Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. has a stronger narrative direction, more complicated character relationships, and a deeper connection to Marvel lore in its second season, but it still has trouble delivering the intrigue expected from a TV series about secret agents in a superhero universe. This is S.H.I.E.L.D.! The organization has been churning out badasses in Marvel’s comic-book universe for almost 50 years, so why does this TV show have so much difficulty capturing the thrill of being an action hero?

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Bland direction is a major problem for this series, one that diminishes a lot of the tension of the character interactions and the excitement of the action sequences. I would love to see what this series would look like with the quality of camerawork found on former ABC series like Alias and Lost, which delivered dynamic action while fully exploring the emotional depth of the dialogue. Those shows also had stronger production design, which helped them stand out in terms of style.

S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t a particularly captivating series in the visual department, so when there’s any sort of bold decision in that regard, it feels like a big deal. The May vs. May fight in “Face My Enemy,” the disorientating trip into Coulson’s mind last week, the time-lapse of Werner Reinhardt aging in his S.H.I.E.L.D. cell over 44 years in tonight’s episode. Yay! The show decided to do something a little different. Here is a gold star. But I want to see that kind of thought given to the direction at all times.

A shootout between S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra agents shouldn’t be as mild as the one that unfolds in the second half of “The Things We Bury.” This episode is full of interrogation scenes, perfect opportunities for a director to use the camera to create anxiety and pressure, but Milan Cheylov doesn’t do much to make these sequences any different than the other conversations in the script. This show is improving in so many areas when it comes to scripting and plotting, but it still needs to develop a distinct visual sensibility.

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Design is going to be immensely important if this show really does attempt to fold Attilan into the story, and stronger directing choices will only help audiences connect with the series and its characters on a deeper level. May has never been cooler than when she kicked her own ass, last week’s chaotic cuts reflected Coulson’s fractured mental state better than any wall carvings, and speeding through 44 years of Werner Reinhardt’s life in one shot gives the viewer a load of information regarding the monotony of his imprisonment.

This season has done strong work giving S.H.I.E.L.D. a more threatening opponent in Hydra, and “The Things We Bury” devotes considerable attention to one of Hydra’s most powerful players: Daniel Whitehall, known as Werner Reinhardt when he was captured by SSR agents in 1945. The episode reveals why the Red Skull’s ally hasn’t aged since World War II—he grew old in S.H.I.E.L.D. custody, but found a way to turn back his biological clock once he was freed by Winter Soldier villain Alexander Pierce—and his backstory gives him a surprising link to one of the show’s main characters: Skye.

“The Things We Bury” moves a number of plot lines forward: Significant time is spent on Coulson’s new mission of finding the hidden city from last week’s cliffhanger, we learn more about the legend of the Obelisk/Diviner, and there’s forward movement in the relationships between Coulson and Skye’s father (still credited as The Doctor), Lance and Bobbi, and Grant and Christian Ward. DJ Doyle packs a lot of material into the script, maybe too much, because the emotional aspects of the episode go underexplored as Doyle juggles all these threads.

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That said, it’s nice to get an episode that commits to covering a lot of ground, exploring the history of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra (complete with a guest appearance from Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter) while delving into the mythology of this new hidden city and adding new wrinkles to the interpersonal dynamics of the show’s expanded cast. It succeeds in making Whitehall a cold, menacing character, particularly with the sequence where he cuts up the body of a woman who hasn’t aged in 44 years (played by Dichen Lachman, who previously worked with Reed Diamond on Dollhouse). I imagine that surgery scene is the reason why this episode has a TV-14 rating for violence, and it’s very effective in showing how Whitehall views other living creatures as slabs of meat for him to dissect for his own benefit.

Before being captured by S.H.I.E.L.D., Werner Reinhardt discovered that this mystery woman could come in contact with the Obelisk/Diviner without burning to a crisp, but he’s taken into enemy custody before he can find out why. 44 years later, the newly minted Daniel Whitehall sees the woman again and she hasn’t aged, proving that there is something truly special (Inhuman?) in her body, and he wants it for himself. Who was this woman? The wife of The Doctor, which makes her Skye’s deceased mother. Surprise!

The Doctor may be working with Hydra at the moment, but this is all part of a greater plan for vengeance, one that also includes Agent Coulson as a target. It’s amazing what a charismatic actor will do for this show, and Kyle MacLachlan’s passionate performance as The Doctor has quickly made him an essential part of the series. The character has a sense of humor that makes him immensely likeable, a mask that hides the raging beast within, and MacLachlan handles both sides of the character wonderfully. He’s scary in a different way than the emotionally detached Whitehall; you get the impression that The Doctor has killed a lot of people with his bare hands because there’s this primal quality to MacLachlan’s performance in those moments of rage.

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The ad for this week’s episode suggested that one of the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents would fall in battle, and when I saw the comment suggesting that it would probably be one of the black characters, I immediately knew that was exactly what would happen. Mack and Trip are still very much auxiliary characters, Trip even more so than Mack, who at least has his bromance with Fitz to keep him semi-relevant.

Beyond his light romantic chemistry with Skye, Trip hasn’t been integrated into this season’s narrative, making him ideal cannon fodder when Coulson’s team gets ambushed by Hydra agents during a mission intended to help them track down the hidden city. Trip’s fate is sealed after the scene where he expresses his faith in Coulson’s direction, a clumsy attempt from Doyle to make the audience quickly connect with Trip before he’s shot. The show hasn’t found a way to make Trip an important part of the cast, and that’s not going to change after just one short speech.

The script also rushes through the material with Grant and Christian Ward, bringing the two brothers together for a fraught reunion at that goddamned well that they care so much about. The well only became interesting when it was suggested that Ward may have been the brother that willingly engaged in the sibling torture, and while this week’s episode does leave some ambiguity regarding the truth of that claim, it suggests that Ward’s interpretation of events is what really happened.

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After threatening to throw Christian down the now dried-up well, Ward gets the confession he wants to hear from his brother, but is the senator being sincere or is he just trying to save his own hide? Is Ward a psychopath with a hero complex, or is he actually a good guy at heart that has been traumatized by past experience? These are the kinds of questions that get an audience invested in a character, and spending more time with Ward’s family might have helped provide some answers.

It appears as if the story is moving in that direction after the scene at the well, but then that plot thread jumps forward to Ward chatting with Daniel Whitehall as a news broadcast announces the murder-suicide of Senator Christian Ward and his parents. Want to make Ward a terrifying character? You could show him killing his family and framing his brother for it, because that passing reference doesn’t adequately reflect the gravity of this development. I repeat: Grant Ward just killed his parents and his brother, and framed his brother for it all by using the confession he recorded after dangling the man over the well where their younger sibling was tortured.

That is some irredeemable shit right there, and it feels like the script shies away from really making that feel real. Compare this reveal to Angelus snapping Jenny Calendar’s neck on Buffy The Vampire Slayer and how that really pushed that character into a whole new realm of evil. This huge moment for the character is glossed over when it should be given maximum dramatic weight, and at the end of the day, this shows lives and dies on the strength of its character work. No matter how many cool story ideas the writers have, the series won’t reach greatness if its ensemble isn’t fully defined, and Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. needs to remember that as the overarching narrative becomes more dense.

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Stray observations:

  • Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter is the gift that keeps on giving. She really brings that character to life, capturing all the attitude needed by a woman who has risen to power in a field dominated by men. And she doesn’t have to push that attitude, it just comes through naturally in her performance. I’m very excited for Agent Carter.
  • The hidden city and the Obelisk/Diviner are tied into legends about blue angels from the sky that came to Earth to save, conquer, or destroy humanity. Sounds like Kree to me.
  • This season has been light on the romance front, but that changes this week as Lance and Bobbi rekindle their dysfunctional relationship, jumping into the backseat of a car for some sexy time after an argument about whether or not they can trust each other. I’m sure it’s just like old times.
  • Mack’s paranoia about Coulson is going to be a thing now, which is unfortunate because it’s already getting old and he’s just started talking about it.
  • Bobbi: “Any Hydra member could’ve been [brainwashed] and wouldn’t know it.” Simmons: “Yes, that’s true. Oh…”
  • “Peggy Carter, founder, happens to be British, held this in her hand.” Of course Simmons is a big ole’ Peggy Carter fangirl.
  • “They’ll send rockets into space. Maybe they can strap you to one of them.”
  • “Well I’d have to look everywhere. Really, really hard.”
  • Coulson: “What are we talking about? Tesseract-level power?” The Doctor: “Sure. I don’t know what that is.”
  • Lance: “Doesn’t matter what I ask. I can’t trust the answer.” Bobbi: “Write that sentence down. Hand it to your therapist.”

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