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The Fourth Season Takes Us in Different Directions
(Warning, spoilers for Season Four and previous seasons.)
When Agents of SHIELD’s fourth season opens, the team has defeated their fungal villain Hive, but at great cost. Phil Coulson is no longer the director. He’s an agent again, working with Mac, monitoring Inhumans. Daisy, heart-broken by the death of her boyfriend Lincoln, has left the team to track down and stop the hate group militia called the Watchdogs. (Technically, if you include double-agent Grant Ward, Daisy lost two boyfriends to Hive, so, ouch.) Daisy’s angst is heightened by her guilt for the things she did while possessed by Hive herself.
Daisy, or Quake, has been declared a public enemy by the goverment. Jemma Simmons has been promoted, reporting to the new director. This position requires frequent lie-detector tests, so Agent May, Coulson and Mac have to keep her out of the loop as they search for Daisy. Jemma knows it isn’t personal, but she can’t help taking it personally. And then there’s that new director.
When I say Season Four takes us in different directions, I do not mean that it is scattered or unfocused. The showrunners knew what they were doing. They once again capitalize on a “split season” format, introducing for the first time a character whose power doesn’t come from a mutation, genetic manipulation, or juicing on super-soldier serum. This creature’s powers come from a different dimension. Season Four gives a lot of screen time to a young man from East Lost Angeles, Robbie Reyes, and his alter ego, Ghost Rider.
Wikipedia informs me that Season Four actually has three story “pods;” Ghost Rider, LMD (for Life Model Decoy), and Agents of Hydra. This makes sense and makes the season easier to discuss.
During Season Four, ABC/Marvel explored the possibility of a Ghost Rider spin-off featuring Robbie Reyes, played by Gabriel Luna. They went so far as to place a hold on his contract, basically paying him to hang around while they developed it. Watching Gabriel Luna in the role, I see the attraction. Luna plays a street racer confronting guilt for an accident that left his brother paraplegic (spoiler alert—it was no accident). He brings passion and focus to the role, and he and Quake together are a serious duo, whether they’re fighting each other or teaming up to face the bad-guys. The show used graffiti murals and street art to convey the idea that Ghost Rider, who has killed gang members and a child molester, is a community hero, not a monster. Still, the Rider plays by his own rules, as Coulson and company soon discover.
In L.A. Mac and Coulson track down a mystical book called the Darkhold, while a group of ghostlike villains from another dimension wreak havoc on southern California criminally and seismically. The Darkhold and the “ghosts” soon merge with the Rider’s storyline. Along the way, Holden Radcliffe, a fine anti-hero introduced in Season Three, perfects his beautiful female android Aida, the first Life Model Decoy, paving the way for the second half of the season.
If you don’t want to stick around for Gabriel Luna, I recommend you tune in and watch just for John Hannah as Radcliff and Mallory Jansen as Aida. They are brilliant together.
In the first half of the season, we meet Jeffrey Mace, the new Director of SHIELD. He is a smiling, cliché-spouting gladhander who is revealed, shockingly, to be an Inhuman—perfect proof that Inhumans can be trusted, can be heroic. Except, it’s later revealed that he isn’t one—he’s just juiced on super-serum. This was the idea of General Talbot, a recurring character who is important in Season Five. Talbot has never trusted SHIELD or the Inhumans, and he’s impulsive. Mace is an example of that impulsiveness.
Mace does have a superpower—it’s politics, which helps in the first half of the season. In the second half, Mace redeems himself by becoming authentic, rather than a polished illusion of something. Illusion and reality are big themes in this season.
But, back to East L.A, where SHIELD, with the help of the Rider and Quake, stop the ghostly villains and one human one from destroying most of California with a physics operation gone wrong. (Note: a “physics experiment” in the Marvel world is almost never good.) The Ghost Rider stops the villains, but not before Aida reads the Darkhold in order to create a portal to rescue Fitz and Coulson from a dark dimension. Another note: never let your AI read a book called “Darkhold.”
Aida has set a plan in motion that involves swapping androids for the team, starting with Agent May. At first it seems like Radcliffe is ignorant of her plans, but he’s not. He is, however, starting to get worried about a new streak of ruthlessness in his creation. She’s questioning why the human agents should be kept alive. This is a big clue for Radcliffe, but he acts too slowly.
Aida’s Life Model Decoys gradually infiltrate and take over the base. In… I guess I’ll call it “meatspace,” Aida has collaborated with a human bigot who wants all Inhumans destroyed and plans to use LMDs to do it. The team thinks they’ve stopped his plans… but who, exactly, is the team? And where are they? The paranoid, “Body Snatchers” vibe of the “LMD” episodes remains a high point in the season.
Radcliffe and Aida have created a virtual world called the Framework. May has been trapped in it already, but gradually Aida puts nearly all the agents into it. Jemma and Daisy, who escaped, enter the Framework voluntarily to find a “back door” and get everyone out. This is the “Agents of Hydra” segment, because in the Framework, SHIELD failed the world, and out of fear, the public turned to Hydra, which now runs everything with a grip of iron. Or, metal, at least, because Aida has assumed the role of Madame Hydra.
Messages are usually not something Marvel does well in my opinion. As with the individual rights versus public safety issue with the Inhumans, the best Marvel usually does is, “Well, things are complicated.” That’s not a criticism—I mostly appreciate their dedication to conflict and drama. In this segment of Season Four, though, they clearly nail a particular message—no system, no code, no algorithm, is “neutral.” Aida programmed the framework to give people what they most desired. At first glance, the fascistic state of the framework would seem to be the “fault” (desire) of the SHIELD agents, particularly Agent May. Aida, though, has been experiencing emotions since she read the Darkhold, without acknowledging it. Jealousy is the first one we clearly see, when Radcliffe brings his first love into the framework (Aida looks just like her). We see Aida’s reaction. Before that, Aida reacted with shock when she was shot and hurt protecting agents (before she read the Darkhold). She says she was programmed to experience pain to make her more realistic. It’s Jemma who comments on how cruel this is, but as the season progresses, is Aida experiencing anger? It’s not a coincidence that the “few adjustments” she made leads to a virtual world where torture and pain is a constant, and any woman who comes between Aida and a man she desires (like Fitz) is likely to die.
Any programming carries the biases of the human programmer, and this is clear in the “Agents of Hydra” segment. So, too, is the old warning, “Be careful what you wish for.”
Aida’s plans don’t end with the Framework. In our world she builds a biological construct for herself, loaded with Inhuman powers. Returned from the Framework, Fitz says she is “unstoppable.” There is only one thing she fears, and knowing that, Coulson makes a bargain with the Ghost Rider, who absorbs Aida’s energy and destroys her.
On a rewatch of the entire series, certain patterns showed up more clearly. It’s no spoiler to quote Coulson saying “Dying, kind of my superpower.” Mac seems to get possessed by things. Jemma gets sucked into outer space more than most people. But it’s Fitz who gets beaten up by the story in the worst ways, which are, from a dramatic standpoint, the best ways. In the second season, Fitz struggled with a brain injury caused by anoxia. Fitz is a genius — his aphasia and other cognitive struggles demoralized and isolated him. In the Framework, Aida corrects Fitz’s greatest regret and creates his father for him. The doctor, the person Fitz becomes in the framework, under his father’s influence, is a cold, cruel monster who does horrible things to his friends and hundreds of others. Fitz will wrestle with this through most of the next season. Even though the team mouths all the platitudes, like “that wasn’t you,” “we all have a dark side” and “she messed with your head,” it’s hard to see how easy it would be to trust someone who was physically torturing you, like, the day before yesterday.
Anyway, the Framework is tamed, Aida is gone, but the damage the LMDs caused will rebound onto the team. They go out for one last dinner together, and are abducted, as Season Four ends, poised to usher in the best-told-and-written of the series, Season Five, The Lighthouse.
A cast note. In this WWWednesday column, I commented that Daisy is supposed to be one-half Chinese. Chloe Bennett’s father is Chinese.
Cast Members Mentioned:
Agent Phil Coulson Clark Gregg
Daisy Johnson/Quake Chloe Bennett
Agent Makenzie Henry Simmons
Jemma Simmons Elizabeth Hentstridge
Agent May Ming Na Wen
Leopold Fitz Iain de Caestecker
Director Jeffrey Mace Jason O’Mara
Robbie Reyes Gabriel Luna
Holden Radcliffe John Hannah
Aida/Ophelia Mallory Jansen
General Talbot Adrian Pasdar
One commenter chosen at random will get a copy of T. Kingfisher’s folk horror novel The Twisted Ones.