This is War.
Hydra, Inhumans, and a rogue branch of S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Coulson and his team had no shortage of opposition with which to contend.
This season picks up shortly after the events of Season 1. S.H.I.E.L.D. has been all but destroyed by Hydra, and Agent Coulson has been promoted to the position of Director and tasked by Nick Fury to rebuild the organization from the ground up. There are changes in the ranks; Ward is held captive after his betrayal, Fitz has been healing from his brain injury, Tripp and Mack are mainstays of the team, and Simmons is mysteriously absent.
Much of the first half of this season is devoted to the war between Hydra and S.H.I.E.L.D., tying up a few loose ends from last season and introducing a few mysterious MacGuffins to start some new threads. It’s no secret that the series struggled to find its footing during the first season. Luckily, this season hits the ground running, continuing the S.H.I.E.L.D. vs. Hydra dichotomy that gave the first season its shot of adrenaline. Wisely, this season does not rely too heavily on Hydra, and it slowly moves Hydra to the back burner to make way for the new opposing faction, the Inhumans. While they’re not referred to by name until nearly two-thirds of the way into the season, clever fans and forum readers were able to put the pieces together very early on.
The introduction of the Inhumans was one of the best creative decisions of the show, as it turned the series from a reactive story into a proactive one. That is to say, the series no longer took its cues from whatever film was being released, and rather looked ahead into the future of the universe as a whole. Adding in the dissent in S.H.I.E.L.D. by way of Gonzalez and his team, this season had much more dramatic tension than the last.
Each and every character was also fleshed out far more than in episodes past. Fitz’s injury made him far more vulnerable, Coulson’s struggle to know the right course of action was a constant source of intrigue, and Ward is far better utilized as a villain than a hero. Skye has likewise made leaps and bounds towards being an engaging character. Last season, we were beaten over the head with constant dialogue that “she’s special” and a necessary part of the team, despite actually seeing anything to back up those claims. This season, Skye is truly part of the team, makes some excellent decisions in do-or-die scenarios. This leads her to become a pivotal part of the drama by the end of the season.
Agent May, who was possibly the sleeper fan-favorite by the end of last season, also grew in ways that made for amazing storytelling. With a few glimpses into her past, we got an engaging backstory that way woven into the fabric of the season quite well. Newcomers Bobbi Morse, or Mockingbird, and Lance Hunter were also welcomed additions to the cast, bringing a new dynamic and source of conflict that made the regular cast far more colorful and appealing.
While the principle cast was quite strong, the series did struggle a bit with some of its smaller characters. Kyle MacLachlan, who played Skye’s father, delivered a character who was at times a bit too cheesy and fell into a few too many instances of overacting. The same can be said for a few of the Inhumans in the latter half of the season, as the desire to bring the drama sometimes felt a bit too forced.
Another downside of the season, like the last, is that the show still has yet to find a visual style that works for it. While Daredevil gave us a dark, crime-fighting noir tone and Agent Carter was steeped in its post-war period, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. does not have a signature visual flair. Each scene feels different from the last, which results in a jarring mosaic that doesn’t quite come together to create a polished finished product.
That being said, this has been an improvement since the first season. Part of this can be chalked up to a more seasoned production, but I would give credit mostly to the writing staff. Since abandoning the “freak of the week” style of storytelling, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s flowing narrative structure has spilled over into giving us a more cohesive show. Despite its hiccups in visual style from location to location, the characters work better together, the story is more evenly paced, and even the action has improved. Taking a page from the Daredevil playbook, S.H.I.E.L.D. too includes a single-shot fight scene near the end of the season, which is ultimately a testament to the enormous potential inherent in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Oh, and how about that cliffhanger ending?