Monday, 30 March 2015

REVIEW: Agents of SHIELD 2.11 - "Aftershocks"

Each time Agents of SHIELD returns from a break, it comes back better. There's still a way to go until it's unmissable viewing, but there is some definite improvement here. The mid-season “finale” ended on a hell of a cliffhanger, with Trip dead and both Skye and Raina undergoing terrigenesis and metamorphosing into their superpowered selves; very visibly in Raina's case, less so in Skye's. It's wonderful to say that, though – actual superhumans in the series, front and centre. There's a moment when Simmons starts reeling off a list of superpowered characters who've caused trouble, and it's a very, very short list for a superhero show a season and a half in. Now, though, we have Skye showing her Quake powers, Raina transformed into the human rosebush, and Reader zapping about the place like no one's business, with hopefully more to come.

It's a nicely high stakes story, too, which is a relief, since there was a fear we'd have weeks of sitting about discussing the events of the previous episode before anything happened. Not so. While Skye's new powers don't manifest fully, and she keeps the extent of her transformation under wraps, this is one story thread in a busy episode. Both SHIELD and HYDRA are on the rebound from the events in the subterranean city. It's fun to see HYDRA run by a round table of rich masterminds, even if most of them are pretty shallow and one-note; but then, it's not like they last long. Coulson's plan to use his prisoner, Bakshi, as bait in a plan to turn the heads of HYDRA against one another is brilliant stuff. Yes, it's convoluted and over-the-top. So what? That's exactly what I want from a comicbook show. Agents of SHIELD needs more convolution and over-the-top plans! Some commentators have likened it to the sort of ruse that Mission:Impossible used to go for, and they're not wrong. It's unfeasable, but easy enough to follow, effective and entertaining.

You could also make the same observation about the showdown between Coulson and Mac over the former's questionable decisions. The fight between the loyal Couslon-ites and the newer recruits is anything but subtle. That's good; we don't need subtle right now. We need a fast-moving season that lives up to the promise of the series' set-up. Some elements are still uneven. Mockingbird and Mac are playing some secret game that seems one element too many, and is included in a heavy-handed fashion. A major flaw is the resolution of Trip's death. It's all very well played, and the death of a major team member should hit the SHIELD crew hard. The problem is, we never really got to know Trip well enough for his death to matter the same way to us. He was a criminally underused character, and some better use of him leading up to this point could have made all the difference. It's not a fault of this episode, but nonetheless, it's inescapable.

There's some great chemistry between the regulars, now, with most of them settling into double-acts, and not the ones we expected. Coulson and May are at their best when they're fighting side-by-side. It's a shame to see Mac and Fitz's bromance fizzle out, but worth it for the wonderful chemistry between Fitz and Skye. I don't think Skye has really gelled with anyone the way she was supposed to, but this looks set to change matters. Both Chloe Bennet and Iain de Caestecker are so much better as these damaged and altered versions of their characters. There's a lot of potential here, particularly in their relationship, be it platonic or romantic in future. Where Fitz and Simmons will go from here is questionable, and this can only serve to drive them further apart, especially with Simmons on one hell of an over-egged anti-alien, anti-superpower drive right now. Perhaps the best moment, though, involve Raina. Ruth Negga has been something of an unsung star of this series (great news that she's been snapped up for the Preacher adaptation), and the use of her character here is excellent. Finally, she's got exactly what she's been striving for all this time, and it's horrific. The quill-covered, plant-like, almost reptilian make-up for her transformed state is wonderful work. Her scene with Dr Zabo – a still brillaint Kyle MacLachlan, always a highlight – is a particularly strong one, as he casts her aside now that she is of no use to him.

The material introducing the Inhumans is another highlight. Not just the little fanboy thrill from hearing terms like “Terrigenesis” thrown around, but genuinely well-scripted, beautifully directed stuff. It's patently clear now that Marvel are using this as their way of doing an X-Men style storyline, and more power to them. The Inhuman stuff is complicated and hard-to-swallow, yet they're putting it across in digestible little chunks. Philip Labes is excellent as the young Gordon (aka the Inhuman known as Reader), working with some fine direction and visual effects to put across the terror of this poor individual. Terrigenesis is a horrifying concept; if Raina thinks she's got it bad, then poor Gordon can put it in perspective. Blessed with incredible powers, but with the skin grown over his eyes so that he can't even cry. It'll be interesting to see how the relationships develop here: Gordon rescues Raina, who was abandoned and driven to suicide by Zabo, who was married to Jai Ying, who mentored and cared for the young Gordon. It's a complex web.

There's room to improve, most certainly, but this a strong start to the new half-season and I'm looking forward to seeing how it develops. As long as there are plenty of superbeings to come.

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