I’ve talked before about SHIELD’s radical reinvention throughout its second season. The first season floundered for most of its run, struggling to find an identity before they were allowed to deploy the threat of Hydra in its final episodes. As it turns out, Hydra is so critical to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. that the show is struggling a little without it.

In the last few episodes, Coulson has killed Hydra head Daniel Whitehall and hatched a brilliant plot to get the remaining heads of Hydra to (figuratively) eat each other. It was a great yarn, but the last two weeks have seen SHIELD go up against an alien Kree and a supervillain team lead by Skye’s father, Calvin Zabo. After fighting the sprawling Hydra, these two enemies feel piddly and small scale. Worse yet, losing Reed Diamond’s Whitehall really highlights how aimless the show feels without a central villain.

Fortunately, tonight’s episode introduces Robert Gonzales, played by a cane-wielding Edward James Olmos. Olmos brings a hefty touch of gravitas to every scene. Gonzales is definitely an antagonist, but he doesn’t seem strictly like a villain: he’s calling for more transparency from S.H.I.E.L.D.. Hunter seems to know him and is unimpressed, calling him Hufflepuff (the worst Harry Potter house and this isn’t even a discussion). I also have a hard time seeing Bobbi and Mac allied with a megalomaniacal power-grabber. Unless he’s hiding an agenda, Gonzales seems very genuine. It’s exciting to see Marvel let their heroes come to philosophical blows. Some of my favorite storytelling conflicts aren’t just about doing the right thing, but about figuring out what the right thing even is.

It seems like S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t waiting for Civil War for its own hero vs. hero conspiracy, and right now Hunter is caught in between the two factions. The rogue charmer is loyal to Coulson, but also still in love with Bobbi, who is firmly in Gonzales’ pocket. I’m not quite sure the effect works: Hunter is too cynical to really be a good audience surrogate for either team. I think Simmons would’ve been a stronger choice, caught between her mutual admiration for both Coulson and Bobbi, but she seems to be set up as S.H.I.E.L.D.’s resident ~~mutant~~ Inhuman racist. It will be interesting to see FitzSimmons’ reaction to the insurrection, considering how close they are to Mac and Bobbi.

If Gonzales’ villain status is unknown, fortunately our favorite ex-S.H.I.E.L.D. sociopath Ward is back. He’s picked up a companion with Agent 33, but it feels like he’s toying with her, using her to further his mysterious agenda. Ward comes across as a smooth-talking preacher, charismatic and bright-eyed and smiling just enough to hide his fangs. I’d be just fine if Ward isn’t part of a conspiracy and his only motivation is “get Skye.”

Is there any character on this show more tragic than Agent 33? This is a character who lost her mind to Daniel Whitehall, and then her face in service of him. Tonight saw her finally reclaiming pieces of her identity, but her brainwashing remains strong. It feels like there’s not a happy ending in Kara’s future.

Ward and Agent 33 infiltrate an Air Force base to break out Bakshi, the super-douchey number two of Daniel Whitehall. It’s not quite clear why Ward needs him right now, but I’m glad to see Simon Kassianides back. Even when he’s getting hypnotized by a screensaver, Kassianides exudes a smarmy charm that makes him easy to hate without being over-the-top.

In the third storyline, Coulson takes Skye to a rustic fishing cabin complete with high-tech laser fence. The idea is to give her a place to develop her powers safely, away from everyone else. I know that Skye’s one of the most important people in the MCU right now, but I hope she gets control of her earthquake powers sooner than later. It took over thirty episodes before she finally got her superpowers; I guess I’m ready for Skye’s origin story to be over and for her to finally punch someone with Daisy Johnson’s huge gauntlets.

It’s more interesting what Coulson’s long-term plans are. From last week, we already know that S.H.I.E.L.D. has an extensive index of “gifted.” If Gonzales is right and Coulson is stocking gifted, that will make a very salient tie-in to the Superhuman Registration Act in Captain America: Civil War.

This was a surprisingly light episode, focusing more on setting up the longterm seeds of the next six episodes than telling a self-contained story. But the seeds are strong and character-driven. More than anything else, I’m curious to see how Coulson will not just defend S.H.I.E.L.D., but defend himself as the man to run it.

FINAL SCORE:

3 Surprise Helicarriers out of 5. That was definitely a Helicarrier, right?

ONE-SHOTS:

  • Welcome to MCU Exchange’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. column! Each week, I’ll be reviewing last night’s episode. There’s a lot of MCU TV content that we’re excited to cover, including Daredevil in a scant 2 1/2 weeks. We look forward to bringing you regular coverage of each episode.

  • “Maybe if you learn to control this, you can have Avenger-level powers.” Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is already opening doors to start connecting Skye to the larger MCU.

  • Nice touch with Agent 33 keeping May’s voice in all her facial morphs. It’s pretty convenient that she’s able to find someone with her exact body size before she switches faces.

  • I didn’t know that Lola needed an origin story, but here we are. Just to be clear, Skye’s the Corvette in this story, right?

  • “Throw him in the brig!” he said to Olmos’ character, the captain of a military ship. S.H.I.E.L.D.’s writers know exactly what they’re getting when they hire Bill Adama.

  • Talbot is exactly the kind of asshole to think a riding mower is more precise.