Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. focuses on Marvel fans… and if you’re a fan, the results pay off.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has gone from feeling only incidentally related to the Marvel Cinematic Universe continuity-experiment to feeling like the franchise most heavily leaned on it. Its second season’s episodes don’t so much follow individual three-act structures as begin and end between surprise-reveals in what has become a season-long running plotline that requires one to not only have seen the majority of the series up to this point but to have a more-than-passing familiarity with the movies in whose shadow it operates. Continuity is still a garnish for the Marvel films, but on Agents it’s the main course, the plates, the silverware, the restaurant and the date that brought you there.

Before reading on, be aware we’re diving into spoiler territory, so a SPOILER WARNING is in full effect. If you haven’t caught this week’s episode, you can stream it online from ABC.com or Hulu, or buy the latest from iTunes or Amazon.

This week’s episode, “Things We Bury”, is an efficient, if a touch inartful, handling of that dynamic; splitting the main cast into four separate mini-teams to advance four different plot threads toward what feels like a soon-to-come confluence and realignment. In short order: Skye’s mysterious superhuman father, “The Doctor,” makes good on explaining how The Diviner (formerly “The Obelisk”) actually works to HYDRA bigwig Daniel Whitehall. May, Simmons and Mack dig through Agent Peggy Carter’s old files to suss out Whitehall’s real history re: why he seems to be immortal. Coulson, Trip, Fitz and Skye do some globe-hopping to set up a hack of HYDRA satellites to help hunt for the mysterious hidden city the alien (?) glyphs are apparently a map to. Bobbi/Mockingbird interrogates Whitehall’s gopher, Bakshi, for information. Finally, Grant Ward kidnaps and confronts his U.S. Senator brother, Christian, as part of his still unclear private agenda.

The reveals and answers, in a nice surprise, are all pretty interesting in their own right. The Diviner turns out to be both a key and an entrance-exam to the Hidden City — it only burns at the touch humans who are “unworthy” of entering (which thus far seems to include superhumans) and is related to a legend of “blue angels” who came from space to wipe out humanity save for a special few. Whitehall isn’t technically “immortal,” he aged naturally in a S.H.I.E.L.D. prison until 1989, when he was freed and presented with a mysteriously-ageless recaptured Diviner-proof woman he’d discovered in 1945… whom he dissected alive (making him, on balance, the “nastiest” MCU heavy by far at this point) to create an anti-aging serum for himself. Bobbi and Hunter are “back on” even though Bakshi has been implying that she crossed some lines while undercover in HYDRA. Oh, and in a “surprise” that no one will have not guessed at, “The Doctor’s” wife (and, presumably, Skye’s mother) was the age-proof superhuman Whitehall murdered — and The Doctor’s real agenda is (or at least includes) revenge for her.

Amid all that, it’s easy to overlook the not as directly tied-in Ward Brothers story, which is a shame because it either serves to finally put some definitive background into Grant’s character (if so, good) or just muddy the waters further (if so, disappointing). Grant forces Christian to dig up the well from “The Well” and admit, once and for all, that it really was him who forced Grant to nearly drown their younger brother as children… BUT! It seems they were both victims of horrifically-abusive parents (this was a weirdly dark episode overall, come to think of it) and the torment of the younger brother was due to him being “mom’s favorite.” So, it seems they have closure, at least — until a final stinger reveals that Ward has taken the occasion to kill both his parents and Christian in a staged murder/suicide as part of some kind of “entrance exam” for Whitehall.

Oh! And it was really cute seeing Simmons geek-out over realizing that they’ve been living/working in “The” Peggy Carter’s old digs.

This is all a lot of fun, providing you’ve been following the series and are invested in the Marvel Universe, and it works at a bare-bones level as a fast-moving science-fiction spy show. But week to week I grow more concerned as to how exclusive and self-referencing it’s become. Maybe this is Marvel/Disney’s intent at this point: To accept that Agents’ lackluster first season has clipped its wings in terms of “mainstream” hit potential and concentrate on fan-service and worldbuilding (if this business with Skye and The Doctor really is about introducing Inhumans to the MCU, then Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Season 2 is effectively foundation-laying for a movie that won’t be out for another four years).

Still for an episode that was fairly light in the action department, it was well-paced and “big” moments — particularly the gruesome reminder that old-guard HYDRAs like Whitehall were literal Nazis in addition to supervillains — landed really well. If nothing else, it’s interesting to watch a series that does not exactly pull “bulletproof” week-to-week ratings decide to forego audience-building in favor of a “big picture” plan — I just hope whatever it is they’re building to pays off.

PARTING THOUGHTS:

  • The idea of blue aliens coming to Earth to divide up humanity between superhumans and normals (in favor of the supers) doesn’t exactly align with the Kree-experimentation origins of The Inhumans from the comics, but it’s close enough (and meshes with Marvel’s stated goal of using them as the MCU version of mutants enough) that I see no reason to stop thinking it’s the best theory still.
  • The staging and shooting of scenes are getting a lot better at reducing the degree to which Adrian Pallicki towers over her castmates.

BOTTOM LINE: It’s interesting to watch Agents decide to forego audience-building in favor of a “big picture” plan — I just hope whatever it is they’re building to pays off.

RECCOMENDATION: For fans only? Maybe, but they’ll be satisfied.

[rating=3.0]

NEXT WEEK:
Nothing! The series takes next week off for the customary “let’s not get chewed-up during Thanksgiving travel-time” dead space. Things will pick back up with “Ye Who Enter Here” on December 2nd.

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Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.

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