The Good: John Hannah's performance, Moments of character, Entertaining, Pacing
The Bad: Minimal character development,
The Basics: "Hot Potato Soup" is a pretty straight forward hunt episode as the Koenigs return to Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. as part of the hunt for the Dark Hold.
As Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s fourth season reaches "Hot Potato Soup," it is hard not to feel that the show has become a real mess. The villains are hardly clever or intimidating, the heroes are in a pretty aimless place and the relationships viewers have invested in for years have become so forced and contorted that the show has no real chemistry to it. It was, honestly, hard to turn on "Hot Potato Soup" and get excited about it.
"Hot Potato Soup" follows on the events of "Wake Up" (reviewed here!) and it marks the return of Patton Oswalt to Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. in addition to following up the many, many plotlines going on in the fourth season. "Wake Up" added the important information that the Life Model Decoy version of Melinda May is unable to reveal her nature to her teammates, even though she had become self-aware. That opens Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. up to the potential revelation in a future episode of a second LMD already in play (smart money would be on Fitz) and currently has all of the season's villains working together.
Billy and Sam Koenig are in an arcade where they are being hunted by Radcliffe's forces. Billy is abducted and given that he is the one who had the Dark Hold, S.H.I.E.L.D. is desperate to find him. Billy wakes up with Radcliffe and they prepare for torture. But Radcliffe soon is revealed to be working with The Superior and he decides to employ an alternate means of getting the information from him. While the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents attempt to hack the LMD Radcliffe, Sam Koenig, Daisy Johnson, May and Coulson piece together the international aspect of the Watchdog anti-Inhuman conspiracy.
When LMD Radcliffe reveals he knew Fitz's father, Fitz begins to unravel. Sam reveals that he turned the Dark Hold over to someone else and Coulson sets his sights on locating and bringing in L.T. Koenig. Koenig's sister is the custodian of the Dark Hold and S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Watchdogs discover the location right around the same time. In the ensuing conflict, as Fitz and Simmons open up the LMD Radcliffe's skull, truths come out and the fighting escalates in a horrible way.
There is something very reassuring about the opening to "Hot Potato Soup" in that the Koenigs are shown to be generally competent as S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. When the Koenigs first showed up, one of the dominant theories was that they were LMDs. Now that the Life Model Decoys have entered the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it makes some sense that Koenig would resurface in order to eliminate the possibility that Koenigs are LMDs.
"Hot Potato Soup" is an acting tour de force for actor John Hannah. Hannah plays both Radcliffe and LMD Radcliffe and his physical performance of LMD Radcliffe is impressive. As LMD Radcliffe begins to psychologically manipulate Fitz , Hannah takes on a particularly sinister gleam in his eye that is unsettling. At the other end of the spectrum, Hannah plays Radcliffe as a credible scientist aboard the submarine in a way that makes it believable that Radcliffe could have developed all of the technology he has.
Agent Fitz is finally given a decent subplot in "Hot Potato Soup;" though the whole idea of Fitz having a terrible father is pretty familiar to fans of Joss Whedon's works. This is essentially Wesley's arc from Angel. Fitz having father issues makes a lot of sense, but it comes up in a very inorganic time for Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.. After Fitz was wounded and given brain damage at the climax of the first season, it seems strange that he might not have reached out to his estranged father or vice versa. Whatever issues are between the two, it needs to be such that neither would have explored their relationship again after the character was essentially rebooted after that event.
"Hot Potato Soup" continues the trend from "Wake Up" where the plot and fairly light character development dominate the first half of the episode and the second half gets surprisingly awesome. Patton Oswalt is predictably wonderful as the Koenigs and his portrayal of Billy is infused with a sad quality that he plays masterfully. But until the last third of the episode, "Hot Potato Soup" is fairly banal and plot-focused with a very generic chase plot.
The end of "Hot Potato Soup" manages to refocus Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. on Agent Coulson and if the series manages to winnow away some of the superfluous plotlines and characters, there is the potential the season could be salvaged. As it is, though, "Hot Potato Soup" is far too early in that process for viewers to be optimistic.
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