The absence of a ‘Previously on Agents of SHIELD’ at the start of this season is highlighted the more strongly by one at the top of this episode which splices clips from episode 1 with relevant moments from the previous season, making this almost feel like the ‘proper’ introduction to the new season of the adventures of Coulson and Co.
This is an episode with an awful lot going on, character wise and plot wise, and it becomes a bit of a struggle to keep up, so densely packed is the whole run time. Beneath the episode’s main plot of the struggle to retrieve Simmons are bubbling so many subplots and character arcs that a second viewing is almost essential to keep it all in place.
The mission to retrieve Simmons is the episode’s main concern, the team enlisting the assistance of Asgardian bon vivant Eliot Randoph to investigate the portal. Their journey takes them to a castle in Gloucester where Randolph partied in 1853, which just happens to have the same symbol as the parchment Fitz retrieved in episode 1 carved into its walls. It’s a moment of pure handwavium, but between the charm of Macnicol and the banter between him and the rest of the team, it’s easily forgiven/ignored. The ancient device which they find, the eventual solution when it overloads and the recovery of Simmons just when all seems utterly lost are all leaning heavily on the cheesy side, but it’s clear that this season has a lot to get through so a quick resolution to Simmons’ captivity in another dimension is understandable. How she will have changed, and how that will impact on the continuing will they/won’t they relationship with Fitz, feels like a much more interesting story than we might have got had they left her to wander the planet of dust for any longer.
Elsewhere, May insists that she is done, clinging to her duty to look after her elderly father as an obvious excuse to avoid returning to the field. When her father reminds her of how ‘his daughter always got back up again’ when she fell ice skating as a child, the point is heavy handed but well-made. When Hunter turns up to enlist her help in his revenge mission against Ward, it’s obvious that his comments hit their mark in spite of her denials, and it’s hardly a surprise when we see them together preparing for the mission towards the episode’s end. Hunter himself is as changed as May. The banter is still there, but there’s a cold hardness underlying it now. This is a man very much on a mission, as he puts it to ‘put Ward six feet under or further’.
Meanwhile, Daisy continues to be the one who seems to be in charge at SHIELD HQ, Coulson still not seeming as effective as we are used to. That’s two agents already we know of that he’s been – at the very least – turning a blind eye to the activities of, and Garner’s observation that Coulson is ‘desperate for a win’ seems well-founded. By contrast, Daisy is focused, calm and authoritative – it almost feels as though the show is gearing up for her to be the new director of SHIELD by the end of the series, but time will tell. Bobbi remains lab-bound, though there’s a nuance to Palicki’s performance which suggests to me that she’s not quite as fed up about that as she protests – could the Mockingbird’s feathers have been more ruffled than she admitted by events at the end of Season 2? Mac continues to be Mac – big, stoic and not having much of a role beyond being there. His role in Season 2 as Fitz’s buddy seems almost to have been discarded, and it does feel a little like the writers are struggling to know quite what to do with him.
And then there’s Ward. Clearly Dalton is having great fun, his character now returned to the cold, capable operative of early season 1 and no longer bound to all of the soul-searching and wretchedness of Season 2. Ward means to resurrect Hydra, and his brutal ‘initiation’ of the young son of a certain famous Hydra leader shows just how he means to go about it, while the final shot tells us that for all his brute force, Ward is still a subtle player, and a suitable nemesis for the team.
As for Joe, the inhuman we were introduced to last week, and the mysterious spec ops organisation out to get him, we don’t get anything on either of them here, but in fairness, with so much to cram in, this is likely a good thing.
The wheels are in motion for an epic series, but as ever with SHIELD, this will be a journey which rewards the faithful, the patient, and those who are paying close attention to the wider MCU as a whole. On the strength of the opening two episodes, Coulson and Co aren’t going to be winning over any skeptics of the show, but fans are in for a real treat.
Verdict: Multiple plot strands and character arcs make for a dense episode narratively, so you may need to watch this one more than once to catch everything. A solid, if unspectacular start to a promising-looking series. 7/10
Greg D. Smith