Monday, July 13, 2015

Intersitial Tissue: Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season Two Holds Together The Marvel Cinematic Universe!

The Good: Generally decent acting, Moments that develop the characters, Special effects
The Bad: Predictable plot, New characters are pretty dull
The Basics: Returning for the second season, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. tries to straddle the divide between the established Marvel Cinematic Universe and the forthcoming The Inhumans.

As the world waits with enthusiasm for the cinematic release of Ant-Man, I thought it was a good time to look back at the second season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Those who are invested in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are acutely aware of how the second season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been doing the heavy lifting of keeping viewers engaged during one of the longer theatrical hiatuses of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While last summer had the theatrical release of Guardians Of The Galaxy (reviewed here!), the off-planet adventure felt more like a tangent to the Marvel Cinematic Universe than an integral part of it (ironically, the second season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. makes some connections between Guardians Of The Galaxy and the earthbound Marvel Cinematic Universe when the Lady Sif pops back up and the Kree are heavily referenced. But since last year's Captain America: The Winter Soldier (reviewed here!) and this year's The Avengers: Age Of Ultron (reviewed here!), the present-tense, Earthbound Marvel Cinematic Universe has rested on the shoulders of the Clark Gregg-led spy drama.

Unfortunately, in its second season Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is put in the awkward position of trying to tell its own story, which picks up where the first season (reviewed here!) ended and laying the groundwork for the 2019 film The Inhumans, which was announced early in 2014. At the peak of its own storyline, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is compelled to take a narrative detour to accommodate The Avengers: Age Of Ultron. Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is painfully utilized as an accessory to the big plot surprise near the climax of the film and the struggle to make that incongruent element fit into the story being told in Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. exemplifies well how the television series is simply being used as an advertising tool for the blockbuster film franchise. It's unfortunate because the best moments of the second season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. are the more insular ones, where the show is striking out in its own direction as opposed to belaboring fitting into the prior stories or foreshadowing the eventual super hero team that Marvel will introduce in its Phase 3 series.

Picking up months after Phil Coulson was passed the mantle of Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., Coulson's team is splintered and working to recover as much S.H.I.E.L.D. material as it can from both rogue, former, S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and H.Y.D.R.A. assets. While Agents May and Skye execute Coulson's orders in the field, Fitz struggles to be useful to the S.H.I.E.L.D. team after suffering brain damage at the hands of Grant Ward. Coulson is not actively involved in field work now, but he is trying to find and hire back S.H.I.E.L.D.-loyal agents, including Mack who works in the Engineering division and keeps an eye on Fitz. Coulson's missions are centered around securing dangerous artifacts that have made it back out into the world and his team encounters an obelisk that transforms those who touch it into stone. The obelisk is being pursued by an apparently immortal HYDRA leader named Daniel Whitehall and Skye's father, Calvin Zabo.

Coulson's self-imposed isolation is related to his uncontrollable need to carve symbols into any nearby surface . . . a condition that is common with all those who have been treated with the alien GH serum (which was used to resurrect Coulson and treat Skye when she was mortally wounded in the first season). The symbols lead Coulson's team, including Bobbi Morse and the rogue Lance Hunter, to a subterranean alien city in San Jaun. There, Skye and Raina encounter the contents of the diviner (the obelisk) and transforming. That leads Skye to seek out the community of others who have been so transformed, while Coulson is betrayed from within his ranks by agents who believe that Coulson is not the rightful director of S.H.I.E.L.D.!

The idea that Phil Coulson is not universally accepted as the rightful Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. is an intriguing one and it leads to some of the season's best character moments. The new Agents, like Mack and Bobbi, are caught between their loyalty to the idea of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the two executions of it. Bobbi Morse has allegiance to Robert Gonzales, who leads the alternate director's council to the other, "real," S.H.I.E.L.D. Despite the action sequences that imply that Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. will degenerate into all fighting, one of the most distinctive aspects of the second season of the show is that the characters step up to solve their problems through a sense of reason and loyalty to the ideals they swore to uphold.

To better understand the second season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. it helps to know the arcs of the major characters. In the sophmore season, the essential characters are:

Director Phil Coulson – Plagued by involuntary visions that point to the idea that he is being influenced by aliens, he carves out plans that lead him on a worldwide hunt for an alien temple. He is disturbed by what is being done to him, but he pursues the leads to prevent HYDRA from getting ahold of the power it represents and because he learns of his own involvement in the GH experiments. He becomes the subject of Calvin Zabo's wrath when he works to save his team from HYDRA. After getting Skye to safety, he goes toe to toe with the alternate S.H.I.E.L.D.,

Agent Melinda May – A martial arts expert and Coulson’s right hand, she remains loyal to Coulson, executing his will now that he is Director. She is now Skye's supervising officer and she even opens lines of communication up with her ex-husband in order to find out what Skye is when it becomes clear she has been altered in the alien temple. When Morse betrays Coulson, she remains loyal and works to find a peace between the two spy organizations,

Fitz – No longer brilliant, he struggles to be useful to Coulson and his team. He opens up to Mack, even though he has hallucinations of Simmons. He is furious when he learns that Ward is in captivity in Coulson's S.H.I.E.L.D. facility, but he does everything he can to protect Coulson and his secrets when Gonzales makes his power play,

Jemma Simmons – After Fitz is wounded and Ward is captured, she takes a long-term assignment infiltrating HYDRA. Her position puts her in grave danger when HYDRA's security agent, Morse, becomes suspicious of her. She is also put in danger when Whitehall's HYDRA cell assigns her to bring Donnie Gill in,

Agent Skye – Now a full-fledged S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent working for May and Coulson, she becomes the liaison to the imprisoned Grant Ward. She is manipulated by Ward, Raina and her father into a meeting with Calvin. Following her experience in San Juan, she flees S.H.I.E.L.D. for an isolated community of altered humans who have becomes something Inhuman,

Grant Ward – No longer an Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., he becomes an asset to HYDRA when he escapes from Coulson's facility and kills his own brother. He finds a brainwashed S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and together they get their own kind of revenge on HYDRA,

Raina – The Woman In The Flower Dress, she is hunting the diviner, while working for Calvin. Her self-preservation instinct allows her to survive Whitehall, but in San Juan, she gets transformed in an unexpected way and has problems dealing with it,

Agent Triplett - One of Coulson's most loyal assets and the grandson of one of the Howling Commandoes, he remains determined to stop HYDRA. He willingly assists Coulson's team in trying to destroy the alien temple under San Juan,

Agent Lance Hunter - Bobbi Morse's ex-husband, he is an agent that has no real allegiance to S.H.I.E.L.D. until Coulson gives him something bigger to believe in,

Mack - A loyal S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent who works in Coulson's engineering division. His ambition is to get Coulson to trust him enough to allow him to work on Lola. He is kind and patient with Fitz. In San Juan, he is possessed within the Temple by an alien intelligence. After that, he buries himself in his work and tries to keep everyone he can safe after S.H.I.E.L.D. fractures,

And Bobbi Morse - The Mockingbird, she is an adept field agent. After blowing her cover as a long-term operative within a HYDRA cell, she comes to work for Coulson, while hiding her true allegiance to Gonzales. She is a match for May and when Gonzales makes his power play, she advocates for her leader to put some trust in Coulson. She has an on-again, off-again relationship with Hunter.

Throughout the second season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., the performances are generally good. The season gives Chloe Bennet and Iain De Caestecker the chance to show more range than they did in the first season. The established cast members make room for newcomers Henry Simmons (Mack), Nick Blood (Hunter) and Adrianne Palicki (Morse), but only Simmons is given enough of an arc to show off real range in the second season. Recurring guest stars like Kyle MacLachlan (Calvin), Edward James Olmos (Gonzales) and Dichen Lachman (Jiaying) easily gel with the main cast.

In its second season, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. feels like it is stuck between two worlds as the disparate elements of the Marvel Cinematic Universe tug at it. The pieces that are unique to Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. are straightforward and dramatic with surprisingly little flair or "hook" for a show that Joss Whedon has involvement in. Even so, the second season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is an improvement on the first, even if it is not exceptional in any way.

For a better understanding of the components of the sophmore season, please visit my reviews of each of the episodes in the second season episodes of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. at:
“Heavy Is The Head”
“Making Friends And Influencing People”
"I Will Face My Enemy"
“A Hen In The Wolfhouse”
“A Fractured House”
“The Writing On The Wall”
“The Things We Bury”
“Ye Who Enter Here”
“What They Become”
“Who You Really Are”
“One Of Us”
“Love In The Time Of HYDRA”
“One Door Closes”
“Frenemy Of My Enemy”
“The Dirty Half Dozen”
“S.O.S. Part 1”
“S.O.S. Part 2”

For other works from the 2014 – 2015 television season, please check out my reviews of:
The Flash - Season 1
Orange Is The New Black - Season 3
Sense8 - Season 1
Grace And Frankie - Season 1
Agent Carter - Season 1
Daredevil - Season 1
The Newsroom - Season 3
House Of Cards - Season 3
Doctor Who - Season 8
True Blood - Season 7
The Walking Dead - Season 5


For other television and movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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