In its first season, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. snapped to life late in the game after the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier shattered the spy organization’s status quo. And while Season 2 of the series has generally been sharper, smarter and more entertaining than last year’s run, the hope for many fans was that the arrival of Marvel Studios’ Avengers: Age of Ultron would create a similar sense of excitement in the show. But after last night’s new episode, “The Dirty Half Dozen,” it appears the gulf between TV and film is bigger than ever.
That isn’t to say there isn’t a lot going on in the episode and a handful of stellar moments. With months of slow winding complications and ever increasing cast additions building up to this point, the episode had the potential to be a mess. But as Phil Coulson reconnects with the recently usurped S.H.I.E.L.D. command, his plan to fight back against Hydra in the growing war to control the super powered population of the Marvel Cinematic Universe streamlines many of the show’s disparate plots. With two allies — the Coulson-affliliated cyborg Deathlok and Skye’s Inhuman pal Lincoln — captured by Hydra, it seems the only way to save the day is by reuniting Phil’s original tactical unit.
When the six characters who originally made up the cast of the show assemble on the deck of their former jetliner, the moment is both satisfying and intriguing. Finally on the same side of a mission with their former colleague/Hydra turncoat Grant Ward, every member of the team has their own goals heading into action. Skye wants to ensure the safety of her new ally. May wants to bring Coulson back into the S.H.I.E.L.D. fold for good. Fitz wants to show Ward what for in a moral sense while Simmons wants to exact some straight up revenge. And Coulson himself wants…something still too mysterious to mention to any of his teammates.
But as Ward himself tries to win over a crowd of skeptics that he really has changed, the real question hanging over our beloved crew is who is in for some crushing disappointment. After all, it’s rarely satisfying dramatically when everyone gets exactly what they want. And part of what made the show’s first season so winning was how much its final episodes screwed with our expectations. Warm fuzzies from a cast reunion can’t possibly match up to that kind of storytelling, so the audience’s best hope is that the characters will be confounded rather than we ourselves.
As the six sneak their way into a hidden Hydra facility by sacrificing their plane (goodbye forever, Bus!), we’re treated to a number of intriguing twists. Suspicion over Ward leads Simmons to attempted murder — the final, most drastic action of her evolving journey from lighthearted sidekick to superhero skeptic. But thanks to a last-minue sacrifice play by Ward’s hypnotized Hydra agent Bakshi, the traitor lives to sew a little doubt into Jemma’s mind about whether he’s still as evil as he was last year.
Meanwhile, Skye’s return to the team comes with a full embracing of her Inuhman powers, leading to one of the most visually arresting and enjoyable action sequences in the history of the show. Her elastic takedown of a wave of Hydra troops has the feel of the kind of continuous action shot that’s made Marvel drama Daredevil while still relying on the stylized effects the show is known for. But after all that razzmatazz, the fireworks were really just prelude to a by-the-numbers rescue operation.
That predictable plotting feel extends beyond Coulson and company’s operation and into the rest of the action of the episode. In the Inhuman stronghold Afterlife, Jiaying admits the rank stupidity of her plan to dump her ex-husband into the wild last week while Cal publicly calls out the fact that Skye is their daughter. We’ve been constantly told that the community learning the truth of their family would undermine Jiaying’s control on the city, but this moment falls flat as does Raina’s supposed politicking with her newfound precognative abilities.
Back at S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ, the non-Coulsonites spend their episode playing nice. Mockingbird reaches out to brainwash recovery victim Agent 33 to show the anti-super power camp still has some humanity. Mack and Hunter make up after a significant betrayal seemingly to put all of the team back in a place to be one big happy family. It’s all a bit heavy of good vibes and competency porn rather than high stakes and unexpected twists.
And that’s the problem with the episode overall. Aside for some genuinely entertaining moments, the action that caps off a major series of events feels slight and insignificant. The only real changes made to the status quo are incremental ones, and really the story takes a step back as much as it goes forward. Even the ballyhooed tie-in to Age of Ultron ends up being little more than an Easter Egg unworthy of getting into the film, and the promise that Coulson’s real endgame has been to track the Infinity Gem-powered scepter that once belonged to Loki feels like barrel-scraping as much as it does world-building.
If Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. wants to end Season 2 with the same kind of buzz and goodwill that last year ultimately earned, it needs to do more than pay dividends to its diehard fans in the next two weeks. It needs to turn back into the truly unpredictable and charming spy drama it’s shown it can be.
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