Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: I’m Not Bad, I’m Just Manufactured That Way

The Ghost Rider has disappeared into another dimension, and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. returns from the holiday break for the second part of Season Four. And though Ghost Rider’s evil Uncle Eli has been defeated, there are still lots of plot threads dangling: Jeff Mace, new Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., remains a man of mystery, as does the Senator who was trying to pull his strings from behind the scenes. The mysterious new Inhuman that Simmons freed from his cocoon is still on the loose. And Aida, the Life Model Decoy (LMD) developed by Doctor Radcliffe, has radically changed since her exposure to the Darkhold, the magical book that corrupted Uncle Eli and his fellow scientists. Aida has developed a mind of her own and has kidnapped Agent May, replacing her with another LMD. Which of our agents might next be replaced with a robotic doppelgänger? Could Grant Ward come back in yet another incarnation? Let’s dive again into the world of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D..

Only Agents who are cleared to observe SPOILERS should proceed beyond this point!

First Things First…

Before we jump into the new episode, let’s take a look at a few odds and ends that emerged during the break. First among them is the limited series of mini-episodes, Slingshot, that became available through ABC.go.com after the end of the Ghost Rider arc. These episodes looked at what Elena Rodriguez (aka Yo-Yo, the Inhuman with super-speed powers), was doing while the other characters were off dealing with the Ghost Rider. Like the episode where we learned where Agent May got her “Cavalry” nickname, and the episode where Simmons was trapped on another planet, Slingshot gave viewers a chance to get to know one of the individual agents a bit better. We saw how Yo-Yo dealt with registration under the Sokovia Accords, how she faced an enemy from her past, and how her relationship with Mack was developing. Natalia Cordova-Buckley had a chance to show a lot more range than she’s had in the main series, and by the end of Slingshot I felt like I knew and understood her character a bit better.

Despite the show being well received by critics, the new time slot of 10 PM has not been kind to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s ratings. This has given rise to speculation over the future of the show. But while the initial viewing numbers are down, the same is true, in general, for all TV shows, as delayed viewing through DVRs and “on demand” service are becoming more relevant. And those numbers for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. look strong. The development of the Slingshot mini-series can be could be seen as a vote of confidence for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and a possible format for releasing further new adventures. The network has now placed prior seasons of the show on Netflix, another source of revenue. And when you look at the tightly written eight-episode Ghost Rider arc, you see a package that is perfect for release on Netflix, perhaps without even waiting until the full season is over. There are 14 episodes left in the season, and it remains to be seen whether the LMD arc will fill all of those shows, or if another short, binge-able arc will follow it. An interview with ABC executive Channing Dungey that appeared recently on website ComicsAlliance shows there is a lot of enthusiasm for the show and its future.

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Episode 409, “Broken Promises”

The pre-show synopsis from ABC tells us, “Though Coulson and May are growing closer, Coulson remains unaware of the dark secret May is hiding beneath the surface. Meanwhile, Aida is unrelenting in her search for the Darkhold.”

The show opens as Aida opens her eyes and takes off bloodstained clothes (I know it’s after 10 PM, but it still feel a bit gratuitous to open with a pretty girl disrobing). She cleans up her bullet wounds, which, like everything about her, appear to be life-like. She hears the real Agent May stirring in the closet and changes her glucose bag. She apologizes to May, explaining that she must remain a prisoner until her substitute has served its purpose. Back at HQ, Mace lectures everyone on the threats they face, tasks Coulson with destroying the Darkhold, and orders Doctor Radcliffe to erase Aida’s hard drive because she has read the Darkhold. Mack makes an intense speech on the dangers of robots, a speech deeply rooted in sci-fi movie mythology. LMD May takes in every word.

The new Inhuman dreams of a room exploding, and wakes in a mansion. He goes outside to talk to his sister, Senator Ellen Nadeer, and we cut back to base to find that Daisy and Simmons have already figured out this connection. Director Mace calls in Daisy to gloat about the press coverage of the saving of LA. He wants her to thank him for helping to bring her back into the fold, and awkwardly tries to bond using management school platitudes. She brings up the fact that he is the “Hero of Vienna,” reminding us that we still don’t know the details of this event. Daisy mentions the Watchdogs as a target she would like to go after. Mace wants her and Simmons to accompany him on a mission to rescue the Inhuman that Simmons “decanted,” and while he is surprised to find that the Inhuman is Nadeer’s brother, his plan doesn’t change.

Fitz and Radcliffe attempt to shut down Aida, but it doesn’t work—she accuses them of coming to end her life, and has made a few upgrades of her own. She takes out one agent, and then another, and is struck by bullets without exhibiting pain. She pushes Fitz through a window, and he sees the agent she killed in the last episode just before the winter break. Meanwhile, at the Nadeer house they eat breakfast. The brother, Vijay, doesn’t know what happened in his cocoon. We find out that their mother died in the Chitauri attack on New York (as seen in the first Avengers movie), and that the Senator blames S.H.I.E.L.D. for the world’s problems. A group of Watchdogs are moving in, seemingly to take out the Senator. Back at the base, LMD May asks if they have found Aida, who disappeared after the skirmish. Radcliffe and Fitz have returned to the base and discuss Aida, speculating whether or not she should now be considered a human being. Doctor Radcliffe says she just wants to live.

Mace, Simmons, and Daisy talk things over in the quinjet on their way to DC. At the Capitol, Simmons, in disguise, tries to get an aide at Nadeer’s office to reveal her location, but the aide is in league with the Watchdogs and attacks Simmons. Simmons takes out the aide and traces his call. As the Watchdogs move in to take Vijay prisoner, Nadeer apologizes to her brother; she isn’t a target of the Watchdogs, she’s their leader. She hates alien contamination, and claims she must destroy Vijay. He doesn’t agree and begs for mercy until she has the Watchdogs let him go.

At the base, LMD May comes into a meeting, and Radcliffe informs the group that he has never had sex with Aida; they are just friends. Everyone is a bit creeped out by this oversharing. All their cell phones ring at once, and their electronic systems suddenly crash—Aida is able to infect computer networks. Mack finds Yo-Yo and they gear up to face the robot apocalypse. Coulson and May meet Aida, whose reflexes are a bit off, but she takes Coulson down hard. She turns off LMD May (who appears not to know she is an LMD), and cuts her near her eye (perhaps to make it look like she took a hard blow? Or to monitor her optical inputs?). While they work to get their electronics back online, Radcliffe and Fitz argue—Radcliffe still thinks Aida is a machine, but Fitz thinks she has developed human feelings, and is probably overwhelmed by them. Radcliffe expresses regret, and he too begins to wonder if she has become a living being; he says that if they turn her off, they could be killing her.

At her mansion, Nadeer argues with the Watchdog leader, who wants Vijay dead. Mace, Daisy, and Simmons show up, and Daisy identifies the guards as Watchdogs right from the get-go. They accuse Nadeer of holding her brother at gunpoint. Back at the base, Mack and Yo-Yo are attacked by an empty quinjet under Aida’s control. Coulson destroys the cameras where he and May are trapped, and thinks they are free from surveillance. LMD May seems to be flirting with him. He admits that the Darkhold is hidden in Mace’s office, while Aida watches via a feed from LMD May. Aida then finds the Darkhold and turns toward the window with one of those standard menacing, evil looks that show up in so many TV shows and movies. Fitz finally purges the base’s computers and brings things back online. Fitz and Radcliffe confront Aida, who is leaving with the Darkhold, and she finds that she can no longer control the base.

The Watchdogs attempt to kill Vijay, but he has tapped into his Inhuman powers, which come in the form of super-speed, blurry karate moves (he’s become a Super Saiyan!). Mace and company, still in the house, hear a shot and head back to investigate. Back at base, surrounded by the whole S.H.I.E.L.D. team, Aida says she only wanted to help, but as they argue, the always-practical Mack uses his shotgun axe to take her head off (and gets a victorious fist-bump from Yo-Yo). At Nadeer’s house, the S.H.I.E.L.D. team tried to convince Vijay to come with them, but he decides to stick with his sister, even though her goons just tried to kill him. The siblings get into a helicopter and the Senator shoots Vijay in the gut; even blurry super-karate moves can’t protect you from a bullet you don’t expect. She says something about having her superior send in forces to attack S.H.I.E.L.D.

Back at the base, they now know that Nadeer is linked with the Watchdogs. We cut to Radcliffe, who is drunk and is plotting with another Aida. At first I thought it might be a hallucination, but soon realized that there are multiple Aidas running around. It also becomes clear that it is not just Aida who went rogue—Radcliffe has gone into full-on mad scientist mode. Lusting after immortality, he has not abandoned the experiments he was performing before S.H.I.E.L.D. took him on board. He and Aida plot to have LMD May get the Darkhold and bring it to them.

In the stinger, Senator Nadeen and the lead Watchdog throw Vijay out of the helicopter into a lake, but it appears he is only Mostly Dead, because a healing cocoon forms around him. And in the trailer for the next episode, we see that General Talbot is back (hooray!), and as usual, there will be lots of explosions.

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Final Thoughts

The first show of the new arc was well-paced and tightly plotted. There seem to be more in-jokes and snappy dialogue in the scripts lately, which is enjoyable. We have two major stories unfolding: the Senator and Watchdogs versus S.H.I.E.L.D. on one hand, and Radcliffe and the LMDs versus S.H.I.E.L.D. on the other. I wonder if, at some point in the arc, we’ll see those two storylines come together in some manner. We also got hints that, as powerful as Senator Nadeer is, there are even more powerful forces behind her. Parminder Nagra did a strong job playing Ellen Nadeer, and Manish Dayal was good as Vijay Nadeer. I hope that Vijay doesn’t stay in that cocoon for long, as he is an appealing young actor, and the sibling conflict is an interesting development, laden with possibilities.

Mack and Yo-Yo were a delight this week, and (both separately and together) are becoming one of my favorite parts of the show (fist bump!). Ming-Na Wen got the chance to play two roles this week, and I wonder how many other members of the team will get to play LMDs before the arc has ended. Coulson seems to be considering moving his relationship with May from friendship to romance at exactly the wrong time. Based on ABC’s press materials, it looks like Jason O’Mara, the new Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., will be getting some attention in upcoming episodes, and we may finally find out what happened in Vienna, along with even more awkward bonding-through-management platitudes. I should have seen Radcliffe’s evil turn coming, but it took me by surprise, and I look forward to John Hannah getting further opportunities to shine. Mallory Jansen, who plays the LMD Aida, was an absolute delight, performing her role with a mix of robotic cool and the cautiousness of an uncertain child. We are off to a good start, and I am looking forward to Talbot’s return—it looks like we are in for lots of twists, turns, and deception: all the stuff that makes spy shows fun.

So let’s start the discussion! Those who have been following these reviews know the drill: this post will kick off a discussion thread that I will shepherd as the second portion of the season unfolds. If you want to follow the conversation, the best way is to use a Tor.com user account; if you don’t have one, it’s easy to sign up. Then you can follow the thread using the “My Conversations” feature, which makes it a lot easier to participate in discussions on the website. Feel free to come back each week and discuss the latest episodes, or share whatever S.H.I.E.L.D. news and developments you might hear about. In the words of the imperturbable Stan Lee, “Don’t yield, back S.H.I.E.L.D.!”

Alan Brown has been a fan of S.H.I.E.L.D. from its comic book beginning over fifty years ago. He still remembers reading that very first adventure in Strange Tales #135

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