March 10, 2015, 9:00 p.m., ABC
Agents of SHIELD is at its best when it is wrapped up in a big, ongoing storyline with huge implications for its status quo, and for the MCU as a whole. This is not necessarily the smartest or best way to run a television show that goes longer and has a smaller budget than any of the films with which it is associated, but it is the way this show is run, and despite occasional bumps along the road, it mostly works. Season two has been structured around the slow revelation of the Inhumans, and the show has built the idea into its world gracefully, even if the limits of what it can do with it sometimes show. “Who You Really Are” is a very fun episode, moving everything forward pretty quickly and setting up the major conflicts we are likely to see in the back half of this season: Skye’s struggles to control her powers, SHIELD’s struggles to find the terrigen crystals, and the imminent threat of an army, hidden in human DNA, ready to emerge at any moment. The stakes are good ones, and the show is ready to rocket into its back half the way it did last season.
The Inhuman mythology is kind of convoluted, and would likely be a lot to fluidly explain to a film audience when the characters hit the big screen in a few years. Using Agents of SHIELD to do the cultural heavy-lifting, doling out exposition and exploring the ramifications of it over the course of a full season of television is a really smart idea, to the point where Vin-Tak’s basically pausing the story to explain the origin of the Inhumans (the result of Kree genetic experiments millennia ago) doesn’t grind things to a halt because he is answering questions the show has been wanting us to ask for most of this season.
Chloe Bennett remains a potential problem for this arc, as she plays cool, competent Skye quite well but struggles more when she is thrown into tragedy and drama—not great for an arc where her Dad is a super villain, her former crush is a rogue assassin, and she just discovered she has super powers that place the lives of everyone she cares about in danger. Yet the show artfully sets up the dynamics within the team as Skye’s powers are revealed, placing Fitz, Coulson, and May squarely in the camp of protecting and nurturing Skye, and Mac and Simmons in a place where they are more concerned about the danger she poses, not just to them, but to the world. It’s a conflict that feels rooted in who these people are and also in feels realistic to how people in their positions might react to the rise of superheroes they have witnessed. To some, like Coulson, these heroes are an inspiration to a higher calling. To others, like Simmons, they are a source of fear and a sense that the world is spiraling out of humanity’s control. It’s a powerful dynamic to set up, and one I hope the show decides to let breathe, not just over the rest of this season, but over the rest of its run.
Meanwhile, Bobbi and Mac’s secret alliance is still percolating. This is fine in terms of building tension, but I find it kind of hard to care so long as the show is playing coy about who they are and what their agenda is. The real meat of this story comes once we know why Bobbi and Mac are working for a third party within SHIELD, what their intentions are, and how they might conflict with the rest of the team. Until the trigger is pulled on those revelations, it is difficult to get too excited about them whispering behind everyone’s back, but then not really doing anything. Yet Mac’s attack on Nick probably means forward movement on this, so it’s really a small complaint in an episode that does a lot of things right.
Sif’s return, along with the appearance of a Kree soldier and the explanation of terrigenesis makes “Who You Really Are” one of the Marvel-iest episodes this show has ever done, and mostly for the better. One of the great things about the Marvel Universe is how smartly it is interconnected, the way it manages to make it believable that a God of Thunder, a super soldier, a billionaire philanthropist in a robot suit, and a big green monster can all come together to fight evil even as they exist in their own separate spheres and have their own problems to address independently. Agents of SHIELD will always exist, to some extent, in the shadow of the Avengers and the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s titanic blockbusters. But this show is building a stronger sense of its place in this world and how it can tell interesting stories within it. In its second season, after some bumps along the way, this is a show that is finally figuring out who it really is. It is exciting to witness, and hopefully will lead to another stellar final stretch.
“Who You Really Are” one of the Marvel-iest episodes this show has ever done, and mostly for the better.