The Marvel Universe is big. Like really, really big. And S.H.I.E.L.D. stands right at the center of it, the singular dot that connects the Avengers, Agent Carter, the Howling Commandos, the Inhumans, and a whole lot of extremely weird alien stuff.

On the books, S.H.I.E.L.D. means the “Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division.” But in the words of Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), “The principle S.H.I.E.L.D. was founded on was pure … Protection. One word. Sometimes to protect one man from himself, other times to protect the planet against an alien invasion from another universe. It’s a broad job description.”

S.H.I.E.L.D. has been a part of the Marvel Universe since 1965 and is now essentially the FBI of the MCU. Founded by Peggy Carter and Friends in the aftermath World War II and the apparent defeat of Hydra, S.H.I.E.L.D. was intended to be humanity’s last defense. Under the watchful eye of Director Fury, S.H.I.E.L.D. defuses threats in the present day with an army of agents, an arsenal of really cool(/deadly) toys, and a little something called the Avengers Initiative.

In Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show, though, we follow the goings-on in the outfit via Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg): friend of the Avengers, exemplary S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, and actual dead man. Following an eight-second foray into the afterlife courtesy of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki (Asgard’s Draco Malfoy) in The Avengers, Agent Coulson finds himself miraculously alive and returning to S.H.I.E.L.D. to assemble a carefully curated team of agents to tackle mounting threats both domestic and international.

With the exception of Agent Coulson, all of the characters in the show’s ensemble are original, and new to the Marvel Universe. Well, kind of, but more on that later. Agents Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen), Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) and Leo Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) make up the original team, but are soon joined by Skye (Chloe Bennet), a hacker-turned-S.H.I.E.L.D. asset and consultant. For much of the first season, they chase down alien artifacts, lock up superhuman bad guys, and track down the ultra-sketchy origins of an influx of “gifted” individuals playing host to an unstable compound known as “Extremis.”

Like most shows, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. used its first episodes to find its footing and develop its tone. Unlike most shows, however, it was also tip-toeing around the complex and devastating plot line of one of Marvel’s biggest films.

In Episode 17 of the first season, the show’s plot makes direct contact with that of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was a fundamentally different show after that, and not just because (spoiler) S.H.I.E.L.D. all but burned to the ground while Hydra held the match (or helicarrier, as it were). After Winter Soldier, it seemed as though Marvel removed the leash, leaving Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. free to explore some of the dark, strange and poorly-lit corners of the Marvel Universe.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is, at its core, easy to love. It’s fun and dark and bizarre and deeply Marvel. It’s also got some of the niftiest gadgets on TV, enjoys an origin story that spans decades, and has some seriously stellar guest stars and tie-ins.

Suit up and grab a Night-Night gun—wheels up in five.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Number of Seasons: 2 (44 episodes)

Time Requirements: About a month if you watch 1-2 episodes per night, unless you’re going to do it right and watch the corresponding Marvel films in the correct order. In that case, you’ll be carving out time for The Avengers, Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: Winter Soldier, and Avengers: Age of Ultron. Better get started—Season 3 premieres next Tuesday, Sept. 29th.

Where To Get Your Fix: Netflix and Google Play, with newer episodes on Hulu.

Best Character To Follow: Skye. She’s the only “normal” in a group of highly-trained S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, and her journey from homeless “hacktivist” to Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. is deeply intertwined with the show’s major arcs. That said, all human beings with real live functioning hearts will probably also develop a deep fondness for Fitz and Simmons (FitzSimmons), both of whom are aggressively adorable and experience some great development over the course of the first and second season.

Seasons/Episodes You Can Skip:

Much of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s first season is spent building the world of S.H.I.E.L.D. and getting us acquainted with the characters. Because it couldn’t exactly spoil the big reveal from Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it essentially had to sit tight and tread water before it could make many big reveals of its own. If you’re going to skip any episodes, they’re going to have to be early on in Season 1—things start to reach critical mass by late in the first season.

Season 1: Episode 2, “0-8-4” Coulson’s team travels to Peru and is double-crossed by one of Coulson’s old pals. Beautiful scenery, but overall nothing vital to the arc moving forward.

Season 1: Episode 8, “The Well” Acting as the cleanup crew after the fallout from Thor: The Dark World, Coulson and the team are treated to a little lesson in Norse mythology thanks to an ancient Berserker Staff.

Season 1: Episode 9, “Repairs” The team grapples with a telekinetic ghost in Utah and Fitz and Simmons wage a quaint little prank war back on the Bus (their top-of-the-line S.H.I.E.L.D.-issue airplane/flying HQ).

Seasons/Episodes You Can’t Skip:

Season 1: Episode 1, “Pilot” Coulson rounds up his somewhat reluctant team of elite agents. They head to Los Angeles to investigate reports of gifted individual Mike Peterson (J. August Richards) and happen upon Skye’s hacker base (that is, a van parked in an alley). With her help, they save Mike from falling victim to the Extremis in his blood stream. Best of all, Cobie Smulders guest stars as Agent Maria Hill.

Season 1: Episode 13, “T.R.A.C.K.S.” The team boards a train in Italy and attempts to follow the money trail of baddie/bonafide 1 Percent-er Ian Quinn (David Conrad). The plan’s derailed when the train vanishes into thin air, however, and the team’s forcibly split up. Skye infiltrates Quinn’s secret lair and half man/half machine Deathlok (of Marvel comic book fame) makes his first appearance. We’re also treated to a Stan Lee cameo.

Season 1: Episode 14, “T.A.H.I.T.I.” In a Hail Mary attempt to save Skye’s life after she’s shot by Quinn, Coulson chases down the special sauce that brought him back from the dead. In uncovering the origins of his second chance, though, Coulson finds out a bit more than he ever wanted to know about the blue blood running through his veins.

Season 1: Episode 15, “Yes Men” Jaimie Alexander guest stars as Lady Sif and helps the team track down an escaped Asgardian fugitive/seductress. I’ll repeat: Jaimie Alexander guest stars as Lady Sif.

Season 1: Episode17, “Turn, Turn, Turn” In an episode that ties in with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, something’s rotten in the state of S.H.I.E.L.D. and one of the team’s own is behind it. Suspicion overtakes the Bus and the Hub as S.H.I.E.L.D. falls at the hands (or tentacles, rather) of Hydra. S.H.I.E.L.D. as we know it is compromised, Director Fury is dead, and no one can be trusted.

Season 1: Episode 22, “Beginning of the End” In the Season 1 finale, the team—now with 100 percent more Agent Antoine Triplett (B.J. Britt)—goes toe-to-toe with Hydra operatives to take down the corporation behind the sinister plot to manufacture gifted individuals. Director Fury (who isn’t really dead, obviously), Coulson, Deathlok, and Garrett (Bill Paxton) find themselves in “a tag-team wresting match with four dead guys.”

Season 2: Episode 1, “Shadows” We open up the second season in 1945 with an appearance from Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and the Howling Commandos as they travel to Austria secure an 0-8-4: an obelisk with strange and destructive powers. In the present day, a recovering S.H.I.E.L.D. is operating in the shadows, hiding out from the US government and joining forces with Xena Isabelle Hartley (Lucy Lawless!). Skye’s undergone a profound transformation to become a formidable kind of Melinda May Jr. and Lance Hunter (Nick Blood) joins the team.

Season 2: Episode 5, “A Hen in the Wolf House” Simmons is undercover in a Hydra facility, but when her cover is blown, she’s finds herself cornered without an escape strategy. At least, until Hydra’s security chief lends a helping hand. Agent Bobbi Morse/Mockingbird (Adrianne Palicki) has also been undercover, but sheds her dastardly persona and gets herself and Simmons back to the new S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ unscathed.

Season 2: Episode 10, “What They Become” The team is in San Juan following a lead from an ancient Kree map of sorts. Upon rescuing Skye from the clutches of Hydra, Coulson is dealt a crushing blow or 12 that renders him unable to keep her from venturing into an unstable underground city. When recurring foe Raina (Ruth Negga) uses the city’s mysterious power source to open the powerful and dangerous Diviner, they both emerge changed and the team is dramatically altered. The Inhumans officially join the MCU.

Season 2: Episode 20, “Scars” In the episode following a brief Avengers: Age of Ultron tie-in, we find out that Coulson’s been hiding something called Theta Protocol up his sleeve, and it involves a helicarrier. A meeting of the minds goes south and results in some very dead S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and a declaration of war from the Inhumans’ leader, Jaiying (Dichen Lachman).

Season 2: Episodes 21 & 22, “S.O.S. Parts 1 and 2” Season 2’s two-part season finale pits the now-unified S.H.I.E.L.D. against the Inhumans. Bobbi is at the mercy of a deranged Grant Ward, the Afterlife Army attacks, and Skye’s forced to choose between blood and the only real family she’s ever known: S.H.I.E.L.D.

Why You Should Binge:

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. goes where Marvel movies cannot. It has the luxury of time, which allows it to indulge in twisting plot lines and lengthy arcs, delve deeper into character development, and give its audience bigger, juicier payoffs. We have access to stories and characters from Marvel comics that haven’t yet made it to the big screen with additions like Mockingbird and the Inhumans, and we’re treated to tie-ins with Marvel’s major film properties and other shows like the completely fantastic Agent Carter. For the most complete picture of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as it stands, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a must. The films of the MCU can only cover so much ground, and for everything else, there’s S.H.I.E.L.D.

Best Scene—The Birth of a Hero:

Skye follows the destiny-crazed Raina into an ancient underground Kree city in an attempt to stop her from using the Diviner—an object with great and unknowable power. Though the show had dropped hints about Skye’s real name and parentage, this scene not only connects the dots to Skye’s comic book counterpart, but also writes a major chapter in one hell of an origin story and has us bearing witness to the birth of a superhero: Quake.

The Takeaway:

It’s all connected. Also: Even if you’ve seen the body, unless it actually disintegrates, don’t assume they’re dead. Not permanently, anyway.

If You Liked Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., You’ll Love:

Catch up on Agent Carter in preparation for its second season, and keep an eye out for updates on ABC’s recently announced project called Marvel’s Most Wanted featuring S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Lance Hunter and Bobbi Morse (Mockingbird). For comic book shows outside of Marvel, check out DC’s Arrow and The Flash, and look out for Supergirl, premiering later this fall.

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WIRED Binge-Watching Guide: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.