Last season on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. our favorite scrappy agents had just managed to escape the Framework only to wind up being kidnapped, and the story ended with leader Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) waking up in some sort of space prison. The two-part season opener “Orientation” seems designed to answer a few of the many questions both the viewers and characters had, but it takes its sweet time doing so.
Humans vs. Aliens
“Orientation” opens in a new environment, where a bald guy is swimming while “Once in a Lifetime” by Talking Heads plays. There are children’s drawings on the fridge, which foreshadow some of what the audience will learn later, but for now he gets himself dressed to go to work. And what is work? A raid on Rae’s, which is the restaurant where Coulson and company stopped for a bite to eat just last season. The lights go out and they capture all of the teammates save for Fitz (Iain De Caestecker, who is very much missed this week).
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. provides no context for this opening sequence, and instead the viewers and agents are both plunged into the dark and hectic world of space. Things don’t get much clearer in the first half hour, especially as the director opted for darker lighting in which is was hard to differentiate what was happening, but it seems like a few things are about to be explained when Coulson runs into an excitable young man named Virgil. He calls himself part of the True Believers, and he’s been waiting for Coulson to come save all of humanity.
Unfortunately, before he can get into the answer portion of the evening, he is knocked out by Mack (Henry Simms). Mack brings the humor and fun to “Orientation,” so it’s a pretty decent trade off. But then Virgil is killed by one of the terrifying alien creatures that the inhabitants call “roaches” as soon as he wakes up, so the new world is doomed to remain a mystery just a little longer.
Meanwhile, Jemma (Elizabeth Henstridge) and Elena (Natalia Cordova-Buckley) find themselves surrounded by dehydrated dead bodies that have been drained, which they quickly realize means aliens. I honestly thought vampires for a second, so they’re quicker on the uptake than I am. At the same time, Daisy (Chloe Bennet) gets the chance to use her computer hacking skills to try and figure out the layout and find May, but she and Coulson realize the language is not human. Which is when the Kree show up and and the agents are thrown in prison all over again.
Not Space But Time
An angry and impulsive newcomer-to-the-audience named Deke (Jeff Ward) surprises May (Ming-Na Wen) and an intense albeit well choreographed fight breaks out, because it’s impossible to ask strangers to come with you nicely in space. He is trying to brand her with a so-called Metric, though, so she might have attacked him anyway.
But he makes up for that misstep in etiquette somewhat by sweet-talking the Kree guard into letting him take most of the team with him. Now they just have to break out Mack and Elena, who attacked a Reaper and are now being tortured for it. This gives the two lovebirds a chance to have a sweet scene together – as well as to subtly remind the audience that Mack recently lost his virtual reality daughter, Hope, to the Framework.
While the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are separated and working of different missions, May and Jemma learn that this supposed outpost is actually in the Milky Way galaxy, and in fact surprisingly close to Earth. Similarly, in the process of questioning Deke, Coulson slowly starts to realize that they are from two different times. To the former man, Wisconscin no longer exists and space stations on which large populations can live were built over 90 years ago. The team doesn’t know who they are, unlike Virgil. And he thinks it’s weird that Coulson is from Wisconsin. The space station was built 90 years ago and Deke was born here. He finally realizes that Coulson and his friends are from the past.
And so part one of “Orientation” ends with the startling discovery that, not only is it far in the future, but Earth is no longer inhabitable. It was a slow-paced hour given how many questions viewers were sure to have, but it served as a great introduction to the new environment and kept up a sense of tension that carried through to the second hour of the night.
Part two of “Orientation” opens with the team questioning Deke once more. They have no Monolith to travel back in time, and all Deke can offer them is a Metric that allow them to blend in and work hard. A fellow ship inhabitant named Tess (Eve Harlow) is introduced, and she immediately begs Deke to help save the rest of the team. Her relationship to Virgil is never explicitly stated, but the episode does a great job of hinting at the deep feelings between them – not to mentioning the quiet parallels to another mostly unspoken love on the show, Phil and Melinda. In other potentially romantic news, Deke takes an interest in Daisy. The banter between them crackles with electricity even if Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t sure where it’s heading with that dynamic at the moment.
Apparently no one knows what happened to Earth, other than that the planet was torn apart by a cataclysmic event. The Kree came to restore order but got rid of historical data, and now everyone lives single file on this ship. Aside from being all work and not play, it seems there is one very important rule: never kill a Kree. A life is owed if one is taken, and Mack and Elena killed two. Thus the Kree’s leader Kassius demands a human sacrifice, which Jemma unwittingly intercepts when she goes to save the man’s life. She gets taken by the Kree for her trouble, and winds up coming face to face with Kassius himself.
He is impressed both by her abilities and her physical perfection, which is an intriguing twist but an incredibly creepy one. It’s a pleasure to watch Jemma use her lying skills – five years in the making! – to worm her way out of plenty of uncomfortable questions, but it’s tragically not enough. He is so captivated by her that she winds up being primed as his next servant, and he even sticks a silver substance in her ear so she can no longer hear anything but him. Combined with Fitz being left behind in a present-day Earth which no longer exists, it’s clear Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is not done torturing its fan-favorites.
A Framework from Scratch
Yoyo wants to rescue Simmons, but Mack wants to keep her and Daisy’s abilities secret. This coincides with Deke’s plan of getting them all to blend in, which is interesting considering that his business consists of a lot of blending. It turns out he rebuilt a version of the Framework which he uses to recreate Earth as it was, and customers lose themselves in a fantasy land that lets them escape the Lighthouse prison they’re trapped in.
In the end, Coulson tries to save the rest of his team from being captured or taking by getting the Metrics installed in them all. But those lives from earlier are still owed, and in a horrifying sequence we learn that those very same Metrics which will save the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. also induce debilitating shocks that allow the Kree to kill whomever they like. Human beings will fight each other to death in order to avoid being the one eliminated, and May witnesses Tess kill a a man to protect her only for the Kree to come and collect the body as their payment.
Jemma too is witness to a servant being killed because he is now marred and no longer physically perfect. Jesus. Scenes such as these were hard to stomach, but the show has always been good at painting a dark scene and then pulling back with some humor and warmth. In this instance, it was Mack who provided most of the heart and one-liners of the episode. Hopefully others will get to join him next week.
Meanwhile, Deke has pieced the historyof Earth together enough to have an idea of what happened, and he brusquely reveals that Daisy’s powers were responsible for its destruction. This begs the question of how Daisy could have destroyed the world when she was trapped in the future, but perhaps he means Quake in a more metaphorical sense. The ending of “Orientation” is a tragic montage, with Jemma being indoctrinated and Deke letting Daisy know that she can’t save the world because “it’s already been Quaked apart.”
It was a strong albeit gloomy start to the season, but history shows that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. gets better and better as each episode passes. For now, I’m left with so many questions that my head is spinning. Where is Fitz and how will he try to contact the team? How will they ever get back to their present time? How could Daisy’s powers have destroyed Earth? And who are the mysterious visitors in the post-credits scene? Personally, I can’t wait to see which of those next week answers!