Welcome back to The Weekly Nerd! Season four of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. ended recently, and to my surprise, it is a really good season. Honestly, I am shocked at how much I enjoyed the show’s plotline over the course of this season. It got me thinking about the series previous missteps and how they managed to overcome its weaknesses. This season is not perfect, as Agents still struggles with cheesy dialogue, utterly frustrating characters (looking at you, Talbot), and an annoying tendency to make offhanded references to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Despite these issues, Agents manages to elevate itself to being an interesting self-contained narrative. Let’s take a look at how they managed to accomplish this.
One thing this season does is split itself into three different arcs. The first one focuses on the arrival of Robbie Reyes as the Ghost Rider and his quest to find a demonic grimoire called the Darkhold. During this storyline, Fitz and fellow scientist Radcliffe build a Life Model Decoy (LMD) called Aida. The next arc focuses on Aida, who has gained sentience as a result of reading the Darkhold. She and Radcliffe try to use the book to create a new world. They also cause all kinds of confusion by replacing a perplexing number of characters with LMD’s. The third and final arc tells the story of the characters being pulled into a digital world made by Aida and Radcliffe called the Framework. Within this world, Hydra has won and is controlling the country through fear. Everyone within the framework is trapped without memories of the real world, so Daisy and Simmons have to jump in and get everyone out. Each of these arcs has a unique feel and did not overstay their welcome. It is also notable that each story arc also lead seamlessly into the next. While the stories are separate, they all still feel connected.
Another thing this season does is make the stakes slightly smaller than previous seasons. To be fair, the stakes get fairly high, but in this season’s case, it feels like stuff that would go under The Avenger’s radar. In the previous season, they were fighting Inhumans lead by an alien entity known as Hive. This enemy posed a massive threat that endangered the whole planet. During situations like this, it is hard to believe that Iron Man or Captain America would not have heard about it and stepped in to help save the day. In season two, the show used the revelation from Captain America: The Winter Soldier of Hydra being within S.H.I.E.L.D. to great effect but most of the time the show will randomly mention stuff like “the Sokovia Accords” or “the incident in New York” as if to remind viewers of the MCU. This latest season starts with the exploits of a terrorist cell that is connected to a government official who is trying to discredit Inhumans. Eventually, they get wrapped up in a struggle between Ghost Rider and his maniacal uncle who is trying to use the Darkhold to become an omnipotent being. While these issues pose a lot of danger towards the public, these kind of events are not immediately world-ending and would easily pass by the attention of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. This is exactly the kind of stuff that S.H.I.E.L.D. should be dealing with. The show has its set piece moments, but a lot of their missions are in factories, back allies, and submarines. While this is in large part due to budgetary constraints, there is a larger emphasis on them operating in the shadows this past season. They felt much more like a clandestine organization than they ever have.
Season four also chose to embrace weird magic, which is refreshing. The show spent a frustrating amount of time explaining things with the kind of pseudo-science one would expect from The X-Files and Fringe. In a world where Thor exists, it is weird that the characters so outwardly denied the existence of certain types of powers or mystical circumstances. This season decides to say “screw that” and throws in Ghost Rider. They do not really get into what his existence means, which was a wise choice. They basically confirm for the audience that he is not an Inhuman and he has a flaming skull, so they feel it is safe to assume he is not of this world. Even the LMD’s gaining sentience is thanks to the magical powers of the Darkhold. More so than any season before it, this one feels like it is right out of the pages of a Marvel comic.
This may sound odd to say for a cable TV show on ABC, but the acting also helps elevate season four of Agents above the previous seasons. The increased focus on Radcliffe (John Hannah, Spartacus: Blood and Sand) and the introduction of Aida (Mallory Jansen, Galavant) is a great choice for this season. Both experienced actors add quite a bit of authenticity to the situations in the show. Jansen, in particular, does a great job as the dangerous Android. She helps show Aida’s growth by starting off incredibly robotic and logical but slowly becomes more human, showing a range of emotions. By the end of the season, she is jumping between being ecstatic at the fact that she has become fully human to throwing a murderous tantrum like a child who has super strength and teleportation powers. She is the series most interesting and effective villain to date. Her turn as Lady Hydra (in name only) within the digital world of the framework was particularly interesting. This gave her a chance to show her maniacal side as she manipulated and controlled everyone around her in order to maintain the illusion that she created. Hannah, on the other hand, shows a surprising amount nuance as a man who actually cares about helping mankind but is willing to do some nefarious things to get results. He is able to make Radcliffe feel extremely believable, focusing on science and utilizing the Darkhold to advance his creations far beyond his wildest dreams. His development is palpable as well. Radcliffe slowly changes his views when he realizes the monster he has created, leading him to his help the main characters escape the Framework in the end.
The most impressive plotline this season is definitely the Framework. During this string of episodes, the main characters are trapped in a digital world where their lives and personalities are completely different. Only when Daisy and Simmons break into the Framework, their friends begin to awaken to the false reality. At first, this storyline seemed to be a little frustrating as it seemed to have little impact. As the show progressed, however, it became a really interesting look at how these characters would be in a world that Hydra controlled. Even more interesting is the fact that there are lasting consequences to the events that take place within the digital world. Within the Framework, Fitz is a head scientist at Hydra and commits several atrocities, including the deaths of two characters in the show. When he awakens from his stupor, not only does he remember how much of a monster he was, but his actions lead to the actual death of one of their teammates. Fitz’s reaction to this fact has been fairly intense. At the end, he was willing to turn himself into the authorities to atone for his action. Fitz has changed significantly since season one, starting as an awkward nerd and somehow ending up as a seasoned agent who has gone to an alien planet. Even with all his experience, the fact that people he knew died as a result of his actions shook him like nothing else has ever done so. Ian De Caestecker (Lost River) plays Fitz incredibly well, adding a level of gravitas that most weekly cable shows would not even bother with.
All in all, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had its best season yet. The show also set up the possible appearance of the organization S.W.O.R.D., an agency that acts as a defense force towards alien threats specifically. I just hope that the show has learned from this past season and can take some fo these lessons to season five!