Agents of SHIELD left off in a good – but not great – place in the ending of its first year. The Clairvoyant (i.e. Bill Paxton) was finally defeated, and SHIELD was well on its way to re-building itself under the new leadership of Agent Coulson, with full endorsement by Nick Fury. Starting out we had promises of an expanded cast, interesting new guest stars (like Kyle MacLachlan and Lucy Lawless) and more direction for the series.
The first few episodes of the year still felt like holdovers from season one: a bit of a drag, not much clear direction on where things were going, and some frustrating tendencies to undervalue the greatest potential for character development. By about six episodes in though, this all really started to change.
The opening half of Agents of SHIELD’s second season eventually veered toward great, and it’s actually pretty easy to see a lot of the reasons why. A lot of these creative decisions they injected did enormous amounts to give the show better forward momentum. Plot threads never dangled too long, new characters grew into welcome new additions, and there was a much better sense around that we were moving toward something. A fact that really became clear once it was revealed that Coulson’s impulsive carvings were all pointing toward a city – which in turn led to the first hints of the Kree and Inhumans.
Skye’s father proved to be one of the best additions to the cast, with MacLachlan brilliantly capturing the diverse facets of the character: the off-kilter personality, the troubled and yet hilarious man, the terrifying human being that lurked underneath. Along with Adrianne Palicki as Bobbi Morse (i.e. Mockingbird) they became two of the best new characters of the season – and not just on Agents of SHIELD.
Throw in a great new villain Whitehall – more compelling and complex than The Clarivoyant ever was – and flashbacks to ever-so-briefly insert the character of Peggy Carter, and the first half of the year in its entirety got off to a roaring start – one that ended in a fantastic mid-season finale where our characters reached the Kree city and Skye and Raina finally emerged as the Inhumans they were meant to be.
Picking back up after lagged somewhat – going to show that the series has gotten increasingly better, but generally only when grinding out the bigger plotlines. There was some spinning of the wheels as it shuffled through who exactly the villains were going to be, what (if anything) was going down with Hydra, and tried to navigate wild cards like Cal and Ward into holding patterns until the bigger episodes came along.
Fortunately, things rapidly picked up once the show drew into the SHIELD vs nuSHIELD plotline, and the momentum carried things forward through the rest of the year in consistently fantastic quality, with heights and peaks the likes of which fans of first season only ever could’ve dreamed of. Unlike last year’s needed Captain America release to finally get things going, this show managed to get there all on its own, and with true quality and style – the kind that is seeing it rank amidst the very best of the genre.
Indeed, if anything the movie tie-ins (more specifically, the ones of movies releasing during an airing of a season) might start to prove even more problematic, as was demonstrated with Age of Ultron. Distracted by the groundwork being laid for Civil War and Inhumans, Agents of SHIELD was so well swept up in its storylines that the Age of Ultron material felt, at best, rather shoehorned in. As if there was a needed reminder it takes place in the same universe as The Avengers but couldn’t find a wholly adequate way to enact that without necessarily bogging down either product.
In the end, though, it’s almost a trivial kind of complaint. The SHIELD vs nuSHIELD material started to resolve itself in the face of Hydra and – even more brilliantly – the Inhumans. And with the momentum going into the finale, it actually would’ve been a surprise if it hadn’t delivered. The balance of characters and plotlines was executed beautifully: with the understandable mistrust and fear of the Inhumans coming up against the always-ambiguous SHIELD and no dearth of uncertainty in the leading characters on both sides of the equation. This managed to drive both the early establishments of these powered people, as well as what will likely be the fundamental questions at play once Civil War comes to fruition.
And no small part of this was also accomplished by the rounding out of the cast. Bobbi was a welcome addition almost from her first appearance, while Hunter gradually grew into a goofy and charming kind of presence, who well and truly established his value once he hooked up with Coulson post nuSHIELD takeover.
Ward’s ambiguity has become even better, with his psychopathy put to test in his relationship with Kara/Agent 33, his lingering crush on Skye, his eventual takeover as the new leader of Hydra, and especially when he briefly rejoined the team and couldn’t understand why they all couldn’t just forgive him for all the murders and betrayal. It’s been consistently engaging and entertaining across the board.
Fitz got some of the best material early on, with the show’s best pathos came from his frustrations over the brain damage caused by last season finale. And the breaking of his relationship with Simmons really helped strengthen both characters, enriching the dynamic between them in the process. A lot of questions about Coulson still linger in the wake of his having been injected by Kree blood, and hopefully that will continue, as it can potentially be one of the character’s more interesting facets. And we finally learned The Cavalry backstory for Agent May, as well as meeting her ex-husband – both of which did enormous amounts for what was already the show’s greatest character.
Though there are still lingering problems with Skye, the show’s use of her has improved. There was undoubtedly much that has been compelling to her place in The Inhumans story arc, as well as the finding of both of her parents. At the same time, there’s still a tendency to try to make her amazing at everything which demonstrates some of the fundamental Mary Sue-aspects of her character that still linger. And given that she’s now had two seasons as a focal point, it’s past time that she fall to the background as a supporting element to her cast mates for a while. (With the cliffhanger of Jemma being sucked into the alien artifact, let’s hope she gets more of a starring role, as she’s the one cast member who’s had the least amount to do.)
Overall, Agents of SHIELD grew this season from an okay series into a great one, into an okay one, and then into a truly fantastic one. It finally feels like the show has hit more of its stride, and the writers have a much better grasp on tone and goals, with richer storylines, and more gray elements thrown into this complex world of superpowers. If they keep this up going into third season – and doubtless they will – then likely we’ll continue to see it rank among the very best of the entire genre.