In 2012’s The Avengers, Agent Phil Coulson was murdered by Loki. This didn’t stop him from coming back and having a seven-season run on his own TV show, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, even if he did die at least one more time during that show’s run.
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. aired on ABC from 2013 to 2020. I recently started rewatching it. It brought back memories, good and bad, of my original watch of the series. I’m going to discuss my thoughts and reactions to the first three seasons which cover generally (these are my names), Welcome to S.H.I.E.L.D, Hydra Emerges, The Rise of the Inhumans, and the Arrival of Hive.
Back in 2013, I got impatient with the show because of its close ties to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Looking back, I’ve changed my opinion. The task of telling original stories that must dovetail in time and pacing with a series of films, and keeping things coherent, is a massive logistic achievement when viewed in retrospect. The show managed the occasional nod to the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. comics, too, although not as well in my mind.
Agents starts, in Episode One, by introducing two “outsider” characters to the team Agent Phil Coulson is putting together. One, Grant Ward, is a S.H.I.E.L.D. “specialist” (which seems to mean assassin)—a mission-driven loner who is startled to meet the dead Coulson face to face. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, a young woman living in her van has hacked S.H.I.E.L.D.’s network and is following a superpowered man named Mike Peterson. Mike is the “target” of the team in this episode, and the hacker, who goes by Skye, is part of a hacktivist collective called the Rising Tide. In almost no time, Coulson and Ward have snatched her off the street and are interrogating her. Ward is furious to discover that Coulson’s intent is to bring the individualistic miscreant onto the team. Through the eyes of Skye, we meet the rest of the “team,” Leopold Fitz and Gemma Simmons, called “FitzSimmons,” fresh-faced recent S.H.I.E.L.D. Academy grads, geniuses in engineering and biochemistry, and the taciturn badass warrior Agent Melinda May, who refuses to fight and agrees only to “drive the bus” (aka fly the really cool jumbo plane Coulson got from Director Nick Fury). May’s nickname used to be “the cavalry,” and she’s got a story.
Skye figures out by Episode Two that they have not yet gelled as a team (A familiar Marvel theme!). While she reluctantly grows closer to them as people, she keeps her distance because she is secretly still working with The Rising Tide.
Each of the first five seasons had 22 episodes, and the show made a smart move by creating two eleven-ep plotlines for each season. (This also let the network slip Agent Carter in as a mid-season replacement for its two seasons.)
The first half of Season One introduces a serum that confers supernormal strength but is deadly. This storyline also doles out clues about how Coulson came back from the dead, and when the final bread crumb is followed, Coulson is shocked and disillusioned. Along the way, Skye must decide who she is and where she belongs. Just as the team is knitting together, catastrophe strikes as Hydra re-emerges (with the theatrical release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier). The second half of the season is dark indeed, with a trusted team member revealed as Hydra-faithful and a traitor to the team. When S.H.I.E.L.D. is functionally disbanded and labeled “a terrorist organization,” Coulson struggles to keep his team together and keep fighting. He gets help from Nick Fury, who was assumed dead. Being dead doesn’t mean much in the Marvel Universe.
The second season investigates Skye’s mysterious origins. A woman named Raina (introduced in Season One) sets a dangerous plan in motion. We meet Skye’s dad, Cal, played with over-the-top brilliance by Kyle McLachlan. Rogue Agent Grant Ward targets Skye, and in the “winter finale” Skye is transformed via a substance called terragen into a super-powered person. You’d think this would be a good thing, but at first it’s more of a curse.
The second half charts the rise of the Inhumans. We meet Skye’s Inhuman mother, Jaiying. Normal underpowered humans react with fear and rage against the newly-powered people. On the home front, Coulson is undermined by a group of S.H.I.E.L.D. survivors who have dubbed themselves “the real S.H.I.E.L.D.” They plan to imprison Coulson and Skye, who now goes by Daisy Johnson. Jaiying, who seems like a lovely person, all about peace, love and harmony, uncovers her plan to activate all the Inhumans, destroying the humans along the way if it’s needed. Jaiying’s Inhuman power is that she regenerates from almost any injury—the catch is that she needs human energy to do that, which basically means eating people. Oh, and there’s this weird rock monolith that abruptly changes properties to liquid and back, frequently absorbing people along the way. The Inhumans really don’t like this rock. By Season Three, neither did I.
The show poked some fun at the Pulp-Era names it was saddled with—like “Inhumans.” One of my favorite exchanges in Season Two goes approximately like this:
Daisy (speaking of the Inhumans): They’re just people!
Coulson: Are they, Daisy? I mean, what do they even call themselves?
Daisy: The Inhumans.
Yeah, way to make your argument, Daisy.
At the end of Season Two, Coulson has regained control of S.H.I.E.L.D. but lost an arm. Daisy Johnson has become a full-fledged agent (a transformation I never completely bought). Fitz and Simmons, who had an awkward Season Two after nearly being murdered by Grant Ward earlier, are edging closer, and things are looking good… until that liquid rock thing eats Simmons, transporting her to a deadly planet in another solar system.
Season Three follows the team as they try to keep up with emerging Inhumans, and track Simmons, who is struggling for survival, and discovering more than she realizes about the origins of Hydra. Near the end of the first half, Coulson betrays his own values, and kills a person in anger. Don’t get me wrong, we’re completely with him, but betraying your values has consequences in the Marvel universe, at least sometimes. The second half of the season introduces an entity called Hive, worshipped by Hydra—a being that can enslave every Inhuman by infecting them and changing their brain chemistry. To save Daisy and the other Inhumans, the team will have to trust a violent killer Inhuman named Slash. Even if they succeed, the world has changed yet again—to a place where superpowered people exist. Society will have to adjust, and the team will too.
Whether I loved the seasons or not, I am impressed with how much information the show provided through its storytelling. As a newbie, I appreciated this. Skye, who gets to ask all kinds of questions, was a help with this in Season One. The concept of Inhumans is introduced early and gracefully, smoothing the ramp-up in Season Two.
Daisy Johnson was a comic book character, also known as Quake. Cognoscenti commented online during the original showing that Skye was shaping up to become Daisy. The Skye/Daisy character never fully worked for me, probably because I just wasn’t in the know about Quake. I never believed Skye’s easy conversion to full agenthood, and while Clark Gregg and Chloe Bennett certainly sold the father-daughter relationship, I found Coulson’s choices around Daisy problematic (can you say “nepotism?”).
The infection/brainwashing of any Inhuman by Hive raised one of those logic problems I tripped over. I know I’m being too picky, but the show was never completely clear about whether Hive was an addiction for Inhumans, or whether its presence changed brain chemistry. It seemed like the latter. I’m sorry, if an environmental substance really can change your brain chemistry, and you can’t defend against it, aren’t you a security risk? Yes, I’m probably overthinking, but it bugged me, even though the storyline itself was filled with twists, reveals, and excitement.
While representation was lacking in Season One, (May is American-Chinese, everyone else is basically white), Season Two introduced Mac MacKenzie, a character from the comics played by Black actor Henry Simmons. Mac stayed around, becoming a regular and, as one character says, the team’s “moral compass.” Season Three added Elena “Yo-Yo” Rodriguez, who was a regular for the rest of the show. Jaiying is Chinese so Daisy must be half Chinese, but the story addresses that in no way. (Update: I wasn’t aware that Chloe Bennett’s father is Han Chinese.)
In Seasons Two and Three, the story of Dr. Andrew Gardner introduces a black character and makes him a tragic hero, in a compelling story that reverberates among the other characters, and Mike Peterson makes regular visits.
At least in Season One, what I liked the best was the escapist fun. I loved the “bus.” I wish I had a giant airplane that could go invisible and got, like, one million miles to a tank of fuel. I liked the high-tech weapons and the labs, the 3D displays brought over from the Avengers films. Because of the time and budget constraints, fight scenes, while well-choreographed, did not go on forever, a definite plus.
Basically, though, what kept me coming back to the show season after season was Clark Gregg as Coulson, the love story of Fitz and Simmons, and to some extent the quippy dialogue. The special effects were good, as was the CGI and the sets. But honestly, smart, unassuming, compassionate Coulson, who wants to do the right thing, was the big draw. Not even death can stop Coulson.
Agent Phil Coulson Clark Gregg
Agent Grant Ward Brett Dalton
Agent Melinda May Ming-Na Wen
Agent Daisy Johnson Chloe Bennett
Mike Peterson J. August Richards
Agent Leopold Fitz Iain de Caestacker
Agent Gemma Simmons Elizabeth Henstridge
Agent Mack Mackenzie Henry Simmons
Agent Elena Rodriquez Natalia Cordova-Buckley
Dr Andrew Gardner Blair Underwood
Raina Ruth Negga
Jaiying Dichen Lachman
Cal Johnson Kyle McLachlan
Giveaway: One commenter chosen at random will win an ARC of Comeuppance Served Cold, by me.