The third season of ABC’s “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D” (2013 – present) returned last week on the tail of its strongest episodes and a four-month winter hiatus. These factors combined to place a great deal of pressure on the mid-season premiere, and the show neither caved under, nor fully lived up to, those expectations.
There was a lot to address in the March 8 episode “Bouncing Back.” In the previous installment, Fitz (Iain de Caestecker) and Coulson (Clark Gregg) had traveled to the distant planet Maveth to keep ancient criminal organization Hydra from bringing a mysterious entity back to Earth. In the process, Coulson killed S.H.I.E.L.D.-agent-turned-Hydra-baddie Ward (Brett Dalton), and Fitz knocked off Will (Dillon Casey), an astronaut trapped on Maveth for many years before he died helping Fitz’s once-unrequited love Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) escape and who then became inhabited by Hydra’s long-lost alien god Hive. Fitz and Coulson made it back through the portal to Earth but unwittingly allowed undead Ward — now inhabited by the creature Hive — to return as well. Meanwhile the global fish supply has been contaminated by Terregin mist, which will activate superpowers among the Inhumans, a portion of the human population who have alien genes.
Got all that?
“S.H.I.E.L.D” opts to sidestep the audience’s many lingering questions to start the second half of the season at full throttle, which is somewhat effective in building suspense but also feels like a dirty trick to deny viewers any answers. This episode finds Joey (Juan Pablo Raba), Daisy (Chloe Bennet), Bobbi (Adrianne Palicki), Hunter (Nick Blood) and Mack (Henry Simmons) in Bogota chasing rumors of a new Inhuman, while Coulson begins the hunt for Gideon Malick (Powers Boothe), the international businessman who heads Hydra and against whom Coulson has a personal vendetta.
“Bouncing Back” felt a bit like peacocking, reminding viewers of S.H.I.E.L.D’s competence and power. There was too much telling rather than showing, a chronic issue against which “S.H.I.E.L.D” has struggled and repeated explanations of past events and of the logistics of Terrigenesis frustrate long-time viewers. Moreover, what felt like exposition for the coming installments sacrificed some of the depth and sharpness that have marked other episodes in favor of trying to tackle too much at once. In addition, the phenomenal Ming-Na Wen, who plays Agent Melinda May, is criminally underused in this episode.
Despite these not-insignificant weaknesses, this episode did a serviceable job setting up the rest of the season. Coulson is newly callous, stepping out of his Batmanesque do-no-harm past, and this alarming development will surely ignite clashes with the rest of the team. Several characters suggest that Inhumans are part of an intelligent design, and this mythology is sure to be explored further. Fitz and Simmons, universally touted as the emotional heart of the show, take an important and mature step forward in their surprisingly not trite will-they-won’t-they relationship. But the best moment of the week goes to Clark Gregg’s perfect deadpan while listening to Hydra’s cheery hold music.
In the series as a whole, the acting talent may be its greatest strength and makes commitment to the series entirely worthwhile. In addition to a solid main cast, “S.H.I.E.L.D.” has featured the likes of Kyle MacLachlan, Patton Oswalt, Blair Underwood, Dichen Lachman, Ruth Negga and Bill Paxton in memorable guest roles. The emphasis on a diverse cast and complex female characters, both trademarks of co-creator Joss Whedon, must also be recognized. “Bouncing Back” introduced Colombian Inhuman character Elena “YoYo” Rodriguez, and there was an outpouring of support on Twitter for her portrayer, actress Natalia Cordova-Buckley, with fans expressing excitement and gratitude at seeing a Latina heroine.
Though a part of the massive Marvel cinematic universe, it is not necessary to know anything about the comic books or films within that universe before tuning into “S.H.I.E.L.D.” The show draws on and interacts with comics, films and other resources within the Marvel universe, but it functions semi-autonomously and can be viewed alone — a praiseworthy feat. The March 3 renewal of “S.H.I.E.L.D.” suggests that ABC and Marvel are invested in the show in the long run.
“S.H.I.E.L.D.” is no “Breaking Bad” (2008 – 2013) — that is to say, it’s not an Emmy-winner — nor is it supposed to be. Appropriately for its comic book roots, it’s often quite campy, with overacting and dramatic music and less self-awareness than Whedon’s similarly campy “Firefly” (2002 – 2003). “S.H.I.E.L.D.” sometimes slips in quality and is unlikely to make deep, original statements about the world or humanity, but it nonetheless offers a riotous and wild ride to those willing to jump on.