Marvel's Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.

“To be human is to suffer.” If there’s been one overriding theme of this season of Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., it’s the idea that we’re defined by our pain. What gave meaning to Robbie Reyes was the tragedy of his brother and his family, the losses that haunted him and led to his becoming Ghost Rider. Similarly, Holden Radcliffe’s attempt to bring about immortality, and his obsession with control—with “improving” people—turned out to be a dystopian nightmare, because without the experiences that caused them genuine suffering, the people he cared about were no longer the same. (Plus, once the woman he loved was gone, he realized the fundamental meaningless of an eternity without human connection.) And Aida—or Ophelia, as she would prefer to be known—came to understand far too late that the transition to a human body, and its attendant mortality, came with a host of emotional baggage with which she wasn’t equipped to deal. She may have been trying to focus on vengeance, but anyone who’s ridden a wave of anger knows it eventually crests, and comes back down, leaving you to soak in the pain behind it all.

The idea of suffering undergirding our humanity was called out by Aida last week, and in its season finale, S.H.I.E.L.D. offered the only response possible to that state of being: Namely, you get through it, hopefully with some friends to help. “World’s End” tried to wrap up the various arcs of the season in one big bow, with a closing speech about family and togetherness, and it suffered a bit for overreaching. One of the admirable qualities of season four has been the show’s relaxed policy on letting characters work through their feelings without having to shoehorn a happy ending onto it. Daisy was hurting for a good long while; Mack and Yo-Yo didn’t need to instantly be clearly defined as together or apart. Letting these emotional beats breathe occasionally meant sweeping some character work under the rug in the name of goosing the action, and it felt like our heroes would need some time to unpack all that’s happened to them.

Instead, we got an abrupt end to the Darkhold, Aida, LMDs—hell, even May and Coulson’s intriguing banter ended with an agreement to “start again,” taking a step back from the potential emotional entanglement of their feelings, and reboot their friendship from the ground up. It may be a tidy conclusion (for now), but it doesn’t entirely feel like the right one.

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Radcliffe’s toasting to the end of his universe was the best possible conclusion for a character that had run his course. Revealing him to be a nefarious baddie had always been an ambiguous move—sure, he had been up to no good prior to landing on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s radar, but his integration into the team had been a smart one. So to have his behavior backfire, leaving him alive only within his Framework and regretting his questionable choices, lent more pathos to his affection for the team, and especially Fitz. Even when his story got muddled, the writers did their best to prevent his feelings for Leo from being exposed as false or hollow. It was fitting watching his digital universe slow blink out of existence before his eyes; the striving for godhood and eternity played out with his creation literally disappearing in the blink of an eye, the inevitable passage of time a moral Radcliffe finally learned.

And the Framework was in some ways the best part of “World’s End,” as its destruction ended on a far darker (if inevitable) note than I would have anticipated. We all knew Mack had to get home somehow, and the most obvious way was to remove Hope from the equation. But the vanishing of people in the Framework unfolded like a horror movie, everyone and everything disappearing around them, until finally we’re treated to the sight of Mack cradling his daughter, promising it’ll all be okay…and suddenly, she’s gone. It was a daring move, but it was necessary, and Mack now has the memories of being a father to help counterbalance his loss in the real world. Elements of his story still didn’t completely gel (how exactly did Aida teleport him out of the collapsing Russian base without killing him via his body being yanked out of the machine, again?), but that darkness felt honest.

Bringing back Ghost Rider made for some good action, but it also meant ”World’s End” had to rush through much of the remaining story to make room for the return of Robbie. Credited writer Jeffrey Bell managed to deliver a number of good one-liners, but the episode was overstuffed with callbacks and beats all meant to tie up the remaining loose ends before launching into brand-new teasers. Having Ghost Rider there provided a way to fight Aida that made sense, but after those early slo-mo beatdowns between Robbie and Aida (and later, the Robbie-Daisy team-up against Aida’s Russian robots), the final showdown was an abrupt one. Coulson’s gambit to temporarily meld with Ghost Rider in order to trick the now-sentient A.I. worked, but the cool visuals cooked up by director Billy Gierhart flew by too fast to really register, as Aida teleported them into several locations before receiving her Raiders Of The Lost Ark-style meltdown. (Another nice reminder that this show got to do some much cooler and bleaker imagery thanks to its move to the 10 p.m. time slot on ABC.)

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More successful was Aida’s vindictive assault on Jemma right in front of Fitz’s eyes. “Beg me to let her live,” the newly human Aida snarls, showing the desperate need beneath her vengeful attacks, and capturing the essence of her fleeting existence. Sure, it was rendered a little toothless by the reveal that her target was an LMD Jemma—something I’m a little unclear on, as it means either they have access to LMD-building tech and are using it still, or somehow found the original model Radcliffe planned to replace Simmons with earlier—but again, it felt more like a problem of rushed pacing. The switcheroo might have played better had it been allowed some time to breathe. Instead, the audience is expected to sit there after watching Aida supposedly kill perhaps the show’s best character, and then cut to another scene of Coulson and May chit-chatting about their feelings. That could only play as either completely tone-deaf or a dead giveaway that her death was a fake; neither one is a great option, and could have been fixed by a more studious and spaced-out structure.

Photo: Jennifer Clasen/ABC

Ghost Rider comes back because the creation of Aida’s human body caused a tear in the dark world, allowing Robbie to return. Linking his story to hers allowed the series to bookend (no pun intended) the season with the Darkhold. There are new stories that could come from this, most especially the continued existence of Ivanov, his brain hidden away somewhere, and presumably still churning out android bodies for his consciousness to control. And since they were captured by an unknown entity, the world still thinks there’s a new, S.H.I.E.L.D.-approved Inhuman threat, unless Talbot has somehow come to his senses (and out of his coma) in order to prevent it from looking like Daisy tried to murder him—so soon after Mace granted her a new lease on life as a good guy, no less. And everyone on the team needs more than a good diner breakfast. They need some time to unwind and unpack the events of this season, and reflect on where they are as people.

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But this is Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., and we’re not going to get that, because this series doesn’t like to pause for air. So instead, we get a time jump and what looks like a trip to space, where Coulson is reminding himself to “get back to work.” It seems to double as a motto for the show as a whole: It wants to get right back to the action, and jumping ahead however long, into a mysterious outer-space locale, is a surefire way to do that. But even if the writers know what happened in the interim, the audience doesn’t. It might be good to give us a moment to check in with everyone. We’ve got another season coming, happily (albeit moved to Fridays with a reduced budget), so S.H.I.E.L.D. should consider taking a breath as well, and remembering the maxim of its creator: Sure, more of the breakneck thrills and exciting action may be what we want, but maybe it’s time to give us what we need—a close look inside the heads of a bunch of people who have just gone through the equivalent of war, and have some attendant scars that should be examined.

Stray observations:

  • The Phil Coulson’s One-Liners Variety Hour, exhibit A: Upon entering the wreckage in the wake of Daisy and Robbie’s fight. “I missed it, didn’t I? You two together, and I missed it. Damn!”
  • That fight was a lot of fun, but I would’ve liked to have seen what someone like Kevin Tancharoen could’ve done with it.
  • Phil Coulson’s One-Liners Variety Hour, exhibit B: “Robot May was a lot more supportive.”
  • Speaking of Coulson, I wonder how long it’ll be before we learn the mysterious terms of the deal he made with Ghost Rider. That was quite the soap opera-esque tease for a season finale, though perhaps not as much as a stinger of him waking up in space.
  • They’ve repeatedly insisted this won’t connect to the Inhumans show, but that sure felt like setup for a way to tie the two together, unless it has a Thor: Ragnarok element I’m not picking up on.
  • Also, I’ll be disappointed if S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t find a way to address the lack of goodbye for Framework Ward. It seemed like an ideal way to return a new version of the character to the series—and frankly, ratings seemed to bear out the idea that Brett Dalton’s coming back would be a smart move. But more importantly, I think it would be good for the show; as I explained the other week, his presence would generate some interesting character development among the rest of the team.
  • Nice tracking shot of them at the diner, though I feel like May would’ve finished her food before putting up her hands to surrender.
  • Poor Fitz didn’t even get more than a moment to reflect on his traumatic experience before being told to get it together. It’ll be interesting to see how much we deal with that next season.
  • Thanks, everyone, for joining me on what turned out to be easily the best season yet. I’ll see you online, and we’ll meet back here next fall for season five.

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