and by releasing the first 17 minutes of the new season as a teaser on the internet.
The season five premiere of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was delayed by ABC’s decision to air Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. after an eight-episode run of a new show, Marvel’s Inhumans. That show was a joint effort between IMAX and ABC, with the first two episodes shown in IMAX theaters in September, and all eight episodes subsequently aired on ABC. The show had a disappointing critical reception, didn’t do terribly well in IMAX theaters, and the TV ratings were low. The IMAX showing, unfortunately, reportedly highlighted the limits of the TV budget instead of taking advantage of the format.
The story was a retelling of a tale repeated many times in the comic books, with the rule of Inhuman King Black Bolt being undermined by his brother Maximus, and the royal family fleeing to Earth, in this case to Hawaii. The lunar Inhuman city of Attilan, instead of the picturesque Jack Kirby interpretation, was portrayed as a sterile concrete collection of brutalist structures. This reinforced the viewer’s impression of Attilan as a Stalinist dictatorship, and initially, someone unfamiliar with the comics might assume that Maximus was the hero and Black Bolt the villain. Medusa, Black Bolt’s wife, had her signature long hair shorn off early in the series, which saved on the special effects budget but robbed her of her signature abilities. There were some solid portrayals of other Inhumans, however, with the giant teleporting dog, Lockjaw, being a positive highlight of the show.
I can’t comment on the IMAX showing, because I did not see it, but while Inhumans has its flaws, my wife and I both enjoyed watching it throughout its run. And my wife has little patience with superhero shows she doesn’t enjoy, so her staying with it says a lot. Having seen so many truly bad superhero movies in my life, I don’t agree with critics who said that the series was awful; it was simply not up to Marvel’s current standards (and I would point you to Keith DeCandido’s excellent Superhero Movie Rewatch for examples of how those movies can do far worse). The end of the show left Attilan’s protective bubble down, and the city uninhabitable, with Maximus trapped in an underground bunker. The rest of the Inhumans had fled to the Earth as refugees, with their future a mystery. The low ratings of Inhumans probably lessens the chance of it crossing over with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. or other Marvel properties, although some crossover plans may have already been in motion before the ratings were in. In any event, while the Inhumans headed toward Earth, the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are headed to space, so if any crossovers occur, they probably won’t occur too quickly.
Marvel in Space
While the TV show incarnation of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is new to outer space, the Marvel comics have been roaming the spaceways of the cosmos for a long time. At first, this was mainly through aliens who came to Earth, like Galactus, the Silver Surfer and the original Captain Marvel. But then Marvel characters themselves ventured into space, with one of their first major forays being the Kree-Skrull War, which appeared in Avengers #89-97 in the early 1970s, with the original Captain Marvel, a Kree warrior, being a major part of these tales. The Kree, through genetic experiments in the distant past, were revealed to be involved in the creation of the Inhumans. In subsequent years, there have been many adventures and “special events” involving the Infinity Gauntlet and the magical gems that power it. A whole subset of the comics line is now devoted to cosmic adventures, following characters like Nova, Star-Lord, Adam Warlock, and Thanos, with the most widely known cosmic team being the Guardians of the Galaxy.
Now the Marvel Cinematic Universe is getting ready for a major two-movie event featuring the Infinity Gauntlet, and moving the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to space opens up a lot of possibilities that can unfold alongside those movies. We will probably not see the Agents appearing alongside the Avengers on the big screen, but we could see the themes of the upcoming movies explored and reflected in the TV show. Last year, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. did a good job exploring the magical themes of the Doctor Strange movie by dealing with the magical Darkhold book. And in their story about the Framework alternate reality, they did a better job of delving into a “Hydra takes over America” storyline than did the comic books in their poorly received Secret Empire special crossover event. Plus, the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. have already dabbled in storylines involving outer space on the show leading up to the current season, interacting with the Kree on Earth and discovering that Hydra had roots on an alien planet.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Going Forward
The core cast of Clark Gregg, Ming-Na Wen, Chloe Bennet, Iain De Caestecker, Elizabeth Henstridge, and Henry Simmons are all returning for the new season, with Natalia Cordova-Buckley transitioning from a recurring guest to the core cast. New characters appearing in the season will include Jeff Ward as Deke, Eve Harlow as Tess, Pruitt Taylor Vince as Grill, and Coy Stewart as Flint. Other guests will include Joel Stoffer as Enoch, and a returning Nick Blood as Lance Hunter. Disney actress Dove Cameron has also been teased for a mystery role during the season.
The season will reportedly be 22 episodes, and while it will be again broken up into separate story arcs, there is no word yet how long those arcs will be. Early seasons were generally broken into two arcs, divided by a midseason break. Season Four was broken into three arcs, which worked very well.
The Premiere Episodes
The last season ended with the gang at Rae’s Diner, when a tactical team immobilized and carted them off. This season opens with a music video showing the leader of that tactical team preparing for his day, a mundane scene that becomes creepy when he removes his human skin to take a shower. The S.H.I.E.L.D. team, except Fitz, who apparently isn’t on the list, is transported by a mysterious Kree-type monolith to a strange space station surrounded by a cloud of debris. Everyone gets a little character moment as they arrive; Coulson meets Virgil, a young man who views him as a figure out of legend. Mack appears and rages about quitting the team. Simmons sees dead bodies and a gas mask and immediately dons it in case the atmosphere is toxic. Yo-Yo appears and sees a mysterious person in a gas mask, and we get one of those hero-versus-hero moments so common in comic books. We meet Deke, who appears wearing a Star-Lord-style helmet on his head; he will be a big part of the story going forward. May gets the worst of it when she awakens alone with a pipe embedded in her leg and gets to show, once again, how tough she is.
The team argues, trying to figure out just exactly where they are. Coulson finds a tattered postcard from Earth on Virgil, who is killed by a Vrellnexian alien known as a “roach,” which the newly arrived Daisy then quakes into a pulp. They are exploring when a team of Kree thugs captures them, but they soon turn the tables and escape. While Coulson questions Deke, Jemma and May find a space tug, and hijack it to send a message to Earth. They figure out that the debris field consists of the remains of Earth at about the same time as Coulson realizes that they didn’t travel in space—they travelled forward in time. And he finds a message from Fitz on the postcard.
With the scene set in the first hour, the second episode gives the setting more depth: a station filled with the remnants of post-Earth humanity, scraping to survive under Kree tyranny. Jemma and May return the space tug and meet Tess, a friend of Virgil’s who helps Coulson find a book containing his notes. In one of the plotlines, an act of mercy from Jemma draws the attention of the Kree, who take her to their leader, a villain from the “creepy, fussy, and cruel” mold. If he had a moustache, he would have been twirling the ends of it as he addresses her. He makes her one of his servants, putting a device in her ear which allows her to hear only his voice. Jemma will need all her cleverness to get out of this situation.
In a second plotline, Daisy finds that Deke is running a drug den full of devices that create a version of the Framework, renting access to people who want to escape their misery. This echoes last season’s Framework arc in a way that feels quite organic. Deke accuses Daisy of having used her quake powers to destroy the Earth, not realizing that Daisy wasn’t on Earth when it was destroyed; she had been pulled forward in time. A third plotline introduces us to “metrics,” medallions that mark the status of humans for the Kree. Coulson and the others witness a ceremony where everyone chants “A life spent, a life earned.” Some metrics turn red while others turn blue, and a fight is on for survival. May, despite her injured leg, thrashes an attacker in a well-staged fight scene. This ritual seems somewhat gratuitous—designed to control the population in the cruelest way possible. (You wonder why it is that people in fictional dystopias, rather than working together, develop rituals that make a bad situation worse.) In the stinger, we see Jemma in full slave costume as a new Kree ship comes to visit. The preview shows glimpses of upcoming episodes, which, as always, are filled with of lots of fighting and plenty of snarky quips.
This episode kicked off a whole new adventure for Coulson and his team; it moved at a rapid clip, and offered a good entry point for people who might be watching the show for the first time. There was a lot of the clever banter that has come to be a highlight of the show, and the humor helped to balance the bleak dystopian storyline. The team must survive long enough to find a way to travel back in time, and hopefully use their knowledge of the future to head off the destruction of Earth. The tactical team that sent Coulson and his agents to the future may not be sinister after all—instead, it appears that they were working to help S.H.I.E.L.D. save the planet. The dramatic possibilities of Coulson and company’s situation are intriguing, but some of what has been portrayed so far has been formulaic; certainly, we have seen plenty of post-apocalyptic dystopias on TV in recent years, and a star-faring race like the Kree must have more to offer than the collection of sadistic thugs that were presented in this episode.
Friday night TV shows traditionally draw low ratings, something this show compensates for with its high numbers of recorded viewings. There was a lot of positive buzz going into the episode, and many of people have now seen past episodes of the show in syndication or via streaming services. When the live ratings were released on Saturday, the premiere didn’t do as well as other Friday shows, but it did receive better ratings than the Season 4 finale back in May—a solid start on a tough night.
And now it’s your turn to discuss the show. What did you think of the premiere, and what were your favorite quips? As we’ve done in the past, this post will kick off a discussion thread I will shepherd as the season unfolds, adding new comments every time another episode airs. If you want to follow the discussion, the best way to do it is to use your Tor.com user account. If you don’t have one, it’s easy to sign up—then you will be able to follow the thread using the “My Conversations” feature, which makes it a lot easier to participate in discussions on the website. Feel free to come back each week and discuss the latest episodes, or share any S.H.I.E.L.D. news you might hear. In the words of the incorruptible Stan Lee, “Don’t yield, back S.H.I.E.L.D.!”
Alan Brown has been a fan of S.H.I.E.L.D. from its comic book beginning over fifty years ago. He still remembers reading that very first adventure in Strange Tales #135.