Ladies and gentlemen, Agents of SHIELD is back! It’s got a new timeslot, a bunch of new faces, a new enemy, and a new group dynamic, but SHIELD’s mission hasn’t changed. The events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier may have changed everything for Coulson and his team last season, but they’re still out to protect people, even if they may not have the seemingly endless resources of last year. Coulson’s trying to rebuild SHIELD from the ground up as its new director, which means making deals with some shady characters and making harder decisions than he ever has before. Tonight’s episode gave us our first look at how this new version of SHIELD will play out, setting the stage for some season-long arcs while delivering some solid action, new superpowers and connections to the Marvel universe, and hints to larger mysteries, a tease for Agent Carter, and a good helping of drama. So let’s jump right into “Shadows,” written by Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen and directed by Vincent Misiano.
The “previously on” section has to do some extra work for the season premiere, recapping the chaotic events of the last chunk of episodes, from the fall of SHIELD to Ward’s betrayal to Fitz’s situation, while also giving potential new viewers a basic understanding of SHIELD’s mission in general. But the episode itself opens somewhere unexpected, in 1945 Austria. We’re at a HYDRA base littered with dead bodies. HYDRA soldiers are removing something from the building loading it onto trucks as an officer looks on. It’s Reed Diamond (a Whedon alum from Dollhouse and Much Ado About Nothing) playing Dr. Whitehall, who asks his subordinate for a status report and is informed that they’re bringing “it” out now. “Carefully, I hope,” Whitehall replies as the men appear with a box containing a strange, metallic object the size of the stereotypical movie gold brick, though differently shaped. The aide is confused, as he thought the stockpile only held artifacts, but Whitehall tells him that not everything is antiques. In fact, Red Skull himself informed Whitehall that this object might have “the answer to death itself.”
They don’t get a chance to find out, however, as they’re interrupted by allied forces and three familiar faces. Leading the charge is Hayley Atwell Agent Peggy Carter of the SSR (Strategic Scientific Reserve), accompanied by Dum Dum Dugan (Neal McDonough) and Jim Morita (Kenneth Choi), who capture the HYDRA agents and the base. She tells Whitehall that they’ll be sending him away, and he replies with the standard HYDRA line about cutting off a head and two more taking its place. “Then we’ll have to keep cutting them off,” she answers as he’s taken away. The SSR agents start packing up all of the artifacts they’ve found, Ark of the Covenant-style from Raiders of the Lost Ark, complete with painted on ID numbers. When Dugan tries to peak in a crate, Carter closes the lid, warning him that this stuff is dangerous and has to be hidden away, particularly from people like Howard Stark who might want to play with it. She also adds that SSR needs to become some sort of permanent unit during peacetime, even if HYDRA and the Nazis have been beaten. The strange object is placed in a metal case that is welded shut and labeled in white with the number 084.
Cut to the present day, and Skye, complete with a new haircut, slides down a rope looking badass. She, Melinda May and Triplett are observing a deal taking place, and May orders her not to engage. In the warehouse below, someone is trying to sell that same 084 from 70 years before. He’s Agent Browning, a former member of SHIELD, who is looking to make a profit from the information he has from before SHIELD fell apart. He has a file on the 084, and he’s offering it to Xena, warrior princess… I mean to Lucy Lawless’ Izzy Hartley. She’s got a briefcase full of cash for him, but wants to change the deal when she realizes that he doesn’t actually have the object, just a file on it, a “picture of a box.” Browning points out that many of SHIELD’s assets were seized by the government, that this was the only Level 10 file of them all, and that it may be finding a needle in a haystack but he can help them find a haystack. However, he doesn’t get to say any more, as a large man (Brian Patrick Wade of Teen Wolf fame) walks right up to the group, knocks the men protecting Browning to the floor, snaps Browning’s neck, and grabs the file. Hartley and her men shoot him dozens of times, but he just runs away, jumping through a window as Skye, May and Trip join the party. Hartley is pissed that Coulson sent two teams, and calls Coulson for orders. “Go dark,” he says.
We see that General Glenn Talbot (Adrian Pasdar, returning in a recurring role from last season) has spent a lot of time on the news lately, giving interviews about how SHIELD operatives are now fugitives. He laments the scale of the intelligence collapse initiated by Natasha Romanoff at the end of The Winter Soldier, but adds that the corrupt institution has been dismantled. We see that a new face is watching the interview, Henry Simmons as Alphonso “Mack” MacKenzie, the new mechanic at the “Playground” base that SHIELD is using. The two teams return to the base, entering the facility by scanning their all-important lanyards as they pass through the door. He wants to know how it went, but they tell him they didn’t get any new toys for him to play with. “Did we get anything?” he asks. “A new enemy,” Trip replies.
Inside the Playground, Billy Koenig (Patton Oswalt) informs them that the big man wants to talk to them, and is in fact in his office for a face-to-face. However, he only wants to talk to May. Hunter, one of Hartley’s men, isn’t happy about being left out. May tells Skye to take some metal they recovered to the lab, but Sky would like to see Coulson, if she can. He’s a busy man however, and is on the phone when May enters, telling someone that there “aren’t enough payphones left.” May’s a bit upset that she hasn’t seen him in a while, as he may be in charge of SHIELD but she’s in charge of him, and asks him to refresh her memory on her two rules for him. Coulson tells her that he’s supposed to avoid field operations and to check in with her every few days. He’s exhausted from trying to find loyal recruits, travelling all over the world because everyone agrees that he has to meet them face to face to get a true sense of them. Still, “Flying economy blows,” he says, although he did score an exit row on the way back from London.
He asks May what the status is on getting cloaking technology adapted for the Bus, which has been gathering dust. It’s too recognizable and they can’t use it if they want to hide from Talbot. She tells him that they haven’t gotten it worked out yet. He pulls up a map of the world on the wall screen, showing some scattered blue dots around the globe of confirmed SHIELD allies, not much but it’s a start. May fills him in on the operation, telling him about the HYDRA assassin who wanted the intelligence that Browning was selling. Coulson questions her about Hartley’s team, which earns a slightly disgusted answer from May that they’re mercenaries, but when pressed she admits that they’re good mercenaries. She shows him a picture of the 084 box from the file, which sparks something in his memory. It showed up in the toolbox that Nick Fury left him with to start SHIELD, and it was the original 0-8-4, the first object of unknown origin (other 0-8-4s include Thor’s hammer Mjolnir, a Tesseract-powered HYDRA weapon, and Skye) and that it left a trail of bodies in its wake. At all costs they must keep it away from HYDRA.
Speaking of which, we catch up to the man who stole the file, seemingly no worse for wear from being shot. Inside his van he activates a screen and on it appears a HYDRA agent. “Hail HYDRA,” the agent says, which is met with a dismissive “yeah” from the thief/assassin. The agent is pleased that he retrieved the file, and offers him a reward. A drawer under the screen unlocks, revealing a crystal. The agent tells him that it’s a unique sample of muscovite (a common form of mica, the mining engineer in me feels compelled to tell you), and that his superior thought the man might enjoy it. He picks up the muscovite and examines it, before his hand turns into a crystal that perfectly copies the sample. “He’s always right,” the man says.
Hartley’s team relaxes with a beer, arguing about the food situation at the Playground, which they all agree was better than Budapest. They bicker back and forth about cooking and broken teeth, but all I can think about is whether whatever took them to Budapest was the same thing that Natasha Romanoff and Clint Barton remember so very differently. May comes out and tells Hartley’s team that Coulson wants to see them. Hunter warns Hartley’s other man, Idaho, that whatever he does he shouldn’t look Coulson in the eye. “Really?” Idaho asks. Hunter pauses for effect and then says, “Nah, he’s alright. Just don’t say anything stupid.” Idaho can’t promise that, and as they head into Coulson’s office May talks to Skye. She asks about the mood in the lab, and Skye replies that it’s “as good as can be expected.”
All these mentions of the lab have really got me worried that Fitz is either dead or in a coma and Simmons is struggling to keep up the slack, so imagine my surprise when we see FitzSimmons working together as usual, with Fitz looking healthy and very much alive and conscious! However, things aren’t exactly back to normal in the science side of SHIELD. Simmons is speaking very calmly, quietly, and encouragingly to Fitz, checking on his progress, but he angrily replies that he can hear her and he’s just having trouble finding the… the… “Resonant frequency,” Simmons helpfully offers when he can’t come up with the words. She helps him through his explanation of his investigation of the metal fragment they recovered, prompting him with the words he struggles to find, until eventually he tells her to go away. She reaches to touch some equipment on his table but he tells her not to, and when she asks if he’s taken his medication he gets angry. He says he knows that Coulson’s waiting on the cloaking technology and that he’s close, but everyone has to be… be… “Patient,” Simmons says, and when he doesn’t calm down she tells him, “You need to be patient with yourself, Fitz. You’re almost there.” She puts a comforting hand on his shoulder, which seems to calm him, and he reaches up to put his hand on top of hers. May comes in to ask if they have any update on the metal, which Fitz says looks like a typical bullet fragment but he’s having trouble with it. They look at it sitting there for analysis and Fitz is alarmed when it starts to bleed. “Are you seeing that?” he asks, clearly thinking his brain is causing more problems, but he’s relieved when May and Simmons say they can see it too. As they watch, the metal turns into flesh and blood, which is definitely weird.
Hartley’s team has finished their meeting with Coulson and are trying to decide what to do next. Hunter wants money for their work, but Hartley definitely has some loyalty to Coulson. Coulson’s team joins them, saying that they have a DNA match for the sample of flesh that was previously metal. His name is Carl Creel, and he was on SHIELD’s Index of gifted persons but was “crossed off.” Hartley explains that occasionally SHIELD would kill people on the Index whom they couldn’t control, but Coulson, reading Creel’s file, says that they never really tried to kill him. His assassination was faked by John Garrett, who recruited him for HYDRA. Hunter asks Garrett was that guy who used to be Coulson’s buddy before he went to the dark side. “Yeah, and then he went nuts,” Coulson says.
Meanwhile, Skye has entered the Matrix, and a Matrix made up entirely of the mysterious alien symbols we saw Garrett and Coulson drawing. Actually, she’s just lying on the holotable on the Bus, which is covered in the symbols. Coulson has her researching the symbols that Garrett left behind (presumably he hasn’t revealed to them that he has been drawing them too), but so far she’s turned up nothing. Trip, however, is more interested in discussing Billy Koenig. They’ve been told that he was Eric’s twin, but the way he keeps mentioning all of his other brothers has lead Trip to some theories, all of which Skye has heard Trip suggest before (Life Model Decoy!). Coulson comes in and asks Trip to give him a moment alone with Skye. Trip leaves and Skye admonishes Coulson for not giving out hugs after all this time, especially since Trip really wanted one. That gets a small smile from him, who fills her in on their Creel, the bulletproof assassin. He tells her he wants her to “go down there,” as she’s the only one who can do it. She doesn’t seem too happy about it, and asks if she has any say in this at all, which earns no response from Coulson beyond a pained look.