Friday, December 9, 2016

Marvel's Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 4, Episode 8: The Laws Of Inferno Dynamics

It's the dreaded mid-season finale of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.! And it comes just two weeks after the show took a month-long hiatus. Way to run a network, ABC!

As I've been saying for months now, when I first heard the news that Ghost Rider was joining the series, I thought it was one of the dumbest things I'd ever heard. Ghost Rider! The supernatural star of two terrible movies from Sony. Why they hell were they bringing him onto what is ostensibly a spy show?

Imagine my surprise when he turned out the be the best thing that ever happened to the series! Ghost Rider fit into the show amazingly well, and actor Gabriel Luna hit one out of the park in his first appearance, playing the best version of Ghost Rider yet! 

In fact I'm sorry to see him go in this episode. Hopefully he'll be back soon in one form or another. Maybe he'll show up to help stop AIDA? Or better yet, maybe he'll get his own series!

Once again,  I'll give Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. credit where it's due— the series seems to handle these half-season arcs much better than other shows do. There was absolutely no filler in the first half of this season, as every episode counted and progressed the story. 

Maybe it helps that S.H.I.E.L.D. gives us two major storylines per season. Most series insist on dragging out one arc for twenty three episodes, which results in interminable wheel-spinning and padding (I'm lookin' at you, The Flash!). 

I was a bit worried at the beginning of the season when ABC announced they were moving the show to 9pm. That's traditionally known as the "death slot," and it didn't bode well for the show. Marvel tried to put a positive spin on it, saying the move would allow S.H.I.E.L.D. to become "darker and more violent."

I'm still waiting for that to happen. As near as I can tell the show seems about as dark as it's always been. Maybe less so! So far there's been nothing to rival the scene of Coulson getting his graphically rebuilt in Season 1, or the one last season in which Mack operated on Yo-yo with a goddamned blowtorch! 

This season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. has featured quite a few connections with Doctor Strange. The Darkhold, what appears to be the Dark Dimension, and the existence of magic in general.

This week I noticed another possible connection. When Ghost Lucy infected May a few episodes ago, she began seeing everyone as a ghastly demon, with cracked, black skin around their eyes and mouth.

In Doctor StrangeKaecilius begins screwing around with the Dark Dimension, and guess what? He develops cracked, black skin around his eyes.

Coincidence, or deliberate? Or did everyone else notice this weeks ago, and I'm late to the party?

Lastly, it looks like the back half of this season is going to heavily feature Life Model Decoys. I'm sure this focus on lifelike androids 
has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that HBO's Westworld series has been a huge success. Nope! None at all.

The Plot:
Eli Morrow is inside the Chinatown Gang's warehouse headquarters, building... something. The Gang Leader panics, telling Eli the place is surrounded by S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. Eli tells the Leader he pays them to keep S.H.I.E.L.D. off his back. The Leader smugly points out that Eli's never actually paid them yet. Eli gestures at the man, transforming his innards into diamonds. Paid in full!

Meanwhile Coulson briefs S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Mace on the Eli Morrow situation. Mace says S.H.I.E.L.D. can't be seen working with Daisy or Ghost Rider, but Coulson says they need them, plus Yo-yo if they hope to take down Eli. Mace reluctantly agrees, and for some reason says he wants AIDA on the mission as well. Coulson reveals she's an android, which shocks Mace. He reminds Coulson what happened with Ultron, and says they'll dismantle her (!) after the mission is over.

Coulson sends May on a "milk run" to collect AIDA, and tells her they'll finally share their special bottle of booze when this is all over. Remember this scene, as it'll become important later.

Fitz tells Simmons that Eli's powers don't make any sense, as you "can't create something out of nothing." Coulson, Mack, Robbie Reyes, Daisy and Yo-yo prepare to enter Eli's hideout. The ground quakes, and everyone looks at Daisy, but she says it wasn't her. Yo-yo speeds into the building to scope it out. She triggers a trap, which causes an explosion. Even with her superspeed she isn't fast enough to outrun it (where's the Flash when you need him?) and is blown out of the building into the alley. That isn't how explosions work, but let's just roll with it.

Meanwhile, Mace meets with Dr. Radcliffe about AIDA. Radcliffe defends her, saying he designed her to act as a field agent, to protect flesh and blood S.H.I.E.L.D. personnel. Mace asks about the Darkhold and wants to know more, which seems suspicious. He tells Radcliffe that AIDA's fate depends on her performance during this mission.

Coulson, Mack, Daisy and Yo-yo retreat to a S.H.I.E.L.D. van and monitor Robbie as he enters Eli's hideout alone. Some Chinatown thugs attack, but Robbie easily dispatches them. He finds a giant box that Eli was building. Fitz, who's also monitoring Robbie, says it looks like a giant version of the Quantum Labs device, and theorizes it's a battery of some kind. Suddenly he realizes what it is— a Demon Core. Apparently Eli's figured out how to create all the elements, and has rapidly gone from carbon to plutonium. The Core is basically a nuclear bomb. It contains a failsafe lid, that, if closed, will trigger the bomb. In downtown LA.

Robbie enters the box. Eli appears and impales Robbie to the wall of the box with a huge carbon spike. Robbie asks why he's doing this, and Eli says his whole life he's been dismissed and ignored because of his race, and wants to show the world he's capable of great things. He says he's becoming a god, and Robbie says he'd better be, because the Devil is coming for him. He tries to transform into Ghost Rider, but Eli impales him a second time, which stops him.

May brings AIDA and Radcliffe to S.H.I.E.L.D., which is a much more important scene than it seems. Mace wants to send Yo-yo in to deactivate the bomb, saying with her superspeed, her radiation exposure will be "limited." Mack, who's still sweet on Yo-yo, argues with Mace. Coulson takes Mace aside and they argue about how he's running S.H.I.E.L.D. Coulson asks Mace (who's an Inhuman) why he's secretly working with the anti-Inhuman Senator Nadeer. Mace says Nadeer has photos of Robbie and Daisy in the prison riot from a few weeks ago, and threatened to go public with them. He cut a deal with her to save Daisy. Coulson and Daisy look suitably embarrassed, as they realize he had their best interests in mind.

FitzSimmons, Daisy and AIDA set up a trap directly below Eli's box. The quakes continue and become more frequent. Fitz figures out why— Eli isn't creating something from nothing, but "stealing" matter from another dimension, which is destabilizing ours. Daisy uses her power to absorb the quakes (she can do that?), to keep the Demon Core from detonating. AIDA begins "weaving" a dimensional portal (like the one last week) in the ceiling.

Eli tells Robbie he's moved beyond creating elements, and can now create compounds like water. He says the next step is to create life. Just then two guards appear with Coulson. They tell Eli the only weapon he was carrying was a chain. Coulson tells Eli he isn't creating anything, but stealing it from another dimension, which is causing a rift.

Suddenly Mace enters— in costume!— and begins battling Eli's thugs. Yo-yo zips in and superspeed and dispatches the guards holding Coulson. She then places an explosive charge on Eli, that blows him into the Demon Core box. With Eli distracted, Robbie finally transforms into Ghost Rider.

On the floor below, AIDA completes her portal, which opens inside the box. A thug enters and fires on the group, and AIDA takes a bullet for Fitz.

Coulson tosses his chain to Ghost Rider, to pull him out of the box. He looks at the chain, then at Eli. He drops the chain and grabs onto Eli as the box disappears into the portal.

Daisy's absorbed too much quake energy and runs outside. She releases the energy by blasting into the sky. She makes a superhero landing and is surrounded by press. Mace pushes through them and surprisingly says the Inhuman "Agent Johnson" save them all. Radcliffe examines the injured AIDA and says she'll be OK.

Daisy admits she's missed S.H.I.E.L.D. Mack tries to patch things up with Yo-yo, and they finally kiss. Mace tells Radcliffe he's decided not to dismantle AIDA (nice of him) but from now on, all his research will be done at S.H.I.E.L.D., under official supervision. Radcliffe reluctantly agrees.

At Radcliffe's home, we see Agent Nathanson gathering up all his research. He opens a door to a storage closet and sees something which shocks him. AIDA comes up behind him and snaps his neck (!). Poor Nathanson! AIDA enters the closet, bends down and begins cleaning up a bloody Agent May (!).

On Zephyr One, Coulson finally opens his special bottle of booze and shares it with... Agent May. Gasp!

• At the beginning of the episode, Mace watches a news report, and is horrified by a photo he sees of himself.

Mace: "It's like a circus out there. And that picture of me on the banner!"

Aide: "Agreed,not your best side. I'll schedule a reshoot for this week."

They're in the middle of a crisis and Mace is worried about his image? Jesus, who is he, President Trumpy?

Marvel Cinematic Universe Moment! When Mace finds out that AIDA is an android, he's furious for a moment, then says, "Okay. I mean, forget about the fact that I was mildly attracted to her. That totally goes against the Sokovia Accords. Doesn't anyone remember Ultron?"

It's great that the series manages to work in so many references to the MCU. Too bad the movies don't return the favor.

And Mace may be a pompous idiot, but that doesn't make him wrong. AIDA is a bad idea, and letting her read the Darkhold was an even badder one.

• It's always funny to me when a series shows a speedster running in extreme slow motion. It reminds me of Steve Austin in The Six Million Dollar Man series from the 1970s.

I get why they do it— if this scene had happened in real time, then Yo-yo would have zipped out of the building in just a couple of frames and we wouldn't have seen anything. It's still odd though that so often speed is depicted slowly.

• Was Eli Morrow the Molecule Man?

In the comics, a man named Owen Reece worked at the Acme Atomics Corporation. He was involved in an accident with an experimental particle generator, which bombarded him with unknown radiation. This mutated him, giving him the power to control all matter, down to the molecular level. 
The accident also left lightning bolt-shaped scars on his face. He then went on a crime spree, calling himself the Molecule Man. 

There are a couple of similarities between him and Eli. OK, so Eli didn't have any Harry Potter scars, and he couldn't control molecules. But he got his powers from a particle generator accident, and went through the periodic table and "created" every element. Seems fairly close to me.

• Fitz says Eli's building a Demon Core. Sounds like something from a comic book, but it's actually a real thing. 

It's a long story, but basically the Demon Core was a fourteen pound mass of plutonium that accidentally went critical on two different occasions at the Los Alamos Lab in 1945 and 1946. Obviously this was before OSHA existed! Both times the accident bathed a lead scientist in deadly radiation, resulting in their deaths a week or two later.

• The confrontation between Coulson, Daisy and Mace was very well done. Coulson accuses Mace of collaborating with known Inhuman-hater Senator Nadeer. Daisy's disgusted by his actions as well. Then Mace reveals he cut a deal with Nadeer to save S.H.I.E.L.D. in general and Daisy in particular.

Coulson and Daisy both look suitably stunned and abashed, as they realize the man they've been denouncing actually has their best interests in mind and even suffered to keep them safe. Kudos to the writers for a very well-done scene.

• All season Daisy's quake power has been wreaking havoc on her arms, threatening to pulverize her arm bones. This week she's freely using her powers with no ill effects. What gives?

In this episode, Fitz and Daisy have the following exchange:

Fitz: "Yeah, well, all the same, Daisy, I'd like to look at the new gauntlets after the mission— check that they're calibrated correctly." 
Daisy: "They are, trust me. The effect on my bones is a tenth of what it was."

Kudos to the writers for throwing in this quick little line to explain why she's suddenly able to "quake" without hurting herself. Such a tiny detail could have easily been forgotten.

They know I'm watching

• Speaking of Daisy, she not only has the power to generate quakes, but in this episode she can suddenly absorb seismic energy as well. That's new, right? I don't remember her ever doing that before. 

And how the hell does that even work? An earthquake is the sudden release of energy stored between tectonic plates. How the hell do you absorb and release that? Comic book science!

• During the Coulson vs Eli confrontation, Yo-yo comes to the rescue and has a Quicksilver  moment. She catches bullets in mid-flight, repositions the bad guys and sets up Coulson for the win. Pretty cool! Hopefully now that she and Mack are making nice, she'll become a regular in the back half of the season.

• It was cool to see Mace in costume, but Jesus, again with the black leather? Man, the costume designer on this show must reeeeeally have something against colors.

I get that he was wearing a modified S.H.I.E.L.D. uniform, but Mace seems like the kind of guy who'd want something a little more flamboyant. A dash of color perhaps, or maybe even a cape.

• After Robbie/Ghost Rider disappears, Daisy and Coulson have the following exchange:

Daisy: (Talking about Robbie's car) "We need to get this to Gabe. Belongs to him now."

Coulson: "I wouldn't count out the previous owner just yet."
Daisy: "You think Robbie will make it back?"
Coulson: "The last Ghost Rider did." 
Daisy: "Wait a minute. Wait. What?"
Coulson: "Long story. Regardless, I don't think we've seen the last of Mr. Reyes."

We got a glimpse of the previous Ghost Rider a few weeks ago in The Good Samaritan, and most fans assumed he was Johnny Blaze (due to the bullet hole in the middle of his skull). 

Apparently Coulson is aware of this version of the Spirit Of Vengeance. Does this mean we'll eventually see Johnny Blaze on the show? Here's hoping!

• Daisy finally returns to S.H.I.E.L.D., and Coulson says he's glad she's back.

Daisy: "Got to be honest. I... I don't know how I feel about being back The rules, regulations. But, there were a few things I've missed."

Coulson: "They missed you, too. Plus, it doesn't hurt that the new face of S.H.I.E.L.D. is an Inhuman."
Daisy: "Your idea?"
Coulson: "I thought the new face of S.H.I.E.L.D. should be an Inhuman ... didn't mean him, though." 
Daisy: (realizing Coulson is talking about her) "Yeah, right. Maybe in the comic book version."

This is a shoutout to the comics, in which Daisy Johnson, aka Quake was briefly the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D.

• Simmons welcomes Daisy back with a surprise:

Simmons: "Well, now that we're all gathered, I'd like to present Agent Johnson with something. Uh... Your official lanyard. It's just a shame Agent Koenig couldn't be here."

Indeed. Too bad they couldn't get Patton Oswalt to swing by for a few minutes to film a quick scene.

• Poor Agent Nathanson. Not only can no one at S.H.I.E.L.D. ever remember his name, but now he's had his neck snapped by an android.

• So AIDA's replaced May with a Life Model Decoy. I'm betting that's why she was "knitting" a virtual brain at the end of last week's episode— she was making it to put in Fake May's head.

• I have a theory concerning AIDA and her motives. The writers are doing their best to make her motives appear sinister, but that seems too obvious. Plus Marvel already did the "Evil A.I." schtick in Avengers: Age Of Ultron.

What if AIDA's not evil, but simply following her programming? When Radcliffe first introduced her to Fitz, he said he built AIDA to protect agents, so they wouldn't have to risk their lives in the field. She'd become a figurative "shield," so to speak.

Sci-fi author Jack Williamson wrote a famous short story in 1947 titled With Folded Hands, that's very similar to this situation. A man invents a line of robots he calls "Mechanicals," and programs them with a Prime Directive: "To Serve And Obey And Guard Men From Harm."

The Mechanicals then begin taking over every human job and task. Unfortunately they take their Directive seriously, and prohibit humans from engaging in any behavior that might endanger them. They also begin monitoring all humans, to prevent them from harming themselves. Anyone who resists is taken away and lobotomized, so they can live happily under the Mechanicals' rule.

The Mechanicals spread across the world and even onto human colony planets, and humanity is left helpless, with nothing to do but sit quietly with "folded hands."

Maybe AIDA's doing something similar here. Maybe she's systematically abducting the various agents, and replacing them with Life Model Decoys to protect them. Then the imprisoned agents will eventually have to rebel against her to get their lives back.

• So when was May replaced with the Life Model Decoy? I'm one hundred percent sure it was when she went on her "milk run" to pick up AIDA and bring her onboard the Zephyr One. That's the only time May was at Radcliffe's house, and AIDA's only opportunity to make the switch undetected.

The real question is does Radcliffe know about the switch? I don't think so, but it's not clear. He had a private meeting with Mace early in the episode, but it's vague as to whether it occurred before or after the milk run. 

• Last week it looked like there might be a romantic spark developing between Coulson and May. Five dollars says that in the back half of the season, he and Life Model Decoy May will hook up and have a romance. That way the show can get the two of them together without really getting them together, if that makes any sense.

• Best Lines This Week:

Robbie: (before attacking Eli's headquarters) "Yo, I'm not wearing a mask, man."

Mack: "It's not a mask ... it's a balaclava."
Robbie: "Thought that was a dessert."

Fitz: (talking about the impossibility of Eli's actions) "Even in the realm of quantum vacuum fluctuations, there are still laws. So how's he doing it? Maybe it's magic. I do not like magic. Or clowns. Or clowns with knives... in the dark."

Radcliffe: (talking about the equipment AIDA brought) "AIDA thought they could be quite useful."

May: "AIDA thinks?"
Coulson: "Maybe about electric sheep."

Fifty points to anyone who gets that reference!

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