Like last year’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. premiere, Tuesday past’s Season 3 opener made a strong showing for Marvel’s li’l orphan spinoff, cementing more than ever the show’s ability to tell its own compelling MCU tales without the aid of any name-brand heroes. Still, the current TV landscape more and more highlights the challenges of an outmoded 23-episode season (particularly as Marvel’s slate grows increasingly crowded), and it’s practically tradition that episodes following a premiere slow down considerably.

That’s what gave “Purpose in the Machine” such surprising momentum for the third year’s second hour, not only confirming to the team within minutes that Simmons was indeed alive on the other side of the monolith, but even rescuing her by the hour’s end. Movement like that might easily have been stretched over the course of a half-season, and the always welcome return of Peter MacNicol as disgruntled Asgardian Elliot Randolph could just as well have carried us an episode, by virtue of his chemistry with the team.

Clearly, there’s still plenty more story to tell, between the six months* or so Simmons spent on the surface, any changes to her current mental state, and likely some sort of return to said alien world, but it’s still a refreshingly brisk turn, handled with some impressive visual flair. Iain de Caestecker put in extremely strong work lamenting Simmons’ absence last week, and seeing the two reunited made for a very sweet and satisfying emotional payoff.

*Coulson rightly notes that Simmons could have died, or ventured anywhere over such a lengthy stretch of time, a dangling plot point smartly covered by the inclusion of a flare that drew her back to the original site.

On the other side of that coin, and I’m sure to risk some fan ire in saying this, but Ward honestly may not have much of a place within Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. anymore. I can understand the hesitation to lose Brett Dalton from the cast, and admire the restraint in keeping his return past the premiere, but the idea of developing a new branch of Hydra feels notably thin, likely padding out the season, and all before taking into account limitations of a TV budget. The modern version glimpsed in Age of Ultron featured some impressive tech, along with a charismatic, visually interesting leader, and the idea of placing generic TV actors with casual wardrobe into drab, empty sets in which to drive sports cars doesn’t feel worthy of the namesake.

Even Bill Paxton’s Agent John Garrett noted his disinterest in following Hydra brand to the letter, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has long proven itself better served with its own stories, rather than emulate something we’ve seen done better on the big screen. Why Ward seemed so intent on rebuilding an organization that did him few favors remains suspect as is, though recruiting Strucker’s son at least adds an interesting wrinkle* into an otherwise flat story. Gotta beef that boy up, though. Cut that hair.

*Worth noting, Wolfgang von Strucker actually did have a son named Werner von Strucker in the comics, and if Ward’s Hydra resurgence serves to introduce us to the MCU Fenris twins, so much the better.

Catching up with May fared a bit better in sowing seeds for the season to come, even if the idea of bringing in one of her parents (the always-wonderful James Hong) or dwelling on her past felt particularly familiar. On the plus side, at least, paring her with Hunter made for a few good quips, and the likelihood of folding their story into the Ward/Hydra angle feels much more compelling than either individually.

I brought up the idea of dated 23-episode seasons to prepare for the notion that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. may not leave as much to talk about week to week, depending. Still, bringing back Simmons so soon is a huge move for an already-strong season, and a chance to see Elizabeth Henstridge playing a more traumatized, distinguished iteration of the character next week is more than enough incentive to tune in.

AND ANOTHER THING…

  • Bringing back Blair Underwood’s Andrew Garner served primarily to set up the coda of Strucker Jr. taking his class, though he did drop the first utterance of “Secret Warriors,” and help establish Daisy’s transformation into team leader.
  • Apart from Thor movies dipping into the Viking ages (or earlier), is the 1839 opener the farthest we’ve seen the MCU dipping back in time?
  • Speaking of Thor, lot of Dutch angles this week, no? Don’t get me wrong, visual flair works in Agents’ favor, it’s just a noticeable shift.
  • Were the writers poking fun at their own first season’s ubiquity of S.H.I.E.L.D. logos? Points for meta humor!
  • “He’s got a lot going on for him.”
  • +5,000,000 “aww” points for the reveal of both Fitz, and Simmons having returned through the portal.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will return next week with Tuesday’s “A Wanted (Inhu)man.” Stay tuned for more this weekend from New York Comic-Con!

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