It has been exactly one year since Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. premiered — but in that brief time, the TV landscape has changed. On Monday night, Gotham premiered to a healthy 8 million viewers. Next month will see the premiere of two new comic-book shows: the CW’s The Flash and NBC’s Constantine. Within the year, Netflix will launch Daredevil, bringing an actual Marvel superhero to the small screen in the first step of a much larger plan. TNT is currently developing a series based on the Teen Titans, and CBS just ordered a Supergirl TV show straight to series.
When you face that much competition, your only option is to prove that you're better — which is why it's a welcome relief to see Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. come back with a confident, engaging premiere like "Shadows."
Of course, it wouldn't be Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. without near-constant synergy, so "Shadows" opens with a flashback to 1945, as Peggy Carter and the Howling Commandos take down an Austrian Hydra base. "Cut off one head, two more shall grow in its place," promises Hydra operative Daniel Whitehall. "Then I guess we'll keep cutting them off," says Carter. (Marvel’s Agent Carter coming to ABC in January 2015!)
Cut back to the present, as Skye, Melinda May, and Isabelle Hartley (very special guest Lucy Lawless) are attempting to purchase the S.S.R. 084 — the most mysterious and valuable of the artifacts originally recovered by Peggy Carter. Unfortunately, their operation is undercut by the sudden appearance of Carl "Crusher" Creel, who takes a staggering number of bullets as he makes off with the goodies.
Creel is better known to comic fans as Absorbing Man, able to take on the physical properties of any substance he touches. He's an ideal villain for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. — far more compelling than last year's also-rans like Graviton and Blizzard. Creel's powers are both legitimately threatening and cool-looking on a TV budget. Better yet, his history in the Marvel universe goes back nearly 50 years, including encounters with everyone from Thor to the Hulk to Daredevil — so there's no shortage of material to draw upon.
Unfortunately, our heroes don't have access to the back issues of Creel's various comic-book appearances over the past few decades, so they're forced to go to the next best source: Grant Ward, who is locked away in an ultra-security S.H.I.E.L.D. prison. The months in solitary haven't been kind to Ward. He's sporting an inch of stubble and a long line of scars down his arms — the remnant of a failed attempt to kill himself with a button and a sharpened piece of paper.
"Shadows" slows down the action to give us the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. equivalent of a Silence of the Lambs scene. It's not nearly as interesting — and these characters aren't exactly Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter — but the scene is laced through with an intriguing, prickly ambiguity. The late-season revelation that Ward was a Hydra agent turned him from one of the show's least interesting characters to one of its most, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is wisely slow-playing that hand. Ward could be a slippery sociopath who's looking to game our heroes one last time, or he could be a onetime villain on the verge of reforming. At this point, the show could plausibly play it either way — but like Hannibal, his insights are simply too valuable to cut him loose.
And as long as we're making references to beloved dramas of the ’90s: I'm less convinced by the Fight Club–esque subplot centered on Fitz, who spends most of the episode trying to fight through the mental trauma caused by the oxygen deprivation he endured last season. Simmons, ever-patient, tries to guide him back to health, which leads to the big twist: She's not there at all. Fitz's lingering trauma has caused him to imagine Simmons. In reality, he's mumbling to himself in a basement, useless to his onetime allies.
It's an admittedly bold direction for the character, but it's also hard to imagine where Fitz's story can go from here. ("Recovery" is a pretty boring answer, but it's also the only one that makes any kind of sense.) Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has always had one too many quirky British scientists, and it cut the wrong one out of "Shadows." Simmons' distinguishing qualities — her inability to lie, her burgeoning relationship with Triplett, the vague hints of a troubled relationship with her parents — have always been more compelling than Fitz's near-constant inadequacy issues. I'm also not convinced that Simmons would leave her friends so easily.
Unfortunately, Fitz's mental trauma and Simmons' departure have left Coulson our heroes without a resident tech guru, so Coulson and Company are forced to get all their swag the old-fashioned way: by stealing it from the government. After successfully capturing Brigadier General Glenn Talbot (Adrian Pasdar, returning from last season), Coulson orders his agents to break into a military compound and take back the S.S.R. 084 originally recovered by Peggy Carter.
That leads Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to the boldest choice in its premiere: the realization of Coulson's promise to "go dark" at the beginning of the episode. When our heroes are attacked by both Creel and the military, they ask for permission to abort the mission and escape with their lives — and Coulson refuses, insisting that they complete the mission.
In the end, they're successful, but not without a price: Isabelle Hartley is dead. (See you on Parks and Rec, Lucy.) The S.S.R. 084 is recovered by Creel, who passes it to his boss: Daniel Whitehall, who doesn't look like he's aged a day since 1945. Say hello to the first big bad of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s second season.
In the first season, Coulson would have spent an entire episode hemming and hawing over Hartley'd death; here, he accepts the loss and moves on."We have to take risks," says Coulson at the end of "Shadows." Taken alongside "go dark," it feels like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is consciously outlining a new statement of purpose for its second season: a smarter, darker, more complicated version of the show it offered last year. It's an ambitious mission — but if "Shadows" is any indication, it's one that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. might be able to pull off.
- When he played Glenn Talbot in the first season, Adrian Pasdar wasn't asked to do much more than grumble and glower — but "Shadows" hints at a more interesting take on the character. In general, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. could use a few more shades of gray between its heroes and its villains, and I'd be fine with Talbot turning up every now and then, straddling the line between obstacle and reluctant ally as warranted.
- Triplett's skepticism over Agent Koenig's seemingly endless string of brothers feels like a hat tip to all the fans who believed Coulson would turn out to be a Life Model Decoy.
- Hartley's right-hand man Lance Hunter is played by Nick Blood, an actor whose name is somehow even more stereotypically badass than the character he's playing.
- Coulson makes a strong impression as Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., but I wonder about the long-term impact of keeping him in the office and out of the field. (Then again, it's not like Nick Fury ever shied away from doing his own dirty work.)
- This best piece of S.H.I.E.L.D. tech in "Shadows": the voice changer Coulson uses to convince the guard that he's Talbot. For all the fun this show has with flying cars and invisible jets, it's the lower-rent, Mission: Impossible–style stuff that generally makes the biggest impact.
Scott Meslow is the entertainment editor for TheWeek.com.