10:10 pm EST, December 1, 2017

‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ season 5 premiere recap: Strangers in a strange land

The shocking Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 5 premiere just aired, and we have tons of thoughts on the wild revelations!

Set almost entirely in the gloomy new realm of space, “Orientation” takes Coulson, May, Daisy, Simmons, Mack, and Elena on a terrifying roller-coaster of shocking reveals. Trapped in a claustrophobic space station called the Lighthouse, it turns out that the fate of humanity is not just at stake — it is intimately tied to the actions of our beloved agents.

Warning: Spoilers ahead!

Let’s talk about shock

The Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 5 premiere is a whiplash of deliberate disorientation and increasingly perilous stakes, punctuated by two massive and redefining revelations.

Team Coulson, it turns out, is not just in space; they are in space 90 years in the future. All that remains of planet Earth is a fragment of fiery shell, and lots of eery debris. The last shreds of humanity cling to life aboard the Lighthouse, their lives dominated by the imperious Kree.

But that’s not even the worst of it. Though sad-eyed Tess confesses that the cause of Earth’s destruction is more myth than fact, the wily Deke has a much more definitive point of view. According to Deke, it is Daisy herself and her tremendous Quake powers that reduced Earth to a hellscape, and humanity to a handful of haunted survivors.

Of course, “Orientation” doesn’t offer us enough information to confirm or deny this claim. With other portentous events looming in the MCU (Infinity War, anyone?) there’s no way to know for sure. But while the fact of the team (minus Fitz) having been catapulted into the future has hugely salient plot consequences — namely, how the hell do they travel back in time? — the importance of Deke’s revelation to Daisy is more important to think about on a character level.

Daisy’s arc in season 4 revolved around the resolution of a grief and guilt so profound, it nearly destroyed her. The loss of control that led to Lincoln’s sacrificial death haunted Daisy to the point of extreme self-harm — and Lincoln died saving the world. What impact will the belief that she is responsible for planetary death (true or false) have on Daisy now? What extremes, in an already deadly-dangerous place, might she be driven to in an attempt to reverse fate?

So far, we don’t know. But the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 5 premiere very neatly makes it clear that external threats are rarely as dangerous as those that arise from within.

Refugee stories

As thoroughly bat-poop bonkers as most of “Orientation” is (still not over watching that guy take his skin off to shower!) the season premiere still manages to convey a very human reality. The final arc of last season spoke directly to tyranny, bigotry, and systemic corruption, and those ideas are still strongly evident in this new act — albeit more carefully concealed.

The Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 5 premiere is, at its heart, a refugee story. In the span of moments, Team Coulson is quite literally deported from their rightful place in space and time, made strangers in a strange land.

The Lighthouse is no less a prison camp for all that most of its inhabitants were born there. Generational refugees from the ravaged Earth, the station’s human population is ground as much beneath the foot of their need as they are of the Kree. An economy of claustrophobia and suffering might be born from the violence of “Renewal” ceremonies and the inconsistent largess of the overlords, but it is fostered and supported by the prisoners themselves.

Men like Deke and Grill latch on to the system for their own purposes; their small-mindedness, while understandable, in fact perpetuates the powerlessness of everyone around them.

It’s telling that “Orientation” introduces the character of Virgil (the name of a dreamer if ever there was one) to just suggest the possibility of miracles before he is killed by the Lighthouse’s brutal reality. Aside from having plenty of answers, Virgil’s continued presence would have acted in contrast to the journey our agents, newly conscripted into what is essentially servitude, must take.

The arc of a refugee is one that definitionally challenges hope. Displacement and loss, the absence of all familiarity, and baseless persecution is a recipe for despair. Coulson, May, Daisy, Simmons, Elena, and Mack will likely all have different paths through this challenging darkness — but if they find their way through, hopefully they won’t only be rescuing themselves.

Losing control

The art of the double-whammy is part of what makes the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 5 premiere so brutally effective. The first hour is a race for proactivity, only to culminate in the realization that there will be no easy solutions to the team’s predicament. The second hour hammers home the helplessness exposed in that initial shock, forcing the agents to, in many ways, become complicit in their own imprisonment.

Choice, in part two of “Orientation,” leads to disenfranchisement. Life exists in an inherently negative balance — for all the recitation of “a life spent, a life earned,” the accounts of the Lighthouse’s human population is permanently in the red.

Coulson, for example, capitulates to necessity and has metrics installed in his team’s wrists. It’s a decision presented in the light of activity — without metrics, the team will be discovered almost instantly, to horrific consequence — but this action comes immediately with its own price. With their metrics installed, Coulson and the team are not only become part of the ugly system, they become controlled by it. Even their freedom of movement is almost immediately restricted, their lives now subject to the brutal calculous of the Lighthouse.

Tess’s killing of the marked man illustrates this. The team is horrified, insisting that the man did not have to die. But Tess is correct when she points out that somebody was doomed; the choice was not truly hers either.

Of course, Simmons quickly becomes emblematic of this theme. Simmons abandons all sensible self-preservation in attempting to save the Kree’s wounded human slave, which draws her into the upper echelons of Kree life on the Lighthouse. Simmons makes a game attempt at playing the role of a diffident prisoner, but she has too much freedom in her spirit. Ironically, her autonomous actions lead to the conditions of her servitude, robbing her even of the independence of her own mind and senses.

In the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 5 premiere, the line between choice and helplessness, life and death, is as fine as a scratch on perfect skin. It’s a proposition even grimmer than the grand destruction of Earth — but perhaps one that has even more to teach us about saving the world.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 5, episode 3, “A Life Spent,” airs Friday, Dec. 8 at 9:00 p.m. on ABC.

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