Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Season Four Premiere: Goodness Gracious, Great Skulls of Fire!

Tomorrow is the first official day of fall, the crops are coming in, we’re just past the harvest moon, and it’s time for a new season of network TV to start—welcome back to Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., now returning for Season Four! The final episode of last season wrapped up a lot of threads that had been woven through the show since its inception, while introducing some new ones. Hydra has been defeated, Grant Ward is dead (along with the monster that had inhabited his body), and their evil plot to transform the people of Earth into monsters has failed. Daisy, still reeling from becoming an Inhuman and losing her boyfriend, has become a wandering vigilante. Coulson is no longer Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. and is working with Mack to capture Daisy. Doctor Radcliffe, who had been working for Hydra under duress, is now developing Life Model Decoys, or LMDs—devices that have long been a part of the S.H.I.E.L.D. comics, but are new to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

But the big news for the new season came after the Season Three finale aired, with the announcement of an unexpected addition to the mix: the supernatural Marvel character Ghost Rider, who has received a sub-title in the credits (at least for the time being), and given his name to the first episode of the new season: “The Ghost.”

 

What We Already Know

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Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is back for a new season in the new time slot of 10 PM on Tuesdays, and there have been suggestions that this later time slot will lead to a somewhat darker tone for the series. A press release from ABC does an excellent job of setting the scene for the new season: “In light of the Sokovia Accords, and with Hydra obliterated, S.H.I.E.L.D. has been legitimatized again and no longer needs to operate in the shadows. Since the world presumes that Coulson is dead, the organization needed a new Director to be the face of the organization. Coulson finds himself back in the role as an agent and teamed with Mack, and together they are tasked with tracking down and confirming the presence of Enhanced people, aka Inhumans. Agent May is tasked with training specialist strike teams, and Fitz and Simmons have taken a big step forward in their relationship.”

The core cast of Clark Gregg, Ming-Na Wen, Chloe Bennet, Iain De Caestecker, Elizabeth Henstridge, and Henry Simmons are all returning for the new season. Natalia Cordova-Buckley will back in at least some episodes as Elena Rodriguez, aka Yo-Yo. John Hannah reprises his mad scientist role as Doctor Radcliffe. New cast members include Gabriel Luna, who appears as Robbie Reyes, the man who becomes the latest incarnation of the Ghost Rider. And Jason O’Mara joins the cast as the newly appointed Director of S.H.I.E.L.D.

I was initially surprised to hear about the introduction of Ghost Rider into Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., as his mystical origins don’t seem to fit the science and spy orientation of S.H.I.E.L.D., but I have since read that, with Doctor Strange coming to theaters soon, the creators wanted to tap into the magical side of the Marvel universe. And certainly, if you want your show to take a darker tone, introducing Ghost Rider—a character also known as the Spirit of Vengeance—makes sense. Ghost Rider first appeared in a comic book called Marvel Spotlight, which ran during the 1970s, and was used to introduce (or, in some cases, revive) characters that were often spun off into their own books. During the first year, the comic presented characters that harkened back to the company’s pre-superhero western and horror comics: the Native American character “Red Wolf,” the tortured “Werewolf by Night,” and the Spirit of Vengeance, “Ghost Rider.” (And in a side note, it was Marvel Spotlight that first presented the origin of a character known as Star-Lord, whose latest incarnation leads the very popular Guardians of the Galaxy.)

Of those first three characters from Marvel Spotlight, it was Ghost Rider who achieved the most popularity. The character has appeared in comics in a variety of incarnations, and was played in two films by actor Nicholas Cage. The version we will be seeing on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will be the one from current comics, a young Mexican-American mechanic named Robbie Reyes, who lives in L.A. with his disabled brother. Robbie enters a race in a car that, unbeknownst to him, is possessed with an evil spirit, and has a trunk full of drugs (Note to self: when borrowing cars, always have them exorcised, and always empty the trunk). He is shot by criminals who want the drugs, finds himself reincarnated as the Ghost Rider, a magical being with a flaming skull for a head, and begins a career of battling evil-doers. Interestingly enough, here we find a clear connection to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: those drugs were owned by Calvin Zabo, aka Mr. Hyde, father of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s own Daisy, aka Quake. It would be a lot of fun to see this connection used on the TV show, as it might lead to a return of Kyle MacLachlan, who did a great job with the role in previous seasons.

 

Episode Recap

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Daisy is now trying to atone for her past failures by becoming a vigilante, pursuing skinheads, Watchdogs, and other bad actors. She is closing in on a truck full of them when another vigilante arrives, in a flaming car. He kills most of the bad guys, leaving one wounded and capturing another She finds the wounded one in the hospital, who tells her something about “The Rider,” and then falls over dead. As the episode progresses, she finds out more and more about this man, who a street artist calls the “Ghost Rider.” They seem to be pursuing some of the same people, but when Ghost Rider catches up to them, those people end up dead.

While this is happening, we see that the old S.H.I.E.L.D. gang has been broken into pieces. Coulson and Mack are now field agents, spending weeks at a time in the air on the Zephyr. May is a training officer, building an elite assault team. Fitz is in his lab as usual, and he and Simmons are now an item. It is Simmons who has changed the most: she is now a special advisor to the new Director, subject to daily lie detector tests. The Director is not seen in this episode, but it is obvious that, paranoid about a Hydra-like infestation of S.H.I.E.L.D., he has compartmentalized the organization to the point where it is hard to function as a team. Everyone who expresses an opinion about him seems to hate, or at least distrust, him, and there is a lot of bickering between the folks who used to be inseparable; in other words, S.H.I.E.L.D. should probably bring in Human Resources to conduct an organizational climate survey.

May risks tipping off Coulson that Daisy may be wrapped up in some mysterious events in LA, giving him a chance to find her before the authorities move in. The new Director is willing to order Daisy’s death to neutralize the threat she poses, focusing on the damage she does, but not how that damage ties into her efforts to combat hate groups. Mack and Coulson head out to LA, on the pretext of meeting Yo-Yo, a S.H.I.E.L.D. field asset. Yo-Yo flirts with Mack, until Coulson tells him they have a lead on their mission. Interestingly, Yo-Yo later rendezvous with Daisy on a bus. She is not only working for S.H.I.E.L.D., she is feeding information to Daisy to help her with the vigilante work—and also passing Daisy special S.H.I.E.L.D. drugs that can help her heal the bone fractures that occur when she uses her quake powers.

We see Fitz arriving to watch football with Doctor Radcliffe, and a naked girl walks out. Or, as Fitz finds out, it is a naked android: Doctor Radcliffe has given his AI assistant, AIDA, an artificial body. Fitz at first wants to report it, and doesn’t trust the Director’s good intentions. But AIDA, once Radcliffe clears up her speaking glitches, gives Fitz a great elevator pitch about wanting to help S.H.I.E.L.D. agents by replacing them at key moments and acting as a decoy to save lives. So Fitz agrees to help Radcliffe perfect his invention, and to keep it secret from Simmons so that she can’t reveal it to the Director during her lie detector screenings. Something tells me this will not go well.

Daisy finally finds the Ghost Rider, and he introduces himself as Robbie, seeming friendly at first. But when he realizes that she is on to him, he attempts to capture her. They battle, quake powers versus flame powers, and he finally traps her under a big metal shelving unit, his head transforming before her eyes into a blazing skull. Daisy tells him that she is guilty and he should kill her. But he doesn’t—probably because he could tell her heart is pure, or something like that.

And finally, Coulson and Mack are pursuing some bad guys that Daisy seemed to be investigating, hoping that they will cross tracks with her. Coulson uses his artificial hand to project some sort of x-ray beams at a truck (a neat new trick), and finds two bodies. The men are wearing an infinity symbol on their coats. Coulson and Mack set up surveillance on a factory that uses the same logo, where some bad guys open a mysterious box, releasing a strange mist along with what appears to be an evil female spirit. The men see themselves transforming into monsters, and start killing each other. May and her team, who were dispatched to stop Coulson from pursuing an off-the-books mission, arrive at that moment and take the bad guys out with great efficiency. May has a brush with the evil spirit, however, and at the end of the episode she sees Coulson’s face apparently turn into a monster, but controls her reaction. So, in addition to the Ghost Rider, we may be dealing with another case of demonic possession this season…

In the stinger, Daisy sees Robbie picking up his brother, who is confined to a wheelchair, and realizes that, although he is a vigilante killer, he also has a softer side. And in the preview for next week, we see Robbie/Ghost Rider explaining himself to Daisy, but we also see all “hell” breaking loose.

 

Final Thoughts

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Like many season openers, this episode spent a lot of effort setting things up for the future, at the expense of telling a single story. I am not sure about the whole Ghost Rider thing, as he still seems an odd fit with S.H.I.E.L.D., but they did a good job of introducing the character, so I am trying to keep an open mind. I am looking forward to finally meeting this new Director, and wondering if maybe he’s prone to glowing evil eyes himself when no one else is around. I didn’t mind the bickering between our core S.H.I.E.L.D. cast, which added a bit of drama to the proceedings (although that could grow tedious if it goes on for too long). May’s new team is promising, and I liked her female second-in-command. I am actually happy Coulson got demoted, as he feels a lot more like the Coulson of old: the super competent field agent. For all we know, he also may be secretly glad he got demoted.

My main interest, however, is seeing how the whole AIDA plotline moves forward. Radcliffe and Fitz did not use the words “Life Model Decoy,” but that is what AIDA is. And LMDs have been a big part of S.H.I.E.L.D. right from the very first comic adventure, and could potentially open up all sorts of fun dramatic possibilities. There was no reintroduction of Mr. Hyde, or a Grant Ward LMD, but who knows what the future will bring? All in all, after the ending of so many story lines at the end of Season Three, I thought the episode was a pretty successful introduction to S.H.I.E.L.D.’s “new normal.”

So let the discussion begin! Following the model from last year, this post will kick off a discussion thread I will shepherd as the season unfolds. If you want to follow the discussion, the best way to do it is to use your Tor.com user account. If you don’t have one, it is easy to sign up; then you will be able to 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, and/or share any S.H.I.E.L.D. news you might hear. In the words of the unflappable 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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