Photo: Jennifer Clasen/ABC

DC’s dominance over at The CW may be getting all the attention these days, but Marvel’s inaugural primetime network show has quietly turned itself into one of the best comic-book series on TV—and the season five premiere is all the evidence you need.

Going to space is a classic narrative move in comics, and “Orientation Part One” and “Part Two” lean into the conceit with unapologetic nerdy glee. Space ships! Kree soldiers! Cool tech! By the time it’s revealed that the Earth is destroyed, our heroes have been hurled into the future, and there’s no monolith to return them home—oh yeah, and Daisy’s the one who broke the planet—all the additional fun sci-fi trappings are just icing on the cake. If season four was Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. firing on all cylinders, especially during its stellar “Agents Of Hydra” arc in the Framework, then this is the look of a show that knows it has mastered its storytelling, and is confidently expanding the scope of its ambition.

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The first half of this two-hour premiere works a little better than the second, but they’re both excellent installments that can stand on their own, narrative-wise. The opening 20 minutes are essentially a miniature Twilight Zone, in which our protagonists are thrown into an unknown place with no idea what they’re doing there or how to get out. As a reintroduction to each character, it’s sharp and insightful dialogue, with Coulson’s level-headed leadership taking center stage. Jemma puts on her pragmatic-thinking cap, May is ready to fight, and Daisy, when she does show up, is there to help Coulson in any way she can, even if it means reminding him that sticking around to interrogate Deke and get some answers might be a little more helpful than just running off with the rest of the team.

The only slightly odd note is Mack, whose sour disposition might be a remnant of being forced out of the Framework (and away from the daughter he presumably remembers all too well) at the end of last season. Thing is, you wouldn’t know it from this episode, because there’s nary a minute spent checking in with everyone emotionally, unless you count Mack ranting about how he’s going to quit S.H.I.E.L.D. if they survive this latest adventure. (When reminded he’s quit before, only to return, he says, “I didn’t quit hard enough.”) Jemma even gives him a look of concern at one point, after another of his this-all-sucks-everyone’s-stupid harangues, but it’s never followed up on. That’s fine for a moment or two, but to keep it up without explaining what motivates his mood began to get awkward. Much better is when he gets to bust out his well of pop-culture knowledge—though frankly, everyone should know you never split up to cover more ground in a horror movie.

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Photo: Jennifer Clasen/ABC

When the episode finally moved out of the dim hallways patrolled by the killer creatures (“roaches”), and into the Lighthouse proper, it did so quickly and efficiently, setting up the Kree menace with little difficulty. Having Deke pretend to know them as a way of escaping the cell also doubled as a handy means of explaining the general situation, in which the alien race plays host to a subservient human society. And splitting off Mack and Yo-Yo to be tortured simultaneously allowed for a smooth reference to Kasius and the larger picture in a way that didn’t feel forced or clunky—if anything, when they turned the freezing gas on Yo-Yo, it immediately took center stage, with the real possibility of doing her lasting damage. Thank heavens Daisy again saved the day.

Just as season three’s “4,722 Hours” became a series high point by ditching earth for space, so too do these episodes gain extra frisson by going full Battlestar Galactica, especially during May and Jemma’s Trawler adventure through the asteroid field. (Really more of an everything field, given the school bus they see floating by at one point.) Given how much flack the series used to get for its dull visual palette, seeing massive spectacle like this feels like a long-deserved reward for longtime fans, similar to how the brightly colored world of the Framework shook up the usual aesthetic. It’s one thing to have Deke inform Coulson that they’re in the future and there is no earth, but it’s much better to play show-and-tell and let us see the planetary devastation for ourselves.

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In the second half, the scale becomes much more human again, as we learn about both the Kree and human societies on the Lighthouse. The mythos of the true believers—the ones like Virgil (R.I.P. in shocking fashion!) who had faith the S.H.I.E.L.D. team would arrive and save them from this awful plight—is still hazy at this point, but that’s probably for the best. And for all his bluster, Deke seems to have the heart of a believer buried under his layers of opportunistic dealings. It’s not just Tess’ casual reference to how he suffered the biggest loss when the Kree had all the Elders killed; he seems to know an awful lot of the believers’ ideas, and when he’s dressing down Daisy in his Framework-manifesting drug den, there’s more than a hint of the desire to fight. His argument sounds convincing because it’s how he’s convinced himself to move on. But that might be tougher with the subjects of the prophecy right in front of his eyes every day.

Photo: Jennifer Clasen/ABC

More unsettling (yes, even more than the abject misery of a human society on the brink of extinction) is Jemma’s assimilation into the ranks of Kasius’ “superiors.” She smartly survives his questioning by claiming she was simply doing what she thought would make him happiest, but it turns out that being one of his anointed ones is way worse than living in the general populace. Also, there’s a much higher chance of being suddenly executed, as Kasius’ former favorite learns. “I demand perfection,” he intones, and it’s safe to say that’s a relatively high bar that can only be met for so long. The creepy metallic substance he slips into her ear is the worst of it: Fomenting plans to escape is awfully difficult when you’re completely deaf except for Kasius’ direct addresses.

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It looks like the team is settling into life on the Lighthouse for the foreseeable future, getting metrics installed in their wrists and learning how to keep their heads down as they figure out the next move. (And thanks to that postcard, we know Fitz is hard at work trying to fix the situation back in our own time here on earth—I’m assuming he’ll get his own spotlight installment a few episodes from now, unless Iain De Caestecker asked for time off so he could shoot a movie or something.) Coulson seems to be under the thumb of Grill (that’s his name, right?) thanks to the black market dealer’s intervention with the Kree soldiers, which means there’s going to be at least a little time before they can make a major play to shake things up. This is a hard reset for the Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. storyline, and a welcome one that goes big and isn’t afraid to experiment with massive large-scale storytelling. What a fantastic twist.

Stray observations:

  • Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen’s script was fantastic. “This has to be the coolest we’ve ever looked” is a top ten all-time quip from Coulson.
  • Yo-Yo (gesturing to the metrics): “Why don’t we put those on?” Mack: “Because they go through your damn wrist!”
  • Fascinating to see the TV footage of Daisy from inside Deke’s Framework; it would be interesting to learn how he assembled it, beyond his brief reference to reconstructing as best he could.
  • The idea of the Renewal is kind of weird, but it fits with the Kree ideology of a life earned, a life spent. Fun bunch, those Kree.
  • Poor May, getting her leg monolith’d right into a metal bar.
  • The moral dilemma of how to resist when you’re a hair’s breadth from extinction is an engaging one, and Deke’s mention to Tess that “if it’s real, it’ll be a massacre” is a nice raising of the stakes.
  • Both Daisy and Yo-Yo’s powers were put to smart use—let’s keep that up. And I loved Daisy’s first killing of a roach, followed by that earnest question. “Right?”
  • Welcome to season five of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., everyone! I look forward to the conversations. And I hope no one decided to tune out simply because Inhumans was such garbage.

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