Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. started its final season with, “Ripples, not waves.” Heading into the back half of the season, there are tidal waves on the horizon. The team started their time travelling adventures with the best of intentions, but they just can’t help themselves. The decision not to kill Nathaniel Malick has already come back to bite them and with Nathaniel laser focused on Inhumans and Jiaying counting on a May and Yo-Yo-led rescue party, more than one timeline-altering family reunion is in the works. Hopefully they will end more happily than Mack’s.
“After, Before” is the most subdued episode of the season thus far, and certainly a change from the deliciously ’80s “The Totally Excellent Adventures Of Mack And The D.” The episode begins where “Adapt Or Die” ended, following the team on the Zephyr as the time drive begins malfunctioning, sending the Zephyr jumping seemingly randomly through time. There’s an immediate sense of urgency as Jemma struggles to quantify their jumps and understand the problem. Despite the high stakes of their mission, the team has felt more or less safe throughout their journey, defenders of the timeline who will ultimately triumph. That went out the bay doors with the death of Mack’s parents and all of a sudden, the danger feels real. Without the period makeovers and colorful guest characters, these jumps through time are decidedly less fun, and the timeline they return to is becoming increasingly ominous.
Yo-Yo and May are able to recover Mack, Deke, and Coulson, but any comfort from having the gang back together is quickly tempered by Jemma’s analysis of their situation. To put it as Sousa would understand, the time drive is busted and only a super-powered Yo-Yo can fix it. Convenient, yes, but given how long Yo-Yo’s been powerless, any excuse to spotlight her is a welcome one. Daisy suggests popping over to Afterlife—shout-out to season two—and asking her future mother for help. If anyone can help diagnose what’s blocking Yo-Yo’s abilities, it’ll be Jiaying. Of course, it’s one hell of a risk. If they alter Jiaying’s timeline in 1983 even a little, Daisy may not be born in 1988.
The rest of the episode alternates between Yo-Yo and May’s mission to Afterlife and the team’s futile attempts to fix the time drive. They each handle the stress differently. Daisy and Coulson talk as they wait, Coulson increasingly unsettled by his new existence and uncertain of what it means. Deke continues to tinker, looking for a creative solution, while Sousa focuses on something more tangible, parachutes. Jemma is resigned, yet hopeful, presenting Sousa with an improved prosthetic leg and recording a message for Fitz. These small character moments are among the episode’s best, their quiet reflection an effective contrast with the action at Afterlife.
On the Quinjet, Yo-Yo and May commiserate, more than either would prefer. Natalia Cordova-Buckley and Ming-Na Wen have good chemistry and it’s fun getting to spend a full A plot with the two off together. Negotiations aren’t typically May’s strength, but she’s able to connect to Jiaying using her growing abilities. Once Yo-Yo passes their Diviner test—a moment delightfully undercut and played for comedy—Jiaying agrees to help Yo-Yo find what’s stopping her speed. Eventually Jiaying has an answer. Yo-Yo’s block is psychological, not physical.
Jiaying suggests that Yo-Yo meditate with May guiding her through her emotional past. This isn’t working for either of them and after a few awkward moments, May comes up with a better solution. They spar. Both Yo-Yo and May are women of action. Watching them focus their energy through motion, rather than stillness, is immensely satisfying. As they fight, Yo-Yo flashes back to traumatic moments from recent seasons: Being infected with the shrike, Tess’s death, and Ruby’s death. The fight is well staged and each moment hits with appropriate weight. The sequence ends when they uncover the strongest memory, a clearly foundational one for Yo-Yo. When she was a child, a man came after her uncle looking for money and she acted on impulse, hiding her grandmother’s gold necklace. Finding it missing agitated the man and her uncle wound up dead. She blames herself for his death. May encourages her to forgive herself, but that’s easier said than done.
Less interesting is the subplot at Afterlife. When Yo-Yo and May arrive, they see a woman trying to flee, Cora, who warns them to stay away. She is taken back to the compound by a young Gordon and one of Jiaying’s colleagues, Lee, and is held against her will. Eventually they discover why. Cora has a tremendous amount of power which she cannot fully contain, forced to choose between causing pain to herself or harming others. Guilty after losing control and hurting people, she takes Lee’s gun and runs away, planning to kill herself. Instead she runs into Nathaniel Malick. Sybil predicted where he’d find her and he goes full villain monologue, convincing Cora to join up with him and embrace anarchy. Her heel turn is astonishingly quick—one conversation all it takes to go from desperately fearing hurting others to attacking them?—but it seems to stick, at least for now. She returns with Nathaniel to Afterlife and attacks Jiaying, who is revealed to be her mother.
With Nathaniel’s men moving in, Gordon teleports Jiaying, May, and Yo-Yo away, dropping May and Yo-Yo off inside the Quinjet before taking Jiaying safely into hiding. May and Yo-Yo promise they’ll rendezvous with Jiaying and help take on Nathaniel, a bold move considering their time drive troubles, and they rush back to the Zephyr. Yo-Yo confesses that she hasn’t overcome her block, but processing her emotions around this with May unlocks a realization and as the crew prepares to abandon ship, she smiles and runs to the drive, easily removing the fuel cell regulator between the pulses. Accepting that she doesn’t have to return to whom or what she has been in the past frees her, allowing her to access her speed without needing to return to her initial position. The solution is cheesy and again, convenient, but Cordova-Buckley is particularly compelling as Yo-Yo celebrates with Mack, so it’s easy to forgive.
Unfortunately for the intrepid heroes, Yo-Yo’s fix is only temporary. While Daisy recovers in the healing pod and Coulson powers down to charge, the time drive activates and the Zephyr jumps again, to points unknown. In the closing stinger, Nathaniel and Cora stand over a group of bound Inhumans, Nathaniel practically salivating at the abilities he’ll harvest from the people in front of him. Cora may be new as a villain, but she’s on board and any hopes of preserving Jiaying’s timeline are dashed. Whenever the team returns, they’ll have one hell of a tangled timeline to deal with, and a terrifyingly powered supervillain to face.
- I was excited to be able to sub in on the final season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I’ve had a blast watching the gang get into some Legends Of Tomorrow-style adventures through time.
- This episode has a bunch of memorable lines, but I’m particularly fond of Jemma’s faith in mathematics, Enoch’s reflections on Neanderthals and his potential as Deke’s new drummer, and Sousa’s reaction to Jemma’s history of jumping out of planes. However, the best delivery of the episode goes to Yo-Yo and May: “Feelings aren’t exactly our thing.” “They’re really not.”
- Speaking of Sousa, I’m a big fan, but him sitting down to watch Daisy in the healing pod is creepy. Also, Sousa, this massive Nathaniel fight we’re building to is why you always make sure the knocked-out baddie is dead before stumbling to freedom.