What should the punishment be for unleashing a malevolent artificial intelligence upon the world? Yo-Yo has a clear answer: Dr. Radcliffe should be forced to rewatch the entire Terminator series. Not a bad rule when you’re just trying to make a friend realize he should’ve known that building a smarter-than-human robot would turn out badly. But it’s not all smiles and getting to see Arnold wield a pump-action shotgun with one hand; Mack is thinking about the harsh consequences of such a penalty. “Even Salvation?” he asks her, incredulously. She sniffs. “He brought this on himself.”
It’s one of the best jokes of the episode, but the exchange also unwittingly points to the true villain revealed in “Broken Promises,” one who remains hidden in plain sight. And no, it’s not the life model decoy of Melinda May, despite the faux agent being the most overt threat and clearest representative of the “LMD” designation assigned to the newest arc of Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. As is shown during the final act, the person secretly pulling the strings throughout this entire adventure is Dr. Holden Radcliffe, good-natured scientist and routine comic relief. It feels like a long con, but really, it’s relatively recent: Radcliffe only got a glimpse of the Darkhold a couple episodes ago, so his realization that it held the key to immortality only spurred on this turn of events by accident. He didn’t plan to kidnap a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and threaten the lives of everyone around him; it just turned out that way.
What makes the twist so strong is how this has been set up from the very beginning with his character. Think back to the first time we met Radcliffe—he was the head of an underground society dedicated to human enhancement via biotechnology. In fact, we assumed he was a villain at first, and his initial behavior suggested that assumption wasn’t far off. Fitz and Simmons first found him at the transhuman club, the architect behind surgery intended to…improve humanity. What could improve people more than eternal life? Even his creation of Aida now appears in retrospect like an obvious next step in trying to evolve humanity to a place where it could live forever. He wanted to create an android that could pass for human; think about the possible reasons behind such a move. Radcliffe has been an excellent addition to the team and a delightful comic foil, but he’s always had interests that don’t align with the team. Plus, he’s gifted with the standard-issue messiah complex: Much as with his transhumanist movement, Radcliffe thinks he’s doing the right thing, but that others are too small-minded to understand the importance of his mission. It’s like Yo-Yo says in this installment: “Smart people are stupid.”
Still, Radcliffe’s not stupid when it comes to programming Aida to mimic human emotions. Everything she does suggests a computer that has attained sentience, from the emotional confrontation with Fitz to the exchange with Coulson. It’s a brilliant ploy, hiding his own machinations behind the veil of a robot come to life, and that calculation is never more obvious than when Mack is talking. He’s a dedicated skeptic who even made certain “death by robot” was in his insurance; that kind of suspicion only lends credence to Radcliffe’s subterfuge. It also leads to the best running gag of the episode, Mack’s continual pop-cultural references of movies starring machines that turn against their human creators. Short Circuit, The Lawnmower Man, Maximum Overdrive…hell, even the low-budget charmer Chopping Mall gets a shout-out this week, proof that Yo-Yo found a Wikipedia page dedicated to evil robots and that Mack enjoys a good trashy Roger Corman film. The subterfuge works because this is a world in which Ultron almost killed off human life, so the expectation of a nefarious A.I. already carries a lot of weight. Plus, Aida gentle behavior with May implied a sense of moral obligation; it’s only after the reveal it was all programmed that it retroactively becomes a show of emotion, rather than the real thing.
The Darkhold is a good MacGuffin for that very reason. We can believe it would turn a robot sentient, and it can also function as the object of an egomaniac’s desire, even after we’ve seen it ruin others’ lives. But perhaps the biggest con of all came from fake Melinda May. I had wrongly assumed the LMD was somewhat aware of its position. But no, it turns out Aida programmed faux-May to be a true believer. Even after Coulson is knocked out, this android plans to fight Aida just as the real May would have. It’s not clear how deep the programming goes, or what else Radcliffe has in mind for his replacement agent, but the creation itself blends in frighteningly well, even fooling Coulson—at least for now.
The storyline with Senator Nadeer and her ill-fated brother is surprisingly strong, too—a corrective for the many episodes where S.H.I.E.L.D. fumbles the B plot. While it‘s predictable this would end with Nadeer killing her Inhuman brother, the turn of events was given weight by the mid-episode twist where she lets him live, convinced of his innocence even in the face of the Watchdogs’ determination to murder him. This deepens Nadeer’s character—she wants to care for her family, but her commitment to fight the alien menace supersedes even her love for her sibling—and sets her up as someone more intriguing than another mustache-twirling villain. Much like Radcliffe, there’s pathos behind her actions, and in a few fleet scenes, the show has given her motivation and story that grounds her in a way angry scientist ghost Lucy never got in the first half of the season. Plus, she screws with Director Mace, which means more problems for S.H.I.E.L.D.
Speaking of the director, Mace and Daisy have the potential for a real Odd Couple pairing. The showdown in the director’s office was great, especially all the fun awkwardness that defines Mace’s attempts to bond with Daisy. It’s a testament to ”Broken Promises” that it has such smart and efficient dialogue; both clumsy exposition and subtle character exchanges are handled with aplomb by credited writer Brent Fletcher. Every situation gets an apropos setup, and each interaction receives due attention without feeling clunky. Mace even apologizes to Simmons for the bag over her head, which is the kind of thing you might usually resolve with a gift card to Amazon. Mace is nothing if not solicitous—he wants this team to work, to the point where he’ll quote his own saying long after Daisy has seen it on the motivational poster in the bathroom.
Senator Nadeer’s brother Vijay is still alive, though. The stinger at the end of this episode suggests he has some kind of healing ability, one that might explain why he spent so long in a Terrigen Mist cocoon. Such a power would serve him well (along with his rapid-fire reflexes) if S.H.I.E.L.D. is going to have a use for him in the upcoming weeks, because now that we know Radcliffe is the one going against the team, there’s going to be a lot of angry back and forth with some powerful robots. And make no mistake, it will be robots doing the fighting, not a cringe-inclined scientist. To quote Mack: “The robots always attack.”
- Much as we’ve been assuming, there’s someone above Senator Nadeer with a powerful hand in things. She calls him “The Superior.” What do you guys think? A brand-new character, or someone we’ve met?
- I don’t think Radcliffe is malevolent, and not just because all villains tend to think they’re the good guys. His friendship with Fitz feels real, and even his pleas about Aida come across as genuine, specifically the notion that they’d be murderers if they rebooted her. (Even though he currently knows this is horseshit.)
- As much as I enjoyed watching Jemma get a chance to kick ass, her fight with Nadeer’s underling was lackluster and weirdly executed.
- Chloe Bennet is still master of the reaction shot. Her look when Mace apologizes for the bag over Simmons’ head is superb.
- Fun random trivia: Parminder Nagra, who play Senator Nadeer, had a guest stint on the series Tron: Uprising, in which she played a character named…Ada.