From its opening moments, last night’s new episode of Marvel Studios Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. raced forward into a half-dozen plotlines and didn’t stop to look back. The second outing of the ABC drama’s sophomore season felt more like Part 2 of the season premiere than a stand-alone episode — and that was a good thing.
Front and center in “Heavy Is the Head” is the now crown-wearing Director Coulson. The plot of the episode is nominally about the chase after the obelisk – the alien artifact that eats whoever touches it from the inside. The mystery metal already killed newcomer Agent Hartley (although, come on, they’re bringing Lucy Lawless back), and begins slowly poisoning Absorbing Man Crusher Creel as he tries to dump the object off on his Hydra bosses.
But for Coulson, securing the object is only part of the mission. The director orders Agent May to back off Creel as his escape cuts a path of destruction across the countryside, hoping that the villain might lead S.H.I.E.L.D. back to its ultimate enemies. But with each turn, that choice grows increasingly more complicated and regrettable.
Meanwhile, the untrustworthy S.H.I.E.L.D. agent-cum-mercenary Lance Hunter struggles with a choice of his own: Offered $2 million and a hero’s funeral for his mentor Hartley by antagonistic Gen. Glenn Talbot, all Hunter has to do is trade out Coulson’s crew and effectively kill the post-Hydra S.H.I.E.L.D. before it gets off the ground.
Add to the organization’s troubles the continuing mental deterioration of Agent Fitz. Since his other half, former Agent Gemma Simmons, bailed on the team, the super-genius has been seeing her in his head even as he struggles to regain his ability to rebuild a vital cloaking device. At least on that front, there’s some good news in the form of mechanic Alphonso “Mack” MacKenzie (Henry Simmons), a hands-on type who refuses to treat the troubled Fitz with kid gloves.
Those three plotlines would be enough to cover an episode, and in fact they take up so much screen time that we barely hear anything from Skye (or Triplett or Koenig or Ward) outside her chiding Coulson to open up or do some yoga. But the story leans into its “everything and the kitchen sink” approach with the reintroduction of flower-printed villain Raina. Since splitting with Hydra, the slinky super-scientist has found a new mission life. Her aiding the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents in their hunt for Creel helps the spy drama add some extra layers of twisting allegiances.
And that’s really why Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. seems to be working well at this early point in the season. After an opening season that earned criticism for its bland, predictable “mission of the week” format, the show seems to be pushing forward with a different format of mutating subplots and long-term planning. But unlike a certain other superhero drama attempting a similar level of complexity, Agents has earned the right to spin out in a million directions thanks to some well-established characters fans have become invested in.
By episode’s end, the web of stories tightens enough for a satisfying conclusion. Hunter attempts to betray his fellowagents and capture Creel himself, but the gambit turns out to be an eventuality Coulson was well prepared for. Fitz and Mac find a way to dig into the former’s past work to de-power the Absorbing Man and give Fitz a much-needed win. And Raina uses the ensuing chaos to deliver the obelisk to a new “third path” villain played by a gravitas-delivering Kyle MacLachlan.
And even in the final scenes after Coulson and his newly cloaked pair of super-jets get Talbot off S.H.I.E.L.D.’s back (for the moment), the show keeps its plotlines opening up for more intrigue. Is MacLachlan’s character really Skye’s father? How does the alien artifact tie to the strange language Coulson can’t stop carving into walls (side convo: Does he keep having the plaster redone at S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ?) since he was dosed with the blood of a mysterious blue alien last year? And where the hell is Simmons anyway?
Some of these questions will receive their answers soon, some later. But if Agents keeps spinning its plates with this much entertaining confidence, viewers will be willing to follow it for many chapters to come.
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