In the weeks leading up to its series premiere last season, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was relentlessly hyped as one of the year's biggest TV events — but its first season was actually pretty small in scope. The series took its time introducing us to its six main characters, which meant padding out the rest of the show's world with cameos, extras, and villains of the week. When combined with the stifling quarters of the Quinjet, our heroes often felt bizarrely removed from the world they were supposed to be protecting, and while characters like John Garrett, Antoine Triplett, and Victoria Hand eventually provided a belated corrective, it was obvious that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was going to need to find a more permanent solution as it looked to the future.
Enter Lance Hunter, who entered Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s second season on a Trojan horse named Lucy Lawless. While Lawless got all the hype — and died by the end of the second-season premiere — Nick Blood quietly joined the show's principal cast as Lance Hunter.
Even for Marvel Comics diehards, Lance Hunter is a pretty deep cut; the character debuted in 1977 but disappeared for 30 years before a recent revival during the Civil War event. Fortunately, this week's "Heavy Is the Head" gives Hunter the chance to make a strong first impression, and he comes off as a kind of Han Solo to the do-gooder rebels that still work under the S.H.I.E.L.D. banner.
"Heavy Is the Head" begins where last week's "Shadows" left off, as Carl Creel escapes the military base with the mysterious obelisk. No one seems to know exactly what it is, but everybody wants it, which makes Creel a target for pretty much everybody: S.H.I.E.L.D., Hydra, and our old friend Raina, who's working for a shadowy new boss.
Creel spends much of the episode on the run, which leaves the various factions to butt heads which each other. Creel snaps at his Hydra contract, who promises to offset the damage the obelisk is doing to his body. Raina rolls her eyes at Hydra, her onetime employer, complaining that world domination is "so 1945." Most pivotally, Talbot convinces Hunter to turn on S.H.I.E.L.D., promising him $2 million and a hero's funeral for Hartley. When our heroes manage to corner Creel, Hunter takes out May, Skye, and Triplett, planning to take out Creel on his own.
Of course, Hunter forgets that Creel can turn into any substance he touches, because that's the kind of minor detail you don't take into account when you're trying to assassinate a supervillain. Creel hardens his body, the bullet bounces off his skull, and Coulson is forced to jump back into the field with a device that can disable Creel's powers. (Meanwhile, Raina quietly makes off with the obelisk.)
The Creel-stopper comes courtesy of Fitz, who overcomes his mental trauma long enough to make a genuine contribution to the mission. It's something — but as I feared last week, Fitz's story has basically stonewalled now that the Simmons twist has been revealed. In tonight's episode Fitz uses both new partner Mack and Imaginary Simmons to pull up the specs for the device that successfully brings Creel back into custody. It's an obvious ending to an obvious B-plot, and I'd prefer that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. retire the whole "Dr. Simmons and Mr. Fitz" thing and bring Fitz back to normal ASAP. This newer, darker Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. could use the comic relief.
The bigger surprise comes when Coulson shrugs off Hunter's betrayal and offers him a job with S.H.I.E.L.D. "No doubt, you've made some mistakes," says Coulson. "So have I."
Coulson's forgiveness comes a little too easily. This generous offer comes from the same guy who handcuffed Skye for a few episodes after the whiff of a betrayal, and who thinks of his team as his family. If anything, Coulson's rise to S.H.I.E.L.D. director has made him more of a hard-ass. Yes, Coulson is hurting for help, but would he really want to hire a guy who disabled three of his agents in the midst of a pivotal mission?
Maybe the answer is yes. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and Coulson is undeniably desperate for anyone who can get the job done — even if that person doesn't really believe in the work he's doing. "S.H.I.E.L.D. isn't a life," warns Hunter in a conversation with Skye. "It's just a job. A means to an end."
If that's the truth, someone forgot to tell Coulson, who is — as Talbot correctly labels him — a kind of zealot for S.H.I.E.L.D.'s mission, even as he stands alone. He may have his invisible jet, but the sky has gotten a lot more crowded since Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. premiered, and there's plenty of work left to do before S.H.I.E.L.D. can reclaim its good name.
- So: Kyle MacLachlan, a.k.a. Raina's creepy new boss, is Skye's father. Is he some kind of mad scientist? A Skrull? The evil Dale from the Black Lodge? Your guess is probably better than mine.
- "Heavy Is the Head" also returns to the show's other favorite new mystery: the meaning of the weird symbols Coulson compulsively carves into the wall. Frankly, it's going to be hard to care what it means until we have at least some small inkling where all of that is going.
- Hunter is the obvious focal point for this week's episode, but Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. also deserves major credit for its quasi-rewrite of Glenn Talbot. In the first season, he was a dull blowhard; this year, he's a worthy adversary to Coulson, with his own intriguing moral code.
- The door is open for Creel to return someday, though I'm not sure how they're going to top his use of carbine, a substance that's "three times harder than diamonds." I guess they can always make up something that's four times harder.
- Mack, who replaces Simmons as Fitz's lab partner, is played by an actor named Henry Simmons. As if Fitz didn't have enough to be confused about.
- Skye, arguing that Creel will never lack for companionship: "That guy is jacked. And he can turn any body part into any material …" And I thought this was a family show.
- Some small, desperate part of me spent the entirety of the episode clinging to the hope that "Heavy Is the Head" was a subtle MODOK reference. Someday …
Scott Meslow is the entertainment editor for TheWeek.com.