Agents of SHIELD: 201 “Shadows” Review
Reviewed by Phil Boothman.
The first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was something of an experiment, to see whether television and movies could co-exist in the same universe, informing one another but never becoming reliant on each other. While that experiment got off to a rocky start, by the end of the season, and with the extensive tie-in with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the show had found its footing and become a satisfying viewing experience both as its own entity and as part of the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. With that good work done in season one, the new season had a far stronger position to start from, and the overall quality of “Shadows” reflects that.
Big changes have gone on behind the scenes, but the episode does a good job of showing us what has actually happened rather than relying on clunky exposition-heavy dialogue: Coulson has thrown himself into the task of rebuilding S.H.I.E.L.D. from the ground up, going back to its roots as a clandestine organization while still actively battling against the growing influence of Hydra and hiding from the US Government who are trying to shut them down. Meanwhile, Skye has grown into a far more competent agent under May’s tutelage, now a far cry from the van-dwelling hippy hacker of this time last season, and the team as a whole seem to be gradually healing from Ward’s betrayal.
The episode itself wastes no time in re-introducing the world to us, as well as setting up the season’s larger plot arc with a flashback to 1945 which sees Peggy Carter, along with fellow Captain America alumni Jim Morita and the excellently named and dashingly bowler-hatted Dum Dum Dugan raiding what is supposedly the last remaining Hydra base in Austria, arresting Hydra agent Whitehall and confiscating a bunch of items in the name of the Strategic Scientific Reserve, the precursor to S.H.I.E.L.D. which will likely feature in the Agent Carter series airing in the winter. Among these items is a certain blue-skinned cadaver in a box which may be familiar to longtime Agents viewers, and this season’s first MacGuffin, an item referred to simply as ‘the Obelisk’ which apparently has the ability to turn people to stone. It was nice to see Peggy Carter back in action, and to get a glimpse of what Agent Carter has in store for us even before jumping back into the familiar world of the Agents.
Naturally, the Obelisk resurfaces in the present day and we are introduced to some new members of Coulson’s operation: regrettably short-lived agent Isabelle Hartley played by Xena herself, Lucy Lawless; the inoffensive but largely uninteresting agent Idaho; and the improbably-named British mercenary Lance Hunter. Not only that, but we get our first meeting with a brand new bad guy, superpowered Hydra goon Carl Creel, known in the comic books by the hugely creative name ‘Absorbing Man’: Creel is able to absorb and replicate the properties of any material he touches, which usually means becoming a bulletproof metal man.
On yet another side of the ongoing conflict is Brigadier General Glenn Talbot of the US military, who is relentlessly hunting down S.H.I.E.L.D. and Coulson in particular, seeing no particular difference between S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra. He essentially spends the episode spitting insults about S.H.I.E.L.D. through his ridiculous moustache, and being kidnapped to allow the Agents to get into the military base housing all the stuff they confiscated from S.H.I.E.L.D., including but not limited to the Obelisk, which does a number on Hartley’s arm; and the real prize, a Quinjet from which the team can reverse-engineer a cloaking device for the currently grounded Bus.
Which brings us on to the saddest part of the episode: after almost sacrificing himself to save Simmons last season, Fitz is struggling to get back to his old self, forgetting words and having difficulty focusing on his work long enough to get anything working. He spends the episode trying to figure out how to set up cloaking, with Simmons providing friendly support and reminding him of the things he has been forgetting. However, as the episode continues, it transpires that Simmons left the team a long time ago, and the version of her that Fitz is accompanied by exists solely in his head. Essentially, the duo of Fitzsimmons was torn apart by Ward’s actions last season, and it would seem that Fitz is having far more difficulty adjusting than the now-absent Simmons.
Speaking of Ward, the Great Betrayer gets a look in on this episode as well, from his new home in the ‘Vault’ of the S.H.I.E.L.D. base, with a new personality which veers between zen-like and helpful to incredibly creepy, and has apparently gone through a vaguely suicidal phase. He shows up briefly in this episode to divulge some helpful information about Hydra’s operations to a really rather unhappy Skye, who is the only person he will offer any assistance to, but conveniently neglects to give her the information he has about her father.
Anyway, by the close of the episode we have a pretty good idea of where we stand: Hartley and Idaho are dead, killed by Creel who managed to escape the confrontation with the Obelisk; the Big Bad is revealed to be none other than Daniel Whitehall, the apparently-immortal Hydra-Nazi from the opening scene; and S.H.I.E.L.D. now have a Quinjet to play with, but not a whole lot else.
“Shadows” is an intriguing start to the new season, with a great deal more focus than the opening of the first season, along with a darker tone and a lot more at stake. Whether the show can continue this level of quality and live up to the promises made in this episode remains to be seen, but things are looking good for the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.