Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has come a long way from its faltering first few episodes, to the extent that it is now almost unrecognisable from its origins. Having struggled to deliver on its obvious potential early on, the first half of season two hit the ground running with a new-found confidence that gives the show a distinct identity and a rightful place in the Marvel cinematic universe.
I’ve always felt that some of the sluggishness of the first half of the show’s debut season was due to the constraints of working towards the world-changing events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. There was an element of marking time as Phil Coulson‘s team established themselves in a world where S.H.I.E.L.D. was a massive organisation headed by Nick Fury before HYDRA decimated it from within, leading to them becoming the core of S.H.I.E.L.D, rather than sitting on its periphery. Now, however, they are both relevant and important – the thin blue line that defends the work from dark and evil forces.
New roles, new characters
Behind the show’s major sea-change sits a major rewriting of four of the show’s six main characters. Coulson is now S.H.I.E.L.D’s director rather than a key lieutenant. Leo Fitz‘s speech and physical coordination are hampered by his underwater near-death experience. Grant Ward was revealed as a HYDRA mole but is now pursuing a personal agenda which remains unclear (and Brett Dalton is having a ball running with Ward’s new direction).
And, last but by no means least, there is Skye, who has undergone the biggest transformation of all. The hacktivist has quickly become a fully fledged S.H.I.E.L.D. agent (which requires a certain suspension of disbelief, but let’s run with it) and, in the mid-season finale What They Become, her true identity and nature are revealed as her father the Doctor (the wonderfully creepy Kyle MacLachlan) names her as Daisy and the Obelisk confers on her the ability to create seismic shockwaves.
Marvel fans will recognise this as the signature of Daisy Johnson, aka Quake, who in the comic books is one of only three S.H.I.E.L.D. agents (alongside Fury and the Black Widow) to possess a level ten clearance, and at one point takes on the role of Director herself. More than just being super-powered, Skye is now a major player as far as the Marvel universe is concerned.
Only Jemma Simmons and Melinda May remain unchanged, although Simmons is now far more independent of Fitz and spent the early part of the season undercover within HYDRA. And while May has had to share time with the influx of new agents, she’s now Coulson’s de facto deputy and Ming-Na Wen has had fun playing Daniel Whitehall‘s acolyte Agent 33.
The existing character resets have been drastic but have worked well, but the series is still struggling a little to accommodate the larger array of agents now under Coulson’s command. Bringing in a big name guest star in the form of Lucy Lawless, only to kill off her character Isabelle Hartley after one episode, was a bold move that underlined the dangerous nature of this post-HYDRA world. But we have also been introduced to former mercenary Lance Hunter (Nick Blood) and his ex-wife, Bobbi ‘Mockingbird’ Morse (Friday Night Lights alumnus Adrianne Palicki) and Alphonso ‘Mack’ Mackenzie (Henry Simmons), all of whom have had significant roles to play.
The net result of all these changes is that the character of Antoine ‘Trip’ Triplett (B J Britt), who was introduced in the latter part of season one, was pushed to the sidelines, effectively reduced to the role of doing the Starbucks run from episode to episode until finally being redshirted at the end of What They Become. Don’t be surprised if we lose at least one or two others along the way before the season is done – the Bus still feels crowded.
The main story arc for the first half of this second season has revolved around Coulson’s attempts to re-establish S.H.I.E.L.D. and the race to locate the Kree temple and exploit the Obelisk, allowing several related subplots to play out: the mystery of Coulson’s carvings, Skye’s search for her father and Ward’s promise to reunite her with him, and a big bad in the ageless Daniel Whitehall.
En route we’ve had the return of old friends – Skye’s fellow Inhuman Raina playing a major role, Donnie Gill (aka Blizzard) a fleeting one – and new characters from the Marvel Universe, such as the Absorbing Man Carl Creel. We’ve been briefly introduced to Ward’s senator brother Christian and enjoyed some light relief with the Koenig brothers Billy and Sam.
Throughout this autumn run there has been a real sense of purpose that wasn’t always present in season one, and a greater confidence to tell more intricate stories woven around three or four different plotlines within a single episode. This is now a darker, more serious show – one more in keeping with its 9pm US timeslot rather than its original 8pm one – and while this has come at the expense of much of its humour, it’s better overall.
Where season one of S.H.I.E.L.D. frustrated with its inconsistency – not just from episode to episode but frequently from one act to the next – season two has impressed me with its consistency. There hasn’t been a genuine clunker, with at least three episodes – What They Become, the Morse/Simmons-centric A Hen in the Wolf House and the Whitehall backstory-filling The Things We Bury – being excellent.
With the mystery of the Obelisk solved and Whitehall dead, there’s a pleasing sense of closure as the series goes into its winter hiatus. While it’s still imperfect, I’m feeling much more positive about the show now than I did this time last year. With each successive half-season, it has taken a noticeable step up in quality. Hopefully that trend will continue. In the meantime, there’s Agent Carter to look forward to.