Who is Lance Hunter and why are we supposed to care about him? This week’s episode of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. dedicates a lot of time to the cast’s scruffy addition, but his character doesn’t amount to much more than “British Bad Boy Ward” at this point. He’s a hard-drinking mercenary who plays by his own rules, and it’s a generic role that needs more personality and specificity in order to captivate. He has to overcome an obstacle that nearly all the main characters on this show have faced at some point, and hopefully the writers will build on Lance’s uninspired foundation and make him a fully formed person instead of just a cog in this show’s plot machine.

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We’re supposed to feel bad for Lance because his old partner Isabelle Hartley is dead, but their relationship was barely formed in the season premiere, so there’s not much emotional commitment there. This show’s PR team really hyped up the appearance of Lucy Lawless as Isabelle Hartley, so it’s disappointing to find out that her character is officially out of the picture after not doing much of anything in the short time she had. It looks like the writers were banking on Lawless’ built-in fan appeal to get viewers to care about the character so that her death would have greater impact, but losing Isabelle before we really get the chance to see Lawless kick some ass makes her guest appearance feel like a missed opportunity. (Because this is a superhero world, there’s always the possibility that Lawless isn’t dead, but I’m not getting my hopes up here.)

Lance is caught between S.H.I.E.L.D. and the U.S. military after he’s arrested and brought to General Talbot, who offers him a deal to betray S.H.I.E.L.D. in exchange for a couple million dollars and a soldier’s funeral for Isabelle. Lance is playing both sides, telling Coulson about the deal, but skipping out on all the details so that he can make a profit. He’s not especially dedicated to the S.H.I.E.L.D. lifestyle, admitting to Skye that he views the agency as a means to an end. What will happen when he gets a better offer? The writers appear to be setting up an eventual Hydra double cross with Lance’s shadiness, but I have faith that they won’t retread the same territory they covered by Ward last season. Lance’s attraction to Skye already makes him feel like a Ward replacement, but it’s still early enough that the show could take his character in a different direction.

My issue with the focus on Lance is that it takes time away from the core cast members, who still don’t have very much to do. Skye and May are mostly just standing around being worried about Coulson, and it would be nice to get some idea of what direction their characters will be moving in this season. Skye has the benefit of being directly attached to a few of the show’s ongoing mysteries—one of which gets some serious momentum this week—but May needs meatier material.

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May is the team’s muscle and Coulson’s main ally, but that’s essentially who she was last season. Skye mentions that everyone has changed, but how has May? This is a woman who devoted her life to S.H.I.E.L.D. and suffered severe trauma because of that dedication; how has she been affected by the revelation that her organization was an extension of the evil she thought she was fighting? Ming-Na Wen is an actress with a lot more depth than she gets to exhibit on this show, and the writers should start giving her material that takes advantage of that emotional range. Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a fun action series first and foremost, but it shouldn’t shy away from exploring weightier themes, especially if it brings more gravity to the characterizations.

The backstory and purpose of Alphonso “Mack” Mackenzie is still unclear, but he has more to do this week than in the premiere. He plays a substitute for Simmons in the lab, helping Fitz work through the holes in his memory while Fitz’s hallucination of Simmons lurks nearby. While I’m sure the depiction of Fitz’s brain damage has little basis in actual medical fact, I do like how the missing bits of his intellect have manifested as Simmons. It’s a clever way of showing that those parts of his mind are still accessible in some capacity, but not in a way that allows him to share that knowledge with others. All those breaks in his speech are being filled by Simmons even when she’s not around, which makes me think that she will ultimately be the key to returning Fitz to his former self.

Raina is the breakout character of this series, largely thanks to Ruth Negga’s cool poise and a wardrobe that makes her stand out visually among the ensemble. She’s a character that exists somewhere between good and evil (leaning toward the latter), and that moral ambiguity combined with her mysterious background and undefined abilities make her one of the show’s more captivating elements. It makes me very happy to see her return this week, especially because she’s attached to one of this season’s big plot developments: the reveal of Skye’s father.

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Kyle McLachlan makes his Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. debut as an unnamed character this week, but advance publicity for this season has revealed that he’s playing Skye’s dad. We don’t know who he is or who he’s working for, but he’s sweaty, disheveled, and has some sort of influence over Raina, convincing her that she should touch the freshly retrieved Obelisk despite its tendency to kill whoever comes in contact with it. But Raina doesn’t die when she touches the Obelisk; instead, the object lights up and starts showing all these symbols that look a lot like the carvings Coulson has been etching on walls whenever he has an “episode.” How is all this connected? The Obelisk was found in the same raid that also put a blue alien in S.H.I.E.L.D. custody, so it’s easy to assume that there’s some connection there, but how does Skye figure into all of this? The mystery has me genuinely interested in where this season goes, and hopefully the question won’t be tediously dragged out like those in the first season.

The visual style of this show remains utterly dull, from the locations to the fight choreography to the camerawork. Every setting has a standard “somewhere around Los Angeles” appearance, and all the environments in this episode look like places this show has visited before. The fight choreography isn’t particularly impressive, and the direction doesn’t do much to make the action more dynamic, with one major exception this week: When Lance goes after Crusher Creel, he shoots him with a high-caliber sniper rifle, a moment depicted with a single slow motion shot that traces the bullet’s path out of the gun, through the air, and into Creel’s head, which has slowly morphed into a substance that deflects the bullets without causing any damage.

That kind of directorial flair is what this show needs more of, and I would love to see this show’s camera and design crews work together to create a more visually engaging experience. There needs to be more color and personality in the environments and costuming, and taking more chances with the camerawork will bring more excitement to the action and heighten the emotional beats of the script. The unified aesthetic of Marvel’s films (at least the Earthbound ones) has trapped Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. in boring visual territory when it should be boldly creating its own distinct identity, and that stylistic restraint prevents the show from reaching its full potential.

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Stray observations:

  • The preview for next week’s episode has some intriguing spoilers, specifically that Simmons didn’t just leave Coulson’s team, she defected to Hydra. I suspect that Simmons is part of a larger S.H.I.E.L.D. undercover team infilitrating Hydra, a group that may include Bobbi “Mockingbird” Morse, who will be serving as Hydra’s head of security when she appears in a few weeks.
  • Just because a guy’s a terrorist doesn’t mean Skye isn’t going to have inappropriate fantasies about what he can do with the ability to turn any part of his body into any material. Skye has some pent-up sexual energy that needs to break free.
  • I would love to see that shot of Coulson operating his touch-screen hub without any of the special effects added. It probably looks like Clark Gregg is doing an interpretive dance.
  • I’m very happy that this show made it clear that Crusher Creel will probably be back in the future. His power set makes him too cool to kill off after just two episodes.
  • This show’s score is so overbearing. It loudly tells you exactly what you should be feeling rather than subtly accentuating the inherent emotion of a scene.
  • “I tried it, but I’m really not flexible.” I enjoy Gregg’s performance of this line. Coulson is truly unhappy that he wasn’t able to succeed in yoga.
  • “We’re lucky we still have our George Foreman grill.” S.H.I.E.L.D. loves paninis.

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