Tuesday, February 14, 2017

S.H.I.E.L.D. Now And Then: "The Man Behind The Shield" Works!

The Good: Coulson and Fitz's arcs, Acting, Plot progression
The Bad: A few lines, A plot similarity with the reversal at the end
The Basics: "The Man Behind The Shield" rapidly becomes one of the best episodes of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. as Coulson desperately searches for May and Mace through clues left by one of the adversaries from his past.

The problem with a long-running television series adding new characters is that sometimes, the new characters simply do not gel with the established characters. No show that keeps reinventing itself that is on television now seems to recognize that quite like Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.. To its credit, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. quickly started to accent its core cast after Ward was outed in the first season as a HYDRA sleeper agent. But, between characters that simply have short arcs with nowhere to go - Agent Triplett, Lance Campbell - and characters who keep getting written out on the hopes that they might carry a spin-off series (Bobbi Morse, possibly Ghost Rider), Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. has had difficulty making new characters who integrate well with the established cast. Sadly, in the fourth season, the new S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Mace has certainly fallen into that unfortunate niche. As "The Man Behind The Shield" begins, Jason O'Mara's Director Mace is one step closer to being written out of the narrative, for better or for worse.

"The Man Behind The Shield" follows "BOOM" (reviewed here!) and that episode climaxed with Director Mace being captured by the Watchdogs. The leader of the Watchdogs, The Superior, has it out for Coulson specifically and "The Man Behind The Shield" opens with the promise that either Mace or Coulson might get fleshed out a bit. As it turns out, it is Coulson who gets a decent amount of characterization in "The Man Behind The Shield" as one of his earliest S.H.I.E.L.D. missions is flashed back to while he carries on his current quest to find May and Mace.

Coulson and Daisy experiment with a combat simulation in Fitz's version of the virtual reality framework before an agent informs Coulson that the GPS on has been found in Alaska. Reaching the Watchdog facility there, S.H.I.E.L.D. finds The Superior's wall of Coulson data. The Superior and his Watchdogs have returned to their new facility where Radcliffe has been spending more and more time in the framework. Looking over the wall, Daisy starts to piece together the Superior's past with Coulson. Coulson recalls one of his earliest S.H.I.E.L.D. missions - in Russia - with May. Mace breaks out of his cell, but is quickly subdued by the Superior.

On the Zephyr, Mack argues the ethical ramifications of the framework Fitz worked with Radcliffe on, while Coulson takes his team back to the Russian site where he once recovered an 0-8-4. While Mace is tortured by the Superior, the S.H.I.E.L.D. team reaches the site the Superior has prepared for them. The Superior lost a team of Russians quite some time ago and he blames Coulson for his loss. Fitz finds a way to track some of the code used in the framework, but he finds the code all around the world and is unable to narrow down its location.

"The Man Behind The Shield" provides backstory for Coulson and the episode is high on charm for every scene shared in flashback with Coulson and May. It is episodes like "The Man Behind The Shield," which remind viewers just how much has been lost or changed on Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.. The character interactions, the spunky dialogue, the actual spy missions, they have been minimized in the fourth season, but "The Man Behind The Shield" brings that all back hard! Coulson is played wonderfully by Clark Gregg and he seems to recall exactly how he used to play the role - in his cameos early in the Marvel movies - and he replicates that fun, quirky, acting perfectly.

Radcliffe in "The Man Behind The Shield" is reduced to little more than an information addict. Radcliffe starts to use the framework obsessively and that makes a lot of sense considering Agnes (the woman upon whom Aida is based) is now only alive inside his framework. Aida is presented in "The Man Behind The Shield" in an entirely mechanical way. Mallory Jansen plays Aida as entirely robotic, which she is good at, but is incongruent with the way Aida has been presented in most of the other episodes.

Just as Clark Gregg gets the opportunity to return to the way he used to play Coulson, it is instantly refreshing to see Ming-Na Wen back on screen, playing opposite Gregg. Wen and Gregg have great on-screen chemistry in the flashback scenes and those scenes are enough to make the viewer legitimately hope that the two characters they play will end up together. "The Man Behind The Shield" allows Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge to play off one another with legitimate chemistry as well.

"The Man Behind The Shield" also allows Fitz to have his first truly good arc of the season. Fitz has been pretty neglected in the fourth season as he has had something of a puppy dog crush on Aida. In "The Man Behind The Shield," Fitz finds himself wrestling with some of the consequences of his pure pursuit of science. The moral implications of Fitz's inventions have been glossed over in the past, but with Aida and the framework being projects Fitz worked on, he is now compelled to deal with some of the effects of what he created.

Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. has had a tendency to make unfortunately predictable reversals. "The Man Behind The Shield" climaxes with a far better reversal and the episode is actually one of the best of the series. Outside some truly cringeworthy lines from Mace and an unfortunate similarity to where Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. went previously when Daisy was swayed by Hive, "The Man Behind The Shield" resonates with good character moments, good performances, and a pretty solid plot!

For other works from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, please visit my reviews of:
Marvel Cinematic Universe Phase 1: Avengers Assemble
Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 1
Doctor Strange

[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. - The Complete Fourth Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the fourth season here!


For other television reviews, please check out my Television Review Index Page for a listing of all the episodes and seasons I have reviewed!

© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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