Say what you will about S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Jeffrey Mace—the man knows optics. As well he should; optics are at the heart of everything about his appointment to the agency. People trust S.H.I.E.L.D. because they trust the person chosen to lead it. After the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, America had relegated the trojan horse of a Hydra-infiltrated agency to sub-Nixon levels of popularity. And following several years of operating quietly in the shadows, any coming-out party required a face that people could believe in. Captain America was a little busy in his new status as a wanted fugitive, so the government did the next best thing: They made their own Cap. Who better to reinstill faith in a defense initiative than someone perceived as the embodiment of a selfless hero? Like a lot of things nowadays, it doesn’t matter what the facts are. It only matters the story that’s being told. And Jeffrey Mace has a damn good story. Too bad none of it is true.
Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. Mace is a hero, in his own diminished way. He genuinely wants to do the right thing, to protect Inhumans, and to serve his country and help the world. He didn’t just see his chemically induced powers as a means to an end—the means were the end. By adopting the guise of an Inhuman, he could lend credibility to their cause, restore public confidence in other powered beings, and even rescue Daisy from her self-inflicted status as a wanted criminal. And if he had to lie about a few things to do so, that seemed like a small price. It wasn’t even his call: Mace was ordered to maintain the lie, from Talbot and the president alike. That’s not a hard choice, that’s a higher calling, in his mind. If anything, it was a chance to take the false image of himself created by the photo from Vienna and actually make it true. As Coulson notes, Mace held fast to the image of himself as a hero even when facing the barrel of a gun. That’s not an image. That’s the real thing.
“The Patriot” goes beyond just manipulating the perception of Mace, although the repurposing of the character from his position as a genuinely super-powered guy in the comics universe was a clever inversion of expectations. The reveal was hurt somewhat by the piling on of mysterious phone calls and sideways glances prior to the big twist, all meant to reinforce the idea that Mace has a secret, and there’s a ticking clock until it’s revealed. While Mace joined Coulson and Mack for some derring-do in the West Virginia forest, the deeper intrigue was happening under the nose of our S.H.I.E.L.D. heroes back at the base. Last week’s unveiling of Dr. Radcliffe as the mastermind behind the effort to spirit away the Darkhold was a more satisfying twist, thanks to the character’s lengthy setup in season three, as I explained last week. Mace was always somewhat of a question mark, even though his fundamental boy scout decency seemed largely unchallenged, a view that’s been borne out by the narrative. But watching Radcliffe fret about his LMD of Melinda May shows how the larger story arc contains a plethora of ethical quandaries the show has only begun to unpack.
Radcliffe is a good man undone by his convictions, sacrificing trust (and lives) with the fervent belief that unlocking the secret to eternal life will be worth the pain and betrayals. Several times in ”The Patriot” he admonishes Aida for her use of violence, asserting his preference for a manipulative pacifism, a stance that jibes with everything we’ve seen from the man. In fact, it’s almost touching. He hates the need for aggression, even wondering aloud if its possible to tweak Aida’s responses to prevent violent outbursts in the future. But let’s not make him out to be a saint; he worries more about his LMD May exposing herself as a fraud—and, by extension, him. It’s why he’s embraced “the longer game,” as he calls it. But something tells me we haven’t seen the last of an Aida running amok. Throughout the episode, the robot’s eyes do everything but send up smoke signals announcing her frustrated intention to move beyond her more peaceful programming. Of course, grabbing May by the throat (right after being instructed not to harm people!) is a bit of a warning sign, too.
LMD May is a wild card. True, in the episode’s stinger she discovers that something is very wrong with her—she sees part of her metal endoskeleton in the mirror—but her programming, such as it is, remains subconscious. She has no idea of her Darkhold mission, or even the fact that she’s a creation of Radcliffe. But it remains to be seen what she’ll do given the knowledge of her phony identity. She doesn’t feel like a phony—she feels like May. But “something’s off,” to use her own words, and it’s unclear what will happen when she realizes the constructed nature of her situation. Just think of the kind of ass human May can kick; I pity whichever side LMD May chooses to go after.
But there’s an even more ambiguous ploy being carried out under someone’s nose, and it’s the work of Leo Fitz. He’s continuing to research Aida, despite the very real threat of retribution, both professional and personal, from Jemma. Their conversation tonight was maddeningly opaque. Fitz thinks the big problem wasn’t Aida gaining sentience (despite his not knowing that didn’t actually happen), but rather their inability to keep the secret from Simmons? Because he wants to have an A.I. to keep her safe? Even if the motivations are clear, the reasoning is tortured at best, and felt like a first draft that nobody bothered to go back and revise. Especially not Jemma’s reaction, which basically fell into the camp of, “Eh, I get it, but don’t ask me to explain it.” Which is ironic, considering poor Elizabeth Henstridge was burdened with the requisite clunky exposition in other scenes this episode.
The reveal of Project Patriot, and Mace’s distinctly un-amazing abilities, give us one thing we’ve been waiting for: The return of Director Phil Coulson. It’s a smart move leaving Mace as acting head, and just shifting all operations leadership to S.H.I.E.L.D.’s former commander. It gives the show a chance to return Coulson to his proper place, while setting up the potential for new machinations, especially as the struggle against Senator Nadeer gets more serious. (And will hopefully bring us more of the Phil Coulson/Glenn Talbot comedy duo.) And while the story beats all felt earned, ”The Patriot” struggled with a script that felt hobbled by the need to keep some things unclear. Even MVP director Kevin Tancharoen couldn’t do much, as the only great fight scene was an afterthought, a cabin-set battle between Mack, LMD May, and the badass mercenary Nadeer recruited. It’s about time we all followed Mack’s lead tonight, as he reminded everyone of the proper order of things when he asked Coulson what to do next: “What’s the plan…sir?”
- LMD theory of the week: Is it possible that Radcliffe also replaced Fitz with a Life Model Decoy? We see him leave Radcliffe’s place tonight, but he was alone there prior to departure. It’s not impossible that the good doctor has his strongest ally replaced as well.
- Talbot had some truly idiotic sayings this week, but they were outstripped by Fitz putting air quotes around it when he said Talbot was “helping.”
- I understand they’re meant to be more powerful, but does anyone else think Daisy’s new wrist guards look like lamer versions of Sif’s? I feel like Fitz would have done better.
- God, I almost forgot about Talbot’s POTUS ring tone.
- Jemma’s interrogation room bluff with Aida’s head allowed for a too-brief opportunity to see Simmons once again play-act at something she’s not. More, please.
- Exploding bullets? Not something they “sell at Wal-Mart—yet.”