Photo: Mitch Haaseth (ABC)
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Back its early seasons, how many would have predicted that of all the planned Marvel live-action television shows, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. would be the one to make it to the end of Phase Three of the MCU? Yet while the other series have come and gone, some ripped away far too soon—justice for Agent Carter!—others mercifully, appropriately short-lived, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has endured. This premiere is a prime example of why. With its clear structure and pacing, solid performances, and deft tonal balancing, “Missing Pieces” gets season six off to a confident, promising start.

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Season five finished with a blend of finality, loss, and purpose, wrapping up the time travel arc and saving the world while killing post-time travel Fitz and dooming Coulson to an off-screen death. Season six picks up right where season five left off, with the search for pre-time travel Fitz. Dedicating the entire cast to the search for Fitz would cause the show to quickly run out of steam, so the writers split the ensemble between two groups: one continuing Fitz’s thread from season five, and the other introducing new threats for season six. The Zephyr-set scenes see Piper, Davis, Daisy, and Simmons searching deep space for Fitz’s cryo-chamber, which is nearly destroyed in the opening moments of the premiere. These early scenes get the episode off to an energizing, action-filled start, reassuring viewers that the team is just as focused on saving Fitz as they are. That momentum gives way to appropriate one-year-later weariness only when they hit a dead end, and the seeds of strife within the team are planted when Simmons jumps them much deeper into space, threatening their ability to ever return home against Daisy’s orders and Piper and Davis’ wishes.

Back on Earth, Mack is just as capable a leader of S.H.I.E.L.D. as anticipated, running a well-oiled machine with May and Yo-Yo as his main agents. The threat du jour is a series of anomalies, or reality distortions?, that have occurred along lay lines. May manages to get her team to the site of the latest event as it happens, where an imposing man in combat gear, carrying a massive weapon walks through a concrete wall into a park. His partner doesn’t make it through before the fissure closes, and is stuck, appearing to turn to concrete himself. May’s jet gets shot down by the mysterious figure, but the wall is lifted back to S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters, where Mack, May, Yo-Yo, and new scientific recruit Dr. Marcus Benson investigate it. Benson gets an appropriate welcome to the team when the seemingly dead man animates just long enough to warn the team, “Can’t stop it; it’s coming. Pachakutik. Wave goodbye.” Pachakutik is a Quechua or Kichwa concept that refers to a massive, global change and is connected with creation myths, and more recently has been tied to indigenous rights movements in South America. What it means for our heroes is a set of inter-dimensional travelers, seemingly headed by the grizzled doppelganger of the late, lamented Phil Coulson, who drives a truck through an exploded natural history museum to cross into our reality.

Photo: Mitch Haaseth (ABC)

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There are a few smaller beats—Yo-Yo’s new relationship with Keller, Mack recruiting Dr. Benson, and the episode-ending reveal of Fitz working in a grimy lab and speaking an unknown, likely alien language—but on the whole, the episode jumps between the Daisy’s group and S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters. The writers have come up with intriguing teases for the new season, but the real strength of the premiere is its deft tonal balancing and smart pacing. Each storyline gets its fair share of quippy, fun banter and introspective, emotional moments. The characters are self-aware, but not irritatingly meta, and there’s a welcome lived-in feeling to their reactions to the world they inhabit. This group has seen everything; it takes a lot to surprise them. They’re still human, though, and it’s small moments of relatability that keeps the show grounded. Plenty of live-action superhero shows struggle with this calibration; Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. makes it look easy.

“Missing Pieces” has a taste of everything fans tune in for. Daisy gets to kick butt and show off her increasing control over her powers, disassembling guns drawn on her with a wave of her hands. Simmons gets moments of quiet grief and determined breakthrough, functioning as the emotional anchor of her scenes. May and Yo-Yo spar, May passes on sage advice to both Yo-Yo and Mack, Mack gets his inspirational speech on, and there’s plenty of weird, comic book science, plus an ominous portent of doom. This may not be a particularly action-packed or intense episode, but it’s the kind of table-setting premiere the show can easily build on, a solid foundation for a successful, engaging season.

Welcome aboard, Dr. Benson. This isn’t remotely the most disturbing thing you’ll see working with S.H.I.E.L.D.
Photo: Mitch Haaseth (ABC)

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Stray observations

  • Welcome to The A.V. Club’s coverage of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season six! I was happy to be able to step in for the premiere, but never fear, Alex McLevy will be back next episode.
  • My standard beat around these parts is RuPaul’s Drag Race, which has a very particular relationship with butterflies after the season 10 finale. Needless to say, I enjoyed all the butterfly references here.
  • Keller’s cute and all, but Yo-Yo and Mack aren’t going anywhere.
  • I have no idea how this episode’s one-year time jump fits with the events of Avengers: Endgame, or even Infinity War. The snap doesn’t seem to have happened here. Perhaps the writers have decided to finally diverge from the MCU?
  • I was looking forward to the search for Fitz. It somehow didn’t occur to me that Fitz being alive, somewhere out in space, meant that Enoch could return in season six as well. Happy to have you back, Enoch!
  • Clark Gregg may be back, but Coulson is still gone, and missed. Including a glimpse of our Coulson as a hologram before introducing Gregg’s new character is affecting, and a nice character moment for Mack.
  • There are many delightful bits of dialogue in this premiere, but I have two favorites, both in writing and delivery. One is the exchange at S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters over what to call the anomalies they’re tracking, because as May says, “we used that word up last year.” The second is Davis’ response to Simmons’ “We don’t need to whisper, sound can’t travel in a vacuum.” It would make me feel better too, Davis.
  • I enjoyed most of the scenes on the Zephyr. I wasn’t fond of the tiresome return to torture as an effective interrogation tool and something our heroes are perfectly happy to do in the pursuit of their righteous agenda, and to show the audience how serious (read: badass) they are.

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