Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. Takes On "All The Madame's Men" As The Stakes Rise!

The Good: Direction, Performances, Moments of character
The Bad: Plot spreads the characters a bit thin.
The Basics: "All The Madame's Men" brings back more Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. characters and allusions, which twist on Madame Hydra's plan finally being revealed!

Reversals are tough to pull off these days in spy thrillers. That might seem counter-intuitive because spy thrillers tend to generate excitement and intrigue based upon the reversals in them, but the truth is that "the big twist" has become pretty passe. Viewers are more savvy than they used to be and there is so much more material in the genre now that fans of the spy thriller tend to be on the lookout for clues that might make a surprise reversal or be so familiar with the plots of spy thrillers as to see the reversals as an unfortunate end to a very predictable formula. Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is, unfortunately, no different and part of the problem with some of its reversals is that they sometimes come out of left field; those looking for clues to the eventual reversal find not only red herrings pointing away from a character who executes a abrupt shift, but strong characterization contrary to the idea that they might so switch sides. "All The Madame's Men" begins burdened by one such reversal.

"All The Madame's Men" begins right after "No Regrets" (reviewed here!) and it is impossible to discuss the new episode without some references as to where the prior episode concluded. After all, "No Regrets" saw the death of a "main" character (though, heroic end aside, the death lacked real impact given how little was known of the character and how little he as in the series) and climaxed with HYDRA's version of Agent May within the Framework switching sides. Having used a terrigen crystal on Daisy, May has committed to helping the upstart Rebellion within the Framework . . . whether or not such a reversal is at all realistic for the character May has become inside the virtual world.

Sunil Bakshi is giving a news report announcing to the world the death of the Patriot when May returns to where she left Daisy cocooned in terrigenesis. Attempting to escape the Triskelion, the pair run into Madame Hydra. Daisy is able to use her powers and she throws Ophelia out a window, which knocks Aida out of the Framework. There, the Watchdog Aida reconstructed discovers that he cannot kill May without Aida's permission. Back in the Framework, Mack, Triplett and Ward try to figure out what to do next, while Simmons and Coulson try to keep S.H.I.E.L.D. together in the power vacuum left by Mace's death. At the Triskelion, while Madame Hydra lays unconscious, Fitz's father convinces Fitz to take charge of HYDRA!

Fitz's first action is to use Bakshi's television show to stir up fear of Inhumans and set the citizenry against Daisy and May. At Resistance Headquarters, Coulson and Ward talk about their histories with S.H.I.E.L.D. and Simmons comes to understand the nature of Madame Hydra's Project Looking Glass. Madame Hydra is building the mysterious boxes that were illustrated in the Dark Hold (and that led to the creation of Ghost Rider and Morrow!). When Simmons and Triplett go in search of the site Simmons believes houses Looking Glass, the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents left behind flounder. This allows Coulson to step up as the defacto head of S.H.I.E.L.D. and his first act is preventing Mack from killing May! As the Resistance works to expose HYDRA, Fitz completes Project Looking Glass!

Mace's death at the climax of "No Regrets" lacked some impact based on the fact that the character was only recently introduced and he had a conflicted relationship with the familiar S.H.I.E.L.D. characters. Given that his death was not chock full of weight, it seems strange that Aida could not simply revive his body and send him back into the Framework with a new programming . . . "All The Madame's Men" does not take any time to explore that possibility.

Seeing May back in action is delightful, regardless of how she came to that point. Ming-Na Wen leaps back into a more familiar version of Melina May and that is wonderful to see. Wen and Chloe Bennet play off one another incredibly well, as if they had not had any gap in acting opposite one another!

Just as May's return to form allows Ming-Na Wen to shine, "All The Madame's Men" gives Iain De Caestecker the chance to truly flex his performance of Fitz in the Framework. De Caestecker really rocked out his range in the second season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. when Fitz suffered brain damage. For no clear reason, Fitz's brain damage went away and his character was restored and De Caestecker went back to playing Fitz like he always had (at least, after he rescued Simmons from the distant world). "All The Madame's Men" reminds viewers what a powerhouse he has the potential to be as he plays Fitz not only cold, but truly vicious. Fitz easily slips into using fear and terror as weapons against the people within the Framework and De Caestecker makes the character creepy to watch with his efficient control of his visage!

"All The Madame's Men" finally does what Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. has needed an episode to do in that it ties the early episodes of the fourth season to the current dilemma in the Framework. The appearance of the mystery boxes in the Framework makes the first several episodes of the season suddenly vital for something other than simply a plot tool that would lead Aida to be able to develop The Framework beyond what Radcliffe has made.

The thing is, the threat the boxes represent is not made very clear. Like the voluminous allusions to past episodes represented by Ward mentioning Victoria Hand, Fitz's father and Bakshi resurfacing, viewers who have not been fans of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. before the Framework plot will miss out on the richness of the writing depth.

Director Billy Gierhart does an excellent job of directing "All The Madame's Men." There is one key scene where characters are moving in the same place in both the real and Framework worlds. Gierhart makes the sequence tense and fast, while very clearly conveying what is going on in both places. It's rare that a network television show will have even a single sequence where lighting becomes essential to communicating an important aspect of the plot. Gierhart masterfully inserts an artful sequence that elevates "All The Madame's Men" above a simple pulp spy story, even if only for a few minutes.

Gierhart also manages to get a great performance out of Brett Dalton. Dalton has a chance to play Grant Ward as softer, longing a real connection with Daisy. Dalton makes Ward empathetic to watch in almost every one of his scenes and that is a real accomplishment for Dalton, who played his character so unpleasantly for the last two seasons he was on Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D..

Ultimately, "All The Madame's Men" takes a big step forward to resolving the threat of the fourth season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. by giving all of the characters something to do. "All The Madame's Men" reminds viewers of just how good the show could be when it tries to say something important and it does that very well.

For other episodes directed by Billy Gierhart, please visit my reviews of:
"BOOM" - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.
"The Good Samaritan" - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.
"The Ghost" - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.
"Absolution" - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.
"AKA Take A Bloody Number" - Jessica Jones
"S.O.S. Part 2" - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.
"Aftershocks" - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.
"Ye Who Enter Here" - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.
"Nothing Personal" - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.
"Repairs" - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.

[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 elements of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, please check out my Marvel Cinematic Universe Review Index Page for a comparative list of how all the shows, episodes and movies in the universe stack up against one another!

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