Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 2 Retrospective
Now that it’s been a few weeks since the season 2 finale of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., we can get enough distance to take a look at the second season as a whole. This season was a marked improvement over the first, continuing the trend that started with the post-Captain America 2 episodes of season 1. It continued some plot threads from season one, but the main thrust of the season was largely centered on new territory for the MCU: the Inhumans. We’re going to look at three things here: the development of characters, the overall progression of the various plot threads, and some of the more general themes present throughout.
And it’s a retrospective, so duh: spoilers for all of season 1 and 2 ahead.
First things first: new characters. We started off the season introduced to a number of new characters, many of whom died rather quickly. Among the survivors are Mack, a level-headed and practical mechanic, and Lance Hunter, snarky British mercenary with no particular loyalty to SHIELD. Later, we meet Bobbi Morse, AKA Mockingbird from the comics, who turns out to be Hunter’s old flame. As our three big additions to the main cast, it was important to establish who they were quickly, which was pretty well accomplished. Having Simmons missing for the first few episodes allowed Fitz a chance to bond with Mack, winning him fans almost immediately. But as the season progressed, Mack starts to display an almost contrarian nature towards Coulson and SHIELD’s plans, which is baffling until the “real SHIELD” reveal (try saying that five times fast). Hunter’s quips ultimately led him to becoming a fan favorite as well, often getting the best lines in the episodes, and he had Coulson to compete with! He’s a man without a purpose, rather reluctant to become involved in anything, it seems, except for the personal ties that he turns into obligations. Morse, who was undercover with Simmons when we first saw her, made for a very interesting character, but it took a while for her to get there. Like May in season 1, there’s a good long period where she’s just kicking ass and not much else. It’s only as she gets more scenes with Hunter, and she’s thrown in the middle of the two competing SHIELD factions that she develops more fully, ultimately leading to some great (if hard to watch) scenes at the end of the season dealing with the kind of things a spy has to do to remain undercover.
Returning to the main cast from season 1, there’s a lot that happens in the gap between seasons to set up Coulson’s team for a better position in the premiere. Skye has been training with May almost nonstop, determined to be able to take care of herself from here on out. As expected from season 1’s ending, her and her backstory form a major part of the season. Her father, the vaguely psychotic Cal, appears early on, and he quickly develops a resentment towards Coulson for being the father figure to Skye that he never got the chance to be. Skye makes some big steps for herself where she actually shoots Ward and leaves him to die.
Ward himself was left without the man he saw as a father figure, confused and alone, and really missing his old teammates. He’s in jail initially, but manages to escape and use HYDRA to his own ends before cutting loose from the organization altogether (well, until the end). He’s on the fence, keeping viewers wondering if he’ll ever be redeemed. There’s always something new and horrible he’s done, but then something earnest that, if not actually good, seems to at least be well-intentioned.
May finally gets some backstory, too, with a whole episode dedicated to exploring the incident that gave her the name “The Cavalry.” We also meet her ex-husband, a SHIELD-affiliated psychiatrist whose specialty seems to be people with superpowers. Actually a pretty brilliant thing to have, and one I’ve always wondered why we don’t see it more often. Through her training with Skye, the two bond to the extent where that mentor role becomes almost motherly, which again becomes a point of difficulty when her real mother shows up. There was some ship teasing, too, with her and Coulson going undercover to a fancy ball early on. She’s still trying to earn back Coulson’s trust from the first season initially, and it’s still shaky when “real SHIELD” comes along and tries to woo her over.
Fitz suffered the most, starting the season off with traumatic brain injuries following what Ward did to him and Simmons. He’s hallucinating when we first return to him, and sick of everyone’s pity. Mack helps a lot in this regard, helping to fight off the hallucinations and return to the real world, but ultimately it causes friction when Simmons returns and feels like she’s been replaced. Mack turning out to be a mole for “real SHIELD” completely wrecks Fitz’s trust yet again, but it makes for an interesting juxtaposition for season 1: Ward betrays Fitz to save himself; Mack’s betrayal is accompanied by an attempt to save Fitz, even if that’s at the cost of his own life. It went a long way to ensuring us that “real SHIELD” was no HYDRA.
Simmons comes back late, and finds a routine has settled in without her. Fitz initially prefers his hallucinatory Simmons to the real one, and she’s pushed away. She had been growing close to Tripp last season, and he… well, let’s wait on that one. But a new trait to her character that emerges is this overriding fear. Time after time, her encounters with aliens and alien technology go badly, and she starts developing this thread of darkness to her. She wants to be rid of the powered people, talking about them as less than human in front of Skye (who she didn’t yet know was one of them). This fear and darkness eventually leads her to attempt to kill Ward, a radical shift for a character that hardly even knew weapons in season 1. And then she’s disappeared again by the end of the season…
Coulson is plagued with the alien writing at first, and eventually overcomes it by realizing its purpose: directions to the underground city. And yet this obsession comes at a huge price, and in some ways it seems Mack might be right to fear it. He also grows into his role as Director more, to the point where he orchestrates the kind of takedown of HYDRA’s leadership that Walter White could be proud of. A lot of the focus this season is on his fatherly role towards the team, with lots of the “Papa Coulson” scenes throughout and the one-sided rivalry with Cal. By the season’s end, he has to prove that he deserves both of these roles, and does so quite nicely.
Lastly is Tripp, who died in the midseason finale. Tripp’s death has pretty big impacts for everyone: Skye, as she feels responsible for it by surviving. Mack, who blames Coulson and his alien obsession for it. Simmons, who had a flirty relationship with him and was growing closer to Tripp as Fitz pushed her away. And of course Coulson, who does feel the weight of losing a good man under his command. We’d already had a fake-out with him a few episodes earlier, so I think most people were taken by surprise when it ended up happening.
All these characters and their arcs were managed excellently, and the paths they’ve been set on should be fascinating to watch as we move into season 3 in the fall. There were, of course, smaller characters I could mention, like Lincoln (who’ll be a main cast member in season 3), Raina (whose death seemed the natural consequence of her arc), and Cal (who was amazing all around), but this is getting long enough as it is. Beyond the connections to the MCU, this show is worth watching for the character drama alone.
Three main plots make up the majority of this season: The remnants of HYDRA, the revelation of the Inhumans, and the division of SHIELD. HYDRA is almost completely wiped out by the time of Avengers 2, and the season ends with Ward taking control of (at least part of) what’s left. That’ll definitely be interesting moving forward, but it’s practically impossible to speculate on since it was confined to the last scenes of the season.
The Inhumans, of course, are a HUGE deal to include, since it’s setting up for a film in 2019, which is a long way down the road. This is the first time that the TV branch of Marvel gets to develop something first, and it’s very well done, with the tiny community of Afterlife and the development of the characters and society living within. Sure, we could use more of a look at their society, or that of other groups of Inhumans, but we still have 4 years until that movie comes out to explore it. I’ll be patient. For another hook at the end of the season, we see some of the Terrigen crystals dissolved in water and ending up in fish oil pills. Are there fragments of the diviner metal dissolved as well? Personally, I doubt it; the crystals likely dissolved and left the metal behind. If people die left and right taking fish oil, that’s grounds for a recall, and not as many people are exposed to it. If the oil doesn’t harm anyone else, and only transforms Inhumans, then there won’t be as clear of a connection and it can reach more people. And since, from a writing perspective, that was the goal of dissolving it, it seems obvious. Prepare for a load of new superpowered characters next season… and possibly even in other shows, like AKA Jessica Jones.
That leaves the “real SHIELD” thing. Was it a good idea? I don’t know; it’s easily the weakest part of the season as a whole. I think that’s because it just didn’t get that much focus. What we saw wasn’t bad, it just seemed to take a backseat to all the other plots that were going on, and there were enough of them. It brought up some worthwhile ideas, like reasonable fears of Coulson’s SHIELD operating without oversight and the danger that alien artifacts can pose if not handled properly. It laid out some of the groundwork for Civil War, as the “real SHIELD” position on superpowered individuals seems to mirror the divide that emerges during that particular story arc of the comics. And I guess no one should be surprised that a show about what was essentially a spy agency has lots of double- and triple-crossing going on. It also just flat out makes sense that different fragments of SHIELD might rise up to challenge Coulson’s claim to leadership. But Coulson did get a fancy new boat out of it, so that ought to be cool next season.
One of the big themes running through this whole season is that of allegiances. It starts off with mostly teases: Simmons working at HYDRA, Morse as their top enforcer before revealing that she’s undercover too. Agent 33’s brainwashing and subsequent framing of May with the facemask. But it gradually becomes a much bigger deal throughout the season. Does Raina actually have any kind of loyalties at all? Mack and Morse, and their hidden loyalties to the other SHIELD–are they loyal to the idea of SHIELD, or to a specific man? Ward, naturally, jumps back and forth across the different faction lines so many times that I think he might be playing hopscotch. And Cal–is he loyal to his daughter, or his wife? But eventually this theme makes its way to our main characters: Skye–is she loyal to her SHIELD family, or her biological family? To the Inhumans? And May, who initially helps Coulson to escape “real SHIELD,” eventually takes a position on their advisory board. What does that mean for where her allegiances lie?
For an organization like SHIELD that was so badly shaken up last season, it makes sense that the question of who can be trusted would be at the forefront of everyone’s minds. Everyone, including our leads, had people they felt they could trust betray them. It’s no wonder loyalty and allegiances are made to be such a big deal this season. The entire last half is nothing but a series of uneasy alliances where no one can fully trust anyone–Coulson calling back Wildcard Ward, dragging Cal along back to the carrier, Bakshi being brainwashed himself, sending Gonzalez in to negotiate with Jaiying. There’s always this expectation of betrayal lurking in the background, and surprisingly enough, it happens far less often than you’d think. None of those went badly, or at least, not in the way the audience expected them to. So perhaps trust is not such a fragile thing as it felt for most of the season.
The other theme, which I’ve touched on a few times already in individual episode reviews, is the idea of “powers as disabilities.” We’ve seen superpowers used as a metaphor often enough: for adolescence in Spider-man, for race in X-Men comics (and homosexuality in the films), and often as a burden, but I really haven’t seen this particular idea before. The concept starts out by drawing parallels between Fitz’s situation, having been significantly impaired earlier on, and what Skye and Raina are going through. All three of them are different, now, and being seen as different by all their old friends. Both Fitz and Skye are subjected to a certain amount of pity, and Simmons in particular is determined to “fix” both of them. Skye’s power suppressing (and later, enhancing) gauntlets look similar to casts, and are almost treated like a crutch or wheelchair. Raina’s radical change in appearance subjects her to scorn moreso than pity, as she’s effectively been disfigured as a result of her transformation. There will never be any way for her to fit into normal society again. We see this also with Gordon, who loses his eyes during his transformation, blinding him (although he seems to have some other sense that helps make up for it). It’s almost inherent to the process; so many of the Inhumans (and to an extent, Mutants) in the comics have abilities that, from a human perspective, impair their lives more than enhance them. Black Bolt destroys cities with a whisper–seems like the kind of thing that makes life difficult, doesn’t it?
I think the closest parallel to support this interpretation would be to compare the Inhuman community to the deaf community, oddly enough. While most people in possession of their hearing would see being deaf as a disability, there are a large number of deaf people who disagree. More so than any other “disabled” group, deaf people have developed their own culture. They even have their own languages–like American Sign Language–with which to communicate. As such, the use of cochlear implants to restore hearing is a highly controversial issue in the deaf community. Many of them feel as though it’s admitting they’re lesser people somehow by lacking that sense. And we see from characters like Simmons,= and Mack, as well as the rest of “real SHIELD,” that they view Inhumans the same way: as lesser, sometimes pitiable people who are more suffering from this condition than benefiting from it (and dangerous on top of it all). When one of their own develops this condition, their immediate response is to cure it, not understand or support it. But the Inhumans don’t see themselves this way, and have created their own society and culture as a way of dealing with the fear and rejection of ordinary humans. It’s really a fascinating approach to the idea and I very much look forward to this theme’s continuation into season 3.
There you go, that’s my look back at season 2 of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. It was a hell of a season, a great improvement over the first, and I really hope it continues on that track as it moves into the future. The show ought to be back in late September, so let’s just hang in there until then. There’s still… Ant-Man? I guess…