If TV episodes were measured in plot twists, "Afterlife" would be Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s finest hour. There's nothing in this week's episode that comes close to rivaling the shock of Ward's betrayal in last year's "Turn, Turn, Turn," but you have to give the show points for trying. Whoa — Mike "Deathlok" Peterson is back, and he's on Coulson's team! Surprise — Fitz and Simmons managed to smuggle Nick Fury's weird little cube away from Gonzales! Gasp — Skye's mom is alive after all! (In retrospect, we should have seen that last one coming — you don't cast an actress as talented as Dichen Lachman for a five-minute flashback in a single episode.)
Unfortunately, piles of plot twists also require piles of exposition. "Afterlife" is an important hour of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but it's also a bit of a clunky one, as the show's increasingly sprawling cast stands around explaining things to each other for the benefit of the rest of us.
Much of this week's exposition comes from Skye's new buddy Lincoln (Luke Mitchell), the bland hunk tasked with easing her transition into the weird little Inhuman community known as Afterlife. Nothing ominous about that! Following her sudden teleportation away from Coulson's little cabin in the woods, Skye wakes up naked, confused, and jabbed with dozens of glowing little needles. Nothing ominous about that!
As Lincoln explains it, Skye isn't just regular special — she's the most special of all the special people. The Afterlife is a community of people who possess the basic qualities that might make them worthwhile candidates for Terrigenesis, but Skye has already passed with flying colors. Her earthquake powers aren't going anywhere. The next step is figuring out what to do with them.
The whole thing is more than a little sinister. Afterlife has the cheery, eerie, "what could possibly go wrong here?" vibe of the Village from The Prisoner, and Lincoln withholds key information — including their exact location and the presence of Skye's father, Cal, and her sworn enemy, Raina. Of course, Skye being Skye, such concerns are swept under the rug in favor of flirty banter involving Lincoln's electricity powers and cute turns of phrase like, "Skye's the limit." It's all very promising. It's not like a handsome, apparently well-meaning male mentor/love interest has ever betrayed her before, right?
Skye may be getting a limited perspective, but "Afterlife" is generous enough to give us a glimpse into what's really going on. Cal is still an unwilling captive of Gordon, who delivers an ominous warning: "You have not only sealed your fate but the fate of your daughter as well." Cal's later encounter with Jiaying, his (current?) wife, goes just as poorly; when he asks to see Skye, she refuses. Jiaying meets Skye, but she doesn't reveal the true depth of their connection. As the Obi-Wan to Skye's Luke, it's clear that she plans to test her daughter before she puts any more cards on the table.
As Skye forges her new alliances at Afterlife, her S.H.I.E.L.D. allies continue to duke it out back in the real world. Coulson and Hunter are still flying solo, but it isn't long before they get a major assist from Coulson's secret ally: Deathlok (J. August Richards), last seen in last year's "Beginning of the End." Long before Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. introduced the Inhumans, Deathlok was the TV show's closest link to the comics, and his presence is always welcome (even if "Afterlife" basically drops him in just so he can use his cool robo-arm to disable a Quinjet).
The rest of the team remains in the relatively lax custody of faux-S.H.I.E.L.D. leader Gonzales — but that doesn't mean they've given up the fight. May's refusal to turn on Coulson is rewarded with a spot on Gonzales's board of directors, which will decide Coulson's ultimate fate if they ever manage to arrest him. "We cannot afford to be enemies to each other," he says. "A house built on shifting sand will fall, and without a strong and united foundation, S.H.I.E.L.D. will fall again."
It's a noble sentiment, but Gonzales may change his tune when he realizes that Fitz and Simmons have successfully managed to hoodwink him, smuggling out Nick Fury's secret cube under the guise of Fitz "quitting" the organization. Fans will undoubtedly cheer the long-awaited revival of Fitzsimmons, and their tactics are undeniably bold, though it's unclear where Fitz will go with such a valuable and mysterious piece of technology.
Coulson, however, has lasered in on a target: Grant Ward, whose relatively limited appearances this season have been uniformly terrific. After an episode like "Afterlife," it's a promisingly proactive plan; now that we've spent an hour learning what everybody wants, it should be thrilling to see them gunning for it.
- The readers have spoken: Gonzales's alleged "real S.H.I.E.L.D." will now be known as "faux-S.H.I.E.L.D." (or, as flash0ahahh put it in last week's comments section, "F.I.E.L.D."). Thanks for your comments, tweets, and emails, everybody!
- Nothing happens at Afterlife without the approval of the mysterious "Elders." Is it possible we'll be getting a full council of senior Inhumans — or even a panel of Kree — before the season comes to an end?
- As far as I can tell, Lincoln has no direct corollary in the comics. There is, however, an Inhuman with similar electric powers: Nahrees, a young woman who once battled the Fantastic Four.
- Raina tells Skye that they're really not so different after all — you know, the same speech that every villain has given every hero in every story since the dawn of storytelling. Screenwriters: Please, please, please retire this phrase.
- Skye is pretty glib about Gordon using his teleportation powers to transport fresh Chicago deep-dish-pizza over thousands of miles, but I'd love to see Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s various Inhumans use their powers on those goofy micro levels more often.
- Speaking of food: I need to find a deli that can make me a version of Fitz's long-standing sandwich of choice, which consists of prosciutto, mozzarella, and (just a hint of!) pesto aïoli.
- Next week on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: As Jiaying and Skye get some much-needed mother-daughter bonding time, we finally find out why May was nicknamed "the Cavalry."