The season opener of Agents of SHIELD wasn't super plot-heavy. Rather, it focused on the characters, showing just how messed-up our team still is, months later. And we glimpsed just how much of an uphill journey it's going to be for these guys to help themselves, much less anybody else.
So the big McGuffin in this episode is the Obelisk, some kind of weird metal item, which attacks anybody who touches it and apparently holds the "answer to death." The Obelisk was captured from Hydra at the end of World War II, and boxed up by SHIELD ever since — but now it's in play, and a Nazi named Reinhardt, who's still around today and calling himself Whitehall, wants it.
So Hydra sends Carl "Crusher" Creel, the Absorbing Man, to retrieve the Obelisk — first by attacking a sale that a rogue SHIELD agent named Browning is making to the highest bidder, Phil Coulson's old friend Isabelle Hartley. And then by attacking Brigadier General Glenn Talbot, whose men have captured the Obelisk. And finally by getting himself captured, so he can break out and steal the Obelisk from Talbot's facility.
It's up to Coulson's team to help Hartley secure the Obelisk, and protect Talbot. By taking Talbot prisoner. And impersonating him on his own base, to get a "General Jones" (actually Agent Triplet, who does indeed look good) inside. And by wreaking havoc with Talbot's operation and stealing a Quinjet from him — if Talbot didn't want to destroy Coulson's SHIELD remnant before, he definitely does now.
In the end, Creel gets away with the Obelisk, and it costs Isabelle Hartley and one of her men their lives — leaving just one of her men, Lance Hunter, alive to join Coulson's team.
Honestly, if the goal of this episode was to win over people who haven't watched Agents of SHIELD in ages, or convert new viewers who've never watched the show before, I'm not sure how well it works. The episode is very dense with mythos, and sort of assumes you already know who these people are and care about what happens to them — the main thing this episode really wants to promote is the upcoming Agent Carter spin-off.
But for people who are already invested in Agents of SHIELD and care about these characters, this episode contains a few really potent gutpunches.
First and foremost among those, of course, is poor Fitz — since his escape from the bottom of the ocean, he's suffering massive damage to his temporal lobe, and he's still stuck in his lab, unable to find the right words for things or make much of a contribution. The only one who understands Fitz at all is his lab partner Simmons — or so we think, for most of the episode.
Actually, it turns out that Simmons isn't actually there at all, she's a figment of Fitz's imagination. In fact, Simmons left Fitz a while back in the hopes that he would recover faster without her. And instead, this totally broke what was left of Fitz, who now talks to the Simmons in his head and appears to be muttering to himself as far as anybody else can tell.
Meanwhile, nobody's seen Coulson in weeks, because he's traveling all over the place — flying Coach, because they can't get the cloaking device on their jet to work — trying to recruit more people who are still loyal to SHIELD. He's also gotten distant and obsessive, and is fixated on the impossible goal of protecting people without getting caught by Talbot and the authorities generally. At the end of this episode, he's willing to risk his whole team to steal a Quinjet, because he needs to be able to fly around with stealth.
Skye, meanwhile, is doing OK — she's training with Melinda May, who's probably making her into way more of a badass than Ward ever would have been able to. And Coulson has her working on figuring out those weird schematics that Garrett was obsessed with. (And which we saw Coulson himself drawing at the end of last season.) But Skye is also sort of burned-out and bitter, and seems actually disappointed that Ward failed to kill himself. And she's acting way more like a hardened SHIELD agent — every other word out of her mouth is "copy that."
For his part, Ward has become a happy psychopath locked in a super-cell, whose devotion to Skye seems even more creeptastic than ever (and he apparently knows something about Skye's father.)
May, meanwhile, just seems even more angry than usual — and there's no mention of what happened with her mom.
The only one who seems relatively sane and well-adjusted is Triplet, who actually seems to be enjoying all the A-Team stuff they're pulling on their mission to infiltrate Talbot's base. Triplet is also by far my favorite character on this show, and if anything happens to him I'm going to burn down Jeff Bell's house.
This was always sort of a dysfunctional crew, but they've gotten even more dysfunctional now that they've lost their legitimacy and Ward has proved to be a traitor. I guess the thread of this season is going to be the fact that Hydra remains huge and unstoppable, with operatives all over the world, and the only ones who know how massive that organization is are the largely-discredited spies who were fooled by them.
Judging from last night, it's going to be a rough ride.