Spoilers for the entirety of the series follow:
How is a comic book show to follow up a season which leaves one of its lead characters a fugitive after her love interest made a messianic sacrifice to save the world from annihilation at the hands of an alien squid monster while the other lead received a major demotion? That was the question Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D faced after the end of its third year. The exquisite fourth season provides the answers by introducing a mystically powered vigilante with a flaming skull, making thoughtful observations about humanity through the examination of artificial intelligence and virtual reality, strengthening the show’s political and social opinions, and further developing an increasingly complex and layered cast of characters, all while developing an innovative new structure for serialized broadcast dramas and maintaining the show’s clever, often deliciously self-aware, sense of humor.
Thoroughly heartbroken after both the death of her boyfriend and her own villainious actions while in a mind-controlled state, Daisy Johnson (Chloe Bennet) has left her surrogate family at S.H.I.E.L.D, fearing that her continued prescence will only lead to tragedy for her friends. Using increasingly ruthless and reckless tactics, Daisy has been combatting the Watchdogs, a terrorist organization that hunts and kills Inhumans, the race of genetically altered superhumans to which she belongs. Two of Daisy’s friends, former S.H.I.E.L.D Director Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Alphonso “Mack” MacKenzie (Henry Simmons) have been deployed by new director Jeffrey Mace (Jason O’Hara) to bring Daisy in before her actions cause irreparable damage to S.H.I.E.L.D’s already fragile public relations. Daisy’s encounters with Robbie Reyes (Gabriel Luna), the latest mortal possessed by the benevolent demon called the Ghost Rider, drag herself and the rest of the titular Agents into darker, magical, corners of the Marvel Universe.
One of the most important factors in S.H.I.E.L.D‘s success this season came from its innovative narrative structure. A full year series order of more than twenty episodes (twenty-two in S.H.I.E.L.D‘s case) is a lot of content for TV creators to produce (roughly the equivalent runtime of ten or eleven feature films) and sci-fi/fantasy series often struggle with maintaining satisfactory pacing (S.H.I.E.L.D‘s less than perfect first season can attest to this). While S.H.I.E.L.D had success last year in employing the mid-season winter break to essentially divide the third season in half, marking the split with a shift between two separate, yet related, villains, this time around the creators take it a step further, splitting the fourth season into three distinct “pods” of episodes, subtitled Ghost Rider, L.M.D, and Agents of Hydra respectively. The pod structure works wonders in keeping a viewer’s attention. Even in the earliest episodes of Ghost Rider, significant revelations and events are allowed to take place because while certain narrative threads are weaved throughout the entire season, others are concluded by the end of that pod’s short but sweet eight episode run. While ingeniously connected by certain McGuffins, themes, and character arcs, (most importantly a troublesome dark magic book), the pods each have dinstinct highlights and specialites all their own.
Ghost Rider is the most fun pod thanks to the blockbuster action provided by the titular character and the perfect use of meta humor, but is also given a strongly beating heart by the straightforward, but emotional character beats given to Daisy and Robbie, with Bennet and Luna giving great performances. Daisy’s arc is particularly affecting, showing both growth that is natural to the character and the series while also containing respectful and inspiring messages about important topics such as post-traumatic stress and suicidal tendencies.
L.M.D is the least exciting of the three but this is mainly because the viewer misses Luna’s electrifying presence (his triumphant return doesn’t come until the end of Agents of Hydra). That being said, L.M.D has strengths all its own, mainly the thoughtful answers to the question of what separates artificial intelligence from real life. L.M.D is also unique in that aside from significant screen time for Coulson and Mace, the pod puts its focus more on the antagonists. The tightening of the connection between anti-Inhuman senator Ellen Nadeer (Pamrinder Nagra), the Watchdogs, and a mysterious Russian named Ivanov (Zach McGowan) not only give our heroes some true evil to fight (with McGowan proving particularly entertaining as essentially a spoof of Bond-style villains) but provides some of the show’s most biting and effective social commentary yet (think about that again; a bigoted, idiotic politician who accepts support from known violent racists all under the manipulation of a former KGB agent. Sound familiar yet?) But it is the pair of more gray opponents that really shine. John Hannah is wonderfully deluded as mad scientist Holden Radcliffe. Starting as a newly gained ally for S.H.I.E.L.D after being rescued from forced service to last season’s villain, Radcliffe proves himself to be more trouble than he’s worth, constantly doing the wrong thing for the right reason and vice versa. The man’s decision making is seriously flawed (even when his mind isn’t being altered by the demonic book I mentioned earlier) and L.M.D does a wonderful job of showing how much damage a person like him can cause when given too much power. Many sci-fi and fantasy series boast of morally ambiguous characters when all they really have are heroes who occasionally make mistakes or villains with a couple soft spots. Radcliffe is an example of a genuinely unpredictable character, one who always has a fifty-fifty chance of making the right choice. But in situations as volatile as those the Agents constantly find themselves in, fifty-fifty simply isn’t good enough. The other complex antagonist S.H.I.E.L.D explores this year is Radcliffe’s android assistant, Aida (Mallory Jansen), and while her real showcase comes in the final pod, Jansen is consistently outstanding throughout the season, entertaining as a stereotypical, emotionless robot, chilling as she starts to exhibit subtle anger at being used like a slave, and both endearingly and frighteningly naïve when overwhelmed by her first full experience with emotions.
Speaking of that third pod, Agents of Hydra is perhaps the most consistently strong batch of episodes Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D has ever produced. The core six agents (and Mace) are thrust into a Matrix-like virtual reality called the Framework, in which America is under the control of Hydra, the secret surviving Nazi branch S.H.I.E.L.D has warred with in the past. Daisy and Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) are the only ones of our heroes in control of themselves, with the others’ memories having been replaced by those of their respective Framework counterparts. The problem is that in the Framework Leopold Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen) are high ranking members of Hydra. While the creators clearly enjoy the dystopian thrills offered by placing their characters in a 1984-like setting, the real dramatic importance is what this means said characters’ morality and psyches. The writers come firmly down on one side of the nature vs. nurture debate, arguing that changing formative moments in peoples’ lives can fundamentally alter their identities and this is mainly articulated through the changes to Fitz. The scary thing about Framework-May is that she is essentially the real May, just in different circumstances, demonstrating how authoritarian that character can be, but Fitz is another story. By altering his childhood history, the Framework has turned the eternally compassionate Fitz into an absolute monster and watching Caestecker, who has long since proven himself to be the show’s best actor, mix coldly detached sadism with some of the same personality quirks the viewer associates with the sweet, loveable technician he usually plays is darkly enthralling. But Agents of Hydra isn’t all about existential considerations of human nature. It’s also the most political the series has ever been, making clever, undisguised comparisons of the dystopia the Agents find themselves in to Trump’s America and all the people behind the series deserve praise for sticking firmly to their ideals and not shying away from expressing their opinions for fear of controversy. Moments in when Coulson calls out the ridiculousness of ideas like “alternative facts” are priceless. In these uncertain times we need art to take strong stances or the people poisoning this country will run right over it. After all, as Jemma says when reminding a Framework child of Hydra’s history, “they’re all Nazis”. If Agents of Hydra doesn’t have a single mind blowing episode like Ghost Rider’s “The Ghost” or “The Good Samaritan” or L.M.D’s explosive finale “Self-Control”, it makes up for it with the consistent strength of every hour.
There’s so much more to praise about S.H.I.E.L.D this year. While the characters I’ve already discussed are the real focal points of the season, the entire cast is as strong as ever. This is also the least predictable group of episodes in the shows run, with expectations subverted at every turn. But in summary I’ll just say this: with its fourth season Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D elevated itself, truly becoming can’t miss television. It’s a fun, emotional, and funny series with some really important things to say, and I for one can’t wait for season five.