It's been nearly five months since Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. aired a new episode, and the gulf separating the show's second season from its third has been an unusually quiet one in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Daredevil arrived on Netflix near the end of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s second season; Avengers: Age of Ultron came a few weeks later; and Ant-Man arrived, marking the end of Marvel's "Phase Two" in August.
That makes "Laws of Nature," the third-season premiere of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a uniquely important lynchpin in Marvel's plan to conquer all of media (and, let's be honest, the world). This isn't just another season of a fairly successful TV series. It's a cross-promotional vessel that can introduce audiences to far-out concepts that will pop up in new movies like Captain America: Civil War, the two upcoming Avengers movies, and — yes — Inhumans, which is bound for theaters in July 2019.
That mission was built into Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s DNA from the very beginning, and the series hasn't always borne it all that gracefully. But as the Marvel Cinematic Universe has gotten bigger and weirder, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has gotten bigger and better, and "Laws of Nature" is a strong premiere that shows off just how much this TV series has evolved.
As the episode begins, we meet Joey Gutierrez (Juan Pablo Raba), a newly awakened Inhuman who discovers he has the power — or, as he might put it, the curse — to manipulate metal. (It's basically putty in his hands.) Joey's sudden superpower baffles and frightens him as much as it baffles and frightens everyone else, and as he panics, his lack of control over the havoc he's wreaking seems likely to leave someone dead.
Enter Daisy Johnson, the Inhuman formerly known as Skye. (Like Coulson, it's going to take me a while to get used to her new name.) "I know you're scared and the world's turning upside down, but believe or not, I've been through this," she tells Joey, cool and controlled, as she pushes him into a quick and safe escape. In a single scene, the show sends a clear message: Daisy is worlds away from the unpolished (and, frankly, kind of obnoxious) Skye we met in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s first season.
Daisy even has a cool new haircut. That might sound like a minor note — but "Laws of Nature" is riddled with these kinds of visual signifiers, highlighting the ways Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has gradually become sharper, sleeker, and more reliant on the bones of its comic-book source material. There's a fancy new jet for the team. There's a fancy new robot hand for Coulson. And there's a patchy layer of stubble on our old buddy Fitz, who has switched from nerdy science guy to Indiana Jones–esque treasure-hunter in the wake of Simmons's inexplicable disappearance. (If your memory is fuzzy — and given that the scene in question lasted about 15 seconds, you could hardly be blamed for that — Simmons was suddenly sucked into a mysterious monolith at the very end of season two.)
Daisy may have earthquake powers now, but she's not the only S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who has evolved over the years. Fitz is now a devil-may-care badass — and while it's not a particularly convincing portrayal by Iain De Caestecker, it's a much more entertaining direction for the character than the fussing and stammering he did at the beginning of season two. In his desperate attempt to recover Simmons, Fitz plays hooky from S.H.I.E.L.D. and goes to Morocco. His independent research has led him to an old relic that he believes can explain where Simmons went, and he risks a kidnapping, a car chase, and plenty of gunfire to get it. Unfortunately, the message he eventually uncovers from the relic is a pretty straightforward one: the Hebrew word for death.
Back on the jet, our S.H.I.E.L.D. agents get Joey to calm down while attempting to figure out how to handle Earth's sudden but growing influx of Inhumans. The Terrigen crystals — which fell into the ocean at the end of season two — have since spread around the world, leading to a huge spike in people discovering they have latent superpowers. S.H.I.E.L.D. wants to find these newly minted Inhumans and guide them, but someone else keeps getting to them first.
After a clever little investigation, Coulson finds the likeliest suspect: Rosalind Price (Constance Zimmer), an impossibly cool-headed muckety-muck whose résumé includes stints with the CIA, MI6, and the DOD. But when Coulson manages to get the drop on her, he discovers that she has won this game of spy versus spy, goading him into a trap so she can confront him. The resulting banter between the duo is as snappy and electric as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has ever been; in the span of a single great scene, Price establishes herself as the worthy foil Coulson has always lacked.
My only complaint about Price is that she may not actually be Coulson's enemy for long. By the end of the episode, we learn that Price is the head of Advanced Threat Containment Unit, a new governmental task-force designed to protect humankind from all these bizarre new threats. In the midst of their banter, Coulson and Price realize that they're hunting the same target: a mysterious stranger who has been traveling around killing Inhumans whenever they pop up.
We get our first glimpse of this fearsome Inhuman killer through the eyes of Skye and Mack, who encounter him as he rampages through a hospital. He's huge, and imposingly alien, and he can suck energy from people while ripping through walls like they're paper. (His appearance in "Laws of Nature" is brief, but comics readers will recognize this villain as Lash, an Inhuman introduced during 2014's Inhumanity event.) In the comics, Lash is a self-appointed judge of those whose superpowers come from Terrigen Mist, killing anyone he deems unworthy — and while it's not clear if he's doing the same thing in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., his actions certainly fit his standard m.o.
For now, Lash escapes to fight another day — but the tail-end of the episode reveals another kind of alien threat on the horizon. Fitz was right. Simmons isn't dead. She's just a long, long, long way from home, on a dusty and dangerous-looking alien planet, where the monolith apparently teleported her.
How did she get there? How can she get back? Who knows? As Price reminds Coulson, the events of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has turned independent governmental organizations like the Department of Defense and NASA into interdependent allies. There's an entire galaxy of threats out there, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has never been better equipped to explore it.
- Missing from this episode: Melinda May, who "took a vacation" and never came back, and Grant Ward, who's apparently licking his wounds while coming up with more evil stuff to do.
- And one character I wasn't particularly thrilled to see return: Lincoln, the boring Inhuman with the boring powers who just wants to be left to a boring life as a boring doctor. I say they leave him to it.
- It's a pretty sprawling universe, so I may be forgetting someone — but is Joey the first openly gay character to appear in a Marvel movie or TV series?
- Per Joey, we have the unexpected but hilarious confirmation that TED Talks exist in the Marvel universe. Tony Stark, Hank Pym, Aldrich Killian … somebody get a web series going ASAP, please.
- Bobbi and Hunter's on-again/off-again thing is on again, and in a big way: He wants to get remarried. I still think this relationship is the least interesting thing about two very strong characters, but hey, maybe it'll all come together in the spinoff.
- In a single speech, U.S. President Ellis manages to reference the events of The Avengers, Thor: The Dark World, and Age of Ultron. Now that's some efficient synergy, Marvel.
- Next week: Our heroes embark on a desperate attempt to save Simmons, as we learn what Ward and May have been up to in the gap between seasons.
Scott Meslow is the entertainment editor for TheWeek.com.