Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 2, Episode 1, "Shadows" RETRO-REVIEW (SPOILERS)

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The Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 2 premiere really had a lot on its plate.  It introduced us to the main villain for the first half of the season.  It filled in some details on the mysterious blue body from season 1.  It laid some of the groundwork for Agent Carter and the founding of S.H.I.E.L.D. via flashback.  It introduced us to most of the major plots for the first half of the season.  And on top of all that it also had to fill in the details on what happened between the 2 seasons.  All in all, the episode does a really good job of balancing all of these different requirements.

Remember:  Retro-Reviews contain potential spoilers for everything to-date.

The episode starts off with a quick flashback to 1945, where Werner Reinhardt, one of the remaining Hydra Heads, is packing up all of the artifacts at his Hydra base.  Though one of Reinhardt’s minions is concerned about the Red Skull’s reaction to their decision to cut and run, Reinhardt assures him that Red Skull is dead, but they are continuing his work.  However, before Hydra can finish packing, Peggy Carter, Dum Dum Dugan, and the Howling Commandos bust in to take all the Hydra troops into custody.  This scene is a lot of fun:  we see a couple of important artifacts (the Diviner/Obelisk (“the original 0-8-4”) and the/a Kree body).  We also see Reinhardt, the main villain for the half-season, for the first time—a good decision, especially after in the first season we didn’t meet a “big bad” until the second half of the season.  Finally, this is Peggy Carter’s first appearance on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., setting up her mid-season-break series—and the Howling Commandos even show up for one episode in the first season of that series.  Considering how much of season 2 explores the history of S.H.I.E.L.D., Hydra, and even earth itself, starting the season with a flashback to the final days of World War II was a really nice way to set the tone.

In the present, several months have passed since the season 1 finale, and Coulson has started settling into the Director’s position.  He has been recruiting loyal S.H.I.E.L.D. agents slowly, but the number of former agents he can trust is very low—most are dead, Hydra, jailed, or in the private sector.  Coulson has added a few new agents, however, including a group in England (which we now know was a ruse to cover up his Theta Protocol travels).  S.H.I.E.L.D. has the Playground, a Bus which it can’t use because it’s too visible, and a couple dozen agents.  Not quite the massive organization we met in season 1.  It’s so bad that Coulson has had to bring in a team of mercenaries led by S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Isabelle Hartley to meet with a potential recruit/information peddler.

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The man selling the information is an ex-S.H.I.E.L.D. agent named Browning who used to work at a S.H.I.E.L.D. containment facility which housed 0-8-4s.  However, the box he is selling them information on is unique in that it is the only one with a Level 10 classified file.  On seeing the picture after the fact, Coulson recognizes it as being the original “0-8-4” (one of the objects we saw the Howling Commandos capturing at the beginning of the episode).  The object has unknown power, but there is a trail of bodies following it wherever it goes.  As such, it is imperative that S.H.I.E.L.D. keep it from falling into the hands of Hydra.  Unfortunately, an unknown assassin breaks up the sale, kills the seller, takes the information, and escapes.  Fitz and May identify him as Carl “Crusher” Creel, a gifted individual who was supposed to have been “put down” as a “hostile gifted.”  However, Garrett was in charge of the op, and obviously recruited Creel to Hydra.  Creel can absorb any substance and transform the molecules of his body into that substance.  This allowed him to transform his body into lead when they shot him, giving them the impression he was wearing armor.

Coulson and the team use some information from Ward to find the frequencies Hydra uses to give Creel his orders, and they figure out that his next target is General Talbot.  S.H.I.E.L.D. prevents Creel from abducting Talbot and his family, but Creel is taken into military custody (at the same single facility where Talbot has been storing everything he collected from the S.H.I.E.L.D. collapse—why is that a good idea?).  S.H.I.E.L.D. meanwhile takes Talbot into custody, where Coulson tries to convince him to join forces against Hydra—Talbot’s not buying it.  I actually like Talbot’s character.  He has all the “Ahab mentality” of General Ross (his fellow Hulk character from the comics), and he is absolutely hell-bent on taking down S.H.I.E.L.D.  However, he’s not an idiot; he knows what he is up against, and he’s even willing to work with S.H.I.E.L.D. after a lot of convincing.  He’s definitely not a friend of Coulson, but you can tell that the two of them could work together under the right circumstances.  I like how much respect Coulson and Talbot express for each other—at the very least Coulson recognizes that Talbot is just doing his job hunting them down.

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S.H.I.E.L.D. uses Talbot (unknowingly) to find and infiltrate the containment facility, where they find row upon row of shelves with boxes containing unknown devices and artifacts.  It looks kind of sloppy to have that stuff just sitting around, but considering that the military doesn’t know what half of it is, I suppose we can’t fault them for their lax security and storage practices.  Hartley finds the 0-8-4 and opens the box up, but Creel (who of course tricked his guards into freeing him) attacks her.  She picks up the device, and her arm immediately starts to turn black and die.  The rest of the team chases Creel off, and they call in to Coulson to figure out what to do.  Coulson eventually decides to go for broke, though Hunter takes Hartley (and the Obelisk) and flees to find a hospital.  Trip, May, and Skye fight past the military police to an airstrip with several quinjets parked.  Trip and Skye escape in a quinjet, while May takes a motorcycle to chase after Hunter’s team.  I liked the whole scene in the warehouse and with the team fighting towards the quinjets (though I was disappointed they only took 1; if they’d had another pilot or 2 they could’ve taken more).  The worst part of the scene was the fact that the MPs had about as good of aim as stormtroopers; it never looked like they got close to hitting the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents.  I’m not sure how they would have corrected that except by letting an agent get hit, but that would have needlessly complicated the scene.

Hunter, Hartley, and the third member of their team (Idaho) meanwhile escape the facility, though the Obelisk is still killing Hartley and she can’t let it go.  Finally she tells Hunter to cut it off (which on repeated viewing wasn’t quite as graphic as I remember it being).  I like their conversation about cutting the hand off:

Hartley    It’s no big deal.  You’ve seen what they can do with robotics these days.
Hunter     Probably be an upgrade.

Hartley didn’t get an upgraded arm out of the deal, but Coulson just might.  Funny how the season began with an arm getting cut off because the Diviner metal was killing the person, and then the season ended with an arm getting cut off because the Diviner metal was killing the person.

However, Idaho takes his eyes off the road for a moment, in which time Creel appears in front of them, turns himself into asphalt, and causes the SUV to flip.  Hartley and Idaho are killed in the crash, and Creel transforms his hand into rubber, picks up the Obelisk, and walks away.

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I really liked the way that they showed us just what was wrong with Fitz in this episode.  At the beginning of the episode it is clear that not everything is right in his head:  he can’t finish sentences and has trouble concentrating as a result of the brain damage in the season 1 finale.  As the episode progresses we realize more and more just how messed up his brain has gotten from the team’s interactions with him.  However, at the same time Fitz clearly doesn’t want to be treated this way and wants to get back to where he was before—and Simmons seems to think that he is getting close.  And then at the end of the episode Coulson drops a major bomb:  Simmons left months ago because she thought it would help Fitz.  The Simmons we saw in this episode was not real; it was something that Fitz created in his mind to cope with her leaving him.  He really is much worse than we thought.  I don’t know enough about brain damage to tell whether their portrayal of Fitz is accurate, but I have seen other articles on the subject which suggest that this is accurate.  Beyond an episode of Skye dying and Tony Stark’s PTSD, this is really the first time that this show (and I think the MCU as a whole) has really delved into something like a major character having a major trauma.  And unlike the other two examples, this is not a quick fix.  In fact, in some respects this is even worse than if they had just killed him off.

I like how this episode sets everything up for the season.  Hydra is still a major threat—and has more resources than S.H.I.E.L.D.  The U.S. Government is still hunting S.H.I.E.L.D. down.  They are low on resources and grounded without cloaking technology.  Fitz is struggling to recover from his brain damage.  Ward is still in the picture, locked up until Coulson wants information.  We even see Skye working on the alien writing puzzle, something which becomes a major plot-driver later in the half-season, and leads directly into the second half of the season.  Tonally, this episode is much darker and more serious than season 1 ever was (particularly the beginning of season 1), although towards the end of that season it started to get darker.  All in all, this was a very good way to start the second season.

What was your favorite part of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 2?  Did you like how much it delved into the history of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the MCU?

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