Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Partial Payoff, Partial Tease, “Aftershocks” Advances Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.!

The Good: Performances, Moments of character, Mood, Special effects
The Bad: Plot is virtually non-existent.
The Basics: Likely working better in context, “Aftershocks” reflects on the powerful events of the prior episode while making minimal exploration of the fundamental characters of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D..

Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. returns at an awkward time. After weeks of being pre-empted by the period spy show Agent Carter, also set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and at a time when House Of Cards fans are still binging on the just-released season three (reviewed here!), Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. finally returns to television.

Given the climactic events of “What They Become” (reviewed here!), the new episode of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., comes in at an awkward position. The burden on “Aftershocks” is to illustrate that the investment viewers have had in Skye is a good one. Since the first season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., there has been the tease that Skye is something other than human. Her father, introduced in the second season, has been teased as being non-human as well and in “What They Become,” it seemed that Skye would make a dramatic transformation, which would reveal her true nature. “Aftershocks” was set up to explore what Skye was after encountering the Obelisk in the alien temple . . . and it ends up as more of a tease than a payoff for the faith viewers have had. Even so, it is remarkably satisfying on the level of human drama than many spy shows after cataclysmic events.

Opening in 1983 in a laboratory where Gordon, an eyeless young man who inexplicably teleports around his cell, Jiaying is revealed to be a shepherd of people who have undergone such dramatic transformations. Skye wakes up in quarantine where she mourns the loss of Trip. There, Coulson commits to bringing down H.Y.D.R.A. and declaring their mission a success – whatwith Whitehall being killed. While H.Y.D.R.A. meets to consider a successor to Whitehall within their organization, Raina, altered by her encounter with the obelisk, kills S.H.I.E.L.D. workers to escape the alien temple.

Simmons blows the temple and Coulson reassembles his team to hunt H.Y.D.R.A. Coulson prepares to trade Bakshi for information on H.Y.D.R.A. with Talbot, when he and May are waylaid by a truck. Setting Bakshi up to lure Coulson’s team back to their H.Y.D.R.A. base, Simmons returns to base where she compares Skye’s blood with Raina’s altered DNA. Raina, for her part, reunites with Calvin Zabo (Skye’s father) where she questions exactly what has happened to her. Hunter leads Morse to H.Y.D.R.A.’s headquarters, where Bakshi attempts to kill him and Morse. In the ensuing showdown, H.Y.D.R.A.’s leadership turns on each other creating a power vacuum.

“Aftershocks” makes it very hard for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to no entirely accept mutants. While Quicksilver and the Scarlett Witch were seen in the post-credits scene to the otherwise grounded Captain America: The Winter Soldier (reviewed here!), the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been largely unable to utilize or acknowledge the Fox-owned Marvel X-Men mutants. “Aftershocks” entirely shakes up the real-world formula of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Gordon, Raina and Skye. The burden it puts on the Marvel Cinematic Universe is to explain how wealthy, powerful, brilliant, and well-informed individuals like Tony Stark, Bruce Banner and Nick Fury would not know about “mutants” in the next major Marvel movie.

On the character front, Mac asserts himself as one of the more interesting characters of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. in “Aftershocks.” Mac, who was possessed in the prior two episodes leads Fitz to an oblique reference to “Yes Men” (reviewed here!), takes an episode that is packed with supernatural/extraordinary and roots it with a realistic character that is very appealing to the audience. Mac grounds the audience well and he makes the episode far more accessible – even if his key scene is interrupted by Skye having a telekinetic incident.

The confrontation between Raina and Zabo is an intriguing one. While Zabo is now obsessed with revenge on Coulson because Coulson robbed him of the opportunity to kill Whitehall, Raina seeks guidance. Raina has been transformed into a mutant with porcupine spines and Zabo implies that she has the ability to change her form or control her mutations, which keeps Raina in Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. as a wild card.

“Aftershocks” is notable in that its tone is a clear departure from the action-adventure tone of prior episodes. Instead, Coulson’s team is reeling from the death of Tripp and their sense of loss is expressed by every member of the team. Each of the performers in Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is given a moment to plumb the emotional depths of their characters. “Aftershocks” gives both Chloe Bennet and Iain De Caestecker the chance to truly let loose in ways they have not previously. Bennet plays Skye as afraid and suspicious in a somewhat minimalist way that plays to her talents.

Iain De Caestecker has had the biggest transformation in his performance of Fitz over the course of the series. After delivering mostly technobabble in the first season, De Caestecker has spent the first several episodes of the second season essentially in shock, playing Fitz as diminished by brain damage. In “Aftershock,” he is assertive, intuitive and De Caestecker plays that out without going over-the-top. The resolution to Fitz’s arc is an interesting one and it affords a great chance for both De Caestecker and Bennet to advance their characters in new and interesting ways in forthcoming episodes.

But “Aftershocks” belabors the set-up more than the substantive reflection on the prior episode. Raina is given more of an exploration of the effects of the Obelisk than Skye is. Sure, she moves things around with her mind, but the full extent of how Skye was altered is not known and only Fitz is clued into the truth. While the emotional ramifications of the prior episode are followed-through well in “Aftershocks,” the plot points are far less compelling.

The result is an episode that might enhance the serialized aspects of the second season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. but holds up less well on its own.

[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. - The Complete Second Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the sophomore season here!


For other television and film reviews, please check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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