Right off the bat, season 4 of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. makes it clear that this is a darker, sexier version of the Marvel show, one seems to have taken a sizeable cue from Jessica Jones and Daredevil. And honestly, this is probably for the best. The comic book zaniness of Agents has worked to great effect many times in previous seasons, but that doesn’t mean things can’t also get a little more racy as the show breaks out of its shell with a later time slot.
Though when you think about it, this latest season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. starts off more reminiscent of season 1 than ever. Daisy is a vigilante on the run, leaning on abilities that are slowly draining her. Coulson is no longer the director of S.H.I.E.L.D., but rather the same covert field agent he used to be. And everyone remains fractured and at the behest of a slow-moving shadow of the former S.H.I.E.L.D., believably caused by the Sokovia Accords brought about in Captain America: Civil War and only briefly talked about toward the end of season 3.
But season 4 is still very interested in exploring some intriguing new subject matter from the Marvel pantheon, even if it does fumble a bit when balancing its many new directions. The plight of the Inhumans is still central as the season begins, with Daisy (now Quake) directly combating violent gangs recruited by the Watchdogs, who are positioned to play a more pressing role this year. Aboard the Zephyr One, Coulson and Mack are still in pursuit of “enhanced sightings,” though they’ve had few leads lately and are mainly concerned with finding Daisy, with this episode bringing everyone to the likeliest of unlikeliest places in the show so far: Los Angeles.
Aside from Inhumans, the new season presents two more intriguing threads for the show to follow and make good on. The first is the most obvious in Ghost Rider, a flame-chain wielding “serial killer” who is out to kill those who most deserve it while also channeling some literal inner demons himself. With Doctor Strange being the next Marvel film slated for November, it’s no surprise that Agents wants to start delving into the supernatural, and this is one of the most suitable characters for them to start with, complete with a surprise villain that will fit comfortably within the show’s wheelhouse. Season 4 wastes no time exploring how interesting it will be to see Inhumans matching up against demon possessed humans and other branches of the supernormal.
Those two competing forces would be dense enough to craft a season around all on their own, but Agents also sets up something only briefly teased at the end of season 3. Doctor Radcliffe has created his first LMD (Life Model Decoy) named AIDA, and he accidentally revealed the “robot” to Fitz. Moments after explaining what she is, Radcliff rapidly progresses into recruitment mode, even balking at the idea of hiding such a thing from Simmons.
In a way, this LMD development seems a bit late in the MCU for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to get into, considering how long it’s been since Age of Ultron paved the way for A.I. (or “mimicry” as Radcliffe softens it) to become a more central aspect of the show. Agents has been so busy wrapping up its Hive and Inhuman storylines that we sort of missed that MCU fallout, and it feels like season 4 is playing catch up, albeit impressively thanks to how satisfying it is to watch Fitz and Radcliffe discuss science and A.I. with a complementary passion. It’s an ideal replacement for Fitz’s usual banter with Simmons, which is still present but somewhat muted thanks to her new promotion to S.A.D.I.S.T. (Special Advisor to the Director in Science and Technology), which is sure to be brought up again as a playfully trite joke at her expense.
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Fitz and Simmons are, by the way, still going strong in their romance, subtly introducing yet another technological route for the show in the way of advanced virtual reality. It seems only fitting that these two characters would plan to use VR as a means to “get away,” though there’s no telling if this will continue to be fleshed out over the course of the season. There are already so many competing themes and subject matters at hand, including the new way of doing things at S.H.I.E.L.D., that it’s easy for small fodder like this to get lost in the noise. Though other small touches like Coulson’s new and technically improved android arm and May’s strike team glasses show at least some attention being paid to evolving the S.H.I.E.L.D. playbook.
Unlike everyone else at the moment, Simmons has the most direct access to the upper ranks of S.H.I.E.L.D., including our new, unseen director (though we know Jason O’Mara is playing the surprise role to be revealed later). For now, the writers seems content to show and not tell, burying everyone in harsh, rigid rules in order to prevent another Hydra situation. Unlike LMDs being a result of Ultron, this development feels more like a comfortable extension of Civil War, and it places Simmons and May at surprising odds, which couldn’t be more refreshing.
Simmons has always been a more interesting character when thrust into uncomfortable situations that polarize her from the core group. In this case, we get just a morsel of this awkwardness that does more to build toward an inevitable conflict between her and pretty much everyone else. May, Coulson, Mack, and Fitz feel quite disconnected at the moment in comparison, while Simmons seems like the character with the most focus. She’s intent on making the best of a difficult situation, rather than dwelling on the latest mischief Daisy is up to.
“Everyone gets attached to something,” Daisy repeats to herself in this episode, quoting Yo-Yo without mentioning the crucial eventually at the end of that sentiment. She notes this when observing the Ghost Rider when he’s turned “off,” but perhaps also connecting the pain of using her powers too often (that won’t end well) with the discomfort she’s feeling from this new streak of roguish action that’s separated her from the only family she’s ever really acknowledged.
These are ideal avenues for the character to follow in the wake of Lincoln’s heroic death, and Chloe Bennet gives an admirable performance here, but there’s a lot going on with Daisy in this episode. Most of it’s casual investigation that barely ties in with the episode at large, making for some off-balance storytelling that smells a little too much like the majority of season 3.
Still, this opener is a breath of fresh air for the series, even if it is a little more cluttered and trigger happy with its new ideas. Ghost Rider is obviously the most prominent of these ideas, and for good reason. His inclusion represents a lot of potential for what fans of the show have been wanting since the pilot, which is more attention paid to mainstay Marvel characters. Robbie Reyes is no Johnny Blaze, of course, but Agents seems intent on turning that weakness into a strength by crafting its own compelling character with all of the familiar flair of what makes Ghost Rider a fan favorite.
As of right now, though, not quite enough going on with Robbie Reyes as a multi-dimensional character. He’s more Green Ranger than Ghost Rider, in the sense that there seems to be no real “struggle” for him to restrain his powers. If anything, he seems to fully embrace the Devil inside (“A soul can never heal,” he says), which could be a welcome change of pace…or a huge misfire, depending on how Agents chooses to tell his story going forward.
Either way, the real ghost in this episode is Daisy Johnson. And for now, that’s a pretty accurate assessment. There’s plenty of room for proficient writing to take hold with the idea of the Ghost Rider being a tortured soul balanced against robot “safeguards” who don’t need one. Whether or not Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is willing to go that far is yet to be seen.
Ghost Rider and LMD tech deliver promising new territories for Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s darker fourth year, including a surprising willingness to tap into Marvel’s less glamorous mythologies.