Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has teased audiences with several major villains over the course of its second season. There's Grant Ward, the rogue S.H.I.E.L.D. traitor with shadowy motives; Daniel Whitehall, the ageless Hydra agent; Cal Zabo, the unpredictable eccentric obsessed with rebuilding his family; and Raina, the girl in the flower dress, whose spiky evolution seemed to push her even further into the dark side.
But for all the memorable moments featuring each of those characters, it isn't until the end of this week's "Scars" that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. solidifies season two's big bad: Jiaying, the Inhuman leader (and mother of Skye). Jiaying — bearing both the physical and emotional scars of her treatment at the hands of Hydra — kills Robert Gonzales in a closed-door meeting, and falsely claims that he attempted to kill her first. It's the first shot in a full-blown war between S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Inhumans that should propel Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s second season toward a grim and gory conclusion in next week's finale.
To Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s credit, Jiaying is motivated by much more than outright villainy. She's a woman who was literally hacked to pieces by a man who wanted to claim her power, and she's understandably wary of delivering herself into the hands of a similarly murky organization. "Fear drives us to do things we would otherwise never do," she says to Gonzales, attacking S.H.I.E.L.D.'s paranoia and justifying her own violent actions in one fell swoop.
In a broader sense, "Scars" does a nice job making both sides of the impending Inhumans-versus-S.H.I.E.L.D. war feel both sympathetic and dangerous. The Inhumans have faced mistrust and persecution for years, and often from people wearing S.H.I.E.L.D. badges. And the S.H.I.E.L.D. index isn't as simple as a census form; it's an invasive interrogation and a blood sample, all designed to ensure that S.H.I.E.L.D. has the knowledge it needs to dispatch any Inhumans it deems a threat. Even if you decide a few individual S.H.I.E.L.D. agents can be trusted, why make yourselves vulnerable to the entirety of a powerful and inscrutable organization, which was successfully penetrated by Hydra just months earlier?
But if you're S.H.I.E.L.D. — an organization designed to protect the world from all dangers — how can you not be concerned about the implicit threat the Inhumans represent? Working in tandem in "Scars," Gordon and Raina infiltrate a top-secret S.H.I.E.L.D. base almost effortlessly, teleporting into a room that contains one of the organization's most closely guarded secrets. If we look at the greater Marvel continuity, the Inhuman Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) was the lynchpin of a plan that nearly defeated the Avengers in Age of Ultron, sparking a global crisis that happened within a week of the events of "Scars." And we're just talking about the Inhumans that are openly antagonistic to S.H.I.E.L.D.; someone like Skye, who couldn't even control her powers, is certainly dangerous enough to keep tabs on.
You can't really argue with either side. It's an intriguing conflict, and it puts the Inhuman S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Skye squarely in the middle, forced to decide between her actual mother, Jiaying, and her loyal father figure, Agent Coulson. For Skye, who has spent the back half of the second season straddling two worlds, the choice is bound to be a painful one.
Jiaying's sneaky bait-and-switch is the centerpiece of "Scars," but it's just one of several major moves that set the stage for the season's final act. Mack formally resigns from S.H.I.E.L.D., removing himself from action at a time when Coulson could really use him. Meanwhile, in a clever twist, Bobbi discovers that "Melinda May" — her co-pilot in S.H.I.E.L.D.'s big mission — is actually Agent 33 in disguise. Forced to land, they rendezvous with Grant Ward, who immediately stuns Bobbi into captivity. That means two of Coulson's top agents will be out of action as the open conflict with the Inhumans begins.
Where does that leave the rest of the team? Scattered, discouraged, and disorganized. Raina's dark vision of the future — S.H.I.E.L.D. quinjets raining fire on the Afterlife — seems to be all but inevitable. "It's amazing how many generations fall into the same trap," says Jiaying, just minutes before she kills Gonzales. With next week's season finale, the Marvel universe is likely to explode into violence once again, and at this point, it's hard to guess where our heroes and villains will be standing when the dust settles.
- "Scars" occurs pretty much immediately after the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron, but the episode deftly avoids most spoilers. There are a couple generalized speeches about Ultron, and some shots of background TVs playing news reports from the disaster in Sokovia on a constant loop.
- After giving Coulson a pass for much of its first season, it's nice to see so many characters calling him out for his extremely preferential treatment of Skye over the series. Coulson is an ideal S.H.I.E.L.D. director, but he's made some pretty dramatic errors, and I hope the show doesn't stop critiquing his leadership style now that his primary critic is dead.
- While we're on the subject: Rest in peace, Robert Gonzales. You never really had all that much to do, but you kept me guessing about your true motives to the very end.
- Projecting head, Cal's final good-bye with Skye certainly felt like the kind of scene you give a character right before you kill him off. Don't leave the show, Kyle MacLachlan! It needs you!
- S.H.I.E.L.D. confiscated Cal's vials, which presumably keep him from going full Mr. Hyde — a prospect that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has teased over and over again this season. If he is going to be making his swan song next week, I hope we get to see him fully transformed before S.H.I.E.L.D. puts him down
- Dark Simmons has basically evolved into Psycho Simmons, telling Fitz her only real regret is that she failed to kill Ward after Bakshi took the bullet for him. It's probably too late in the season for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to really dig into Simmons's new, severely warped sense of justice — but given the very justified concerns about S.H.I.E.L.D.'s overreach, I hope the show deals with it eventually, and that the consequences are substantial.
- Mack's "resignation" sure is conveniently timed for that proposed Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. spinoff. Makes you think …
- Next week: S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Inhumans go head-to-head in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s two-part season finale.