Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – Season 7 Episode 8
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. remains in the 1980s and heads to Afterlife to consult Jiaying in order to restore Elena’s powers.
It was only a matter of time before the final season got around to referencing the Inhumans and how they played into the show. The concept was first introduced in this show before being ineptly explored on its own TV show that is better left forgotten. Unknown to viewers at the very beginning of the series, Daisy -then Skye- was to be our point of view character to explore this adapted corner of the Marvel Universe. Her parents, Jiaying and Calvin Zabo were a big part of those early Inhuman stories so it’s only natural that the time travel gimmick would be used to bring at least one of them back.
The reason for including Jiaying is that the Zephyr is stuck making constant jumps because the Time Drive is malfunctioning and don’t have long to figure out how to disconnect it before they are destroyed. The only way to accomplish this is if Elena uses her super speed to run in and remove a vital component before their time runs out. Of course the problem is that she is unable to use her powers which prompts the suggestion to visit Jiaying in Afterlife and see if she can find a way to restore her powers. Her knowledge of Inhumans was unparalleled so it makes sense as something to try.
As you might expect this plan comes with its own challenges as Jiaying is xenophobic because she’s afraid that Humans will come into Afterlife and destroy their way of life so getting in isn’t an issue but getting out proves increasingly problematic. Jiaying is basically exactly as we remember her; reasonable on the surface but calculating behind closed doors. She isn’t the focus as May is completely conscious of what to expect so the prospect of being trapped within Afterlife forever never quite feels like a problem worth worrying about despite how many clandestine conversations are had about the threat these outsiders may represent to their way of life. It’s great to see Dichen Lachman back on the show, she plays Jiaying in the nuanced way she always did and is constantly an engaging presence. Her compassion for Elena and her problem is clear but there is also the underlying agenda helping fuel her interest though I’ll come to that later in the review.
Elena’s working assumption up until this point was that her problem was physical. Her conclusion was that being attacked and violated by a Shrike did something that broke her powers but looking into it further makes it clear that her problem is psychological rather than physical which means that she has to get to the root of that issue and deal with it in order to regain her abilities and move on with her life. May is identified as a useful resource as her empathic ability allows her to help Elena contextualise her feelings rather than pushing them further down. They both recognise that they aren’t the best for dealing with feelings but the lack of nearby options prompts an attempt. May finds a solution that suits both of them and turns it into a sparring match. Her idea is to force Elena into using her powers to defend herself and it ends up leading to her thinking back on the experiences that led her to this point. Among those memories is the death of Ruby Hale and Tess hanging in the Lighthouse as examples of the terrible things she has both seen and been involved in over the years. The point being made is that all the darkness that has been witnessed takes a psychological toll and the attack from the Shrike is likely to be the final straw that broke something in her. This is a great sequence as it combines strong action with equally strong characterisation. Elena is literally and figuratively fighting to be her old self. There is real emotional weight attached to this fight and both characters are used wonderfully.
May’s unconventional therapy method ends up uncovering a memory that says a lot about Elena as a person. She recalls being a child and taking a piece of jewellery off a table which indirectly led to her uncle being murdered. The most striking thing about this is that she emerges from a closet, grabs the item and quickly returns to the closet. This visual is a slower version of how her abilities work after Terrigenesis and is the first suggestion that she is holding herself back. Elena’s speed is a unique depiction because she always returns to the exact point she began once she stops, hence the name “Yo-Yo”. This ends up informing her character in other ways such as Mack pointing out that he calls her Yo-Yo because she always bounces back from hardships she faces. It’s corny but it fits their relationship and connects Elena to her power in a very intimate way.
The events of this episode allow her to come to the realisation that she doesn’t have to bounce back right before she grabs the component and then doesn’t return to her starting point. She concludes that she was probably always able to do that but held herself back because of the issues she had experienced in her life. In that flashback the closet represented safety and there was a need for her to grab the item quickly before returning to it so it clearly left an imprint on her that ended up defining her when she got her powers. It’s a really interesting step forward for her and a defined change in attitude for Elena because she is looking to move forward rather than bounce back. The moment of realisation was a bit clumsy but the sentiment was exactly what it needed to be and was handled brilliantly from build-up to payoff.
May and Elena end up showing up in the middle of a situation in Afterlife. Jiaying is so interested in what could suppress the “gift” that comes after Terrigenesis because she is dealing with an Inhuman that is completely incapable of controlling her powers while being so powerful that she could end up accidentally destroying Afterlife and killing everyone in it. Drawing on Jiaying’s earlier characterisation makes it clear how desperate she is as she was always depicted as considering Inhuman abilities to be a sacred and spiritual thing that they learned to make part of their identity. The threat must be significant if she’s willing to consider taking the gift away from someone. Added to that is the fact that Kora (Dianne Doan) is her daughter which makes her Daisy’s sister so the prospect of doing something that will cause her harm is even more unsettling. Our introduction to Kora is from May and Elena’s perspective; they arrive just as she has been pursued and captured which leads the audience to assume that she is being held there against her will while coming to their own conclusions as to why. Early evidence suggests that she’s terrified of what she has become and the strange people forcing her to live with it. We’ve seen questionable treatment of visitors in prior seasons so it’s an easy conclusion to draw but the truth is as expected far more complicated and Jiaying clearly has difficulty dealing with what she might have to do in order to protect everyone.
The episode doesn’t quite succeed in detailing Kora’s perspective. She’s used more as a device that moves the plot forward rather than a character in her own right. She manages to escape and almost kills herself in order to escape the horror that her life has become but Nathaniel Malick uses his stolen powers to destroy the gun and offer her a partnership where she will be accepted and can feel like she’s part of something. If more work had been done on Kora as a character then her decision to ally herself with Malick might have felt more earned but it’s simply a thing that happens in the episode in order to increase tension. Malick remains an engaging presence and is being used far better than the Chronicoms were previously so there’s enough intrigue created by what he does here to carry into the remaining episodes. May making plans to meet up with Jiaying is an interesting prospect as well as it puts her on the board for a return later in the season and creates the potential for a different sort of interaction with Daisy. It’s safe to say that the timeline has been completely changed now and the present day that the team will inevitably return to will be vastly different to the one that they know. It’s entirely possible that Daisy will never be born in this timeline thanks to the events of this episode.
The scenes on the Zephyr are a mixed bag as the problem being faced is presented in a way that’s overly complicated which makes it difficult to latch onto what the stakes are. Things seem frantic but there’s an odd calmness from many of the characters that underplays the danger that they are supposedly in. There should be more urgency attached to the characters being minutes from death rather than the bizarre mix of reactions that we actually do get. There are some great moments in here such as Simmons leaving a video message for Fitz who she knows to be listening out there somewhere. He still doesn’t appear but the idea that he’s out there somewhere watching over them and guiding their journey through time feels appropriately comforting. Simmons’ message is heartfelt and well acted by Elizabeth Henstridge without seeming too saccharine and it felt like the right thing for Simmons to do under the circumstances.
Daisy removes herself from the healing chamber so she can spend what might amount to her last moments with the people she cares about even though it might make her injuries worse. In fairness if they end up being killed because the Zephyr explodes then her injuries won’t make much difference so it makes sense for her to want to face death with her eyes open. Her conversation with Coulson where he talks about how unsettled he is by his current situation while not knowing if he’s actually unsettled or simply mimicking what an algorithm determines to be Coulson’s most likely response to existing as an LMD. I’ve always found this show’s approach to artificial intelligence to be really interesting as it strays away from the common narrative of them becoming self aware and remains firmly on the path of advanced programming mimicking sentience. Coulson appears concerned about the fact that he has no idea if he’s actually concerned. He “feels” Human but has no idea if those feelings are real so is having something of an existential crisis as he is unable to resolve this issue. This works really well from an audience point of view as well as it’s easier to assume that this is Coulson even though we know that it isn’t; the original Coulson died with this being a very advanced simulation of the man that Coulson was. It’s a lot to contemplate and as a reviewer I simply refer to the LMD as Coulson because it makes the whole thing easier to work with though I will explore the fact that it isn’t really him whenever it becomes relevant. There’s a really strong understated moment when Simmons tells him he need to plug him in so his body can be fully charged. She tries to reassure him by telling him to think of it as a short nap but for him it’s complete deactivation. The only way he can deal with that is by being the one to press the button. It gets him as close as possible to being Human by taking control of when he gets to switch off and that’s everything to him in that moment.
Sousa and Daisy’s dynamic is in the background for now but there’s genuine affection developing there even if both don’t realise it. He repeatedly shows concern for her well-being and even sits by her proverbial bedside when she returns to the healing chamber at the end of the episode. This is while he adapts to his new prosthetic leg that will remove the limp that he had previously. At the moment it’s unclear if their dynamic will evolve into a strong friendship or head down a romantic route but for now it’s enough that there is something deeper there that they are both presently unaware of.
A strong episode that provides excellent development for Elena, makes great use of a returning character and explores really big questions around Coulson. It was only a matter of time before the final season would cover the Inhumans in some way. Bringing in Jiaying to help diagnose what caused Elena to lose her powers was a really good way to reintroduce that character and use her in a way that made sense. Jiaying is used well though time is devoted to making the situation a dangerous one for May and Elena without it actually coming across as being overly dangerous. May is aware of what is likely coming and isn’t overly worried about it so the focus is on Elena. Exploring Elena’s problem using the two characters that have the greatest difficulty expressing their feelings works really well because it encourages the approach to be a unique one. May’s therapy method is by way of a sparring match and it shakes memories loose that help Elena understand her problem. Most significant is the childhood memory of her uncle being killed as a result of something she did. It ends up forming the inspiration for how she uses her powers and pays off beautifully when she realises that returning to her starting point was because she was holding herself back. The point of realisation is clumsy but the sentiment is spot on. Kora ends up being more of a plot device than a character which is a shame given the potential she had. She will definitely be used later in the season now that she has allied herself with Nathaniel Malick but the episode doesn’t do enough work to earn her decision to fully turn against Jiaying despite a strong introduction. Nathaniel Malick remains an engaging presence and is far better used than the Chronicoms.
The scenes on the Zephyr are something of a mixed bag as the problem being faced is overly complicated making it difficult to latch onto what the stakes are. Much of the characterisation is great such as Simmons’ heartfelt message to Fitz that confirms he’s watching over them from afar. Coulson and Daisy’s conversation is excellent and digs into the implications of what the LMD is. Coulson feels unsettled about the fact he’s not sure if he can even feel unsettled. He doesn’t know if his feelings are real or an advanced algorithm. From the point of view of those around them and the viewer it’s easier to assume that he is the real Coulson even though it is completely evident that he isn’t. This pays off beautifully when Simmons tries to reassure him about deactivation in order to charge by comparing it to a short nap but Coulson knows that it isn’t and requests to at least be in control of when he’s turned off. It’s a quietly powerful moment that works brilliantly. The Daisy and Sousa dynamic is slowly developing but is interesting to see. It remains to be seen whether it will turn out to be romantic or if it will be a strong friendship but so far it’s very engaging.
- Jiaying being used well within the context of the episode and coming across as nuanced as she once was
- May coming up with a creative therapy method to get to the root of Elena’s issues
- Elena’s childhood memory and how that informs the way she uses her powers
- having this pay off with her mastering her powers and resolving to move forward rather than bounce back
- Coulson’s feelings/programming prompting a discussion about the nature of his existence
- the growing Daisy/Sousa dynamic
- difficulty latching onto the problem those on the Zephyr were facing due to it being overly complicated
- Kora acting as a plot device rather than a character which makes her alliance with Malick feel unearned
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