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If you’re looking to jump in to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., there’s a lot of in-universe mythology to catch up on.

If you follow television coverage, you’ve probably heard three things about Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.:

  1. Its first season was disappointing. Discouraging!
  2. Season 2 is better. Like, a lot better. Encouraging!
  3. Season 2 is better largely because it’s gone much heavier on mythology and serialized storytelling, which means it’s tough to penetrate if you haven’t watched the rest of it — including the supposedly-lackluster first season. Discouraging again!

Indeed. But fret not! With Agents taking a week off before its mid-season winter break (which actually isn’t, but we’ll come to that) and thus column-space in need of filling this week, I’ve gone ahead and drafted this quick, conversational catch-up guide — which should (hopefully) prove helpful to anyone who wants to dip into the series’ recent installments without having to commit to watching everything that came before. Enjoy!

(This should go without saying, but SPOILER WARNING is in effect for both seasons and for the Marvel Studios movies)

Alright. First question: What is S.H.I.E.L.D.?
First question-answered-with-a-question-for-reference: Have you seen the Marvel Movies?

Yes! Well, some of them. Most of them. I think? Some, at least.
Okay. Did you see The Avengers?

Dude, everyone’s seen The Avengers. I’m pretty sure there are undiscovered tribes deep in the Amazon rainforest who’ve never seen a White man face to face… but they’ve seen The Avengers.
Good. So, that jacked-up sci-fi version of the CIA/NSA Samuel L. Jackson was running in The Avengers? That’s S.H.I.E.L.D.

Oh! So it’s a show about a huge army of badass 007 types with flying aircraft-carriers who hang out with superheroes?
Not exactly. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. focuses on the adventures of a small team of specialists from the Agency, led by Agent Phil Coulson.

That sounds familiar…
He was the Agent in The Avengers who was a huge Captain America fanboy. Clark Gregg played him.

Didn’t he die?
Yup. That’s part of the main story in season 1. As far as Coulson knows, he was only “dead” for a brief few moments before doctors pulled him back from the brink, but quick-thinking Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) lied to The Avengers and told them he had died so that they’d have something to rally behind re: taking the fight to Loki. For going along with this, Coulson has been given a high-tech private jet (“The Bus”) and his own team to run as a covert mini-Agency running down X-Files-type phenomena. But there’s a problem.

Over the course of season 1, Coulson discovers that he actually full-on died, stayed that way for days and then got Frankenstein’d back to life by S.H.I.E.L.D. super-science — specifically, a serum derived from the (apparently) ancient corpse of a blue-skinned alien. Said serum made most exposed to it crazy, so his memory got wiped. He unwiped it, then in season 2 cures himself of crazy by figuring out that the serum-induced visions are leading him to some sort of ancient lost city. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves.

O… kay. Was that the only story from season 1?
Not exactly. In fact, there was actually a whole other mystery happening parallel to Coulson’s, and they were both serving as red-herrings from a “real” story that didn’t get revealed until near the end because of continuity with the movies.

What?
Short version: In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we find out that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been unwittingly infected by a growing revivalist-movement of HYDRA, the WWII-era Nazi death-cult founded by The Red Skull in Captain America: The First Avenger. Since the show couldn’t reveal that before the movie came out, it sort of jogged in place for a while until Coulson’s team could find out that a lot of the various conspiracies they’d been jetting around shutting down were HYDRA-affiliated.

Oh, and at the end of the movie the only way for Cap to destroy HYDRA is to dismantle S.H.I.E.L.D. itself, but we’ll come back to that.

Alright. So what was the other mystery?
Season 1’s main “audience POV” character isn’t Coulson, it’s a young computer-hacking prodigy named Skye (Chloe Bennett). She starts out as an ideologically anti-S.H.I.E.L.D. “hacktivist” Coulson and company take in to custody and then try to win over to their side for her Mad 1337 Skillz, but it turns out she’s actually just been looking for a way to dig into redacted S.H.I.E.L.D. files relating to the identity of her biological parents.

When the Winter Soldier sh*t hits the fan on the series, Skye gets mortally wounded and Coulson seeks out the serum that fixed him to use on her — before he discovers (too late) the “it’s actually alien corpse-juice” part. But Skye doesn’t suffer any of the negative side-effects Coulson did, which adds to speculation that Skye might be… something more than human.

“Adds to?”
Oh yeah – earlier in the season, we learn that Baby Skye was rescued from the ruins of a village in rural China (Bennett is half-Chinese) supposedly ransacked by “monsters” that might have been her relations.

A-ha! So she’s a mutant?
Egh. Funny story…

Since they sold the rights to make X-Men movies to a different studio, Marvel can’t actually use the idea of “mutants” in their own productions. So in The Marvel Cinematic Universe (and thus also on Agents of S.H.I.EL.D.) the idea of people born with super-powers is a new, largely-unknown wrinkle — in fact, it’s what Team Coulson was looking into for most of Season 1. Specifically, they were tracking a HYDRA-affiliate called Project CENTIPEDE that was experimenting on natural-born “gifted” folks via a mysterious “gifted”-obsessed woman named Raina who subsequently went rogue once she realized she was effectively working for the Nazi Party Mark II. In Season 2, she’s allied with a mysterious superhuman called The Doctor (Kyle MacLachlan) who is evidently Skye’s “monster” father.

So what are they?
We don’t know, yet, though it’s widely speculated that the show is poised to introduce (at least the concept of) “The Inhumans” to the Cinematic Universe.

Never heard of them.
They’re basically mutants but with a weirder hierarchy and a Stargate-ish backstory. You might as well just read this.

Hey, wait — back up: If S.H.I.E.L.D. was dismantled, why is the show called that?
At the climax of season 1 (which takes place shortly after Winter Soldier) Nick Fury tasks Coulson with rebuilding a new, HYDRA-free S.H.I.E.L.D. in rogue/covert form, with himself as Director and his original team (minus one who turned out to be a bad guy) plus some hand-picked new recruits as its “A-Squad.” They now operate out of an underground bunker overseen by Koenig (Patton Oswalt) who might be a robot, doing what good they can while being dogged by one-time Incredible Hulk nemesis General Talbot (Adrian Pasdar) who’s been ordered to bring them down.

[i]So now they fly around looking for Inhumans’ stuff?[/i]No, Season 2 has thus far mostly been about fighting HYDRA.

But you just said…
Turns out HYDRA was actually bigger than just “big enough to take over S.H.I.E.L.D. from the inside” big. There’s a guy named Baron Von Strucker waiting to start trouble in Avengers: Age of Ultron, but Agents is now mainly up against a guy named Daniel Whitehall — who used to be a WWII-era lackey of The Red Skull and was originally an enemy of Agent Peggy Carter.

Who?
Captain America’s British love-interest from The First Avenger, one of the founders of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the star of an 8-episode miniseries that will be filling in for Agents during the winter break. She’s also shown up twice in flashbacks during season 2, both times in relation to the initial capture of Whitehall and his prized possession, an alien (?) artifact called The Obelisk.

The what?
Actually, it turns out it’s called “The Diviner” and it acts as both a key to the mystery-city Coulson is looking for and as a litmus-test for superhumans. Any “non-special” person who touches it dies. Oh, also, Whitehall has it back now — and he doesn’t look a day older than he did in the 1940s.

Um… is that unusual?
In the Marvel Universe? Not really, but he’s not immortal. He used The Diviner to find a female Inhuman (?) who was seemingly ageless and, in 1989, tracked her down, dissected her (unlike present-day HYDRA, Whitehall is still evidently an old-school Nazi at heart) to get at whatever kept her young and used it to de-age himself. Incidentally, the woman? Skye’s mother — which means Whitehall doesn’t know how worried he should be that The Doctor is pretending to be his new best buddy helping him “beat” Coulson (whom The Doctor also hates for being a surrogate-dad to Skye) to the hidden city.

So what’s the city?
We don’t know yet, though we’ll likely learn something from next week’s episode as it’s the last new one pre-Carter. Most theories now hold that it’s an abandoned Inhuman stronghold (possibly their capitol city, Attilan) and that it may hold The Terrigen Mists.

You’ve lost me. Also, I may have gone cross-eyed.
It’s a gaseous element, contact with which activates/supercharges the latent super-powers of Inhumans and sometimes turns them into cool monster-like forms. Basically, a Big Red Button that could conceivably fill the Marvel Universe up with natural-born superhumans overnight.

So all this mythology might just be pouring the foundation for a movie that doesn’t come out for four years?
Seems to be.

I… just… Huh. Okay. Assuming for a moment I either don’t really care about the continuity of the Marvel Universe or, at least, I don’t care enough to need to know where every trinket and plot-device comes from… is the show actually worth watching?
Probably not, no. This is pretty-much NCIS: Marvel Universe, and your ability to care is going to be in rough proportion to how much you care about that. If you like spy/mystery procedurals but think you might like one more with a sci-fi infusion and cameos/references to Marvel movies and comics, you are Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s niche.

Actually… wait. One fairly-notable non-Marvel reason to watch would be that the series (without much fanfare) is doing a much better than average job of featuring a variety of diverse, well-rounded female characters in recurring main roles; and it’s made a big dent in its “diversity problem” from season 1. So there’s that.

…Okay. I’m about onboard. So who’re the characters?
Starting in Season 1, we had the following:

  • Agent Coulson: See above.
  • Agent Skye: See above.
  • Agent Grant Ward: Brett Dalton. For most of season 1 he was the resident handsome action guy, but he turned out to be a HYDRA sleeper agent. Currently on the run with a mysterious agenda of his own (he’s also certifiably insane, owing to having been raised in a generationally-abusive, politically-powerful family. He’s obsessed with Skye.
  • Agent Melinda May: Ming-Na Wen as, officially, The Bus’s pilot. Unofficially, May is one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s most lethal hand-to-hand fighters, a legendary field agent nicknamed “The Cavalry.” She has PTSD from having to kill an unnamed supervillain cult-leader in the recent past, a plot thread that has not yet been resolved. She briefly took Agent Ward as a no-strings-attached lover during a period when they were both afflicted by an aggression-inducing relic, and would very much like to kill him for his betrayal.
  • Agent Jemma Simmons: Elizabeth Henstridge. Adorkable scientist, one half of the Fitz/Simmons team that ran the tech for Coulson’s original team: now traumatized and emotionally-estranged after having nearly been murdered by Ward.
  • Agent Leopold Fitz: Ian DeCaestecker. Also a scientist, also adorkable, the other half of Fitz/Simmons. Suffered brain-damage from his near-murder at Ward’s hands, which causes him to hallucinate a “when we were a team” version of Simmons and has hurt his coordination — though he’s fighting to get better.
  • Raina: See above.
  • Dethlock: A wounded veteran transformed into a cyborg by CENTIPEDE in season 1, has not officially appeared in Season 2.

As of season 2, we’ve added the following:

  • Agent Triplett: B.J. Britt. The grandson of one of the Howling Commandos (Captain America’s handpicked support-squad in WWII).
  • Agent Alphonso “Mack” MacKenzie Henry Simmons. S.H.I.E.L.D.’s top mechanic. Has taken it upon himself to form a friendship with the damaged Fitz, a relationship that some fans have elected to read as potentially romantic in nature (while some others think it makes him suspicious).
  • Lance Hunter: Nicholas Blood (that’s actually both his and his character’s names) as a mercenary who sticks around to help S.H.I.E.L.D. when HYDRA kills his ex-agent friend.
  • Agent Barbara “Bobbi” Morse: Adrian Pallicki. Also known as “Mockingbird,” she’s the first (and so far only) member of S.H.I.E.L.D, on the series that originated as a Marvel Comics’ superhero.
  • Daniel Whitehall: See above.
  • The Doctor: See above.
  • General Glenn Talbot: See above.

Any MVP performers to keep an eye on?
Clark Gregg is so naturally good at deadpan light-gravitas you have to imagine he’d have wound up headlining a network procedural like this even if there wasn’t a Marvel Universe. After him, the all-around standout is unquestionably Ming-Na Wen as Agent May. Even setting aside the obvious positive of an action series successfully positioning a character who is neither white, nor male, nor an ingénue (Ming-Na Wen is, astonishingly, 51 years old) as the resident “sexy ass-kicker,” May is a great character — mysterious, surprising, consistently well-written and fun to watch.

Agreement is/was near-universal that the insistence of keeping Skye’s “deal” a mystery (inside a mystery, inside another mystery) for so long made the character annoying and hard to warm to in season 1, but she’s better now. Likewise, there doesn’t seem to be much argument other than Grant Ward only become remotely interesting after we found out he was evil. While the “Fitz/Simmons” team was a fan-favorite in season 1, the season 2 arc of the pair as traumatized survivors trying to find their way back to normal has been more dramatically satisfying.

Season 2’s newcomers are all solid (Trip, who technically came in at the end of Season 1, has a fun dynamic with Coulson), with the standout being Pallicki’s Bobbi/Mockingbird. There isn’t much “to” the character at this point, but she’s every bit the natural-born action-gal Ming-Na Wen is and the show quickly figured out how to use her Amazonian-physicality (she towers above the rest of the cast so noticeably it almost plays like parody) to proper effect.

But pound-for-pound, season 2 has been all about the new bad guys: Reed Diamond’s Daniel Whitehall is at once a terrific Bond Villain, a triumphant Marvel (or Indiana Jones)-style super-Nazi and a figure of genuinely evil depravity (he literally butchered Skye’s mother) that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has lacked to this point. Alternately, the great Kyle MacLachlan has been nothing but deliriously fun to watch as The Doctor; fearlessly skirting the edge of high camp as a resourceful, morally-dubious and emotionally-unstable operator whose self-confidence in his own power(s) mainly manifests in the form of poor manners.

Final question: Do I need to have watched the Marvel Movies to actually enjoy this, or vice-versa?
Yes and no.

Marvel’s TV and movie divisions are actually run by separate groups, so there’s not as much back and forth cross-pollination as Agents’ advertising might lead you to believe there is. Thus far, nothing has happened on the show that turned out to be required-viewing for the movies, but the show assumes not only a familiarity with the “universal shorthand” of the movies but an up-to-date knowledge of the movies’ major plot developments. Specifically: Winter Soldier concludes with the destruction of S.H.I.E.L.D. itself, and Agents dove into the ramifications of that in roughly the same timeframe — didn’t go to the movie the first weekend? Tough luck.

Otherwise, it’s mostly about small references and cameos thus far. At the bare minimum, you should know the basics of the core Avengers members and their attendant mythos (when super-strong people in Renaissance Faire armor are stomping around, chances are they’re from among Thor’s extended cast) and it helps to know what they’re likely to mean to individual characters. Nostalgia-obsessed history-buff Coulson hero-worships WWII-era legend Captain America, Black Widow (“Agent Romanoff”) is typically used as the top-tier benchmark of S.H.I.E.L.D. combat skills, The Hulk is a go-to reference for well-intended science gone berserk, etc.

BUT! That might not be the case forever. Season 2’s Inhumans/etc storyline is expected to be tied to the emergence of two new characters (at least) in Avengers: Age of Ultron and while it will likely only be incidental it will mark the first time that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has launched a plot-point for the movies instead of vice-versa.

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Will air its final episode of the year (“What They Become”) on Tuesday, December 2nd. The series is scheduled to return sometime after the January-debuting 8-episode run of Agent Carter, so likely no earlier than March of 2015.

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Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.

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