The first half of season two of Agents of SHIELD won me over. I had quit the show near the end of season one, and returned only to see how it dealt with the ramifications of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. I was surprised by what I saw - especially the fact that hero Grant Ward had become a very vicious villain - and I decided to give the series another shot.
In season two the series seemed to find its legs. It dealt with a lot of the dopey plotlines of the first year, and it fixed a lot of the annoying characters. As it went along it slowly became clear that the endgame for the season was to introduce The Inhumans - a race of people created by the Kree aliens millenia ago. In the comics the Inhumans traditionally live in a far off hidden city called Attilan, but in recent years Marvel Comics has introduced the concept that some Inhuman descendents live among us, unaware of their heritage, waiting to be triggered. Basically Marvel turned The Inhumans into the new versions of the mutants, now that Fox owns all rights to the X-Men forever and ever.
That’s the angle the show took; there will never be a mutant in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but anyone could be an Inhuman, one Terrigen Mist exposure away from becoming a superbeing. It turned out that Skye, the lead of the show, was an Inhuman, and that her mom leads a tribe of Inhumans who are stashed away in a mountain city called Afterlife.
Things got a little crazy in the second half of the season. The show had too many characters, and they all needed to be serviced every single week in a more and more serialized story. That meant every single episode became a parade of noisy pieces being moved randomly on a chessboard - the wheels were being spun, but loudly and haphazardly. It didn’t feel like there was a story behind it all, just a lot of encounters and people going back and forth from the base to a different, new hallway.
Along the way the show introduced the idea that Coulson wasn’t the only guy leading SHIELD - Edward James Olmos showed up as a guy leading a different SHIELD splinter group. That’s interesting! That felt like a storyline. But it ended up being more wheel-spinning, just a lot of screen time used to move characters back and forth but never give them anything interesting to do, or even really giving them much of an arc. I can see where character's beats were planned on the board in the writer’s room, but they feel forced and unearned on the show, usually the result of another generic shoot out in a hallway.
Which, whatever. It’s Agents of SHIELD. It's a show about hallways. But all of that wheel-spinning ended up with a huge confrontation with The Inhumans… and the show totally ruined the characters.
No, the problem isn’t that most of The Inhumans look like normal humans in clothes from The Gap (c’mon, it’s a hidden city! At least give them weird fashion!). The problem is that Agents of SHIELD introduced us to its version of mutants by leading with The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants instead of Charles Xavier and his X-Men.
It turns out that Skye’s mom was actually a bad guy, and she engineers a conflict with SHIELD by killing Edward James Olmos and pretending he attacked her. She then kills Raina, the formerly-evil character who has gone good now that she can see the future, so that nobody will know her true evil plan. Then she and her Gap-clad Inhumans storm the SHIELD aircraft carrier (I don’t think it’s a helicarrier) intending to kill every SHIELD agent there is. Her reasoning? SHIELD wants to put The Inhumans on their index and destroy their secret lives.
This was such a huge ball-dropping moment. The introduction of Other SHIELD should have allowed the show to have a character from SHIELD actually be a bad guy - not evil, but racist against mutants, er, Inhumans, in the MIghty Marvel Manner. That’s a classic story, and when Skye’s mom fights back she can become a deadly threat… but one who is just trying to defend herself and her people. That’s her rationale in the show as well, but the show doesn’t make her rationale seem rational - she’s just a crazy separatist.
How much more dramatic would the story have been if Skye had been forced to take down her mom who was acting in a way that could be argued was correct? By making Skye’s mom just simply a bad guy it removed that tension… but more than that, it introduces The Inhumans as an actual threat, not a misunderstood group. Yeah, the remaining Inhumans pay lip service to the idea that they were misled, but that just makes them look like dopes.
None of this takes SHIELD off the hook. After the events of the last two Marvel movies I don’t even know why there IS a SHIELD anymore, and the SHIELD on this show is definitely not the rescue organization Captain America likes. The SHIELD on this show remains a bunch of assholes, assholes who do things like wipe Skye’s dad’s mind (he’s the evil Mr. Hyde, and when he transformed in the season finale it was 100% a lowlight of superhero television) and then set him up as a vet in a big city. Let’s leave behind the idea that letting a murderer set up shop in a metropolis is a bad idea - how can they be wiping people’s minds? That is so fucked up, and Skye thanks Coulson for it. I felt like I had fallen through the looking glass here. Hopefully next season someone addresses the profound evil of what they did.
But on top of that, Coulson’s whole gig now is keeping Inhumans secret and monitored. He’s basically a human Sentinel. This is the hero of my show? A guy whose job is to keep a minority group down? The show’s moral for minority groups is “Why don’t you try passing for white/straight/cis instead of being yourself?” I was honestly stunned that in one scene this is where Agents of SHIELD went - they’re mindwiping criminals AND they’re covering up Inhumans. Those are both the actions of a bad guy group.
I get why The Inhumans can’t just be out and about, logically - there’s an Inhumans movie coming in 2019 and Marvel TV can’t step on that. They probably don’t even know what the plan for that is, but I suspect (and the show seems to think this as well) that it’ll be only about the royal family of the Inhumans, not this new Inhumans-as-mutants thing. The show makes it seem like these Inhumans Who Shop At The Mall don’t even know Attilan exists, or that it’s shrouded in super deep secrecy. Nobody mentions the royal family or whatever, allowing the movie to sow that storytelling ground. But this just renders Agents of SHIELD once again the redheaded stepchild of the MCU, allowed to use tangential aspects of the movies but not allowed to get too involved. The show barely even tied into Ultron; the ‘Theta Protocol’ that Coulson talked about the back half of the season ended up being that secret helicarrier Fury used, but that was dealt with in a quick dialogue aside. What if the whole plot of the back half of the season had been Coulson and Other SHIELD racing to find that helicarrier? That would have tied into the movie and actually given some structure to things!
Will I be back for season three? At this point I don’t know. I honestly hate the organization of SHIELD. I hate the new version of Coulson (a flashback to pre-Avengers Coulson this season reminded me why I liked THAT character, not this weirdly super-capable hero). And I hate the way that The Inhumans have been introduced as a threat, not a downtrodden group of different people who deserve equality and visibility. I feel like I’m watching a show about the bad guys.