If the goal of a mid-season premiere is to win back skeptical viewers who are willing to give your series one last shot, "Aftershocks" is a complete failure. It's been nearly three months since Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was last on the air, but this was a dive right back into the Marvel deep-end: loads of exposition, plenty of goofy comic-book technobabble, and at least three separate factions vying for power, with no shortage of mysterious wild cards floating around the edges of the story.
I have to admire the ambition, if not the execution. As an hour of television, "Aftershocks" left me conflicted. With 32 episodes under its belt, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has officially run out of excuses for being so messy. It's one thing to be mysterious; it's another to be muddled, and this is still a show that reconfigures its plot and characters every few episodes.
But frustrating as the flaws continue to be, you can sense the great show struggling to burst out of the acceptable show we're currently getting. "Aftershocks" stumbles, but it also moves Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. into some bold and intriguing directions, and if the payoff requires a so-so episode or two, loyal fans will probably call it a worthwhile trade.
The main story picks up immediately after the events of last year's mid-season finale, when Skye and Raina developed their superpowers. Skye can generate earthquakes, though she's not great at controlling when it happens. Raina got a full-scale reptilian makeover, with bugged-out yellow eyes and sharp needles all over her body.
Neither woman is thrilled with her newfound inhumanity, but Raina clearly drew the shorter straw. Unlike Raina, Skye's transformation was internal, which allows her to hide her newfound superpowers from the team. On a character level, this decision doesn't actually make much sense. Skye has seen, over and over again, how secrets and lies have ripped this team apart. She was personally responsible for the first time it happened, and the consequences were severe for everyone involved. At this point, she knows beyond a doubt how much everyone cares for her, and any last concerns should have been alleviated when she saw how everyone stuck by Coulson as he went on his nutty alien tangent. What's the worst that could happen if she comes clean about the powers she never wanted in the first place? A bunch of friends trying to help her figure out her next step?
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. gets away with this logical breach by turning Coulson into a ghoulish, vengeful caricature of his normal self, retroactively justifying Skye's wariness. In the wake of Trip's untimely death, Coulson is on tilt, making the nakedly emotional decision to seek revenge on anyone connected with Hydra. "I'm gonna make somebody pay — whoever it is," he snarls near the beginning of the episode. It's not exactly a phrase you'd expect to hear from the leader of a group that defines itself as rational, clear-headed, and compassionate.
Fortunately, Coulson's bloodlust leads to a pretty clever sequence in which the team tricks Hydra henchman Bakshi into revealing the identities of the surviving Hydra leaders — a group that consists of a sheikh, a baroness, banker, and a few other generic, James Bond–lite baddies we've never met before. By convincing Bakshi that half of Hydra is attempting to kill the other half, the S.H.I.E.L.D. team tricks the Hydra bosses into taking each other out. Most of the top brass are killed in one fell swoop (though it's an open question whether chopping off four heads means eight will take their place). Coulson's plan is clever, if not a little anticlimactic. If these are the self-serving Hydra idiots who spent decades orchestrating an infiltration of every level of S.H.I.E.L.D., how stupid does S.H.I.E.L.D. have to be?
Back at the base, Skye suffers through an uneasy quarantine, hearing conversation after conversation about the theoretical danger posed by the hypothetical "disease" no one knows she already has. Simmons, like Coulson, has gone off the deep end in her wild-eyed push for control — and, in all likelihood, the execution of anyone she deems a threat to the world at large. Fortunately, mumbly old Fitz comes to Skye's rescue, grasping the reality of her situation and altering the results to make Skye's jacked-up heart rate look normal. (Skye: "That's very fast." Fitz: "No. That's inhuman." If there were any justice in the world, they would have turned to the camera and winked.)
In the end, "Aftershocks" punts the "How do you solve a problem like Skye?" issue to next week, focusing instead on de-fanging the Hydra threat as quickly as possible — probably in favor of the Inhuman angle they've been pushing so hard.
It's hard to argue with a story arc that will dig deeper into so many intriguing Marvel characters, but it also leaves Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. feeling, on its return, a little rudderless. With so much plot to churn out, there are intriguing moral grays that "Aftershocks" leaves on the table. Is Coulson, in his hastiness to seek revenge on Hydra, betraying the ideals that separate S.H.I.E.L.D. from Hydra in the first place? Is Skye, so guilt-ridden over Trip's death, putting her allies in even greater danger by refusing to warn them that her powers are out of her control? Is Simmons, once so warm and kind, evolving into the kind of cold-blooded agent who would kill a friend for the greater good?
The show may go on to tackle all of these subjects — but if that's the plan, it wasn't clear from this episode. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a series with plenty on its mind, and if the plot would get out of the way, it could start exploring those issues with some real depth.
- "Aftershocks" ends by teasing Mack and Bobbi's sudden but inevitable betrayal of the S.H.I.E.L.D. gang. They're after Nick Fury's toolbox, which is currently locked away in Coulson's office, but the episode doesn't identify the mysterious contact pulling their strings. It's hard to imagine Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. introducing another new faction into the mix this season — but if you have any guesses, feel free to leave them in the comments.
- The heads of Hydra make several references to Baron von Strucker, a lesser villain who popped up in the mid-credits sequence of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and who's slated for a bigger role in Avengers: Age of Ultron. I'd bet every dime in Tony Stark's bank account that he shows up in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. before the season ends.
- Dichen Lachman returns in a brief flashback as Skye's mother Jiaying, who counseled the young Gordon as he came to terms with his strange new powers. Her allies can only speculate on what would happen to the Inhumans if she weren't there to guide them. Foreshadowing!
- Gordon shows up again at the end of the episode, leading the suicidal Raina to safety — and, presumably, to a place where the Inhumans can enjoy a little humanity.
- For the first time since his character was introduced, Kyle MacLachlan chewed a little too much scenery for my tastes, pacing and gesticulating wildly during his conversation with Raina. I'm cool with Dr. Cal moving even closer to the edge of insanity, but here's hoping he does it a little less cartoonishly next time.
- Next week on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Jamie Alexander returns as Lady Sif, while the rest of S.H.I.E.L.D. tries to figure out the source of all the weird earthquakes they've been having lately.