As fall sweeps in and TV takes over, many of us can say we were diligent Marvel summer movie recruits: We romped with Ant-Man and watched the Avengers assemble, again. But what about the Marvel television universe? Are you up to date on Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) and his agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. who are about to start their third (yes, third) season of small screen adventures Tuesday (9/8c) on ABC?
If you left the show in season one, like many did, we can honestly say the series has improved a lot as its large ensemble of characters have gotten more complex and far more interesting. Case in point, hacker Skye (Chloe Bennet) was revealed last season to actually be Daisy Johnson, a genetically advanced human called an Inhuman. Think along the lines of the X-Men and their mutations — but not “X-Men” or “mutants” because those belong to Fox — and you have the gist.
The storyline and the season three goal for Coulson, Daisy and their team is to find more of her kind and recruit them into S.H.I.E.L.D., which creates a nice, clean entry point back into the series. To help the process, we even picked a few must-watch episodes from seasons one and two so you can brush up on the show’s main mythology beats and be up to speed for the very kick-ass premiere, “Laws of Nature.”
1. “PILOT,” SEASON 1
If you like superheroes, you understand that origin stories are necessary evils — and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s pilot introduces us to all of the players. Coulson, who allegedly died in The Avengers, is very much alive here, armed with a jet and a a bad-ass flying car named Lola. He does the bidding of his S.H.I.E.L.D. bosses with an elite team including quiet but deadly Agent Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen), brash Agent Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) and science duo Fitz (Ian De Castecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge). Here they pick up rabble-rouser Skye and conscript her into the fold.
2. “THE WELL,” SEASON 1
The first season of the series floundered until it veered back towards the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Its first dip into that big pond was in this episode set directly after the events of Thor: The Dark World. Coulson and his team are helping clean up London when they have to chase a pagan hate group with a staff that’s Asgardian. It’s got a great role for actor Peter MacNicol and gives the show some bigger stakes.
3. “T.A.H.I.T.I.,” SEASON 1
The reason for Coulson actually living is gently referenced but never tackled until this episode. When Skye is shot and on the brink of death, Coulson uses his own resurrection story to try and save her life. This is also where actor Bill Paxton enters the story as John Garrett who’ll play a big role in the last arc of the season. Plus, the Kree are introduced, and you may remember them from Guardians of the Galaxy.
4. “THE ONLY LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS,” SEASON 1
This one is a must-see because it provides personal backstory and context for Coulson through his former love, Audrey (Amy Acker). Coulson is still the best character in the series so getting to see the repercussions of his chosen profession and his “death” brings a lot of needed depth to his character. Plus this episode is still dealing with the ramifications of Captain America: Winter Soldier, which revealed HYDRA had infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D., and puts Coulson and his team on the run.
5. “BEGINNING OF THE END,” SEASON 1
The first season finale was pretty epic with the good guys facing off against Garrett and HYDRA turncoat, Agent Ward. Most importantly, Coulson is appointed Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. via Nick Fury (Samuel. L. Jackson) and given a sweet new secret base for his team.
6. “SHADOWS,” SEASON 2
The second season premiere goes MCU again with Agent Carter (Hayley Atwell) and the S.S.R. invading a HYDRA base revealing a Kree body, which proves they have been a hidden thing for some time, and a mysterious Obelisk which is going to become a key Inhuman conduit.
7. “A FRACTURED HOUSE,” SEASON 2
A pot-boiler episode that sets the stage for what Coulson’s team is up against finds HYDRA agents posing as S.H.I.E.L.D. killing some world leaders which helps foment a global anti-S.H.I.E.L.D. initiative. We meet Ward’s brother, Christian, who is a Senator and heads the campaign. The brothers both use S.H.I.E.L.D. as collateral for their agendas until Coulson gets the upper hand once more. A meaty episode for everyone involved.
8. “WHAT THEY BECOME,” SEASON 2
Skye’s mysterious history is finally revealed in the tail end of this season as she meets her father, Cal Zabo (Kyle MacLachlan). He conceived Skye with his Inhuman wife Jiaying (Dichen Lachman), who was experimented upon by HYDRA and will return to wreak some havoc. Most importantly, this is the one where Skye is enclosed in a cocoon from which she erupts with her own Inhuman powers manifested. Game. Changer.
9. “AFTERSHOCKS,” SEASON 2
Skye/Daisy and colleague Raina leave the Temple that transformed them back to the outside world and it’s not pretty. Cal rejects his daughter and Raina looks like a monster. Basically, being an Inhuman kind of sucks until control becomes the name of the game.
10. “S.O.S.” PARTS 1 & 2, SEASON 2
A corker of a two-part finale that ties together HYDRA, Skye/Daisy’s vengeance seeking mother, and a diabolical plan to release Terrigen on humanity, which will kill regular humans and reveal all dormant Inhumans. It’s epic as Coulson loses an arm, good S.H.I.E.L.D. agents are lost, Daisy comes into her destiny while Ward doubles down on the evil and the Terrigen does get into the world via fish oil vitamins. And last but not least, poor sweet Simmons is sucked into a mysterious Kree weapon maybe never to be seen again…. Or just watch the Season 3 premiere to find out.
Tara Bennett is a pop culture writer, author of Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show and The Sons of Anarchy Official Collector’s Edition. She might be overly enthusiastic about xenomorphs and otters. Follow her at @taradbennett.