Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Fractured Storytelling Of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 4!

The Good: Good climax, Moments of witty dialogue, Performance moments from Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge
The Bad: Unremarkable new characters, Plot is very inconsistent, May is absent most of the season, Some predictable reversals.
The Basics: The fourth season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. introduces Ghost Rider, LMDs and The Matrix to the Marvel Cinematic Universe . . . with mixed results.

There are few shows that have a season that begins with such a forced sense of reinvention as Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 4. The fourth season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. opened after an extended denouement from the season three finale "Ascension" (reviewed here!). In what was, essentially, a series of post-credits scenes, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. took a six month leap forward in time. The information viewers were given at the end of "Ascension" was that Daisy Johnson had gone rogue as an Inhuman bank robber who was being called Quake by the media, Coulson and Mack were now partnered up as field agents under a new Director, and Holden Radcliffe had build the first life-model decoy, Aida, whose proper revelation was being held until the part was actually cast.

The grand irony of the fourth season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is that the major stories of the season are all tied together by Aida, who was a post-credits addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Aida is the savior and villain throughout the fourth season and while that is not inherently problematic, it is executed in a way that makes the fourth season seem like a sloppy conglomeration of ideas that have been lingering from the Marvel Comics universe waiting to make their Marvel Cinematic Universe debut. The third season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. (reviewed here!) used important heroes, villains and themes enough to knock The Inhumans off the Marvel Cinematic Universe release schedule and the fourth season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. has the vague, unifying feeling that its purpose is to satisfy Marvel Comics readers with elements they want to see that cannot entirely be expressed satisfactorily in the Marvel Universe films.

The fourth season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. goes through three plot phases and only interacts with the major Marvel Cinematic Universe blockbuster film that was released during the season - Doctor Strange (reviewed here!) - in the most peripheral way. Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season Four is fractured into stories that involve Ghost Rider, the menace of the L.M.D.s, and then The Framework.

S.H.I.E.L.D. is preparing for a public rebranding as it moves to return to up-front public service, under the leadership of Jeffery Mace. Coulson and Mack have been using the Zephyr to avoid Mace and try to find Daisy, who is publicly being hunted as a rogue Inhuman. Daisy, for her part, is hunting down threats to Inhumans, most of whom are part of the Watchdogs. In attempting to bring down a Watchdog cell, Daisy encounters a vigilante who appears much like an Inhuman. The vigilante is Ghost Rider and he claims to have made a deal with the devil in order to right past wrongs, including the events that led to his younger brother being wounded. S.H.I.E.L.D.'s hunt and Daisy's attempt to understand Robbie Reyes (Ghost Rider) intersect when May is critically wounded while on a mission near Ghost Rider. Learning about Ghost Rider and his family puts the S.H.I.E.L.D. team and Daisy in a conflict with people who appear to be ghosts. Out of phase with the world, S.H.I.E.L.D. tries to save citizens and themselves by recovering the book that made them incorporeal. In the process, S.H.I.E.L.D. has to turn to Aida to rescue them using the power of the book the Dark Hold.

Corrupted by the Dark Hold, Dr. Radcliffe and Aida become determined to recover the Dark Hold for their own purposes. Now aware of the life model decoy project, S.H.I.E.L.D. struggles with Aida's obsessive attempts to get the Dark Hold, the Watchdog menace to the Inhumans and the general populace, and an LMD replacing one of their own!

When Aida, Radcliffe, and the Watchdog leader retreat to a secure location with the Dark Hold, Aida is able to fully develop The Framework, a virtual world that allows human consciousness to be fully transferred to an alternate reality. When most of the S.H.I.E.L.D. leadership is captured and ensnared in the Framework, it falls to Daisy and Simmons to enter the Framework and rescue their team.

The fourth season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. goes in an unfortunate direction by belaboring the appearance and return of Ghost Rider to the narrative. Ghost Rider adds almost nothing to the story and, in fact, relying upon him to save the Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. from the Dark Hold undermines both the series' protagonists and the villainy of Aida and Radcliffe. The second phase of the season features an unfortunate number of reversals that are entirely predictable to genre fans, from May being trapped in The Framework when she believes she has made it out to various characters being replaced with Life-Model Decoys when other characters are implicated.

The final phase of the season is essentially The Matrix (reviewed here!) and arguably the most problematic aspect of the Framework plotline is that the character who is most literate in science fiction filmmaking completely falls prey to the character arc of one of the characters in that film. Moreover, Daisy's single approach to appeal to that character falls flat when there are several other tactics - even in the compressed time she has - she could take.

But the fourth season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. actually manages to have some of the best episodes of the series in it. While rewatching the complete series, my wife and I frequently commented that May is the real reason to watch Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Melinda May is, sadly, dramatically underused in the fourth season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. as she is captured early by Aida and Radcliffe and replaced with an LMD. Instead of refocusing the season on Coulson and Daisy, the strongest episodes of the fourth season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. all focus on Fitz and Simmons and the fracture in their relationship that comes when the threat of Aida is revealed.

Simmons finally has the chance to rise to heroic levels, while Fitz is nearly destroyed by Aida when he develops an emotional attachment that the virtual woman is able to exploit. Aida messes with Fitz's head and the result leads to some of the season's biggest character moments.

To better understand the fourth season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. it helps to know the arcs of the major characters. In the fourth season, the essential characters are:

Phil Coulson – Now a field agent again, partnered with Mack under the new Director, he works on the Zephyr as much as possible. He and Mack hunt for Daisy, who has gone rogue and when they learn of the threat of Dr. Morrow and his work, he is at the front lines of stopping him. He begins to explore his feelings for May, but their budding romance is put on hold when the LMD version of May is exposed. Beginning the hunt for where May is being kept, he leads his fellow Agents into a trap laid by an old enemy,

Agent Melinda May – Exposed to one of the incorporeal scientists affected by the boxes created using the Dark Hold, she faces madness and death. That causes Simmons and Coulson to turn to Radcliffe to save her. During her recovery, Aida's true nature is exposed and she becomes a liability to Radcliffe's work. When that happens, he captures and replaces may with an LMD, keeping May trapped using the Framework. It is May's resistance to the initial programming of the Framework that leads Aida to make the changes needed to make the enslaving version of the Framework that works,

Fitz – Having helped Radcliffe develop the technology behind Aida, he advises the scientist not to reveal Aida to S.H.I.E.L.D. until her technology is perfected. Keeping the truth of Aida's nature from Simmons causes tension in their relationship. He recognizes the potential of the technologies created using the Dark Hold, but does not trust Radcliffe's obsession with the book or his friends in the anti-Inhuman movement. After exposing some of Radcliffe's plans, he joins the team that tries to rescue May and Mace and becomes someone else entirely within the Framework,

Jemma Simmons – Wary of the new Director, she works with Mace and has a surprisingly high clearance level within the new S.H.I.E.L.D. She is tasked with examining a new Inhuman who has spent months undergoing terrigenesis. Alarmed at how Daisy's powers might be harming her Inhuman friend, she develops medicines and new gauntlets to protect her. Simmons struggles with how Fitz has a crush on Aida, but is alarmed when it appears some of her friends have been replaced with LMDs. She leads the effort to stop Aida within the Framework,

Daisy Johnson (Quake when she is rogue) – Having abandoned S.H.I.E.L.D. after losing Lincoln, she robs banks and gets restitution for victims of crimes perpetrated by the Watchdogs. In her hunt for anti-Inhuman forces, she ends up in Los Angeles where she encounters Ghost Rider. Teaming with Ghost Rider to fight Inhumans, she is re-integrated with S.H.I.E.L.D. by Mace during a public relations stunt. Guided by a desire to protect the Inhumans, she is alarmed when the Watchdog leader teams up with Aida. She joins Simmons on the rescue effort in the Framework and is shocked by who she is paired up with in the virtual world,

Mack - Partnered with Coulson, he is more unnerved than his partner by living on the Zephyr. He has an on-again, off-again relationship with Elena Rodriguez. In the course of opening up to Yo-Yo, he reveals that he once had a daughter, who died after only ten days. He fights against the "ghosts" and is given the chance to take up the mantle of Ghost Rider. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of science fiction movies where machines rise against humans and he has an instant distrust for Radcliffe and his LMDs. He continues the search for Daisy when Mace does not want him to,

Director Jeffrey Mace - Following the climax of Hive's threat to transform and control the world, Coulson cedes power to an Inhuman, in the form of Jeffrey Mace. The hero of a bombing, Mace has great credentials and wants desperately to rebrand S.H.I.E.L.D. He color-codes S.H.I.E.L.D. and subjects his employees to weekly lie detector tests. Simmons, however, quickly recognizes that Mace has a secret and to maintain his secrets and keep his S.H.I.E.L.D. agents (and Daisy) safe, he makes a deal with an unsavory Senator,

Dr. Holden Radcliffe - Having been cleared of the charges surrounding his work for Hive, Radcliffe has developed the Life Model Decoy project. He advances the work as far as he can and tests Aida on May, fooling the diligent Agent. When he learns about the Dark Hold, he becomes obsessed with it. But soon, his quest for the Dark Hold puts him at odds with S.H.I.E.L.D. and he is forced to ally himself with the leader of the Watchdogs to get what he wants. But that deal with the devil quickly puts him at the mercy of an enemy he never expected,

and Aida - Radcliffe's virtual secretary-turned-android, she represents the peak of robotics Radcliffe has developed. To save S.H.I.E.L.D. agents who have been lost to Morrow's technology, she utilizes the Dark Hold. Able to create portals using the power of the Dark Hold, she begins to experiment with keeping Melinda May in the Framework. Ultimately, she uses the power of the Framework to rule the virtual world and create what every artificial life form seems to want . . . a human body of her own!

Out of the main cast, Elizabeth Henstridge and Iain De Caestecker absolutely dominate the fourth season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.. De Caestecker was pretty much neglected in the third season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. (am I the only one who noticed that Fitz's brain damage completely disappeared in the third season?!) and Henstridge underplayed Simmons in the third season outside the key moments where she completely carried "4,722 Hours" and had a powerful moment where Simmons attempted to kill Ward. In the fourth season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. Henstridge plays Simmons as isolated from her friends in very different ways. De Caestecker shows off his range by playing Fitz as nervous, loving, murderous, shocked, and desperate at various points in the season. He is amazing and in the fourth season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., he once again is able to show off his extreme range.

The real shock of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season Four on the performance front is Mallory Jansen. The joke of the final scene of the third season of the show was that the whole reason Aida was not shown was because the part had not been cast yet. Mallory Jansen proves in no uncertain terms that the executive producers of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. knew what they were doing when they took the time to properly cast the role of Aida. Jansen plays four distinctly different roles in the fourth season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. - Aida, Agnes, Madame Hydra and Ophelia. And Jansen nails each part she plays. She is mechanical and just not-quite human in playing Aida. Agnes is played as physically weak and psychologically desperate, while Madame Hydra is powerful, forceful and utterly manipulative. When Mallory Jansen plays Ophelia, she blows out of the water the conflicted nature of the artificial woman turned organic life form. Mallory Jansen embodies the argument that science fiction television gets overlooked entirely by the mainstream awards shows; there is no good reason for Jansen to not be nominated (and win!) Best Supporting Actress for her roles in the fourth season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. save that genre works get no respect from the Academy. Jansen is that good in Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D..

In fact, despite the erratic nature of the storytelling in the fourth season, it is the performances and the big character moments for the main characters, Aida and Radcliffe that makes Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season Four worth watching.

For a better understanding of the components of the fourth season, please visit my reviews of each of the episodes in the fourth season episodes of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. at:
“The Ghost”
“Meet The New Boss”
"Let Me Stand Next To Your Fire"
“The Good Samaritan”
“Deals With Our Devils”
“The Laws Of Inferno Dynamics”
“Broken Promises”
“The Patriot”
“Wake Up”
“Hot Potato Soup”
“The Man Behind The Shield”
“Self Control”
“What If. . .”
"Identity And Change"
“No Regrets”
“All The Madame's Men”
“Farewell, Cruel World!”
“The Return”
“World's End”


For other works from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, please check out my Marvel Cinematic Universe Review Index Page for a comparative listing!

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