Agents of SHIELD’s return: What you need to know
The mid-season premiere of Agents of SHIELD is almost upon us, so here’s a quick recap of season two so far. If you haven’t been keeping up with the show, these are all the people, places, and things you’ll need to know to jump right back in, and if you have been keeping up with the show, consider this a quick refresher. But first…
The state of the show
To those of you who bailed on Agents of SHIELD early on, you’re probably expecting the usual smug gloating about how much you’ve missed. But honestly, I can’t say I blame you. If not for the articles I feel obligated to write every so often about this show, I doubt I’d have stuck with it for this long. But the series has certainly picked up from its sleep-inducing early episodes.
The biggest change this season is the expansion of the regular cast with several new faces. The new characters aren’t that much more well-defined than the old, but simply having them around makes things a whole lot less monotonous, and the presence of a few seasoned actors means the original cast finally has something to play off of, improving the quality of performances all around.
And a larger cast means episodes can now crosscut between three or four subplots, never staying with any of them long enough for us to get bored (though I’ll admit that on occasion, the multiple plotlines get crosscut into incoherence). Also, there’s a lot more action this season; I assume some sort of mandate was handed down from the studio or the network, because the show now appears to be contractually required to have one big knockdown, drag-out brawl per episode.
The character of Skye has also changed a lot. If you’ve read my previous articles, you know this deserves special mention, because as the everygirl audience insert character that nearly every episode of the previous season revolved around, Skye was consistently the show’s weakest link. But now she’s a full-fledged field agent, and shown to be as competent as anyone else on Phil Coulson’s team. Frankly, Skye becoming a tough, uncompromising, ass-kicking sharpshooter in the space of a few months is not that much more believable than her original role as a genius computer hacker, but it’s made her infinitely more tolerable.
The last half of season one dealt with the dissolution of SHIELD as detailed in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, where we learned HYDRA had been operating as a subversive evil agency within the ranks of SHIELD since the end of World War II. In the season finale, Samuel L. Jackson made a guest appearance as the eyepatch-free version of Nick Fury, here to give Agent Coulson—now Director Coulson—a cube full of ultra-classified info that would help him create the new SHIELD. That accounts for a lot of the cast changes this season, with more agents being brought on, and Coulson’s team putting down roots in a former wartime base of the SSR (the precursor to SHIELD) known as the Playground.
The obelisk AKA the Diviner AKA this season’s MacGuffin
I generally take a dim view of MacGuffins as lazy, formulaic ways to set plots in motion, but after enduring over a dozen episodes in the first season of these agents randomly wandering around solving mysteries like the Scooby-Doo gang, it improved things greatly for them to have a singular object upon which to focus their efforts.
In this case, the MacGuffin was a powerful obelisk sought by HYDRA, which turned anyone who touched it into stone, except for those with a certain “gift”. When those select few touched the obelisk, it glowed, displayed alien writing, and occasionally bestowed special abilities.
Eventually, we found out the obelisk was “the Diviner”, an alien artifact brought to Earth in ancient times. According to legend, the Diviner came down from the sky carried by “the blue angels”, but instead of Navy stunt pilots, they’re actually the Kree, who we know from the comics and Guardians of the Galaxy as a hugely important alien race in the Marvel universe, and the rulers of a vast, interstellar empire.
Coulson’s carving compulsion
The alien writing seen on the Diviner should be familiar, thanks to the stinger at the end of season one’s finale that showed Coulson driven to carve large diagrams of alien symbols into any available surface. We eventually found out that this obsession was the natural byproduct of being injected with a compound called GH-325 (which is how Coulson was brought back to life following his “death” in The Avengers). Coulson previously discovered that GH-325 was derived from the blood of a big blue dead alien, which in retrospect clearly was the body of a Kree.
Coulson probed his own repressed memories and found out other agents were also exposed to this compound, which caused similar urges to draw the Kree writing. After putting together all their various carvings, paintings, sculptures, and (in one case) tattoos, Coulson was able to create a complete diagram of the symbols and determine that it was actually a map. Now free of his need to carve the symbols, he and Skye quickly ascertained that the “map” was really the blueprint for a secret city. And HYDRA’s goal all along was to bring the Diviner to this city, in the hopes of triggering some sort of catastrophic event that would kill millions.
Not long after, SHIELD discovered this supposed “secret city” buried underground just off the coast of Puerto Rico, because… well, probably because the cast and crew didn’t object too strenuously to the opportunity for filming on the sunny beaches of Puerto Rico for a few weeks.
The villain: Daniel Whitehall, the fascist formerly known as Werner Reinhardt
Flashbacks over the course of the season showed the Diviner was in the possession of HYDRA during World War II. Werner Reinhardt, a high-ranking HYDRA official and one of the Red Skull’s disciples, abducted a group of Chinese villagers and brought them to a fortress in Austria where he conducted deadly experiments on them with the object. Eventually, he found a woman who could touch the Diviner without turning to stone, but before he could experiment on her further, he got word that the Red Skull had been killed and HYDRA defeated.
The fortress was stormed by the SSR, and Reinhardt was taken into custody by the Howling Commandos and Peggy Carter herself (mostly just a small cameo from Hayley Atwell to plug her limited series that took over Agents’ timeslot for two months). All of HYDRA’s experiments and artifacts were boxed up and locked away by the SSR, including the Diviner, which became the very first item tagged with “084”, SHIELD’s code for an object of unknown origin.
Reinhardt himself was also locked away in a SHIELD prison for life, but eventually freed in 1989 by “Undersecretary Pierce” (a reference to Robert Redford’s character in Winter Soldier). Upon returning to his fortress in Austria, Reinhardt finds out the Chinese woman exposed to the Diviner is not only still alive, but hasn’t aged a single day. (And as we learn soon after, this woman also happens to be Skye’s mother.)
He proceeds to dissect her (in a pretty ghoulish sequence) to unlock the secrets of eternal youth. Following his rejuvenation, Reinhardt gets rid of his German accent, takes on the identity of “Daniel Whitehall” (the same name as a HYDRA agent in the comics known as Kraken), and becomes the primary antagonist of the half-season.
After spending most of the episodes trying to regain possession of the Diviner, as well as find a suitably “gifted” individual to bring it into the underground city, he ends up shot dead by Coulson in a moment that’s anticlimactic and darkly hilarious all at once.
Kyle MacLachlan appears as Skye’s father, previously implied to be a “monster”, though apparently only in the metaphorical sense: he’s really just a normal guy with an incredibly short temper who’s especially good at killing. He remains nameless until the finale, when he’s revealed to be Calvin Zabo, a villain from the comics known as Mister Hyde (but no, there’s no indication that he’s created a formula here that turns him into a super-strong giant).
Zabo learns that Skye is now an agent of SHIELD, and arranges to have her brought to a building just above the underground alien city. There, he explains how her mother was abducted by HYDRA agents, who were still operating under the guise of SHIELD at the time. He left Skye with people he “trusted”, but by the time he tracked down his wife, it was too late, and Reinhardt/Whitehall had already killed her. He then swore vengeance on Whitehall, and also swore to be reunited with Skye someday, and then, I guess, he just kind of sat around for 25 years waiting to put his plan into motion.
When he finally meets Skye, he tells her that it’s her destiny to be transformed by the Diviner in some unexplained way, and also that her birth name is “Daisy”. Later, he gets into a fight with Coulson and nearly kills him, so Skye threatens to shoot him. However, she can’t bring herself to do it, and when we last see Zabo, he’s quietly slipping away.
So what is Skye, exactly?
It’s been teased since the first season that Skye might be part alien, but it’s finally officially confirmed by Raina, the “girl in the flower dress” from early on in season one, who’s been a constant thorn in the side of Coulson’s team ever since. She originally worked for the Centipede Project, and then for the “clairvoyant”, until she learned both were really HYDRA. She apparently knows Skye’s dad from her youth, and she spent most of the half-season attempting to acquire the Diviner as well as reunite Skye with her father.
It’s Raina who finally explains that the Diviner is an alien artifact, and it turns out both she and Skye have the ability to touch it with no ill effects. And it’s Raina who ultimately brings the Diviner into the underground alien city. Skye goes after her, where they both end up trapped inside a chamber as the Diviner suddenly splits open, revealing a crystal inside, and sprays them with a mist that encases them in rock-like cocoons.
They quickly break out of these cocoons, now apparently changed. While Skye looks the same, there’s a brief shot of Raina that suggests she experienced a much more drastic transformation.
We’ll have to wait for the new episodes to find out exactly what they turned into, but going by the comics and what’s been said by the show’s producers, both Skye and Raina are Inhumans, a race of genetically altered human beings created by ancient experiments conducted by the Kree. Per the comics, when an Inhuman is exposed to something called the “Terrigen Mist”, it activates their latent superpowers and abilities.
And since Skye’s real name is “Daisy”, that indicates she’s Daisy Johnson, AKA the Marvel Comics superhero Quake, who’s also the daughter of Calvin Zabo in the comics. It’s unclear who Raina has become, with speculation including everyone from Tigra to the Ultimate Universe version of Gorgon.
So when the season starts up again, Skye will be a bona fide superhero (with the power to create earthquakes, no less), which should provide an interesting new wrinkle for the show. Also, it seems this move is meant in part to set up the Inhumans movie slated for 2019, which many suspect is Marvel’s long-term strategy for filling the hole in the MCU caused by Fox owning the live action rights to anything mutant-related.
Oh yeah, and in the closing minutes of the mid-season finale, another Diviner somewhere in the world starts glowing, which turns out to belong to this guy, who some suggest might be an Inhuman from the comics known as “the Reader”.
And that about covers the most important plot threads of the season so far, but here are a few other ongoing subplots that will probably be relevant when the show returns:
Revealed as a HYDRA agent in the previous season and quickly apprehended by SHIELD, Ward spent most of the half-season in a SHIELD holding cell behind a Star Trek brig-style force-field. Coulson kept him around mainly to pump him for intel about HYDRA, deciding that his romantic feelings for Skye made her the ideal person to interrogate him. (Weren’t May and Ward sleeping together at some point? Or has that been completely forgotten?)
It’s eventually retconned that Ward’s older brother Christian is a U.S. senator, which you think would’ve merited a mention or two before. Regardless, Senator Ward wants SHIELD to be branded as outlaws and terrorists, but backs off when Coulson releases Grant Ward into his custody.
Ward instantly escapes, of course, and then sets about having his revenge on his senator brother for the events described in the first season episode “The Well”. For those who don’t remember (and I’m one of them, believe me), that’s the episode that revealed that when Grant was a kid, Christian bullied him into nearly killing their younger brother. Ward forces a confession out of Christian, then kills him and their parents and sets fire to their house.
Eventually, Ward goes back to HYDRA and starts working for Whitehall, and he’s the one who finally brings Skye to meet her father. In the chaos that ensues afterwards, Ward lets his guard down around Skye, who pumps him full of bullets. Naturally, it turns out he’s wearing a bulletproof vest, and the last we see of Ward is him making his escape.
This season also introduced a new member of the team, Agent Bobbi Morse (played by Adrianne Palicki), better known as Mockingbird from the comics, where she married Hawkeye and became one of the key members of the West Coast Avengers. She has a rather complicated backstory in the comics, most of which is thankfully thrown out here, and the only real nod to the Mockingbird character is Bobbi’s use of her trademark batons.
Her appearance is also heavily foreshadowed by another new member of the team, an Irish mercenary named Lance Hunter who spends several episodes telling everyone about his “hell beast” of an ex-wife, who’s eventually revealed to be Bobbi. Clearly, the formerly married couple are still attracted to each other, which leads to a brief physical interlude in the back of an SUV. This sexual tension may be explored further when the show returns, or they might pull a Ward/May and forget it ever happened.
Also, at one point Bobbi has a quiet conversation with fellow agent Mack (see below) about bringing Hunter in “on the other thing”, and there’s also a scene where she deliberately hides a flash drive from him. The show’s given us no inkling of what that’s all about, but presumably we’ll find out soon enough.
Season one saw Ward, just prior to being found out as an agent of HYDRA, trapping Agents Fitz and Simmons inside a medical pod and dropping them to the bottom of the ocean. The two faced certain death, and after basically confessing his love for her, Fitz gave Simmons the only available oxygen supply, allowing her to escape. Fitz survived, but unfortunately was oxygen deprived for long enough to cause permanent brain damage, and he spent most of the half-season doubting his usefulness to the team.
At the same time, Simmons briefly quit the team, which started things off with a strange side plot where Fitz continued to interact with his subconscious hallucination of her. Even stranger, Simmons went to work undercover for HYDRA, which turned out to be a totally normal, pleasant office environment complete with conference rooms and lunch breaks and org charts. So wait, SHIELD has to operate in secrecy, but a Nazi offshoot is able to occupy office buildings in plain sight?
Eventually, Simmons’ cover was blown, which forced Bobbi Morse to also abandon her own cover as a HYDRA agent to save her. Ultimately, Simmons rejoined the team, but she and Fitz appear to have a long way to go to resolve all their issues.
Agent 33, who’s never given an actual name (in the comics, she primarily appeared in a series about an alternate reality Avengers), is a SHIELD agent captured and brainwashed by Whitehall into working for HYDRA. In one episode, she uses a special high-tech mask to disguise herself as Agent May. But during a fight with the real Agent May, she gets electrocuted and the mask fuses with her face, and now Agent 33 is stuck permanently looking and sounding like May. It’s the source of a few jokes, on top of being a crafty cost-cutting move, in that they can give us another recurring villain without having to pay another actress. The last we see of 33 is her helping Grant Ward escape.
Alphonso “Mack” MacKenzie is a mechanic already working for SHIELD at the beginning of the season (in the comics, he’s a CIA liaison who eventually writes a tell-all book about SHIELD). He befriends Fitz, counseling him about Simmons and helping him deal with his disabilities. Down in the underground city, Mack briefly becomes an unstoppable killing machine when he touches glowing alien writing and gets possessed by… something. But he snaps out of it when the Diviner self-destructs, and he’ll presumably be back when the show returns.
In season one, Antoine “Trip” Triplett was a SHIELD agent who found out his boss John Garrett was working for HYDRA. He proved his loyalties were with SHIELD and became a member of Coulson’s team, where it was revealed that he was the grandson of one of the original Howling Commandos (they never told us which one, but I’ll go out on a limb and guess… the black one?). Alas, he ended up trapped in the alien chamber where Skye and Raina transformed into Inhumans, and when the Diviner self-destructed, he got turned into stone and crumbled to death right before Skye’s eyes. RIP Trip, because apparently there’s only room for one tall handsome black man on this show.
Brigadier General Glenn Talbot
Best known in the comics as a Hulk supporting character and General “Thunderbolt” Ross’ second in command, Talbot is a general in the Air Force who begins the season believing that SHIELD is a terrorist organization, and he makes it his mission to take down Coulson and his team. But as the agents begin capturing operatives of HYDRA and turning them over to the government, he comes to soften his position.
The Koenig brothers
Sam, Billy, and Eric Koenig (the latter of whom was killed by Grant Ward in season one) are identical triplet SHIELD agents, all played by Patton Oswalt and mostly played for comic relief. Though, there’s plenty of speculation (among the fans, as well as other characters on the show) about whether or not they’re really triplets, with some fans suggesting they’re really clones or even Life Model Decoys.
As far as primetime, broadcast network TV shows go, Agents of SHIELD is sufficiently diverting. And I suppose if you’re a fan of Joss Whedon-esque snappy patter and cutesy lingo, you’ll enjoy the reasonable facsimile of same provided by Whedon’s brother and sister-in-law.
But overall, the show feels like a bit of a mechanical exercise. Characters trot around the globe and get themselves in and out of dangerous situations, but it’s not invested with a whole lot of depth and none of it is terribly memorable. This half-season brought us a few emotional moments (mostly courtesy of Kyle MacLachlan), but a lot of the show feels like they’re just filling up airtime before the inevitable reveals, and one can’t help but wonder if the entire half-season could have been reduced to about four or five episodes without leaving out anything of value. I suggested previously that Agents would be better off adopting the basic cable model of shorter seasons, and I’m more certain of that now than ever.
Also, it would appear they’ve pretty much given up on making this series accessible to anyone who’s never watched the show before. Or really, anyone who’s not marathoning three or four episodes in one sitting. Agents of SHIELD now feels very much built for binge watching, as there are no standalone episodes whatsoever and it’s nearly impossible to follow some of the storylines if you’re limiting yourself to one episode a week.
If I had to grade this half-season, with the presupposition that the first half of the first season earned a D grade, then I’d say the show as it exists now has worked itself up to a steady B minus. It’s entertaining enough, but if the show was suddenly canceled tomorrow (which currently seems unlikely), I’d probably breathe a sigh of relief that I don’t have to fit even more useless trivia and background information about the Marvel Cinematic Universe into my brain. But then again, I’m no huge fan of the MCU—I find most of the movies respectable, but ultimately disposable—so your mileage, as always, may vary.