Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D – “A Fractured House” Review

 Consensus on the first season of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D seem to be that it was overall tepid and had difficulty holding people’s interest. This was admittedly my experience when I gave up on it in early fall of last year. However, convinced by its’ fans to give it another go, I binge-watched the whole of season 1 over the course of a weekend this past summer. And boy am I glad I did, because season 2 has me good.

CAUTION: This review contains spoilers.

Last nights’ episode, “A Fractured House,” brought many delightful action sequences coupled with a slew of good character moments and a heart-rending scene towards the end where Mac confesses to the newly returned Simmons that Fitz actually seems like he is worse when she’s around. MAJOR OUCH!

While last season’s S.H.I.E.L.D organization was (for the most part) a formal government agency with a large infrastructure, a deep budget and basically carte blanche to act in the name of national and international security, the exposure of Hydra within the organization has left it scant on resources of every kind, and operating in the shadows, without government sanction. The episode opens with General Talbot (adversary to Coulson/S.H.I.E.L.D) making a speech at the UN about the danger of S.H.I.E.L.D’s continuing presence and activities; suddenly, the assortment of world leaders attending Talbot’s talk is placed under attacked by a Hydra constituency who are acting under the auspices of S.H.I.E.L.D.

The episode finds Bobbi, May and Hunter tracking down and taking out those responsible, resulting in a couple of very amusing scenes between Bobbi and May, as well as Bobbi and Hunter, who, as ex-spouses and newly assigned colleagues within S.H.I.E.L.D, demonstrate extraordinary chemistry. Their banter about their married past and who saved who is a thing of beauty, and the show would do very well to give them more opportunities to play off one-another in future.

Back at the base, Skye and Coulson continue their strained yet devoted personal/professional relationship. They have an almost father-daughter dynamic of clear affection that is often tested by Sykes impetuous desire for intel, and Coulson’s need to, well, shield her from knowing too much. She remains in pursuit of her long-lost father, whom she almost got in touch with in last week’s episode, and whom she has continued to engage with Ward about, despite her clear distrust and loathing of him.

Speaking of Ward, Coulson gets dragged into a he-said-he-said with Ward’s older brother, whom we discover is a sitting Senator currently up for re-election. Ward’s troubled childhood was placed at his older brother’s feet much earlier in the series, yet Coulson is given a different story by the Senator himself when he pays an unexpected visit. Both brothers continue to insist the other is really the sadistic, compulsive liar, and we are clearly meant to be unsure as to who is truly the guilty party. This issue will no doubt surface again, and I anticipate the pay-off will be juicy.

The show has done an extraordinary job, so far, of maintaining Ward as a loathsome, yet still oddly fascinating character. His relationship with Skye makes for endlessly gripping television, and you cannot help but identify with her simultaneous disgust of his epic betrayal, but also her frustrated nagging sense that there might be some human goodness left in him. It is unclear as of yet whether Ward’s redemption arc is sincere, or merely a play to get himself out of his current captivity, and I look forward to seeing where the show takes it moving forward.

But whatever Skye’s reservations are regarding Ward, it is clear Jemma has no such ambivalent feelings. As he is marched out of his holding cell and brought to a transport plane to be taken to his brother in one of the episode’s final scenes, Jemma uses his perp-walk as an opportunity to inform him “If I ever see you again, I’ll kill you,” and despite her usual mild-mannered demeanor, you can tell she means it with every fiber of her being. Frankly, given that he tried to kill her, I can’t help but feel glorious vindication on her behalf.

The episode ends with Ward escaping, and the revelation that the alien writing Coulson has been obsessing over is also the obsession of a stranger, whose body has become a canvas for the other-worldly mappings, one which he pays a tattoo artist (in cash) to render on his torso. Clearly this is not the last we’ll see of this man.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D has a difficult task in that it must act as a bridge between Marvel movies, and maintain coherence with the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, while keeping its own narrative strands internally coherent and interesting. Sometimes the show has suffered from this fate, but season 2 is taking on the challenge with much improved dynamism.

It has also strongly benefited from the more firmly established character dynamics, and it is by far and away at its most gripping when it dispenses with the action sequences and has its characters banter, withhold, confess, deny, and emote with one another (or uses its fight sequences primarily to those ends). Ultimately what I look forward to each week is not the progression of the war between S.H.I.E.L.D and Hydra, or the problems wrought by the extra-terrestrial Obelisk. It is those character moments between May and Coulson, between Coulson and Skye, between Skye and Ward, between Fitz and Mac, between Hunter and Bobbi, between Fitz and Simmons that make me want to come back each week for more. They are the show’s saving grace, amidst its shiny, well-choreographed gun fights and disappearing airplanes.