I’ve pointed this out before, but Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. acts as as a kind of petri dish, reflecting the greater status of the MCU as a whole. The first season feels very much like Phase One: constantly referencing The Avengers, spinning wheels while waiting for the big crossover, without much in the way of stakes. Season two feels more like Phase Two: darker, more standalone, willing to take risks on its characters.
But Marvel Phase Three looks to be a whole different beast than the first two phases, and S.H.I.E.L.D.’s third season premiere gives us a glimpse at what’s coming next. The characters find themselves at existential crossroads, wondering if what defines them is even needed in a world of altruistic cosmic gods. The storylines are grounded in espionage intrigue, but they co-exist alongside superbeings. Characters like Vision or Scarlet Witch are unimaginable in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but they’ll be present in Captain America: Civil War. In the same way, the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. battle a shady, heavily-armed task force reminiscent of Hydra, only to discover their real enemy is a giant blue porcupine.
S.H.I.E.L.D. establishes the weirdness in the very first shot, tracking the trail of destruction left by newly hatched Inhuman, Joey Gutierrez. We’ve covered the Inhumans before, and what makes them so important to the MCU, but the basic catchup: they’re humans with ancient alien DNA, and exposure to an alien mineral, Terrigan, sends them into a rocky cocoon, only to emerge with superpowers. S.H.I.E.L.D.’s second season followed Skye as she slowly came to grips with her Inhuman heritage and earthquake/vibration powers. In S.H.I.E.L.D.’s third season, ~~Skye~~ Daisy Johnson (long story) scours the world, tracking down latent Inhumans. They quickly discover that they’re not the only ones looking for them, and come to blows with a shady military group.
After three seasons, S.H.I.E.L.D. seems to have finally found a groove where the cast has enough chemistry to be paired off in odd, delightful combinations. Daisy spends most of the episode with Mack, and the two characters have almost nothing in common and not much affection for each other. Yet Chloe Bennett and Henry Simmons have such great interplay, and the characters are so focused and professional, that it’s kind of a delight to watch them.
Yet despite these easy team dynamics, Joey’s the emotional center of the episode. Juan Pablo Raba mines some serious dramatic pathos with the character. Unlike Daisy, who came to S.H.I.E.L.D. as a politically-minded hacker, Joey just wants the normal life he’s worked so hard to create. Instead, he finds himself stuck in a S.H.I.E.L.D. detention cell, probably indefinitely. The MCU focuses so much on genius billionaires, gods, and military supersoldiers that the voice of the everyman gets lost a little. Someone like Joey is a refreshing change for the show, having more in common with Spider-Man than Captain America. I really hope he reconciles with his ex-boyfriend before the season’s end.
Joey’s such a great addition to the show, but I’m concerned about how they handled his sexuality. Near the end of the episode, Joey tells Daisy, “I’ve lived with a secret before. I was miserable until I let it out.” Daisy’s response? “The world’s not ready for this secret.” The episode made the direct connection between Inhumanity and queerness, and argued that it’s better to be in the closet for now. I’m willing to see where the show is going with this (it’s easy to see a future where Daisy’s hesitation is shown to be cowardice), but since Marvel has faced pointed criticism of using Inhumans to erase the most important queer surrogates in comics, it’s a little worrying.
Though Daisy starts season three in a great place, the rest of the S.H.I.E.L.D. team is in dire straits. Like the Inhumans, Coulson’s going through his own unwanted physical changes, spending the episode getting used to (and destroying) his new robot hand. I appreciate that they’re not just making Coulson a badass cyborg, but really taking the time to show the dysphoria of losing a limb. And though Coulson seems affable and dapper throughout the episode, there’s a certain strain to Clark Gregg’s performance. Finally in the end of the episode, he confronts Fitz, revealing how scared he is, how much he’s struggling, and how he needs all the help he can get.
Despite being the best field agent S.H.I.E.L.D. has, Bobbi is stuck in the labs, still recovering from Ward’s torture sessions last season. She’s sleeping with Hunter again, and the two actually get along better than ever. Bobbi’s time off has done her good, but she’s eager to get back to the field. Though her physical therapy is almost finished, it’s clear her time away from the field has brought a lot of healing. Bobbi is the best at what she does, but what she does might slowly be killing her.
Yet no one is worse off than Fitz. After Jemma was absorbed by an alien rock (another long story), Fitz has gone off the deep end. He scours the globe, lying about his location, making bad deals with terrorist-affiliated arms dealers. And in the end, his reward is a useless scroll of Hebrew paper. No clues, no leads, no closer to finding Simmons. When he’s finally confronted by Coulson, telling him to give up the chase, he doesn’t even protest. He knows Coulson’s right, and he doesn’t know how to mourn. This episode is a great showcase for Iain De Caestecker, who is the show’s strongest actor.
Throughout the course of its history, S.H.I.E.L.D. has fallen or nearly fallen about a half-dozen times. Yet this episode brings the characters to perhaps the bleakest point in the show’s history. Coulson watches the President announce the A.T.C.U., a task-force designed to register and regulate superhuman threats. Headed by the mysterious Rosalin (played by human wonder Constance Zimmer), the A.T.C.U. represents a far more grave threat to S.H.I.E.L.D. than Hydra ever did. Despite battling criminals, terrorists, and maniacal supervillains, S.H.I.E.L.D. has finally met their greatest foe: entropy.
With the A.T.C.U., it looks like S.H.I.E.L.D. is no longer relevant or necessary in the modern, post-Ultron world. While Coulson watches the President and quietly sweats, it’s Fitz that gives voice to the real existential fears of S.H.I.E.L.D. The show ends on a haunting final note, Fitz screaming impotently at a monolith to “Do something!” because he knows there’s nothing more he can do.
4 Wonka Elevators out of 5. I’m still waiting on S.H.I.E.L.D. to get a damn Helicarrier, but the new Bus is better than the old one.
Welcome to MCU Exchange’s reviews of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.! I reviewed the second half of last season, as well as Daredevil. I’m really excited to be back, and really looking forward to S.H.I.E.L.D. grappling with cosmic shenanigans. And speaking of that…
The episode’s final scene is a very much alive Jemma, frantically running around a rock on the other side of the universe. This looks like yet another similarity between Jemma and Fred from Angel: beautiful, awkward scientists stranded on hostile alien landscapes. Sadly, there are only so many Joss Whedon character arcs.
It’s delightful seeing Bobbi in a lab coat! in the comics, Bobbi has a Ph.D in biology, and it looks like that quirk in her backstory has carried over into the series. No wonder Jemma loved her so much!
In the comics, the Inhumans powers are triggered by a massive bomb releasing Terrigan mists into the atmosphere. On S.H.I.E.L.D., the powers are triggered by… tainted fish oil.
There are lots of references to Avengers: Age of Ultron this episode; at least two name-drops of Sokovia. But Coulson still manages to slip in a small reference to Ant-Man at the end.
If ABC is smart, the hospital Lincoln works at should be Seattle Grace. Forget Agent Carter, this show won’t be complete until it crosses over with Grey’s Anatomy. #synergy
Joey gets the best line of the episode. “‘More interesting?’ I’m not a freakin’ TED Talk!”