Agents of SHIELD Season 2 Recap, Episode 11: ‘Aftershocks’
Welcome back to the ComicsAlliance post-show analysis for Agents of SHIELD, the spy show set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This is where we break down each episode using our unique S.H.L.E.I.D. recap system --- recapping the show, looking at highlights and lowlights, and exploring the show's relationship to both the comics and the wider Marvel movie world.
In this week's episode, Raina and Skye try to come to terms with their inhuman transformations, Coulson tries to take down HYDRA, and everyone loves dead Tripp. 'Aftershocks' was directed by Billy Gierhart and written by showrunners Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon.
As you may recall, last year's run of episodes ended with Skye (Chloe Bennett) and Raina (Ruth Negga) coccooned by the mystery mists of the disco doorstop, while Tripp turned to dust. This episode is all about picking up the pieces; very literally, in Tripp's case.
Raina's transformation has made her into a human cactus, which is not what she wanted at all. After murdering her way out of the subterranean Inhuman car park of Schmattilan, she rages at Calvin Zabo (Kyle MacLachlan) about how Skye got the beautiful angel princess transformation that was meant for her. Zabo tells her to go play in traffic, which she does. She almost commits death by SWAT team, but an eyeless teleporting man swoops in to save her.
Skye looks exactly the same as before, but is being held in quarantine just in case. Fitz (Iain DeCaestecker) works out that she has in fact been genetically altered, and Skye's groundshaking powers manifest a couple of times, but only to rattle furniture. Fitz helps Skye cover up her new powers so that Simmonns (Elizabeth Henstridge) won't plug her in the head. Yes, Simmons has a new personality this half season; she's declared death to all supers. I hope she starts wearing a white trenchcoat and a skull facemask.
Following the death of HYDRA head honcho Whitehall last episode, the other heads of HYDRA meet around a small table and agree that whichever one of them can destroy SHIELD will take over the organization. This sounds like a fun premise for a few episodes of supervillainous hijinx, so of course Coulson (Clark Gregg) immediately ruins it, with an elaborate ruse that convinces the HYDRA leaders to all assassinate each other. Farewell, bit-part character actors pretending to be terrorist masterminds. We barely knew ye.
At the end of the episode, everyone has a beer and talks about how great Tripp was. I'll take their word for it. I spent so much time with Skye and Coulson that I never really got to hang out with Tripp.
This was one of the stronger episodes in a while, and I don't just mean because there hasn't been an episode in a while. 'Aftershocks' did a lot of things right. It had agents being agents, villains being villains, and supers being super, and it found time to really explore and reposition its characters post-trauma.
I wish Skye weren't the one at the center of the trauma, but the show has found interesting ways to distinguish its large cast in relation to her experiences, and for once the interpersonal moments are compelling. A conversation between Skye and Bobbi (Adrienne Palicki) reaffirms that Palicki is one of the most credible performers on the show, and Simmons' new hardline anti-powers attitude (motivated by the death of Tripp) gives that character plenty of new places to go.
The most interesting developments, of course, were Raina's new look and the formal introduction of Gordon (Jamie Harris), the teleporter who saved her. Zabo remarks that Raina's look is fitting for someone who loves flowers, so maybe her 'thorns' are meant to make us think of roses, but she's definitely a cactus to my eye.
Ruth Negga plays the character's devastation well — her life-long dream has turned horribly sour — and I'm relieved the character wasn't actually killed off. (I wouldn't put it past this show to finally get her to this point in her story and then get rid of her.)
Gordon, who we met briefly last episode, is the blind Inhman who resembles The Reader from the comics, but has teleporting powers like Nightcrawler. He and Raina are so umambiguously superhuman that their presence feels like a huge shot in the arm for the show.
We also meet a younger Gordon in a neat opening flashback to 1983, immediately after his transformation by the Terrigen Mists (the show namechecks terrigenesis for what I think is the first time). Gordon is comforted by Skye's mom Jiaying (Dichen Lachman), who tells him it's OK to cry. He literally has no eyes. Sensitivity training is not a priority at Inhuman HQ.
The Baroness. The Sheikh. The Banker. We meet and defeat HYDRA's insipid controlling cartel this week, swiftly dealt with via a Coulson plan that involves faking a HYDRA rescue for their prisoner Bakshi (Simon Kassianides) and planting seeds of dissent among the baddies.
The plan isn't bad. The action surrounding it is actually quite good fun, apart from Coulson's hammy yell of "you'll never takes us alive," which should have clued Bakshi in that this was a set-up. But this whole thing was dealt with as a B-plot, and had the effect of lowballing HYDRA as a threat. They're the big villains behind the whole show, and this episode not only made them look stupid, it also made them mundane.
And Coulson at one point brags about "cutting off the head" of HYDRA, so he literally hasn't understood their whole brand.
The drabness of these HYDRA villains is typical for this show. While Raina and Gordon offer flashes of a more interesting world, AoS is still terminally gray, and it's all the more depressing to immerse oneself back in this dingy aesthetic after the style and color of Agent Carter.
Agents of SHIELD has always had two big problems (and so many little ones). The first is that it seemed unable to embrace its own core premise of being a spy show set in a superhero universe. The newly emerging arms race for Inhumans between SHIELD, HYDRA, Zabo, and Gordon's people, creates a mechanic that allows this show to finally fix that problem.
The second is that it chose to focus its story on Phil Coulson and a bunch of nobodies. Who are the least interesting characters in a shared universe? The ones you've never met before, that's who. The show asked us to care about these people when we knew Jimmy Woo and Contessa Valentina were probably off somewhere else doing something more interesting with Black Talon or The Unicorn or whoever.
Phil Coulson remains the least interesting part of the show, especially given how little he resembles the character from the movies. But as the show moves into more fantastical territory, it'll fall on characters like Coulson and Fitz to raise their game to match the characters who already feel like part of that world — Morse, May (Ming-Na Wen) and Hunter (Nick Blood). Skye has an obvious advantage; she's literally transforming into a superhuman. The other core characters need to find ways to become just as interesting. My suggestion for Simmons? Become Madame Hydra.
The only new characters we really meet this week are dead by the end of the episode — the baroness, the sheikh, the banker, and whichever other cards fell out of the Murder Mystery Dinner Party box that was used to write that part of the episode.
But the mention of terrigenesis, and the glimpse of the facility where Skye's mom used to help new Inhumans come to terms with their power, are perhaps the most exciting ideas introduced into this show in thirty-odd episodes. There is so much potential here.
Can we have some jokes please? Skye notes of Tripp's passing; "We're going to laugh a lot less, that's for sure." Well, how much less? Because people weren't laughing much before, and the last thing this show needs is to get bleaker.
Are all the namedrops for Baron Von Strucker just for the sake of Age of Ultron? The answer is surely 'yes', but I'm holding out hope that Strucker could make an appearance. If not him, someone equally interesting as the new face of HYDRA on the show. No, not Ward. No, not Bakshi. Maybe Bakshi with a Satan Claw. (PS. Check out the final Age of Ultron trailer now if you haven't seen it already. Or, heck, watch it again.)
How many Marvel characters should we hope to see introduced in the back half of the season? The show has established very few. It has eleven episodes left to air this season. So what's everyone's best guess? Five characters? Eleven? Twenty? I feel like seven characters in eleven episodes is a safe, conservative estimate, now that the show has been through its own terrigenesis. Let's see how it goes.