After a big episode that majorly altered the playing field for these characters, this week’s episode of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. offers a smaller scale story showing how each agent is settling into the new status quo. Skye is now part of a hidden society, learning how to control her powers with the help of a dreamy bearded “transitioner” by the name of Lincoln. Coulson and Lance are on the run from S.H.I.E.L.D., hatching a plan to steal a Quinjet and gain some more firepower. May is a prisoner of Gonzales, and Fitz and Simmons are being courted by this new faction of S.H.I.E.L.D. to help unlock the mysterious box from Coulson’s office. There’s a lot of new ground to cover, and “Afterlife” charges into this uncharted narrative territory, particularly with regards to Skye and her transformation.

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Tonight’s episode provides a lot of information, but not much in the way of thrills. There’s a cool fight sequence featuring the return of Mike Peterson, a.k.a. Deathlok, and Gordon and Cal smack each other around for a bit, but the action is pretty low-key compared to last week’s shootouts and earthquakes and Lucy Lawless beatdowns. Instead, “Afterlife” takes a few baby steps to getting Coulson back in power, and delivers loads of exposition about the Inhuman culture of the MCU (even though “Inhuman” is still not being used), which is interesting but presented in a fairly bland, straightforward manner.

Unconscious for two days after Gordon rescued her, Skye wakes up nearly naked with acupuncture needles all over her body, the first step in the treatment that will help her adjust to the rapid evolution her body is undergoing. She’s being kept in the mountain city of Lai Shi, known by the natives as “Afterlife,” a place where descendants of Inhumans are evaluated, cultured, and prepared for Terrigenesis. But only one person is chosen to undergo the process every few years. Skye learns all this from Lincoln, who underwent Terrigenesis and emerged with electricity-based powers, giving writer Craig Titley the opportunity to not so subtly have sparks fly between the two.

Introducing Inhuman elements theoretically gives this show’s design team the chance to embrace some more fantastic visuals, but the interiors for Afterlife look like repurposed Dollhouse sets while the exteriors look like basic botanical gardens. This appearance is intended to create an atmosphere of tranquility that will ease the transition for those that are transformed by the Terrigen mist, but it lacks a strong visual character. There’s a distinct Chinese influence, but it would be nice to see the design team push a little further and find ways to incorporate elements that are more unconventional and alien.

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Granted, that’s not necessarily a priority for the people behind the scenes, who are clearly setting up the Inhumans to be the MCU’s answer to the X-Men. Alien isn’t the name of the game here, which is why Skye and Lincoln look like very attractive humans. Like mutants, some Inhumans undergo dramatic physical transformation while others stay the same on the surface but experience changes underneath, and the writers of this series are making sure to keep things grounded in reality at this early point in the introduction of the Inhumans. (We’re still four years away from the Inhumans film, which will likely feature the royal family of Inhuman characters that readers are most familiar with.) The alien aspect comes through in Raina, but even then she covers herself most of the time so that we don’t get to really take in her new appearance.

The Skye story picks up steam when she discovers that Raina is also being kept in Afterlife, and Skye blames all of her recent troubles on her thorny fellow Inhuman. She confronts Raina in a rage, but before Skye can take any action she may regret, she’s stopped by the woman who will be her guide through the rest of her transition: Jiaying, her mother. I’m happy to see Dichen Lachman back on the show with a meatier part in the plot, and the short amount of time she spends with Cal brings out a tenderness in him that is a striking contrast to the fury of his Mr. Hyde persona. It will be interesting to see how she interacts with Skye as she teaches her how to control her powers, and I have no idea what to expect when father, mother, and daughter all come together.

While there’s considerable forward movement with Skye, the Gonzales/Coulson conflict lags this week. There’s the aforementioned sequence with Deathlok that spotlights the sweet new upgrades Mike Peterson has gotten since we last saw him, but not much else is especially memorable. There are some tense conversations between May and Gonzales that continue to build the atmosphere of paranoia that will directly play into next summer’s Captain America: Civil War, and we also get some new hints regarding the mission that earned her the nickname “The Cavalry.” It all comes down to fear of “powered” people and what they are capable of if they are not contained, which is going to become a more pressing issue as superpowers become more prevalent in the MCU.

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I suspected that Simmons would join Gonzales’ group if she was asked, and while it looks like she’s helping the enemy this episode, she’s still loyal to Coulson and tapping into those double agent muscles she worked out at the start of the season. She toys around with Coulson’s mystery box knowing that it will infuriate Fitz and make him want to leave, and when he packs his bags and heads out, he discovers that Simmons has snuck the real device in his bag while she works with a fake. (She’s also packed a prosciutto and mozzarella sandwich with pesto aioli because she’s the best.) So now the team is even more scattered than before, although I imagine it won’t be long until Fitz joins up with Coulson and Lance.

Considering the monumental events of last week’s episode, it makes sense for Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. to take a breather and assess the characters’ current situations, and while “Afterlife” doesn’t offer as much excitement as recent installments, it’s still a completely serviceable chapter in a very strong season. It would be nice to see the writers and designers have a bit more fun with the Inhuman elements of the story, but like Lincoln, they are helping the viewer transition into this corner of the MCU before hopefully unleashing the really weird stuff down the line.

Stray observations:

  • Daredevil debuts this Friday and I am so excited. I’ll also be doing episodic reviews daily for T.V. Club starting on premiere day, so I hope you’ll join me for 13 episodes in Hell’s Kitchen. (Fingers crossed for a Daredevil/Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. crossover next season.)
  • Next week we get a flashback to the mission that gave May her nickname, which makes me very excited. I’ve been waiting for this episode since the show began.
  • This episode begins with Coulson and Lance stealing a man’s car and then shooting him unconscious, which is a pretty good example of Coulson being a less than model citizen.
  • Sounds like Lincoln likes to partake in herbal refreshment. What if the key to Skye controlling her earthquake powers is getting stoned?

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