‘Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ (Season 4): Insane in the Frame(work)

CLARK GREGG, CHLOE BENNET, HENRY SIMMONS, IAIN DE CAESTECKER, ELIZABETH HENSTRIDGE

A massive amount of things have transpired on “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” since our last article, way back at the end of last month, so let’s hit the ground running and look at the high points before my overall assessment of the series at the moment. Obviously, space- and not wanting a marathon length article- keeps me from going over things in obsessive detail, but I’ll do what I can, given the circumstances. Perhaps needless to say, it was a bit overwhelming at times- but in the best of ways.

First up, in “Hot Potato Soup,” we had the most welcome return of fan favorite Patton Oswalt as the Koenigs (with a fun assist from “Son of Zorn” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” vet Artemis Pebdani as yet another Koenig), plus that long-awaited kiss between Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and May (Ming-Na Wen)- sort of. As we know, Agent May had long since been replaced by an L.M.D., so does it even count if it wasn’t really her for real?

AOS 4

Well, yes and no. As would become crucial in last night’s excellent episode, we discovered that the faux May’s feelings for Coulson were, in fact, grounded in reality, and for all intents and purposes, she was made to think she actually was Agent May. At least until she discovered otherwise, on her own, at which point, she was ostensibly making her own choices, but yet, when it came down to fulfilling the mission she’d been tasked with in the first place: obtaining the Darkhold- her pre-programming kicked in and she had no choice but to complete the task.

Meanwhile, a stunned Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) realized that his own work with the nefarious Radcliffe (John Hannah) was what had led to so much trouble for everyone and naturally, blamed himself for it all. Though he was able to tip off the team before all hope was lost, it was too late, as May was able to get the Darkhold to Radcliffe in the end anyway, thanks to both the element of surprise in terms of May being an L.M.D. and the fact that the Radcliffe that Fitz was interacting with proved to be an L.M.D. himself, with the real one accurately predicting that the jig would be up sooner than later.

JOHN HANNAH

The real Radcliffe was safely tucked away with “The Superior,” aka Anton Ivanov (Zack McGowan, from “Shameless” and “The 100”), who had teamed up with him to defeat the Inhumans, setting him up to take the mantle from Senator Nadeer (Parminder Nagra), who, as we will soon find, will be leaving a void in the “Big Bad” department soon enough. Ivanov has a bone in particular to pick with Coulson, who he blames for his role in essentially “humanizing” the Inhumans- but for other reasons as well, which we will also find out later on.

The episode had its moments, for sure- Aida punching through that guy’s stomach, one of the Koenigs doing stand-up and another fanboy-ing out on Daisy (and dropping a reference to some Quake/Black Widow fan fic!), Mack (Henry Simmons) dropping a “Brainscan” reference, among others, in his reasons for having a derision towards robots/androids in general- but was a bit scattershot, tonally. The zig-zagging between the more lighthearted moments and the action was a bit disconcerting, and didn’t entirely work on the whole.

AOS 3

Still, we did get to see one of the Aida (Mallory Jansen) L.M.D.s and the Radcliffe one get taken out in most spectacular fashion, and the Radcliffe L.M.D. musing on programming and what it means to be alive was interesting in a pseudo-“Westworld” sort of way- though they did it better, IMHO. Overall, an okay episode, but the least of the four since my last article. That said, great to see Oswalt again, regardless.

Next up, was “BOOM,” which wouldn’t have been a bad title for last night’s episode, either, when you think about it. That said, it was obviously a reference to Tucker Shockley (John Pyper- Ferguson), who became imbued with Inhuman powers after a backfired attempt to tap into Senator Nadeer’s perceived “latent Inhuman genes” or whatever. Said powers allow him to detonate like an Inhuman bomb- hence the title- which he does, taking out Nadeer in the process. (Mind you, her brother is still implied to be out there- or under there, as the case may still be- so there’s that.)

CHLOE BENNET

Later on, Shockley was literally vacuumed up after Daisy (Chloe Bennet) and others intentionally goaded him into facing them in a showdown. After an impressive truck-stopping assist from Director Mace (Jason O’Mara), Daisy basically kept blowing Shockley up until the rest could swoop in and suck him up into a container. Guess we won’t be seeing Nitro– um, make that Shockley- for a while, but I don’t think we’ve seen the last of him, either.

Before that, Nadeer had the opportunity to pull off one last bit of business when she intentionally allowed Coulson and Daisy to infiltrate her office, only to use it to discredit S.H.I.E.L.D. in court, as it turned out it was all being filmed as evidence- and just when Daisy was winning over the general public. D’oh! Well, it’s safe to say that Nadeer was a victim of instant karma for her actions, so all’s well that ends well, I guess. Good riddance to bad rubbish.

MALLORY JANSEN

Meanwhile, Coulson and Mack got wind of the real-life inspiration for Aida- Agnes (also Jansen)- who was Radcliffe’s ex-girlfriend. It turns out that Radcliffe’s whole raison d’être was using technology to help to find a cure (of sorts) to Agnes’ terminal disease. Hoping to use her to their advantage, Coulson and Mack tracked her down, and though hesitant to waste her final days doing so, she eventually agreed to help them draw Radcliffe out. Unfortunately, it backfired, and Agnes ended up fleeing with Radcliffe.

It turns out his solution to what ailed her was the so-called “Framework,” a virtual reality-style realm rooted in the “real” world, which is not unlike a similar gambit in “The Matrix.” As in that film, the “Framework” was used to preoccupy people with a fantasy land while the bad guys take over their “real” lives. Obviously, it’s also where the real May has been being kept busy while the faux one was out living her life as an unwitting mole planted in S.H.I.E.L.D.- well, up until recently, at least.

MALLORY JANSEN

Ultimately, Agnes, who was going to die anyway, opted to “live” on inside the Framework, with Radcliffe joining her for stretches of time- which would later prove to be his undoing, more or less, given what happened in his absence with Aida. By shifting his priorities from the main job at hand to more “human” interests, his “loyalty” to the cause would be questioned by Aida, leading her to devise some nefarious plans of her own.

BTW, it needs to be said that Jansen is totally killing it this season. Though excellent already as Aida, it took meeting and getting to know Agnes to drive home how subtle-but-effective her work is on the show, and how capable an actress she is on the whole. I can’t imagine that once her work on this show is done, others won’t be lining up to snap her up for their own projects. It’s worth noting that this is her fourth reasonably steady gig in a row, including turns on “Galivant,” “Baby Daddy” and “Young and Hungry.” Get this woman her own leading role on a series, stat!

MAOS 6

In other developments, Director Mace was abducted by the Russians, who were understandably under the impression that he was an Inhuman. Alas, they were in for a disappointment, as we know, such is not the case after all. As has been pointed out, he’s no “Captain America”- though fans know his character has indeed been just that. Could Mace get there eventually? We shall see.

That said, his staying behind to combat the Russians was sort of a dopey move, and it didn’t take a rocket scientist to predict that he was likely going to be replaced by an L.M.D. when inevitably captured after his “powers” failed him, which later turned out to be the case. Though, to be fair to the show, he wasn’t the only one replaced, so there’s that. Still, the whole Mace subplot was kind of unnecessary and reeked of “plot device” to keep things moving, logic be damned.

MALLORY JANSEN

However, tonally, it was indeed a step up from the preceding episode, and I really dug the Agnes subplot and, even though it’s been done elsewhere, the whole notion of the “Framework” and the reasons for Radcliffe wanting to make it. Rather than settling for the tried-and-true “mad scientist” route, they went for something more meaningful and relatable, showing that, despite his methods, Radcliffe wasn’t entirely a bad guy, per se, just one driven by love for something he’d lost and was determined to get back, by any means necessary, damn the consequences. As we’d see, those consequences would come back around in the end.

After that came “The Man Behind the Shield,” in which, as many of us suspected, even more L.M.D.s were revealed. Indeed, as it turned out, everyone on the main team, save Jemma (Elizabeth Henstridge) and, conveniently enough, Daisy, given all that needed to be done in the aftermath. But first, the opportunity to switch all concerned out had to present itself, which we got when the team went to rescue Mace from the Russians.

AOS 2

In the meantime, we got a flashback that both gave us some choice old-school Coulson and May moments and a more solid reason for Ivanov’s ire towards Coulson in particular- it seems that a host of his comrades had been taken out by the two of them back in the day when they were sent to retrieve an item from a Russian base.

As the one who survived, he was in large part held responsible for it, which set him on the path of finding out who Coulson was and blaming him for all that had gone wrong in his life. Factor in Coulson’s habit of showing up time and again in the aftermath of one shady incident after another, seeming to be the one in charge of both cleaning it up and covering it up, to boot, and you had a clearer reasoning for Ivanov’s quest to bring him down than simply his role in standing up for/working with the Inhumans.

ZACH MCGOWAN

In addition, the flashback also revealed that the burgeoning relationship between Coulson and May went back farther than we might have originally thought, and was seemingly only derailed by May’s then-later involvement with Andrew Garner. As welcome as this was, the flashback only further underlined the relative weakness of “The Superior” as a villain, given his iffy reasons.

Thankfully, there was a twist coming in the following episode that served to show he was just a means to an end for Team Radcliffe and never meant to be a major contender as a true “Big Bad” anyway. As Coulson himself put it: “Cool origin story bro, but I’ve heard better.” Still, it’s a shame that actor McGowan didn’t have much more to do than fume and glower- yet.

CHLOE BENNET, HENRY SIMMONS, CLARK GREGG

With the “second pod” finale, “Self Control,” we got our first unqualified masterpiece of the show this mid-season. Other episodes have been fine and involving, and overall the writing has been tighter and more concise, so I really don’t have much complaints in the grand scheme of things beyond what has already been voiced, but the finale was undeniably the one that delivered the goods in every conceivable way. There was plenty of action, twists, emotional scenes and of course, that jaw-dropper of a final scene.

Along the way, we had that great team-up between Simmons and Fitz, as they both realized everyone but them was an L.M.D. seemingly (save Daisy, though Simmons didn’t know that), only to have the rug pulled out from under them when Simmons discovered one of them was not what they seemed, either, and probably hadn’t been for some time. This led to one of the greatest moments ever on the show, as L.M.D. Fitz got to get in on the action and display some sweet moves as he tried to take out Simmons when she let down her guard, only to have her take him out instead. Pretty awesome! (If a little sad.)

MING-NA WEN

Very cool: the scene in which L.M.D. May stood up to L.M.D. Coulson, as the so-called “last line of defense,” opting to blow him and herself up rather than kill the escaping Simmons and Daisy and those that managed to elude the other L.M.D.s. I loved that Radcliffe/Aida almost did their job too well, resulting in faux May being almost too human, as it were, which led to their plan being foiled in the end, when May opted to side with the humans themselves, rather than carry out her intended objective, and blow the remaining L.M.D.s to holy hell.

Also cool: the roomful of Daisies and the scene with Mack trying to figure out which the “real” one was. In theory a host of Daisies sounds pretty hot, but in this case, it was more on the creepy side. Actually, it managed to be a little of both. Or maybe that’s just me. Either way, it was a lot of fun seeing Daisy and L.M.D. Mack go mano-a-mano, with an assist from L.M.D. Coulson, culminating in the other explosive climax of the episode. BOOM! I haven’t seen that many exploding parts flying all over the place since I watched “Frankenhooker” on Flix recently.

Agents of SHIELD  The Singularity

Finally, there was the big twist at the end, as we saw that the Framework world had some pretty crazy stuff going on, from the seeming death of Simmons- not sure what her arrival via the outside world will mean for that- to Daisy being all housebroken with- gasp!- Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), to Hydra seemingly lording it over Framework-land. Eep! Will all concerned want to leave it at all? (Well, maybe Simmons, for obvious reasons- though all may not be as it seems, maybe- and probably isn’t.)

I also dug that Aida took matters into her own hands, taking out Radcliffe and plopping him back down in the Framework- that’s kind of what he really wanted, after all, right? To be with Agnes? But it also sets up some interesting questions- what with Aida both completely in control now, with a L.M.D. Ivanov at her disposal and a new quest to successfully attain “real” emotions for the L.M.D.s- herself included- what will that mean for her and Radcliffe’s intended plan? Will it be derailed completely in favor of something else altogether? Or will Simmons and Daisy be the ones to derail it, as was their own plan? Hard to say, but I like where this is all headed.

CLARK GREGG

All in all, a solid run of episodes on the whole, capped off by one of the best “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” episodes ever, IMHO. I know a lot of people loved the “Ghost Rider” arc- aka the “first pod”- but I kinda like this story arc even better, personally. Yes, it’s fairly derivative, drawing pretty blatantly from the likes of “The Matrix,” “Westworld” and even “The 100,” to a certain degree, but I do think the show made it their own, and there are enough differences between this show and the other sources of inspiration to make it stand out on its own.

What did you think of the “second pod” of the show overall? Did you prefer it to the “Ghost Rider” one? Are you excited for the “third pod”? Any predictions on what’s going on in the Framework and what will happen next? What was up with Simmons being dead there? Or Daisy being involved with Ward? Or Hydra being in charge?

MALLORY JANSEN

My assessment: Aida programmed the Framework to deal with each individual’s regrets. Therefore, I think Framework Simmons faked her death to have a “real” life with Fitz outside of her all-demanding-all-the-time devotion to her work; Daisy has an underlying desire to be with a loyal and drama-free version of Ward that she thought she had before his true colors were revealed; and May needs a Hydra to defeat on her own because what would May be without a massive undertaking to overcome- and what’s bigger than Hydra?

As for predictions, the obvious one would be that Simmons and Daisy- and maybe May to boot- get past the illusions to rise up and defeat the ties that bind them, after recruiting the others, that is, of course. Whether or not they succeed remains to be seen, but it should be interesting to see them try.

HENRY SIMMONS, CLARK GREGG

What are your own thoughts on the matter? Sound off in the comments section, and thanks for reading! Join me next month for another installment! 🙂