Note: This review will contain spoilers for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season six.
Throughout its fourth and fifth season Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. moved with breakneck speed, but season six feels much different; in these two prior seasons the threat of cancelation drew closer and closer so the show seemed to tape the pedal to the floor – putting its central characters through the wringer and wasting no opportunity to burn through many storylines.
However, ABC surprisingly renewed S.H.I.E.L.D. not only for a shortened sixth season but a final seventh, as well, showing that just when you thought it was time for Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) to ride into the Tahiti sunset, he had a little more gas left in the tank. This has resulted in a S.H.I.E.L.D. season six that’s more relaxed, plot-wise. The show eased up on the gas while comfortably coasting down the television highway, making for a fun season with a couple of fresh detours.
The season picks up one year after season five’s seemingly conclusive finale. The beloved Agent Coulson is dead. Mack (Henry Simmons) has taken over as director, leading a fresh S.H.I.E.L.D. Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), Daisy (Chloe Bennet), Piper (Briana Venskus), and Davis (Maximilian Osinski) search for Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) in deep space.
Meanwhile, an interdimensional being named Sarge shows up on Earth with a dangerous crew and a body with a striking resemblance to Coulson. While Sarge isn’t one to be messed with, his entrance heralds an even greater threat – a mysterious woman named Izel (Karolina Wydra), whose plan could cause the end of the world.
This season, S.H.I.E.L.D. faced a gigantic hurtle: How do you bring back your central character in Coulson without undoing the poignancy felt in the previous finale? The creatives behind the series used this opportunity to do something they’ve always done an excellent job at which is diving into the show’s established mythology. Ever since season two, the agents have been dealing with mysterious monoliths that have transported them through time, space, and fear dimensions. Here, we finally get their history explored with the stone structures tying into Sarge’s Coulson-like image confusion as well as big bad Izel; this makes the plot point feel less like a cop out but more like a reward for long time viewers.
On the flip side though, an unfortunate aspect of having so much of the plot this season revolve around the mystery of Sarge and Izel is that for a long stretch the season feels unfocused. It takes a while for the motivations of the two new characters to come into view and in turn the season lacks a driving force behind it. Maybe this is intentional, as the creatives aim to pump the breaks on the show a little, but when you can’t see where you’re going and why you’re going there on the S.H.I.E.L.D. roadmap, it doesn’t always make for the most exciting viewing experience overall. Izel also isn’t very engaging once her true motivations come into play, and though Wydra does what she can with the role, she’s not as threatening as previous villains.
Though this season at times feels like driving through a thick fog fortunately you’re in good company; the cast of S.H.I.E.L.D. are at their most comfortable this season acting as anchors of investment episode-by-episode. Gregg does some impressive character work as Sarge, a rugged being who does not feel like Coulson at all. The typically stoic Agent May struggles this year dealing with a doppelganger who has the form of a man she loved, and this allows actress Ming-Na Wen to bring a lot more vulnerability to the character than usual. Henry Simmons also brings a lot of weight to Mack, who has to step up and make personal sacrifices as the new director.
The creatives of S.H.I.E.L.D. don’t always take a forward path this season, but sometimes zigzag into a few unexpected places. Episode three’s “Fear and Loathing on the Planet of Kitson” written by Brent Fletcher and Craig Titley is perhaps the most hilarious the series has allowed itself to be. Bennet and Henstridge have a tight comedic rapport as Daisy and Simmons trip out after accidentally ingesting alien drugs.
On the opposite end of that is episode six’s “Inescapable,” written by DJ Doyle, which has to be S.H.I.E.L.D. at its most emotionally cathartic. Since their first screen test, Henstridge and her frequent screen partner Iain De Caestecker have had unbelievable chemistry as scientists Fitz and Simmons. With the two’s characters stuck in a mental prison the episode explores their platonic and romantic history and the cast mates have never been better. Episode director Jesse Bochco also employs some compelling dreamlike visuals which at times feel reminiscent of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Watching Fitz and Simmons argue in a small containment pod and the camera pulling out to reveal physical manifestations of their fears and anxieties that circle around them outside in a dark abyss is a pretty weird visual in a show that already features blue aliens.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season six is a smooth journey. It doesn’t have a propulsive story or the best villain compared to previous seasons, but the heart of the show is still in there humming like an engine. It still respects its own mythology, it still cares about its characters, and its cast still fit their roles like a driving glove making for a comfortable ride. With the show’s seventh and final season on the horizon here’s hoping the series can take us into uncharted territory.