Last night, the largely dull world of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. caught up with the largely exciting world of the Marvel cinematic universe, and provided a real sense of hope for the floundering show’s future. It hasn’t been the ratings hit ABC hoped for, nor the critical hit Joss Whedon’s shows usually are, but with the new plot direction provided by Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. can still find a way back to relevance. Now’s the time to dive in, so here’s the episodes to check out to get up to speed.
Episode One, "Pilot"
Yes, you might as well get this out of the way, since it sets everything up and puts all the broad character arcs in motion. The pilot also has some business with J. August Richards and leftover Iron Man 3 technology that will prove somewhat important later on. But it suffers from the soulless feel that cramped this show’s style early on.
Episode Three, "The Asset"
This is really the only one of the early episodes that showed any sign of life, with Ian Hart as a mad scientist and a generally breezy, fun action atmosphere that the show often lacked. S.H.I.E.L.D. often tried to be too many things at once—a spy thriller, an ‘80s-style caper show, a superhero epic—but occasionally it would get the tone right.
Episode Twelve, "Seeds"
After a truly dire run, including a memorable stinker where Peter MacNicol played an Asgardian warrior who never did anything or took off his suit, "Seeds" aired at the start of January and functioned almost as a new pilot. It laid out a bunch of the show’s conflicts, gave background on the agency by taking us to its training facilities, and finally set the ball rolling on the mystery of Agent Phil Coulson’s (Clark Gregg) resurrection, supposedly one of the big arcs for the year.
Episode Thirteen, "T.R.A.C.K.S."
The introduction of Deathlok (played by Richards) showed how S.H.I.E.L.D. could function well as a playground for Marvel Comics B-villains not impressive enough to feature in any of the movies. The wacky parallel plotting of "T.R.A.C.K.S.," which saw the group plan a caper on a train, then split up and get zapped with time-loss devices, was much more interesting than the show’s usual "find the boring villain and put him down" approach.
Episode Fourteen, "T.A.H.I.T.I."
Picking up where a cliffhanger for the last episode left off, this one has a lot of Bill Paxton (who turns out to be real important), puts the finishing touches on the Coulson revival mystery (which turns out to be really unimportant from a larger plot perspective), and packs a little bit of an emotional punch, although it would have worked a lot better if you already had stronger feelings about the ensemble.
Episode Sixteen, "The Beginning of the End"
So, here’s the order. Watch this one, which features the return of Deathlok and the supposed reveal of the Clairvoyant (a mystery villain who is vaguely blamed for a lot of the trouble our heroes go through this year). Then go watch Captain America: The Winter Soldier (it’s real good!). Then come back and watch last night’s episode of S.H.I.E.L.D., titled "Turn, Turn, Turn." (if you want to avoid spoilers about the end of that movie, click away now)
The biggest problem for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. so far has been S.H.I.E.L.D. itself. When our heroes work for a vast, faceless intelligence agency with limitless technological power and shadowy intentions, it’s hard to get excited about them. There were moments throughout the show that suggested dark forces were at work in S.H.I.E.L.D., but they were too vague and scattershot to form an effective season arc.
Now, with The Winter Soldier revealing the evil HYDRA infiltration of S.H.I.E.L.D., leading to Captain America taking the whole agency down, there’s a brand new direction to go in. Coulson doesn’t have to answer to a bunch of dudes; he can do his own thing without worrying about what level security clearance he has. But this show can’t coast on Marvel crossovers alone. It needs to find an identity for itself. With last night’s episode—which was a genuinely exciting, surprising, rollicking hour—it has a real chance to do that.