Ever since the Helicarrier-crashing reveals at the heart of Captain America: The Winter Soldier hit the heart of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, ABC's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been the story of shifting allegiances. It's as appropriate thematic ground as one can imagine for a spy show, and in this week's new "Afterlife" episode, the "Whose side are you on?" ideal tightened the narrative screws.
One major voice tearing the show (and S.H.I.E.L.D. as a concept) apart is renegade official Robert Gonzalez. While his long-hidden version of the organization has mostly overtaken Phil Coulson's lean and mean attempt to carry Nick Fury's torch, Gonzalez has yet to win a major defector to his cause. On his hit list of candidates are recently shell-shocked scientist Fitz, superpower distrusting Simmons and generally stone-faced May. While it's hard to believe that any of the core cast would easily jump ship from their allegiance to Coulson, the show smartly gives Gonzalez some ideological weight to his pitch.
Fact: Coulson has been an at times erratic leader whose motivating drive since a miracle alien resurrection started beaming secret maps into his brain. Fact: in a world where New York City, London and Washington, DC have seen huge chunks of real estate eaten up by superhero battles, a healthy distrust of those with powers is more than understandable. And fact: even as these other considerations make a case for a "Shoot first, ask questions later" approach, Gonzalez courts each of his potential recruits with a reasonably even-handed assessment of Coulson. Of course, that may mostly be a play to get the team to open the vibranium cube that houses long-hidden Nick Fury secret files.
In any case, Coulson himself isn't doing much to earn the trust of anyone as he goes off the grid. After stealing a car and tracking the wayward Skye by any means necessary, the Director's only trusted compatriot is Hunter – whose own dedication is motivated in part by the most recent betrayal of his ex-wife Mockingbird. When the pair of them hit a deadend at the safehouse where Skye was last seen (ignore the fact that nuS.H.I.E.L.D. left no one behind to guard the place), Coulson's best play is to draw out the forces of his rivals and steal a jet from them. The sequence makes for plenty of breezy MCU banter and twists – not the least of which is the reemergence of long offstage anti-hero Deathlok – but it hardly endears Coulson to a man worried about his plans for super shenanigans.
Meanwhile in the somewhat mystically hidden locale that gives the episode its name, Skye has awoken to her own test of allegiance. As it turns out, there are more mysteries than answers in the place she's been teleported to by eyeless Inhuman Gordon. Waiting to guide her on a journey to discover her powers is Lincoln – a stock "cute guy with electricity powers" played forgettably by Luke Mitchell. Lincoln offers endless platitudes about Skye's obvious safety at Afterlife and the promise of her newfound "gifts," but with each sparkly-eyed promise he makes, there's the hint of another shoe to drop (usually accompanied by "don't mind that secret cabin" hijinx).
However, the broad strokes of this storyline retain the "just enough new info revealed to keep your interest" track of all of Skye's recent dramatic turns. Gordon is holding Skye's crackpot father Cal in a locked room somewhere. The prickly Inhuman that was once Raina has been embraced by the city elders even as Skye seems to be on the bubble at best. And in a late episode twist, Skye's long-missing mother appears to offer her services as mentor (without revealing to our Agent her true identity).
In an episode full of plot points that could easily be frustratingly slow, it's little moments like that which hold Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. together for one more week as it closes in on a finale and potential Age of Ultron crossover. The doubt cast as to whether Skye will be welcomed as an Inhuman is a tantalizing bit of spooky spy drama. And even more so is the final fallout of Gonzalez's attempts to recruit Coulson's team. We never really believe that May will flip even as she accepts a position at the head of the new S.H.I.E.L.D. to help decide Coulson's fate. But when Fitz and Simmons' already strained relationship seems to collapse under the weight of her seeming desire to play ball for the greater good, it's easy to believe that our heroes are breaking rank. That is, until Fitz waltzes out of the locked down headquarters with Fury's mystery cube thanks to some quick Simmons slight of hand.
We may not know exactly who to trust from the new cast, but the show keeps us firmly committed to our leads. And that's enough to push us towards the finish.