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Throwback Thursday - Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. - Aftershocks

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Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is the underdog of underdog shows. Like the problem child of an elite upper-class family, before epic flops the likes of Inhumans and The Defenders, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s less-than-stellar debut led to a quick disownment from its MCU parents. The intricately planned ties between the TV and film universes where quickly cut (you remember #Itsallconnected?) and S.H.I.E.L.D. was set adrift, floating alone in the vast sea of cult sci-fi tradition.

And yet, it rocked. As soon as AoS shed its responsibility of carrying a universe on its shoulders that it wasn’t allowed to actually be a part of, it flourished creatively. If showrunners Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancheroen had to be constantly avoiding the MCU’s toes, we almost certainly never would’ve gotten The Framework arc in season 4, or the campy masterpiece that was season 7’s time travel theme, or entire episodes devoted to elaborate mind palace reunions and alien drug trips on shady casino planets. Its ability to constantly come up from behind undoubtedly made S.H.I.E.L.D. the show that it is.

And as the underdog of the underdogs, there is no episode that embodies AoS’ success-but-not-success as “Aftershocks”: it boasted one of the lowest same day viewership counts for the show to that date, back when same-day still at least kind of mattered. It was bookended by the return of Lady Sif and a (quite literally) earth-shattering midseason finale. It heralded an acceptable but unimpressive 8.5 on IMDb. It was never as popular as 4,722 Hours or Spacetime, nor as critically lauded as As I Have Always Been or Self Control. And yet, this is the one episode that defines the show as it is and as it should be, that depicts the characters and story and essence of this show at its purest.

Let me explain.

This episode picks up where the season 2 midseason finale left off, after Skye (back when she was still Skye) was trapped in a Kree temple, cocooned in stone, and buried in rubble after a powerful earthquake was set off, and yet seemingly made it out unharmed. This feat is made all the more impressive seeing that Skye’s two companions in the temple either disappeared without a trace (Raina) or didn’t make it out of the event alive (although...#TripLives).

What we and Skye know that no one else on Team S.H.I.E.L.D. does is that the earthquake in the temple was not just caused by some random alien tech or magic hidden in the temple, but by Skye herself, who had emerged from her cocoon with her dormant Inhuman powers activated and out of control. Therefore, we enter the episode feeling the heaviness of Trip’s loss and the apprehension of stepping into a world where powered people are not just “the bad guys” anymore - they’re our heroes too.

You don’t generally see a lot of real aftermath episodes in sci-fi - more likely, you will go straight from “reactions of all the relevant characters to a tragic event” to “boots on the ground and ready to move on.” And there’s a bit of that idea present in “Aftershocks,” to be fair. Coulson’s storyline in the episode shows him dragging several of his agents around in an elaborate (and shockingly dark) ploy to retaliate against HYDRA by tricking the remaining heads to cut each other off, as it were. And yet, beyond that, the majority of “Aftershocks” is not action-oriented. It’s quiet. Woeful. Painfully empty.

Maybe this is what stood out to me when I first watched it. I was long into my first carnivorous consumption of the show (year: 2015, in the middle of the show’s second season airing). I loved the characters. I loved the dialogue. I loved the plot, and the way it would occasionally pause its act as an upbeat found-family show to take a prolonged look down dark avenues; like the way season 1’s “T.R.A.C.K.S.” took a single gunshot to flip from a cutesy “so here’s what happened” bottle episode into an intense storyline that put our protagonist’s life in grave danger and changed the path of the entire rest of the show. My wonder at the show’s composition and weekly spectacle was nearly endless; it was one of my first forays into sci-fi TV, so I was easy to impress, but even early on, S.H.I.E.L.D. still managed to deliver quite a bit of high-caliber genre content. But still, “Aftershocks,” I could identify right away, was special in a different way than previous AoS hits.

After a first season that played out like an upbeat, soapy procedural, S.H.I.E.L.D. was not exactly most people’s go-to for nuance. Sure, certain characters like Fitz and Simmons were, from almost the start, unique enough to be interesting, but aside from little breadcrumbs of backstory, the characters by season 2 were mostly loveable but un-fleshed-out sets of personality traits. It makes sense as to why this happened; with only 45 minutes a week to tell a story about so many different characters all at once, most ensemble dramas lean all in on plot. But now, after the S.H.I.E.L.D. team’s first major tragedy - not the loss of an acquaintance or a character just introduced an episode or so ago but Trip, the impossible-to-hate, tenderhearted grandson of a Howling Commando - “Aftershocks” takes a step back, taking the time to fully map out each character’s souls by exploring how they handle the loss.

As a baby television journalist, I didn’t immediately notice all that “Aftershocks” had to offer (and why). It’s hard to identify how, but the episode’s humorous, jaunty “let’s get the bad guy!” storyline feels like a B-Plot compared to the interwoven scenes of Skye, locked in an isolation pod (ahead of her time) and witnessing the varied reactions of the team to Trip’s tragic death - all the while dealing with the secret guilt that it might be her fault. Again, most shows would make the retaliation against HYDRA its main focus in this instance, but this episode says no, the important thing here is what everyone is doing in-between those moments of vengeance. It's about the way Bobbi reacts compared to the way Hunter does. How Fitz buries himself in fruitless work and frustration while Simmons tries as hard as she can to keep a professional face. How Coulson can’t hide his rage, how May just adds it onto her long list of tragedies to mine for focus. How Mack can no longer stand back and let someone else make the decisions. We are watching the agents at their absolute realest. The quarantine aspect plays up Skye’s immense helplessness in the moment, true, but it also makes Skye an obvious audience surrogate - she is removed from the action, watching the agents through glass as they meet, fight, work out their problems, plot, fume, despair - do anything to come to terms with the fact that they failed and Trip paid for it.

Another notable, related thread that runs through the episode is the various visits Skye receives. Most of the agents, at one point or another, meet with Skye in wildly different mental states that echo the stages of grief, with Skye herself beginning the episode in the denial stage and working forward from there. There’s Coulson - who vows wrath upon HYDRA and all its members (anger). Bobbi - who, acting as a double agent, is secretly bartering with Skye for information, but who also convinces her that she is not a “leper” but a “rockstar” (bargaining). There’s also Simmons, whose aggressively anti-superpowers stance and guilt-ridden reaction to Trip’s death makes Skye believe she truly could be a monster (depression). And with each new visitor, Skye (again, acting as surrogate for the audience) is led through that particular stage, until finally she reaches Fitz, who has been dealing with grief and loss in this season for much longer than anyone else, and who teaches her acceptance of herself and her new powers. All these speak just as much to the characteristics of the show's ensemble - who they are and who they are now, once the chips are down.

In the season 1 episode “Seeds,” Coulson expresses an idea that quickly becomes a cornerstone of the show’s structure: “The world is full of evil, and lies, and pain and death, and you can’t hide from it, you can only face it. The question is, when you do, how do you respond? What do you become?”

This idea of becoming something new in the face of difficulty - something possibly good, possibly evil - is written all over “Aftershocks.” From the different depictions of Gordon and Raina’s Inhuman transformations to the disparate reactions of Fitz and Simmons (once a unit) toward the incident in the temple, to the secrets Bobbi hides from Hunter as they once again grow close, this episode is unafraid to blur some lines and let us know our favorite characters are not the same as they once were.

The beautiful part of this idea is that not all of this change is sudden or shocking like Skye’s transformation was. Most of the characters get to define themselves, and the decisions and words, however drastic, that cause the team to crack and sever throughout the episode still feel natural to each individual character’s experiences. For instance: Simmons, who received heapings of negative reception after her very anti-Inhuman stance in the episode, was very clearly working not from a place of “the writers needing an anti-hero,” but from a regret for what she’s already lost (Trip, Fitz, S.H.I.E.L.D.) and a fear of the things that she perceived caused that loss (the powered and the power-hungry).

The identities and loyalties of every character are in question during the hour, and the way each person processes and expresses their feelings after the incident in the temple tells us exactly who each character is now and has chosen to be. The episode doesn't say it out loud, but it certainly makes it clear: Daisy and Raina weren’t the only characters that metamorphosed after the previous episode. Every character was, in their own way, killed and reborn.

And in the same way that it marked a distinct redefinition of each of its characters, “Aftershocks” was, in every way, the mark of a new AoS. From its uncharacteristically graphic depiction of bloodsplatter and gore (the show would eventually bump its average episode rating from TV-PG to TV-14) to the sudden and aggressive elimination of HYDRA - what had been the only villain in the show up to that point - there is no conception about S.H.I.E.L.D. as we knew it that “Aftershocks” doesn’t destroy. And this concept of constant reinvention is what makes S.H.I.E.L.D. the unique sci-fi treasure it is.

When faced with evil, lies, pain and death, “Aftershocks” showed us exactly what the S.H.I.E.L.D. characters - as well as the show itself - could become. Even this jumble of thoughts edited into review form doesn’t seem like it touches on nearly everything this episode is to me. I could go on and on for hours about this episode and still not be able to touch on exactly why it feels so perfect.

What’s that Jane Austen quote? From Emma? “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more?”

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