Like his fellow Marvel Cinematic Universe heroes Tony Stark (in Iron Man 3) and Steve Rogers (in Captain America: The Winter Soldier), Phil Coulson is never more relatable or appealing than when stripped of his friends and resources, hunted by enemies, and forced to improvise on the run. As demonstrated in this week’s episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Coulson, after getting ousted from his command last week by usurper Robert Gonzales, partners with Hunter for an hour of buddy movie shenanigans. In fact, we get to see Coulson have more fun in the opening sequence of “Afterlife” — shooting a fast-talking used car salesman and stealing his SUV — than he’s had all season long, which has me hoping he won’t reclaim his position too soon.
The odd couple wind up in one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s safe houses, where Coulson decides to take the offense by giving their location to Gonzales, in an attempt to secure a Quinjet. That lets the two men play the same trick Lex Luthor and Otis used in Superman II, creating holograms of themselves as a distraction so they can sneak away — and play the Star Wars/Raiders of the Lost Ark/Lord of the Rings card of disguising themselves as the enemy. They’re soon apprehended, but Coulson has one last ace up his sleeve in the form of Mike Peterson (a.k.a. Deathlok, played by J. August Richards), whom we learn has been running secret missions for Coulson; and who manages to free his new boss with the help of some upgrades to his cybernetic arsenal. Now, the three men must seek aid from the disgraced Ward, who remains MIA after the events of the show’s midseason finale.
Elsewhere, Skye, after calling on Gordon’s help in the wake of her freakout last episode, finds herself covered in hi-tech acupuncture needles designed to help her body accept its new powers. She’s held in the mysterious town of Lai Shi (Chinese for “Afterlife”), and spends most of the episode getting background info on her lineage from Lincoln Campbell, a dreamy young man with electrical powers (played by Luke Mitchell of the CW’s short-lived The Tomorrow People). Luke explains that only one of the descendents of the Inhumans (though the show still refuses to call them that) is selected to undergo Terrigenesis every few years. By acquiring her powers without authorization from the “elders,” Skye essentially “jumped the line.” It’s not the first time the former Mary Sue has earned the privileges of those far more experienced than herself, and she’s no more sympathetic when she decides to bid goodbye to her new home after learning it also harbors the now porcupine-like ne’er-do-well Raina. However, a last-minute appearance by Jiaying (her mother, unbeknownst to Skye) changes her mind, when the woman explains how she will mentor her.
Back at headquarters, Fitz and Simmons, along with May, are offered jobs by Gonzales. Bobbi and Mack try to coerce their young friends, and it looks like Simmons has actually switched to their side when she offers to open Fury’s Toolbox for them. But she winds up pulling a fast one and substitutes a fake device for the real one, which she sends off with Fitz in an attempt to get help, along with one of the prosciutto and mozzarella sandwich with pesto aioli that she knows he likes so much. It’s a ridiculously sweet coda when we see Fitz discover her ruse in the back of a cab, as delighted to be given a sandwich by the girl he loves as he is by the means through which to save S.H.I.E.L.D.
“Afterlife” is yet another season 2 winner. It has far fewer fight sequences than last week’s “One Door Closes”, but I found it even more engaging due to how much time it devotes to the characters we’ve come to care about. The episode gives us even more reasons to root for them as they race towards an uncertain future and a destiny that will align them more closely than ever with the events to come in the MCU. It’s a testament to S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s improved quality that I now find myself anticipating its upcoming episodes almost as much as Avengers: Age of Ultron.
- I can accept that S.H.I.E.L.D. prefers not to refer to its Terrigen Mist-infused folks as Inhumans (and that “metahumans” has already been taken by the DC TV Universe). Okay, fine. But can we please come up with a better name than “powered people”? Heck, The Incredibles‘ “supers” sounded better.
- While last week showed us why Gonzales distrusts Coulson, I’d like the show to give more of an explanation as to why he fears “powered people.” Here’s hoping next week’s episode offers us something.
- I’m not much of a pot smoker myself, but I have plenty of friends who enjoy a little weed. So any opportunity to cast such folks in a sympathetic light — on a Disney-sanctioned TV series no less — makes me happy.
- If this show was a 1980s Marvel comic, we’d totally get a road trip spin-off miniseries about Coulson and Hunter a la Kitty Pryde and Wolverine. Is it too much to ask for something like that on television?
- I like how Hunter’s initial idea is, essentially, for the two of them to say “Fuck it” and head south. Let the slash fiction writing commence!
Next week: Coulson and Hunter launch a counterstrike against Gonzales, and we at long last learn why May is called “The Cavalry.”
What did you think of this week’s episode? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter (@JMaCabre).