Most people, myself included, didn't like MARVEL'S AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D (hereafter AoS) for much of its freshman season. But those who stuck with it, myself included again, saw a marked improvement once the writers were forced to deal with the ramifications of Captain America: The Winter Soldier—where, spoiler alert!—S.H.I.E.LD was revealed to be heavily infiltrated by evil HYDRA agents, which led to the organisation being torn apart and globally discredited. It was just the tonic for this fledgling Marvel TV series, which gained momentum and a greater freedom by becoming more serialised. The writers threw caution to the wind and started delivering a lot of surprises and twists, too. It still had room for improvement by the season's end, but the prospect of renewal suddenly didn't feel like a stupid idea.
As a season premiere, "Shadows" did a lot of things well, although it moved at such a frantic pace that I'll admit I didn't know what the hell was going on for the first fifteen-minutes. There was a brief recap of the tail-end events from last year, but my memory had jettisoned a lot of things this hour assumed I'd remember. Or maybe I'm alone in feeling confused, as I watch such a lot of television and it's hard to keep everything at the forefront of my mind—and, to be frank, a complete grasp of AoS isn't a high priority for me.
But the core changes were clear and obvious; bringing in necessary, sweeping improvements. Coulson (Clark Gregg) is now the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D, but it's become a fragmented underground movement recruiting loyal agents from around the world—which here included Isabelle "Izzy" Hartly (Lucy Lawless) and a duo of British mercenaries called Lance Hunter (Nick Blood) and Alphonso "Mac" Mackenzie (Henry Simmons). In the intervening weeks, Skye (Chloe Bennett) has also grown a fringe and is now a trained field agent, in addition to the liaison between SHIELD and HYDRA mole Grant Ward (Brett Dalton)—who's grown a beard while incarcerated in a high-tech prison cell, having moved past various suicide attempts. The countdown to his inevitable rehabilitation begins now.
The episode also involved a cool supervillain, Carl "Crusher" Creel (Brian Patrick Wade), a.k.a 'The Absorbing Man'; perhaps to combat a popular criticism of AoS being a superhero show with a lack of actual superheroes—which further rubs salt in the wound by constantly referring to the off-screen Avengers. Teen Wolf's Wade cut a very imposing figure, even ignoring the visual effects employed to create his amazing 'genetic morphing' ability. I especially liked the sequence where his arm turned to gold as he wielded a large ball and chain, or when he became a human-shaped asphalt bollard to flip a speeding car.
It was a very busy episode, which was both a positive and negative. The writers clearly wanted to try and maintain the momentum they'd captured last season, which is understandable, and they had a lot of new characters to introduce while showing all the changes that have happened to the core team. For the most part, this premiere handled everything well enough, but there were times when it felt like a bombardment of information. I was wanting to latch onto a new character, or savour a particular moment, but the story just wasn't interested in letting anything breathe. It was a punchy start, sure, but I'd have liked more moments of calm.
One of the best surprises was the slow reveal of how Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elisabeth Henstridge) have changed after their ordeal at the end of season 1. Fitz has suffered temporal brain damage and isn't the young genius we knew from before (struggling to finish sentences; oblivious he's having no real impact on the success of missions). Even worse, Simmons has actually left the team, so her appearance throughout this episode was actually just a Beautiful Mind-style hallucination Fitz has created to comfort himself. That was a very sad moment; although the problem with a show like AoS, existing in this hyper-real world, is that you're pretty sure a brain-fixing drug will be discovered eventually, and Simmons will make a bodily return in due course.
Overall, "Shadows" definitely made an impression, and felt like a faster, more confident show. I enjoyed the opening flashback to 1945, complete with a cameo from Captain America's Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) ahead of her own spin-off show when AoS goes on hiatus; and the new setup with Coulson's expanded team doing good deeds around the world, without the support of military top brass like General Talbot (Adrian Pasdar) gives the show a fun, A-Team-style appeal to compliment its GI Joe veneer. Coulson himself appears more detached and ruthless as a result of the situation his beloved S.H.I.E.L.D finds itself in, which is more interesting to watch than his patriarchal role last year.
written by Jed Whedon & Maurissa Tancharoen • directed by Vince Misiano • 23 September 2014 • ABC