Thursday, March 05, 2015

TV Recap: AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D - Season 2 Episode 11: "AFTERSHOCKS"

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AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D's stature within the Marvel Cinematic Universe is such that it's both about what is effectively The Avengers' unofficial support-staff and also is very much that itself: Team Coulson may have their own individual stories and arcs, but what they find themselves actually doing day to day is increasingly determined by what the MCU's superhero-starring feature films need them to do (setting up plot points, expanding mythologies) and forbid them to do (using certain characters, revealing certain truths.) That's got to be difficult, from a writing standpoint, but it makes for an interesting show - a "procedural" whose status quo is always changing.

BIG SPOILERS from here on out, continue at your own discretion:


For the first half of Season 1, that made things difficult - the series had to default into a decidedly mixed "monster of the week" routine until CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER's release allowed them to show their cards re: the presence of a modernized HYDRA as the reigning big-bads. Season 2, on the other hand, has been allowed to play things more deliberately.

The main storyline of its first half (Agent Skye has discovered her real identity, its not human and certain others like her are not nice people) was a treasure-hunt adventure laying the foundation for THE INHUMANS, whose movie won't be out for a few years yet; meaning there's likely not as much already decided this time. But now, with the basic mythos and "rules" of this new level of MCU reality set down, AGENTS' modus-operandi has shifted once again: The series, it seems, is now tasked with establishing the very function of The Inhumans in the bigger narrative (we'll come back to that), while the characters appear to have landed in a whole new realm of moral ambiguity.

...but that's getting ahead of things.

"Aftershocks" opens in the immediate aftermath of the big Winter cliffhanger: S.H.I.E.L.D and HYDRA both followed the alien maps embedded in Coulson's subconscious to an underground temple, where mysterious crystals emitted a gas that incinerated Agent Tripp but encased Skye and superpower-obsessed Raina in coccoons. Skye (real name: Daisy) emerged physically unchanged but with earthquake-causing powers, while Raina was transformed into a kind of human/porcupine hybrid.

Oh! And Skye/Daisy's father Calvin (aka "Mr. Hyde") now wants to kill Coulson for A.) being more a father figure to Skye than him and B.) robbing him of the chance to kill HYDRA boss Daniel Whitehall in revenge for the murder of Skye's mother.

This stuff (read: the stuff we care about) should be the main plot, but it's treated almost like the B-story, with Skye in quarantine (no one knows what happened to her - yet) and the rest of the team mourning the loss of Tripp. The A-story, meanwhile, is all about Coulson marshalling S.H.I.E.L.D 2.0's first big power play: An elaborate scheme to use Whitehall's vacancy to knock off the remainder of HYDRA's leadership, Michael Corleone style. Its a cool setup that could easily have played out across the entire rest of the season...

...but, instead, they pull the whole thing off in this one episode.

No, really: S.H.I.E.L.D makes a handful of moves and the heads of HYDRA (save, of course, for the frequently name-checked Baron Von Strucker; who's scheduled to meet The Avengers in May) are all severed in quick succession. As misdirections go, I like it ("Gotcha! We're done with HYDRA now, it's Inhumans time!") but it ends up feeling a bit anticlimactic: AGENTS has by now embraced it's own B-team stature, so it's a bit weird to see them (apparently) able to run down and erradicate one of the big bad overriding threats of the Marvel Universe at the drop of a hat in what pretty-much everyone acknowledges is a hasty bit of retaliation by Coulson.

But, again, this appears to be AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D's lot in life: HYDRA has served it's purpose in the MCU, or at least is about to (it feels like Von Strucker's presence in AGE OF ULTRON will be strictly an appetizer before the big robot buffet) so it falls to Coulson and company to quietly move them off the field and set about their new mission of helping The Inhumans fill the mutant-sized hole in Marvel's worldbuilding.

Yeah, so let's talk about that.

The rationale for Marvel's eagerness at turning an eternally niche-audience property like THE INHUMANS into a recognizable franchise is the worst kept secret in genre film right now: They know that any incarnation of The Marvel Universe needs the "super-powers as metaphor for oppressed/disenfranchised minorities" angle of Mutants as part of its fundamental DNA; but they also know that they aren't getting the rights to their Mutant characters/concepts back from Fox unless Hugh Jackman boards a one-way flight to Mars next week. Solution? Fit a slightly-reimagined version of The Inhumans (genetic descendants of early humans experimented on by Kree aliens who manifest either powers, monster-like forms or both when exposed to crystalline mists) into the MCU's "Mutant slot" and hope the machine will run just as well until the really bizarre stuff rears its head in the INHUMANS movie.

And, at least as far as "Aftershocks" seems to imply, AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D is where the "doesn't this remind you of The X-Men?" drumbeat begins: Skye is looking to hide her mutation Inhumanity from the rest of the team (except for Fitz, who figures it out but agrees to stay mum about it) at least until she can control her powers. Simmons is so broken up about Tripp that she's gone from wanting to discover/study mutations inhuman-powers to wanting to wipe every trace of them off the face of the Earth ("Jemma-cidal," much?) Starting to sound familiar?

But if there was any remaining doubt that Marvel is positioning The Inhumans as Brand-X-Men, it should be obliterated by the "C-story" involving Mr. Hyde and Raina. Hyde is excited that Skye's post-transformation anxieties (a flashback involving Skye's mom nurturing a recently-transformed teenage teleporter Gordon aka "The Reader" establishes this as a common issue) could be a catalyst for driving her away from Coulson and back to him. Raina is mortified that her Inhuman form has left her looking like a monster, and attempts to committ suicide by S.H.I.E.L.D hit-squad...

...but is thwarted when a now-grown Nightcrawler Reader bamfs teleports in, calls her "beautiful" and wisks her off with promises to show her the way - Reader having previously inferred a connection a whole network of on-the-downlow Inhumans. Oh, and Hyde gets all giddy at the thought of calling up his own Brotherhood collective of mischief-making Inhuman pals to wreak havoc against S.H.I.E.L.D, so maybe we've got two competing factions of superhumans at play here, as well?

So, yes, it now appears that the guesses (mine included) were right: The Inhumans are the MCU Mutants, and S.H.I.E.L.D is now (unwittingly) the tip of humanity's incursion into their previously-hidden world. But lest you think that's all we're dealing with, a final scene establishes that Agents Bobbi (aka Mockingbird) and Mac are indeed double agents for... somebody, and they're specifically looking to relieve Coulson of former director Nick Fury's "toolbox."

As an episode, "Aftershocks" was uneven - the Death of HYDRA business felt rushed, and the Inhumans rollout thus far feels more interested in winking at in-the-know comics fans ("Yeah. We're really doin' this. This is happening.") than selling itself to audiences. But it's hinting at exciting ideas for the rest of the season, and maybe more. There's an entertainment value to be had in watching an entertainment piece stride confidently up to the plate and pre-call the trajectory of it's next home run, even if it's not at all clear that it's going to avoid striking out.

PARTING THOUGHTS:

  • Note to Marvel/all-comics-adaptations in general: If you're going to give people nicknames/codenames/etc? Use them. "Cal" is an angry scientist who gets angry and stomps the shit out of people, it's okay to just call him "Mr. Hyde."
  • Raina's porcupine-woman look is way too reminisicient of NIGHTBREED's Shuna Sassi to be unintentional, right? Especially given that NIGHTBREED is also about an underground community of "monsters" shunned by normal humanity?
  • Who are Bobbi and Mac working for (or, at least, reporting-to)? They're probably not going to go for straight-up villains so soon after wrapping up the whole "HYDRA sleeper agents" plot, so I imagine the idea is more along the lines of Fury and Coulson not being the only people who wanted to start up a replacement for the original S.H.I.E.L.D. Shot in the dark? They're actually Agents of S.W.O.R.D.
  • So Fitz/Simmons, previously AGENTS' model of workplace friendship and/or adorkable star-crossed romance, are now going to be on diametrically-opposed sides of the Inhumans Issue; signaling that "Kill `em all!" v "Maybe don't do that" is going to be an A or B choice for people in the MCU? Huh. Y'know, that's the kind of thing you might end up fighting a CIVIL WAR over...
NEXT WEEK: 

"Who You Really Are" will feature the return of Jamie Alexander as We Can't Use Chris Hemsworth Lady Sif, who is having some amnesia troubles after scrapping with an enemy who may have connections to the Skye situation. Also, it looks like maybe we won't be waiting much longer to see how Coulson feels about Skye being an Inhuman.


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