Terrigenesis is a fitting metaphor for the evolution of Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. The series began as an aimless Marvel Cinematic Universe tie-in that had to wait for big-screen events before the writers could get to the good stuff, but it underwent a dramatic transformation once the alien element Terrigen came into play, giving the show a stronger purpose by making it the vehicle for introducing Inhumans to the MCU. Coulson and his team are now dedicated to finding and protecting new Inhumans that have emerged after the spread of an alien contagion through contaminated fish oil capsules (it’s O.K. to laugh), but like these transformed people, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is having some difficulty finding its footing after the transition.

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Despite being a story about shadowy organizations tracking down superpowered individuals before they can be killed by a blue guy with an extraordinarily hairy back, “Laws Of Nature” feels even more like a conventional procedural than the series did before. Maybe it’s because there are more characters in lab coats: Bobbi is using her biologist skills in the lab after being injured at the end of last season, and Lincoln is working as a doctor and trying to pass as human. Most of the scenes take place inside the S.H.I.E.L.D. facility or Coulson’s new plane, and when the action does move outside, it’s to generic locations like a hospital or a subway car. The main exception is Fitz’s subplot in Morocco, which injects much-needed style and atmosphere in the design and direction to remind the audience that this is a show about secret agents in a superhero universe.

The opening scene featuring Daisy (née Skye), Mack, and Hunter rescuing a new metal-melting Inhuman kicks the episode off with a refreshing wave of superhero fantasy, but after that burst of action, the narrative settles into generic procedural patterns with slight modifications. Instead of catching the suspect of a crime, the agents capture an inadvertently dangerous Inhuman, who is interrogated and has his belongings sent to the lab for examination. Daisy and Mack play good cop/bad cop, and when they need some extra help with the case, they go to an outside specialist who is also a doctor. These are all predictable procedural beats, and the episode improves once it moves away from them and starts leaning into the more fantastic elements.

Fitz’s adventure in Morocco embraces the fantasy by casting him in a bad boy secret agent role that is far from his usual role on the show, and his rogue mission distances him from the procedural blandness that plagues the rest of the episode. (It’s frustrating that the show has abandoned his brain injury plot from last season, but the writers were having difficulty finding ways of integrating Fitz into the narrative with that restriction.) So much of this episode involves characters explicitly stating how their lives and the world at large are drastically changing, and it’s much more effective when the writers skip the talk and just show how these characters act in their new status quos. Introducing Fitz by putting him in the field on an unsanctioned solo mission quickly indicates that his life has been derailed by Simmons’ disappearance. Seeing Daisy dispose of armed goons with her concussive blasts immediately shows that she’s now comfortable with her superpowers, and her interactions with new Inhuman Joey Gutierrez (Juan Pablo Raba) establish that she’s stepped into her mother’s old role as a mentor for the confused Inhumans appearing across the U.S.

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Writers Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen are setting up threads for the rest of the season so there’s going to be some big chunks of exposition in the script, but there’s a surplus of infodumps that drag the pacing. Some of these expository scenes concern the rise of Inhumans and the dangers they face/pose and some concern the current status of personal relationships (Bobbi and Hunter’s locker room conversation, Coulson’s lament over the loss of his literal left arm and figurative right arm, Agent May), and while they allow the writers to provide a lot of valuable information, these developments would be more engaging if we actually saw them happen. It’s wise that the writers are jumping ahead to a point where the Inhuman crisis has accelerated, but they don’t do the smoothest work filling in the blanks. They have a job to provide the necessary information, and they do it with minimal style or grace.

There are two key cast members missing in this episode, and after such a strong season 2 for Agents May and Simmons, “Laws Of Nature” disappoints by leaving these women out of the action. (Ward also doesn’t appear, but he’s been prone to extended absences on this show.) Much of Coulson’s appeal rests in his relationship with May, and he’s a less textured character when he doesn’t have May around him. Constance Zimmer’s Rosalind Price is a serviceable replacement for May when it comes to having a no-nonsense female character unwilling to put up with Coulson’s bullshit, but she doesn’t completely fill the void left by May.

Of the show’s original cast, only Coulson, Daisy, and Fitz have major roles in this episode, and leaving out three of the main characters is a big reason why this premiere is an underwhelming reintroduction to this world. May and Ward are completely absent this week, but Simmons appears in the final scene, a short tag that has creates more excitement for the next episode than the 40 minutes that precede it. The alien monolith is apparently some sort of interstellar teleportation device, and when Simmons was sucked into it, she was transported to an alien world on the other side of the universe where she’s been running for her life. Simmons is on another planet, which introduces all sorts of fun storytelling opportunities for the future of this series.

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Now that the groundwork for the season has been laid down, there are many different avenues for the writers to explore in coming episodes. There’s the mystery of Rosalind Price and the organization she’s working for, which may be connected to the Advanced Threat Containment Unit the president announces in a press conference about the growing alien threat. There’s the mystery of the hairy blue-skinned bad-ass that makes short shrift of Daisy, Mack, and Lincoln, who readers of the recent Inhuman series will recognize as Lash, an Inhuman that preyed on other Inhumans that he deemed unworthy of Terrigenesis. Hunter is about to go track down Ward, who is rebuilding Hydra, and it’s unlikely that Fitz is going to give up his mission to save Simmons, who is stranded on an alien planet. (Have I mentioned how excited I am about that plot?)

There’s a growing tension in the MCU as it heads into Captain America: Civil War, and it’s clear that the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are going to be on opposing sides of the inevitable conflict to regulate superpowered individuals. The seeds for the next Marvel film are being planted in this series as it details the changing climate of a world ill-equipped to deal with a huge surge of superpowered individuals, and “Laws Of Nature” starts to incorporate that paranoia and fear to raise the stakes for new Inhumans. There’s lots of potential for this season to address the moral complications of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s mission, and hopefully the writers will use the themes of Civil War to explore the murky ethics of capturing and holding superpowered people against their will unless they cooperate. The transition into the age of Inhumanity may be a little rocky, but there’s enough substance in this premiere to suggest a promising season ahead.

Stray observations

  • Considering Rosalind Price’s proclivity for fake names, I’m going to assume that Rosalind Price isn’t her true identity. My theory: she’s Monica Rappaccini, one of the top scientists of A.I.M. (Advanced Idea Mechanics), which would explain the advanced weaponry used by her goons.
  • It’s really nice to see a gay character show up on this series, and I appreciate how the writers tie Joey’s personal experience as a gay man into his current situation as an Inhuman. I hope we see him again.
  • As cool as it is to see Lincoln and Daisy use their superpowers against Lash, the fight choreographer should find ways to incorporate their abilities more dynamically into the action rather than having them stand there with arms out while special effects do all the heavy lifting.
  • Is Mack being set up to fill the Jayne Cobb role in this ensemble? His comment about getting a shotgun-axe gave me serious Jayne vibes.
  • While on the topic: Mack should definitely get a shotgun-axe. I would love to see the show have more of a sense of humor with the gadgets, and Mack building crazy weapons could be a fun start.
  • “It may feel like your life is ending, but it just got more interesting.” Now sit tight and enjoy your forced captivity and the new identity we’ll give you if we ever decide you can roam free.
  • “My name’s Bobbi. As in the name usually short for Robert, but in my case, Barbara, which, to me, is worse.”
  • “This was fish oil again?” I have a lot of trouble taking the fish oil seriously, so I’m glad that the writers decided that the Terrigen seeped into other parts of the ecosystem.

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