Thursday, February 16, 2017

Marvel's Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 4, Episode 14: The Man Behind The Shield

This week on Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., the LMD storyline races to its conclusion, asone of my hunches comes true.


When the series returned in January with the LMD storyline, I half-jokingly said predicted it wouldn't be long until the entire cast was replace by robots, ala the rebooted BattleStar Galactica. Wow! How frighteningly prophetic! As of this episode, every major character is an LMD except for Fitz and Simmons, and I'm still not too sure about Fitz!

I'm anxiously waiting for Coulson, Daisy, Mack and Mace to start singing All Along The Watchtower (ten points to anyone who gets that reference!).

Mack's confrontation with Fitz, in which he accuses him of causing all their ills, seemed to come out of nowhere, and felt completely out of character. Yes, we know Mack is anti-technology, but blaming Fitz for the existence of the Framework and LMDS felt contrived and unfair. Even worse, Fitz agreed with him! Don't take that crap from Mack, Fitz! Stand up for yourself!

The Superior continues to be so in name only, as he's turned out to be a particularly lame villain. Even his master plan, which he finally reveals this week, is petty and childish. He's definitely not the Big Bad I was expecting when Senator Nadeer first hinted at his coming.

I'll bet Ming-Na Wen is having a blast lately, as she's now played three different versions of Agent May this season. Where else would an actor have the chance to do that? Maybe over on The Flash?

This week we get a flashback to one of Coulson and May's early missions, and we see them acting flirty and even propositioning one another. This is most definitely a retcon, no doubt meant to explain why LMD May has been making googly eyes at Coulson all season.

Supposedly this LMD storyline is set to wrap up next week. That's surprising, as I assumed it would play out for the rest of the season. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad they're ending the arc instead of dragging it out for too long, as most shows would. Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. seems to have figured out the secret of writing good serial drama. Fill the season with several short, well-paced story arcs each season, instead of giving us one dull, overlong padded plotline. Well done, guys!


The Plot:
Coulson and Daisy fight one another inside S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ. Daisy kicks him and he freezes in midair. We see they've been inside Fitz's prototype of the Framework, a virtual world he invented years ago. Apparently Dr. Radcliffe appropriated Fitz's prototype and he and AIDA perfected it. For some reason, Fitz suspects Radcliffe is keeping May in a simulation like this. Just then an agent informs Coulson they've tracked a sensor in Director Mace's battle suit to Alaska.

Coulson, Daisy and Mack arrive a remote outpost in Alaska. They find Mace's suit, but no sign of him. Coulson realizes The Superior brought them here for a reason. Coulson sees a cliched "connection wall," filled with photos of himself linked by red string. Daisy studies the board and finds a link to a mining facility The Superior purchased.

Coulson remembers the mine, and flashes back to "some time ago." He and Agent May infiltrate the mine, looking for an unknown object. They flirt and rib one another as they search the post. They find a safe and assume the object they're looking for is inside. Suddenly a truckload of Russian soldiers arrive. Coulson tries to bluff them into leaving. Inside, May cracks the safe, apparently gets the unknown object and speeds away in Coulson's car. The Russians tell Coulson his partner's deserted him, and throw him in the back of their truck. As they drive away, May returns and slams into their truck. She rescues Coulson, saying it was all part of her plan. He flirts again with her, but she says she's dating a shrink (which I assume turns out to be her husband Andrew Garner).

Meanwhile, Radcliffe is in his version of the Framework, presumably with his ex Agnes. The Superior arrives and insists AIDA bring him out of the Framework. He tells Radcliffe he's spending too much time inside the virtual world.

Cut to Mace, who's chained to a wall in a cell. He uses the last of his super strength to break free. He opens the door of his cell and runs down a corridor, only to be caught by The Superior. He easily knocks out Mace, who's not a trained fighter, and takes him back to his cell.

Onboard Zephyr One, Mack tries out the Framework, but decides he doesn't like it. Hmm... so Coulson, Daisy and Mack have all worn a Framework headset in this episode. Could that mean something? Mack accuses Fitz of being an irresponsible mad scientist, as he helped build both AIDA and the Framwork, and they've all been used for evil by Radcliffe. The ship lands as the Russian mine. Coulson and the others investigate, and find the safe May cracked "some time ago."

Inside the safe they find several skeletons. A cell phone rings inside the skull of one of them (!). Coulson answers the phone, and The Superior asks if he recognizes the men. When he says no, The Superior says that Coulson killed them all and hangs up. Daisy finds a possible location for The Superior's HQ-- an old Russian submarine base. The team heads for Russia to get their people back.

Fitz figures out a way to detect the Framework's source code, but discovers its so massive it's using computers from all over the world, making it impossible to track. Simmons tells Fitz that Mack's wrong, and that he's not responsible for Radcliffe perverting his inventions.

Mace wakes up tied to a chair in a cell, as The Superior and AIDA look on. The Superior monologues to him, denouncing him as fake because his powers came from a serum. He asks Mace if he has any regrets. Mace says he's sorry he can't kick The Superior's ass. The Superior leaves, as several of his thugs come in and beat the living hell out of the helpless Mace. AIDA watches from the door, and it's unclear what-- if anything-- she's thinking.

S.H.I.E.L.D. arrives at The Superior's base and blows a hole in the side. Coulson, Daisy, Mack, FItzSimmons and several S.H.I.E.L.D. grunts enter. For some reason, they all split up. Coulson runs into The Superior, who quickly disarms him. He then starts monologuing again (is that his true superpower?), and says his comrades were killed because they lost the mysterious object that Coulson and May retrieved. That's why The Superior's doing all this-- to avenge his fallen comrades.

Coulson realizes The Superior was one of the men who captured him that night, "some time ago." In an awesome speech, Coulson tells The Superior that he's slept since then, it was just another mission to him. He doesn't even remember what the mysterious object was, and The Superior was just another "redshirt" to him. Burrrrrrrn!

Coulson leaves as Daisy enters. She's happy to get a chance to face the leader of the Watchdogs, and quakes him into a pillar. Amazingly he gets up and the two fight. The Superior stabs Daisy in the shoulder with his knife, and she quakes the whole ceiling down on him. For some reason, she causally strolls out, assuming he's dead rather than taking him into custody.

Mack and Coulson see The Superior's thugs still beating Mace. They take out the thugs and see Mace is barely breathing. They carry him back to the rendezvous point.

FitzSimmons finds The Superior's I.T. department. Fitz says the computers are too low tech to contain the Framework, but he might be able to get some useful info out of them. Simmons hears radio chatter that AIDA's been sighted, and she and a S.H.I.E.L.D. grunt go after her. She gets to the dock seconds too late, as AIDA and the sub sail away.

Everyone returns to S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ. As Fitz fiddles with The Superior's computer, Simmons says something about the mission bothers her. She claims there was a stretch of unaccounted time, in which none of the agents could contact one another. She checks the base's security logs and sees the LMD detection system was triggered. She uses her clearance to access the report, which says four LMDs have entered the base-- Coulson, Daisy, Mack and Mace. This means she and Fitz are on their own, as they're the only top level agents left who are still human. LMD Coulson then restarts LMD May.

Back at The Superior's HQ, AIDA has apparently returned. She digs The Superior out of the rubble, saying he still has a purpose...

• So apparently Fitz invented a prototype of the Framework, which Radcliffe and AIDA co-opted and enhanced. Got it.

• OK, so Fitz may have invented SHIELD's Framework, but why does Mack accuse him of inventing LMDs? Radcliffe's the one who's to blame here. According to the Marvel Cinematic Universe Wiki, S.H.I.E.L.D. dabbled with LMD technology some time ago, but ended up abandoning it. When Radcliffe became an honorary member of S.H.I.E.L.D., he discovered the rejected project and revived it.

Fitz may have helped Radcliffe a bit, but he didn't invent the technology. Mack's way off the mark here.

• According to the on-screen captions, Coulson's flashbacks happened "Some time ago..." Convenient! By not saying, "Ten years ago," his flashback incident is unlikely to contradict anything later on, because there's no way to tell exactly when it happens.

• Flashback May looks quite attractive and, dare I say it, cute, in her little wig that's meant to make her look younger. Oddly enough, they didn't attempt to alter Coulson's appearanceat all. They could have at least given him a bit more hair than he has now.

Both actors do a great job of playing earlier versions of themselves in this episode. Clark Gregg seems to be channeling the Phil Coulson from the Iron Man era here, and it's interesting to see how different the character was back in 2008. Ming-Na Wen gives us a fun, flirty and seemingly carefree version of May, before her life was weighed down by personal tragedy. 

It's still so odd to see May actually smiling.

• Coulson finds The Superior's little shrine to him in Russia, complete with dozens of photos, newspaper clippings and maps, all connected by red string. Has anyone in the real world ever done this as a way to try and visualize connections between random events? 

• Last week Mace said he'd never been trained in hand-to-hand combat, as his super strength serum made it unnecessary. Who needs to know how to fight when you can grab your opponent and throw 'em a mile?

Nowhere is his lack of training more evident than in this episode, in which he takes on The Superior and is whupped in five seconds flat.

I'll give Mace credit though he's tough! Despite the fact that his super strength is gone and he doesn't know how to fight, he absolutely refuses to give up. 

• My favorite part of the episode was the confrontation between The Superior and Coulson. The Superior claims that his entire scheme was meant to get revenge against Coulson for killing his men. Coulson tells The Superior that it all happened years ago, it was just another mission to him and he barely even remembers it!

That's a pretty cool twist on the standard supervillain revenge plotline, and one I don't think I've ever seen before. Well done, writers!

• S.H.I.E.L.D.'s raid on The Superior's HQ was very odd, very disjointed and very contrived. The second they arrive, Coulson and the others all split up for some reason, which seems like a reeeeally bad idea when you're invading an enemy's home base.

Of course there's a reason for these shenanigans. The writers needed to separate all the characters so they could be captured offscreen and replaced by LMDs. I get that it was necessary story-wise, but I just wish they'd come up with a better, less contrived way to do it.

• Daisy spars with The Superior for a bit, then grows impatient and quakes the ceiling down on top of him. She then radios to the others that The Superior's down, and casually saunters out of the room.

Really? She's just going to assume that this incredibly dangerous psycho is dead? Jesus Christ! Check him for a pulse and tie him up if he's still alive.

Again, I get that this scene needed to happen this way so Daisy could be captured and replaced with an LMD, but surely there was a less ridiculous way to do so.

• For weeks now I've been saying that Fitz is secretly an LMD who's unknowingly working for Radcliffe. The end of this episode would seem to torpedo that theory. Or does it? Follow me here...

Radcliffe and AIDA most likely used their Darkhold knowledge to quickly whip up LMDs of Coulson, Daisy, Mack and Mace. But in order to be a perfect copy, it's necessary for the subject's brain to be scanned and uploaded into the LMD.

How's that accomplished? With the Framework headset, of course. It can scan a person's brain in seconds, and upload it either into the Framework or an LMD.

So who was wearing a Framework headset in this episode? Coulson, Daisy and Mack! Three of the four people who were replaced by LMDs at the end of the episode!* That can't be a coincidence.

This is why I think Fitz is also secretly an LMD, and most likely doesn't know it.

*The only person who didn't put on a headset in this episode was Mace, but Radcliffe could have scanned him while we weren't looking.

• Great confusion surrounds the replacement of the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents with LMDs. It's not clear exactly when Coulson and the others were replaced, and I don't understand their motivations once they get back to S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ. Hopefully some or all of these questions will be cleared up next week.

For example, Daisy gets stabbed in the shoulder during her fight with The Superior. Was it Daisy who actually got stabbed, or was it her LMD doppelganger? If it was Daisy, did AIDA quickly stab the LMD version in the shoulder so it would match?

If LMD Daisy was the one who was stabbed, will she look down and see wires under her skin like LMD May did a few weeks ago, and realize she's a copy? 

And what about powers? Was AIDA somehow able to give LMD Daisy quake powers like the real thing? If so, how? With the magic of the Darkhold? And if LMD Daisy doesn't have powers, won't she notice and realize she's a copy?

Same goes for Mace. When exactly was he replaced? Were The Superior's men beating up a human or an LMD? If AIDA replaced the real Mace after he was worked over, did she have to beat up his LMD to match?

Another thing I don't understand at the very end of the episode, LMD Coulson brings LMD May back online. So what's his endgame here? Does he think he's the real Coulson? If so, why would he reactivate LMD May? Everyone knows she's not real, so that would reveal Coulson's a copy as well.

So many questions!

• This week's best lines:
Coulson: (referring to being inside the prototype Framework) "But I-I felt strangely cold, though."
Fitz: "Well, I tried to make the simulation as real as possible, and since you always leave the air-con on in the base, I exaggerated it. Kind of like a silent protest."

Fitz: "What are you trying to say? That all this is my fault?"

Mack: "What I'm saying is, if you didn't build a killer robot or a virtual world, this year would've been much easier for us."

Mack: (to Fitz) "Okay, you know, the line between scientist and mad scientist is paper thin."

Coulson: "Don't worry. I'm good with my hands."
May: "Not how I remember it."
Coulson: "Okay, here it comes. It's never long before you bring that up."
May: "Well, I remember you fumbling quite a bit."
Coulson: "I didn't know you that well back then. I didn't want to be presumptuous."
May: "You were undercover as my husband."
Coulson: "Right, and I knew we were on camera, so I had to sell that we were, you know ..."
May: "Oh, yeah, you sold it. Took over two minutes to unhook my bra."
Coulson: "That was an act for the camera. You know, I was ... I was being a gentleman. What, they don't cover foreplay at the Operations Academy?"
May: "They teach us to commit to the mission ... all the way."

AIDA: "Preparations here are nearly completed."
The Superior: "That is nearly a satisfying report."
AIDA: "If you're done playing with your food, there is still work to be done."
The Superior: "Metaphor. Well done."

Flashback Coulson: (to Russian soldier) "We all good here, fellas? What else do you need? Birth certificate? I think I got a membership card to Gold's Gym."

Flashback Russian Soldier:
"Do you have partner?"

Flashback Coulson: "Oh! Eh. She's not really a partner. More of a friend ... a co-worker, really. Though, to be honest, I'm starting to feel some tension, sexual and otherwise, so I was actually thinking about taking a shot, but I'm afraid it could go south."
Flashback Russian Soldier: "You Americans, you talk too much."
Flashback Coulson: "It's our greatest flaw."

Mace: (to The Superior) "And to answer your question, I do have one regret. That I don't have any superpowers of my own that I could use to kick your ass."

Coulson: (reacting to The Superior's revenge plot) "All of these things you've done, all of the energy spent, the hatred. And you know what the funny thing about it is? I have no idea who the hell you are. I've been on hundreds of missions in my time. This one you're so upset about, I was sent to retrieve an object. If I'm being honest, I don't even remember what it was. As far as I'm concerned, you're just another red shirt like so many others who tried unsuccessfully to stop me from saving the world. 'Cause that's what I do. So... cool origin story, bro, but this means nothing to me."

Daisy: "I chased the Watchdogs, the funding, the weapons, the EMP, the Senator ... it all leads back to you."

The Superior: "Always nice to meet an admirer."
Daisy: "This isn't about admiration or forgiveness."
The Superior: "The butcher does not seek forgiveness from the animals he slaughters."
Daisy: "Have you ever read Animal Farm?"

AIDA: (echoing The Superior's earlier statement) "Even filth has a purpose."

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