Season 2 very much turned things around for Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., at least from a storytelling standpoint, which itself had only begun to find footing the prior year after the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier essentially blew up the premise. The ability to distinguish itself from the remainder of the MCU, and tell its own story free of Avenger cameo speculation, did a number of creative favors for the series, even if a chunk of the audience seems never to have returned from their initial disappointment.

Further removed from its original handicaps, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Season 3 start “Laws of Nature” feels at once the show’s most confident, ambitious swing yet, its action-packed opening minutes a clear mission statement with an even more specific focus than Season 2. Gone are the days of chasing down a Hydra that would logically remain in place until the Age of Ultron, vague leads on Skye’s backstory and Inhuman myth; and in its place arrives a fully-formed drive that feels more at home with its cinematic brethren than ever.

“Laws of Nature” doesn’t ignore its shared universe connections either, cleverly bringing in William Sadler’s President Ellis to lend some credence to Constance Zimmer’s role as Rosalind Price, imbuing her ATCU black ops team with a much more righteous menace than more generically “evil” organizations S.H.I.E.L.D. has previously gone to the well for. Zimmer unsurprisingly makes a fantastically specific foil for Coulson as well, at once recognizing all of his tricks, but still engaging on a playful level that never quiet coalesced with Whitehall, Gonzalez or Skye’s mother last year.

Price also raises points of her own, in addressing the upswing of Inhumans around the world, and it’s nice to see Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. playing with its own stance on that idea, something Skye notes in her conversation with Joey. They’ll risk life and limb (poor Phil) to protect powered individuals from harm, but occasionally need to protect others from those same figures. It’s a moral haze that smartly sets the stage for Captain America: Civil War next year, but doesn’t lose sight of its own particular vantage point.

 

Specifically, the point between window and bangs.

 

Still, the real gut punch of “Laws of Nature,” moreso than a newly-realized Inhuman forced to leave his life behind, lies in the adjunct, but necessary thread of Fitz’s inability to move on from Simmons’ disappearance. This is the third or so iteration of Iain de Caestecker’s character in as many years, and it’s especially impressive to take stock of how well Agents builds and transforms character over a long arc. There’s palpable danger to be felt in Fitz’s Moroccan excursion to find a lost Kree scroll, even against cold determination to find his friend*, and the final scenes of Fitz brazenly breaking quarantine to scream his anguish at the Kree monolith offer some of the strongest work all series.

*We do, of course, get a glimpse of Simmons hurriedly moving through some alien landscape, as many had predicted, though there isn’t much to make of the tease just yet. Maybe she’ll spend the season chilling with Thanos!

A bit more on the fence was the arrival of Matthew Willig’s Lash, one of the show’s rare physical manifestations of Inhuman abilities, and to S.H.I.E.L.D.’s credit, the tense and dimly-lit hospital fight worked far better than Kyle MacLachlan’s Mr. Hyde effects last year. Despite what press releases had us believing, Lash seems to be operating on his own, outside of Rosalind or the ATCU, and like Simmons, there isn’t much to get a handle on yet. Still, the sheer fact that S.H.I.E.L.D. has matured enough to confidently take these visual swings in Season 3 shows some surefire spark.

 

The live-action 'Sonic the Hedgehog' is going to be DARK.

 

Almost as strongly as what “Laws of Nature” did show, the decision to leave both May and Ward for future episodes felt like a wise one, even if the thought of Ward leading his own generic thug brand of Hydra didn’t inspire a tremendous amount of confidence last year. Ward himself feels a bit like series baggage at this point, but the tighter focus on Fitz, Coulson’s new friend, and Skye’s Inhuman pursuit offered plenty enough to work with, itself a sign of some comforting reserve. I could have done without the rehashed Bobbi and Hunter drama* as well, though separately the characters add some needed crackle to scene-work, whether Bobbi laying out Joey’s new circumstance with refreshing honesty, or Hunter’s running commentary on the train confrontation.

*I may be alone in thoughts that the push-pull Bobbi and Hunter relationship drama feels more like the distraction of another series, but I’m equally uncertain about removing the characters from Agents for exactly that purpose.

We’re at a point in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s run that Season 3’s success may not inspire a rise in viewership any more than last year, but the confidence with which “Laws of Nature” ups the ante should definitely turn some heads. Between its movie-quality opening and hospital battle, super-strong character work from all involved, and some much more focused storytelling, Season 3 is easily the most fully-formed yet.

 

AND ANOTHER THING …

  • Hey, sort of new title graphics!
  • Did anyone remember Lincoln was a doctor?
  • Coulson’s hand is still around for study, so perhaps reattachment ends up possible after all. Hey, wouldn’t be the first time comic adaptations walked back a hand injury for convenience’ sake.
  • Lash ended up looking way better from the front, than the sides. Gotta tone down those feathers.
  • The incorporation of President Ellis (how long is that guy in office?) certainly works a lot better as an MCU tie, than, say, an offhand reference to the disaster at Pym Technologies.

 

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