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The world of Melinda May and Phil Coulson has always been tempestuous. And not just because they’re S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, though having to survive perilous missions on a weekly basis probably doesn’t do much for their stability. The flashback adventure that threads throughout “The Man Behind The Shield” is nothing if not a testament to the emotional connection they’ve shared since almost the beginning of their relationship. The combative banter may sound playful, and it is, but it also masks a deeper well of attraction and affinity for one another, something that finally bubbles to the surface during the episode’s stinger, when the implicit flirtation finally turns explicit, and Phil openly says he hopes May’s tentative romance with Andrew fails so that they can try having a date themselves. We all know how that hope went, and May’s need to grieve Andrew surely stayed Coulson’s (cybernetic) hand as much as any workplace decorum in recent months. But any time Mack or anyone else questions the S.H.I.E.L.D. director’s commitment to finding May, we now know an even better explanation why he’s never going to stop until he locates her: She came back for him.

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In the second half of this season, Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. has gotten into an admirable routine: A good episode, followed by a quite good episode; then another good one, succeeded by a quite good one; and so on. As I discussed last week, the show seems to have cracked the code for delivering consistently strong action-based storytelling, and this latest installment continues that trend, managing to mask what’s actually a fairly conversation-heavy outing with the proper mix of fight sequences and high-stakes showdowns. The narrative plays right to the series’ strengths, with the team tracking down faux-Director (and faux Inhuman) Jeffrey Mace in hopes it would also lead them to May. Busting someone out of a hostage situation is always a chance to flex some combat-filming muscle, and episode helmer Wendey Stanzler (who also shot the excellent “Failed Experiments” and less-excellent “Paradise Lost” from last season) takes the opportunity to get in some good choreography, even if it’s almost all too fleeting, save for the Daisy-vs.-Ivanov rumble. And if the breakout suffers a bit from the lack of visual imagination on display (oh good, another location of identical concrete hallways and rooms), it’s made up for with the expert pacing and unexpected storytelling.

That’s how you do a Life Model Decoy twist. It may have begun somewhat confusingly (Fitz and Jemma’s torturous explication to get us to the LMD sensor and camera was messy at best), but once it became clear what had happened—Coulson, Daisy, Mack, and Mace were all replaced by LMDs—the oddly stilted pacing of the final moments of the assault on the submarine base took on a retroactively thrilling feel. Aida, the gas containers, the loss of time…everything gained renewed sharpness in light of FitzSimmons’ discovery.

And hats off to the way in which the show has doled out each successive advancement of the plot. It could easily have felt busy or overstuffed trying to pack in all of these storylines, from the original replacement of May with an LMD, to the secret other LMD, to the Framework, to Ivanov, and now this new salvo of LMDs taking over the top agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but the series has managed to make each one feel vital and fresh, while not overstaying the welcome or piling them atop one another. It’s an impressive balancing act, and S.H.I.E.L.D. deserves credit for making it work. (That’s not even bringing up the obvious and inevitable storyline to come—Aida’s growing emotional consciousness, conveyed here by having her repeat Ivanov’s insult back to him as he lay unconscious in the rubble of Daisy’s wake: “Even filth has a purpose.”)

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First, it’s clear that Radcliffe is smarter than he’s been behaving. He has no desire to work for some Russian thug, especially one obsessed with eliminating the very people Radcliffe looks to as a beacon of where the human race should be going. He wants evolution and advancement, and Ivanov’s personal vendetta must seem as ignorant and foolish to Radcliffe as a climate-change denier’s specious reasoning. While the scientist has been acting as though he’s a nebbish who folds under the pressure of the situation, he’s been working with Aida to enact this plan of replacement, and waiting for Ivanov to get the ass-kicking he so richly deserves. Even Radcliffe’s apparently regular time inside the Framework (presumably with Agnes?) has helped blind Ivanov to the machinations happening behind his back. Frankly, I’m a little surprised Radcliffe hasn’t replaced Ivanov with an LMD yet. Aida would probably jump at the opportunity.

But while Radcliffe’s plans are going smoothly (give or take an immediate discovery of his deception by FitzSimmons), it’s a little stranger to see Fitz give so much credence to Mack’s unprovoked attack on his work. This was a jarring and tone-deaf moment. True, Mack has regularly been the writers’ mouthpiece for whatever spurious and ill-considered point of view they want to introduce in order to provide a little character conflict or temporary drama, but even in his self-appointed role as the team scold, attacking Leo for doing exactly what he’s done all along—be a brilliant inventor, trying to create tech in order to help fight the good fight—felt misplaced and out of character. And the idea that Fitz would allow such a hackneyed and misguided attack on his character to get under his skin was even stranger. Thankfully, Simmons was once more there to be the voice of reason and talk him down from the emotional ledge he should never have been on in the first place. People using technology for evil ends is about as much Leo’s fault as it is Mr. Potato Head’s. (Probably the surprise villain next episode.)

But there’s a hero in “The Man Behind The Shield” who gets very little credit, and now that he’s been replaced by an LMD, it’ll be awhile before he gets due respect. Jeffrey Mace, a man who was literally plucked out of obscurity by accident and made the face of American heroism, stands up for what’s right in a situation where no one would fault him for buckling under the pressure. He hasn’t been trained for this kind of situation—especially not an interrogation-turned-torture—and yet, even with a knife sticking out of him, he refuses to bend. He believes in Phil Coulson and S.H.I.E.L.D., and no imposing Russian killer is going to make him say otherwise. Mace proves that he belongs with S.H.I.E.L.D., and earns his place as an agent. It’s too bad no one will know. With the stakes established by the end of this installment—and LMD May back online, to boot—it’s time for Jemma Simmons and Leo Fitz to step up, and bring the whole scheme down.

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Stray Observations:

  • How about that Daisy-Coulson fight in the S.H.I.E.L.D. version of the Framework? Great to see them rumble, and it was a nice fake-out to make me briefly think Coulson had a fancy new hand. Also, we now know of Fitz’s silent protest against the A/C always running too cold.
  • Coulson, observing the conspiracy-theory board all about him: “This is why I don’t have Facebook.”
  • It was genuinely startling watching May’s behavior in the “some time ago” flashback. And a little heartbreaking, realizing how much fun and positivity she used to carry around.
  • Movie references this episode: Mack dropping Brainscan, and an unintentional Labyrinth mention from Jemma, filled out by helper agent Davis.
  • Speaking of Davis, Fitz is only slightly less worried by Simmons saying she’d take the agent with her during the jailbreak.
  • Most importantly, though, let’s take a moment and acknowledge one of the best responses to a villainous monologue in the show’s history. Coulson’s scornful dismissal of Ivanov’s whole history of anger is a beautiful bit of real-world trolling, shutting down the Russian’s idiocy with withering burn after burn right to his face. The whole thing in sum: “So: cool origin story, bro.”

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