There are few television shows that have evolved in both premise and overall level of quality as much as Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD. What was once a small side-story in just one corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has since become arguably the central-most narrative in all of the shared universe, tying all the various films and other TV shows together while also setting up elements that won’t get their payoff for another three or four years. That’s pretty impressive.
Never watched the series? Or, probably more likely, did you attempt to jump on board during the early days and quickly lost your interest? Not to worry – we’re here to help. With some of the biggest developments yet coming up in the soon-to-debut third season, and with the show looking to tie into next May’s absolutely momentous Captain America: Civil War, now’s the time to jump (back) in with Agent Phil Coulson and the rest of his crack team at the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division, better known as SHIELD.
Here, then, are our 10 Things You Need to Know About Agents of SHIELD.
The original premise
Agents of SHIELD picks up with Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), a recurring character from Phase 1 of Marvel’s films, returning after some much-needed R&R in Tahiti where he recovered from his near-death experience in The Avengers. To reward one of his top agents for such dedicated service, Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) gives Coulson a pretty posh assignment: hand-pick his own team of four agents, fly around the planet on a newly-refurbished Mobile Command Station (the predecessor to SHIELD’s Helicarrier seen in the Avenger movies), and investigate 0-8-4s, those mysterious objects that have unknown – and possibly alien – origins (much like what audiences already saw Coulson do by himself with Thor’s hammer in both Iron Man 2 and Thor). A major emphasis of Coulson’s mission lies specifically in updating the Index, a listing of individuals who possess unusual powers or attributes.
Agent Coulson’s team consists of his longtime friend, Agent Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen), who is a crack pilot and weapons expert (she was dubbed “the Cavalry” after singlehandedly taking down an entire pose of baddies on one previous mission); Agent Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), a black ops specialist; and the non-field agents Leo Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), who act as the team’s mobile science division, handling engineering and medicine, respectively.
In the first episode, the team encounters Skye (Chloe Bennett), a hacktivist who has an immense distrust of SHIELD and its secretive ways. By the beginning of the second ep, however, Skye decides to accept Coulson’s offer to join his ranks as a consultant (just like Tony Stark!) and serve as an information specialist (aka hacker).
The secret behind Agent Coulson’s resurrection
Despite being told by Nick Fury that he was only dead for four seconds, Coulson eventually learns that he was actually dead for several days, and that the exact method of his resurrection is one of SHIELD’s most highly guarded secrets.
Here’s the story: when first assembling the Avengers Initiative, Fury wanted to include a final component that would address the possibility of one of his highly valuable team members falling on the battlefield. This ultimately became Project TAHITI (Terrestrialized Alien Host Integrative Tissue I), a program that took a long-recovered Kree corpse (those are the blue aliens featured so prominently in Guardians of the Galaxy) and harvested it to create a miraculous regenerative drug, which could even bring the (recently) dead back to life. Since Coulson is just as important to Fury as any of the actual Avengers, it was a no-brainer for him to use it once Phil shuffled off of this mortal coil.
There are side-effects, though, which tend to make individuals go crazy with visions of Kree writing. To counteract these effects, SHIELD took to (partially) wiping test subjects’ memories – something which was of particular importance to Fury because Coulson himself was originally in charge of TAHITI before resigning due to ethical concerns.
The team’s real mission
It turns out that Coulson’s “near-death experience” wasn’t the only secret that Nick Fury was keeping from him.
Rather than being able to choose his own team, as promised, Coulson was actually subtly manipulated into making the selections he did (SHIELD leadership, in conjunction with Agent Melinda May, presented each opening’s specifications in such a way as to essentially leave no choice as to which agents would need to be picked); the real purpose behind the team was not to investigate paranormal happenings or track super-powered individuals, but to keep an eye on Agent Coulson himself after his procedure. In this way, each team member would serve a dual purpose, even though none was aware of it: May would monitor Coulson for any sign of the TAHITI patients’ symptoms and send regular updates along to Fury directly; Simmons would step in to save his life, should physical complications arise, with Fitz assisting with any custom hardware that would be needed; and, finally, Ward, the assassin, would put Coulson down if necessary.
The single biggest twist from Agents of SHIELD’s first season, however, is one that neither Director Fury nor Agent May ever saw coming.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s revelation that Hydra, the Nazi science agency, had secretly infiltrated SHIELD upon its inception in the 1940s and has quietly been biding its time until it can finish its goal of dominating the world played a major role in the final six episodes of the year – a war breaks out between SHIELD and Hydra as both factions scramble to claim SHIELD’s various bases, resources, and caches of technology all across the world as its own.
What’s more, it nearly shatters Coulson’s team, as Agent Grand Ward is revealed to be a Hydra sleeper agent. He specifically ensured he would be placed on the team in order to discern the secret behind Phil’s revival. Several of Coulson’s agents barely make it out of Ward’s betrayal alive.
Despite its intensity and casualties, the Hydra war is a short-lived one, as the American military steps in to round up both sides (since it doesn’t care to differentiate between the two organizations) and reestablish worldwide security. Hounded by both Hydra and Glenn Talbot (Adrian Pasdar), a brigadier general in the Air Force, Coulson and the remainder of his team are forced to go permanently underground.
Fortunately, Director Nick Fury himself pops in to provide the agents some hope – and a new mission. SHIELD, Fury says, might have gotten lost somewhere along the way, but the rationale for its existence is still valid, and it’ll need new leadership in order to rebuild itself, better and stronger than ever. That new director is none other than Phil Coulson.
Throughout the first half of season two, audiences already see a great deal of progress being made by Director Coulson. The new SHIELD headquarters is a long-forgotten SSR base nicknamed the Playground, used by Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) during the last days of World War II (and taken off the official record, which is why neither Hydra nor the military has any knowledge of it). The team is expanded to include such heavy-hitters as the mercenary Lance Hunter (Nick Blood), Agent Alphonso Mackenzie (Henry Simmons), and Agent Bobbi Morse (Adrianne Palicki), better known as the superhero Mockingbird in the comics.
As Director Phil Coulson continues the fight against Hydra, he’s faced with another struggle: the side-effects of Project TAHITI, which are long-delayed but nonetheless potent. His visions of strange alien markings are eventually revealed to be a map, which leads to an ancient underground city of Kree origin – the Kree, it turns out, visited Earth millennia ago in order to genetically manipulate humanity’s DNA and transform us into a super-powered race of slaves in the Kree Empire’s never-ending war with its interstellar neighbors. This city is a remnant of that prehistoric, ultimately discarded initiative.
Fearful that Hydra would attempt to use the alien technology in its continued efforts at world dominance, Coulson has the city destroyed, but the alien ruins are only the tip of the iceberg. As the team continues to investigate the Kree situation, they discover that descendants of the original race of genetically modified humans are well-organized, intensely isolationist, and, in some cases, extremely powerful; although only a handful have undergone “Terrigenesis,” those that have possess superpowers ranging from teleportation to the ability to see the future. The team also discovers that many of the people on SHIELD’s Index are these self-proclaimed Inhumans, including the baddies in Agent May’s legendary mission that earned her the moniker of “the Cavalry.”
All about Skye
Skye, it transpires, is at the heart of all this.
Originally accepting Agent Coulson’s offer to join the team as a cover to secretly access SHIELD’s database and see what can be found of her missing family, she quickly realizes that the organization is a force for good, after all, and that she really does want to be an agent in her own right.
By the end of the first season, Skye gets her wish – she’s granted a field promotion to a full agent – but she also ends up unearthing a lot more about herself than she ever thought possible. It was SHIELD that removed her from her birthplace of China in order to protect her from her rampaging, possibly super-powered parents. Furthermore, once the team infiltrates the Kree city in the middle of season two, she learns that she’s an Inhuman, accidentally undergoing Terrigenesis in the process – and, when she emerges from her transformation, she finds that she has the ability to control vibrations both big and small (a revelation which is coupled with another: this is the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s version of the comic-book superheroine Quake).
There’s one final discovery to be had: her long-last parents. Jiaying (Dichen Lachman), her mother, was abducted and horrifically tortured by Hydra in the ‘80s, and is now the current leader of the Inhuman society; Dr. Calvin Zabo (Kyle MacLachlan), her father, is a normal human, but he’s become mentally unhinged thanks to his unceasing efforts at creating a serum to grant him super strength – he desires nothing but revenge against Hydra for nearly killing his wife and SHIELD for taking his baby girl away from him. They unsurprisingly become the leading voices in the growing war between SHIELD and the Inhumans.
The “real” S.H.I.E.L.D.
After the fall of SHIELD at the end of season one, a rival sect formed, believing that it was Nick Fury’s secretive nature that led to its demise. Claiming that reform was the only way forward, this group of agents formed a governing council to replace the directorship – to maximize transparency – and took as their headquarters the Iliad, a SHIELD aircraft carrier that was originally given the important task of safeguarding an ancient Kree artifact called the Monolith by Director Fury.
When this “real” SHIELD eventually learns of Phil Coulson’s promotion to director and his similar efforts at rebuilding the organization, its leaders dispatch two of its best agents, Bobbi Morse and Alphonso Mackenzie, to infiltrate Coulson’s unit and retrieve something called the Toolbox, a device which enables the director to do his job and which stores all of Fury’s secrets. Morse and Mack’s efforts lead to a brief-but-fierce clash between the two SHIELDs, with an all-out civil war seemingly the only outcome. Once the Inhumans establish themselves as the graver threat, however, the two sides are able to put aside their differences and come to an agreement: Coulson remains director, but he maintains “the real SHIELD’s” governing body as an oversight committee, resulting in an institution that is potentially stronger than ever before.
Showdown with the Inhumans
With a newly reunified SHIELD attempting to peacefully add all of Jiaying’s Inhumans to the Index, the already-distrustful leader becomes violent in the defense of her people, killing – and then framing – the SHIELD envoy. The Inhumans, believing themselves to be under attack, gladly retaliate, taking control of the Iliad. (The aircraft carrier is no random target – the Monolith that it houses was a device created by the Kree in order to massacre all of their would-be super-powered slaves once it was decided to scrap the whole human project.)
Though initially torn between her newly rediscovered family and SHIELD, Skye ultimately opts to side with Director Coulson, and it is through her efforts – and her newfound superpowers – that the battle is decisively won in SHIELD’s favor. Enraged at her daughter’s treachery, Jiaying goes to murder her, though she is ultimately stopped by Cal Zabo, her estranged husband, who prizes his daughter above all else. Jiaying is dead, her army is scattered, and the Iliad is reclaimed.
There are still scores of hidden Inhumans out there, however, and though most of them have yet to undergo Terrigenesis – and, thus, receive any enhanced abilities – they still pose an unknown threat to SHIELD and world stability. To make matters worse, during the final battle aboard the aircraft carrier, a crate of Terrigen Crystals (which incite Terrigenesis in the Inhumans) accidentally gets pushed into the ocean, where they infect thousands of fish that, in turn, get caught and processed into fish oil pills that are sold around the world.
The end of the second season sees nearly every single major character affected in some fundamental way, setting the stage for this month’s season three premiere.
Director Phil Coulson has his hand chopped off after he grabs a Terrigen Crystal, preventing it from cracking and killing the humans onboard the Iliad (had his hand not been removed, his whole body would’ve been infected, instantly killing him). Coulson says it will serve as a reminder of how not to handle the Inhumans moving forward.
Agent Melinda May takes a long-overdue leave of absence, attempting to get to know the world outside of SHIELD for a while. Even better, she reconnects with her former husband, Dr. Andrew Garner (Blair Underwood), a neurologist and forensic psychologist who returns to his work with the Index’s gifted individuals under Coulson’s invitation.
Skye is made the first recruit of a brand-new, beyond-top-secret program to form a team of super-powered individuals who operate under SHIELD’s direct command – the best line of defense in another Inhuman war, should one ever erupt again. But learning from their mistakes, this team (which is loosely based on the Secret Warriors comics) will remain secret, unlike the Avengers, allowing its members to live private lives free of harassment or fear from the outside world.
Agent Bobbi Morse is severely injured during the second season finale, resulting in the need for several surgeries and a long and painful period of rehab. Lance Hunter, who risked his own life in order to rescue her, stays by her side the whole time, seemingly putting their on-and-off-again relationship back in good territory – so much so, in fact, that now the two of them are seriously considering retiring from the secret agent life to settle down permanently (or until they get their own spinoff show).
After thinking of quitting SHIELD thanks to Coulson’s continued presence as director (Coulson’s exposure to so much alien influence makes him an unknown threat himself, deserving to be on the Index), Agent Alphonso Mackenzie agrees to stay on and is even promoted to head up the new “alien division.” His first task: to solve the riddle of the Kree Monolith.
Agent Jemma Simmons finally owns up to her feelings for Agent Leo Fitz, who had restlessly waited the whole second season for her to make her move. Just as they embark on their first date, however, the Monolith abruptly activates, literally swallowing her up whole. Her whereabouts are currently unknown.
Lincoln Campbell, an Inhuman who defected from Jiaying’s side to SHIELD’s alongside Skye, apparently has agreed to sign on to Skye and Coulson’s “Secret Warriors” initiative. His ability to manipulate electricity will certainly come in handy here.
Dr. Calvin Zabo is rewarded for his role in stopping Jiaying and the Inhuman threat by being given a second chance at life: his memory is wiped using Project TAHITI’s technology, and he is given a whole new existence, one free of the pain and destruction that haunted his former one. The idea is Skye’s, who also takes her birth name of Daisy as a further way of honoring her loving-but-misled father.
Finally, there is Grant Ward, the former Hydra agent who spent the entirety of the second season attempting to clear himself from Hydra’s influence and erect for himself a new life. After being summarily rejected by Skye, the first recipient of his love, he unexpectedly finds happiness with Agent Kara Palamas (Maya Stojan), who was literally brainwashed by Hydra and is now similarly attempting to lead a new life. The final act of Kara’s liberation and regaining of her identity was to have been the torture and death of Bobbi Morse, the individual who betrayed her to Hydra in the first place, but she is accidentally shot and killed by Ward when SHIELD comes to rescue Morse. Fueled with indescribable anger, Ward finds the only choice left to him is to revive the defeated Hydra and extract his revenge against Coulson and the rest of his former teammates once and for all.
Did we miss an important plot point that will come back to great narrative effect in season three? Care to share your analysis of the story thus far? Fire away in the comments below.
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