SPOILERS FOR AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. AHEAD!
Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is creeping ever closer to its finale, putting the pressure on these next few episodes to start laying the groundwork for a climactic final battle of some sort, the resolutions to a dozen or so characters’ story arcs, and satisfying and conclusive answers to all the questions we still have about time travel, Chronicoms, and now – because apparently this final season wasn’t already getting dangerously overcrowded enough – Inhumans.
To be clear, I like Inhumans a lot. Since their introduction in Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s second season, they’ve been a constant presence in the show: the series’ protagonist, Daisy Johnson (Chloe Bennet) herself is one, and in the third season we added another, Elena “Yo Yo” Rodriguez (Natalia Cordova-Buckley), to the team. But both characters have moved somewhat to the sidelines over the last season, and as a result we rarely even hear the word “Inhuman” tossed around anymore – which may also have something to do with the poor reception to the Inhumans spinoff show. This week, that’s changed: the team has to make a quick detour in Afterlife, the Inhuman hub of activity deep within the Himalaya Mountains, and encounters several new superpowered characters as well as younger versions of ones we already know and love (or hate: mostly hate). In any other season, I would probably have welcomed this subplot, which gives us a chance to revisit one of the series’ best stories: but in this season, I think the showrunners and writers might be biting off a bit more than they can chew. The Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. already have to deal with the Chronicoms, Sibyl the Predictor, Nathaniel Malick (Thomas E. Sullivan), HYDRA, and the consequences of their time-traveling antics – now, we’ve suddenly added an entirely new Inhuman threat to their long list of antagonists (oh, and apparently Daisy has an evil sibling from another timeline, which is…a twist, I guess).
The reason for our return to Afterlife revolves around the character of Yo Yo, who has been struggling for a while now to regain her own Inhuman powers – which mysteriously vanished soon after she was infected by the Shrike parasite last season. This week, her ability to run super fast and “bounce back” to the place she started from finally has a chance to come in handy: the time machine that the Agents have been using to navigate the Marvel universe is malfunctioning, and moving too quickly for anyone to get near it and shut it down. On a good day, this would have been an easy job for Yo Yo – but this time around, it requires her and Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen) to leave the relative safety of the Zephyr One and head off to Afterlife, following the advice of Daisy: who, to be fair, is technically correct that the Inhumans there will know how to help, but also overlooks the many things that could go very wrong if they disrupt the timeline – specifically, the possibility that she could cease to exist if something happens to her Inhuman mother, Jiaying (Dichen Lachman), the leader and protector of Afterlife’s citizens.
There are many good things that come about as a result of this detour: we get to see a (slightly) more lovable Jiaying, who in this timeline hasn’t yet been ripped to pieces and stitched back together by Nazi doctors; we’re introduced to a knife-wielding warrior named Li who is briefly yet brilliantly portrayed by Byron Mann; and best of all, we are privy to some of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s best comedic banter as Jiaying instructs May – notorious for her grim, cynical attitude – to lead Yo Yo on an emotional journey with the power of incense, meditation and physical contact. I love when this show gets funny: and watching May and Yo Yo try to figure out their own method of physical contact that doesn’t involve any actual physical contact (“Do I have to be this close to her face?,” May wonders aloud at one point) is both hilarious and strangely heartwarming. It feels very much like an episode straight out of a past (and perhaps better) season, with a multitude of clever details in the writing that hark back to when this show was some of the best television on the air – for instance, when Yo Yo has to hold a Diviner to prove she’s an Inhuman, but realizes she can’t use her prosthetic hand to do so; or when May and Yo Yo sort out their aforementioned embarrassing predicament with good old-fashioned hand-to-hand combat. This is a very good episode, so it’s a shame it’s trying to do so much with so little time.
The big twist is that rogue HYDRA agent Nathaniel Malick has discovered Afterlife, and plans to capture Inhumans and basically torture their powers out of them and into himself. Malick invades Afterlife in a disappointingly low-budget raid with the help of Kora (Dianne Doan), a rebellious and underappreciated pupil of Jiaying’s who is also, apparently, the daughter of the Inhuman leader – which makes her Daisy Johnson’s sister. I didn’t know that Daisy needed a long-lost sister this late in the game, but apparently she’s getting one whether she wants one or not. Malick runs into Kora and stops her before she can commit suicide (in a very cunning touch, he uses the little bit of Daisy’s powers that he stole to remotely disassemble Kora’s gun): Malick manipulates the young woman’s fragile emotions and quickly recruits her to his cause – her, and her impressive powerset, which allows her to create weird glowing golden spirals out of thin air. It’s set up fairly well (when we first meet Kora, she’s already trying to escape from Afterlife), but it still feels a bit too rushed, especially since we don’t really have any attachment to Kora before her turn to the dark side and now we’ll probably only get to see her as Daisy’s evil sister, whom I’m sure will have to confront her sibling in an epic duel, etc., etc. You know how it goes.
As for Yo Yo…well, there’s a lot going on with her. Turns out, she’s been holding herself back all this time – and I mean all this time. Since she was first introduced, her power has always been to “bounce back” – I mean, it’s literally where she got her quirky nickname. But as she discovers during her emotional journey with May, she’s never actually needed to bounce back. This is something I feel deeply conflicted about: the fact that she can now just run super fast without limitations is very exciting, but it does make her seem a little too much like every other speedster superhero we’ve seen before. Another crucial element of her character, her metal arms, was also conveniently hidden away earlier this season when she got a new, upgraded pair of lifelike prosthetics that make it easy to forget how life-changing the loss of her arms was for her, and how she became such an icon for people with disabilities who were inspired by Yo Yo’s ability to bounce back after trauma and loss – the very same ability she’s now given up. Yo Yo is clearly supposed to be going through a transformation, but she’s not becoming any more interesting or unique with each of these changes. I still love her, and I can’t wait to see what the next step of her journey will be, but I’m more worried than ever that Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is forgetting part of what makes this character so beloved in the fandom.
What makes it worse is that, when all is said and done and Afterlife has been vanquished by Malick’s forces and Jiaying is in hiding and the timeline has been completely and utterly disrupted, Yo Yo’s new powers still don’t help to save the Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. from being sucked into some sort of new catastrophe – a time storm that, by the looks of the trailer for next week’s episode, threatens to put the agents on an endless loop. The good news? Next week’s episode also looks like it will be Daisy-centric, finally reconnecting us with the series’ protagonist after what feels like an infuriatingly long time in the background.
Episode Rating: 8/10