The midseason premiere of Agents of SHIELD was sort of a mixed bag, really. But this big climactic scene made the whole shebang absolutely worth it. This is the kind of curveball that makes this show's characters richer and better. Spoilers ahead...
So "Aftershocks," as its name suggests, was all about the aftermath of the previous episode, in which Skye and Raina got transformed into Inhumans and Tripp and Whitehall were killed. The whole surviving SHIELD team is freaking out and wracked with grief and anger, and meanwhile they're keeping Skye in quarantine. And Coulson wants revenge on Hydra, which he obtains in a surprisingly ruthless fashion.
Fitz protects Skye
That scene above, like a lot of things involving Fitz this past year, is a thing of pure wonderment. Basically, the awfulness of Tripp's death has left everybody in a terrible space. And Simmons, in particular, is suddenly convinced that instead of trying to understand alien influences — like the mists that gave Raina and Skye superpowers — SHIELD should just be wiping them out. Simmons (who clears away the fragments of Tripp's body in a heart-rending scene) thinks of Raina's transformation as a kind of contagion, that requires extreme shoot-first-think-later measures.
This is unfortunate, because it's fulfilling the dire prophecy of how people will greet Skye's transformation from Cal, Skye's father. But it's really just due to the fallout from Tripp's death. (And I'm not 100 percent sure I buy Simmons having such a radical change in her worldview, even after losing someone she was getting close to.)
In any case, Skye is on the verge of being exposed as an Inhuman in SHIELD's midst, right when everyone is at their most suspicious and xenophobic. Fitz has the data from her wrist monitor, showing her heartbeat reached 300 BPM during the earthquake (which she actually caused). Fitz actually witnesses her earthquake powers going out of control and breaking a lamp. And Simmons is comparing her current DNA to previous samples. Skye is about to become an object of suspicion, or worse.
Until Fitz decides to protect her, swapping her blood samples and hiding the wrist monitor results. Because just like Fitz himself, Skye is just "different" — she's not wrong, or broken, or dangerous. She's just not the person she used to be, and people can't grasp that right now. The way Fitz identifies with Skye's predicament is beautifully underplayed and not at all signposted, which makes it feel more genuine.
And it also adds another dimension to the rift between Fitz and Simmons, who are no longer on the same page about so many things.
Mutiny in SHIELD
Simmons' newfound desire to wipe out everything alien is just one of the changes that happens in the wake of Tripp's death. Coulson, as I mentioned, is way more driven to strike back at Hydra, and acts like a man obsessed. But when he tries to rally the troops, he runs into a bit of a mutiny — chiefly from Mack, who correctly points out that Coulson's obsession with those alien diagrams led to Hydra getting access to that Inhuman city in the first place.
Mack is pissed that Tripp died for nothing, basically trading his life for Skye's. And he sees Coulson continuing to throw his agents' lives away on another crazy obsession, instead of being smart. (But at least, while everyone else is treating Skye like bad luck, Bobbi brings her a care package, including weird soda.)
Of course, Coulson doesn't believe that Tripp threw his life away — he thinks that Tripp's actions stopped the deadly earthquake in Puerto Rico before it could get any bigger. (Because Coulson thinks the earthquake was caused by the Obelisk, when in fact it was caused by Skye, who's just as dangerous as ever.)
Even the bond between Mack and Fitz is tested, because Mack is traumatized by having been mind-controlled and used by the Inhuman city. Mack thinks Fitz can't understand what it's like to be under someone else's control and used as a weapon against your friends, whereas Fitz understands perfectly (maybe because of Lorelei?). [UPDATE: I get that Fitz feels not in control over his own body, as various people are pointing out in comments. But in context, Fitz is responding to Mack's statements about being forced to hurt his friends against his will, which is NOT something Fitz's brain injury has caused.]
The gang are ripped apart by bitterness over what happened to Tripp — but only Coulson is able to turn Tripp's death into a source of inspiration. When Coulson goes to give the bad news to Tripp's mother, he's reminded that Tripp represented the best of SHIELD, its compassion and trust — and Hydra has none of those things. Which Coulson decides is a weakness that can be exploited.
The Hydra Sting Operation
When I was recapping the previous episode of Agents of SHIELD back in December, I mentioned that "Hydra went down too easy." One of the best things about the events following Captain America: The Winter Soldier was the fact that the remaining SHIELD loyalists were massively outgunned and outflanked by Hydra, which had secretly taken over SHIELD and had unimaginable resources at its disposal. The prospect of a nearly unbeatable Hydra keeping SHIELD on the defensive was thrilling.
But slowly, Hydra's gotten easier and easier to defeat — and last night's episode was another major step in that direction. Unless there was some trick to all this, and things weren't as they appeared, it looks as though Coulson dealt a massive blow to Hydra with a pretty transparent ruse.
Basically, Coulson offers to hand over Bakshi, Whitehall's second in command, to Glenn Talbot. But then Bakshi "escapes," thanks to a fake Hydra attack, and Bakshi is "rescued" by a Hydra agent, who turns out to be Lance, with a silly American accent. Lance gets Bakshi to safety, just long enough for him to check in with Bloom, one of the top Hydra honchos. Then Lance pulls a gun on Bakshi and insinuates that some other Hydra bigwigs want Bakshi out of the way.
Bakshi offers to pay Lance way more than whatever those other Hydra heads are paying him, and after only a brief token hesitation, Lance agrees. When Bakshi gets to Bloom's side, he immediately tells Bloom that three other Hydra leaders (the Baroness, the Banker and the Sheikh) have turned against them. And Bloom, after consulting with another leader, Dr. List (who apparently still talks to Strucker), decides to have the Banker, the Baroness and the Sheikh killed.
Then Lance (and Bobbi, who's joined him) use their supercar to wipe out a squad of Hydra soldiers, before bursting into Bloom's mansion and killing him, along with his underlings. They recapture Bakshi, who's going to be handed over to Talbot as planned.
So Coulson's plan works perfectly — he's wiped out four of the five remaining members of the Hydra council, mostly without having to get his hands dirty. This was fun to watch, what with the fake gun battle and May's fake death and Coulson's overacting, and yet it didn't entirely work.
I kept rewinding the episode again and again, thinking I must have missed a scene — as it was, this storyline felt weirdly rushed and way too easy. Because Lance pulls a gun on Bakshi and then decides to change sides, Bakshi immediately believes that three of Hydra's top leaders have turned traitor, without even bothering to ascertain the facts.
Cal and Raina
Raina has spent most of the past year and a half trying to achieve her transformation into an Inhuman, because she believed she would become an angel like her grandmother promised. But instead, she's covered with thorns and she looks somewhat bizarre, and her new sharp edges keep hurting her because her "insides feel like gravel." She blames Skye, for getting to stay beautiful while Raina became something ugly.
But at least she's hard to kill — after Raina gets cornered in the Inhuman tunnels, she takes out a bunch of SHIELD soldiers and withstands a few direct hits from Simmons' gun. Then she flees, and catches up with Cal, who is overjoyed to hear his daughter also made it to the "Temple" and received the gift of transformation.
The scene between Cal and Raina is kind of insane, actually. Cal is so happy about Skye's transformation, he's actually dancing. But he's also pissed that Coulson robbed him of his revenge on Whitehall, and now Skye is sheltering with Coulson instead of with Cal. So Cal decides to reconnect with some of "the Index" — the other Inhumans? — and wreak a little havoc, to mess with Coulson. That way, Cal can prove to Skye that SHIELD will just treat her like a freak and she belongs with her father, instead.
But when Raina asks for Cal's help, he says he's already helped her, and now she's achieved her goals — even if it didn't turn out the way she hoped. There's no way to fix her now, and her "life-long dream" really will be life-long. When Raina says she can't live like this, Cal basically suggests she end it all.
But Cal treating Raina like dirt is juxtaposed with the behavior of his dead wife, Jiaying, as seen in a flashback at the start of the episode. Jiaying apparently spent a lot of her supernaturally long lifespan taking care of the newly emerged Inhumans and teaching them to live with their challenging powers — including the guy with no eyes, who has the power of teleportation. And when Raina is about to try and kill herself (by forcing SHIELD to kill her), the eyeless man appears to rescue her. Because he's carrying on Jiaying's work.
One wonders what Jiaying would think of her husband's behavior towards Raina.
Mack and Bobbi's conspiracy
And finally, we get a few more hints about what Bobbi and Mack are up to — and it's not just a support group, as she tries to tell Lance. They're scheming at something, and being so furtive that Bobbi won't even take Mack's side when he stands up to Coulson.
At the end of the episode, while everybody is having a wake for Tripp — and realizing they're "going to laugh a lot less" without him" — the tiny model of Lola (Coulson's car) that Mack made comes to life. The toy Lola scans Coulson's office, and uncovers that "Fury's toolbox" is locked in there. (This must be the tools for running SHIELD that Fury gave Coulson when he went on the run.) And Mack has also gotten hold of "the blueprints for the base." So they're almost good to go, and Bobbi says she'll make contact.
All in all, like I said, this was a mixed bag. Skye's new status quo, hiding her powers and relying on Fitz as her confidante, is pretty intriguing, and it's cool to see Coulson being a devious mastermind (even if his plan goes awfully smoothly). At the same time, some of the dramatic moments felt slightly overplayed. And perhaps this episode suffered slightly from coming on the heels of Agent Carter's mini-season, which is a very tough act to follow indeed.